Posts Tagged 'Kanye West'

Blue Scholars to be Re-Released on Duck Down

I received an email today announcing the release of Bayani Redux. When I saw this, I was under the impression that we were going to get a release of B-sides and remixes for the sophomore album by Seattle based Blue Scholars, Bayani. For anyone who has followed Evolving Music for a length of time, you’ve seen the concert reviews and album reviews for the duo of Sabzi and Geologic (aka Prometheus Brown.) And yet, I still find trouble reconciling myself with how talented they are and how little mass exposure they have. Granted, some of the best music falls through the cracks and gets chewed up by the massive grinder of the music industry, but I hold out hope that the word of mouth on some of the best underground artists will reach surface and flip the industry on its head.

I feel like the music industry is caught in a bad dream. That dream where you keep running, turning corners, opening doors, all to get away from something, and yet you can’t. Every time I turn on the television or flip through the radio dial, it’s like I’m opening a door in the dream and finding myself in the same place, listening to recycled music from the past twenty years, sometimes infused with a new trick like auto-tune, sometimes not. But people keep buying, and therefore, labels will keep re-packaging. This is an old rant of mine, but one that came back to the surface after reading the release details for the second coming of Bayani.

When Rawkus Records released Bayani on June 12th, 2007, it was the second album from the duo and one that promised an enormous amount of future material based solely on the progression of the artists between it and their eponymous debut. However, in reading the re-release article, I come to find that only 20,000 copies of it have sold. That’s 10,000 per year in the two since its release, which averages out to about 28 albums per day. That’s not too bad, until you think about the fact that Flo-Rida probably averaged 28 single downloads per minute for his crap and the current iTunes chart topper is Miley Cyrus.

What do you need to do to expose people to good, quality music these days? 2007’s Bayani is a far stronger album than Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, yet that went Platinum with 1,000,000 sold in just three months and we’re talking two years later at 20,000 for a better hip-hop CD. Is it the lyrics? Are lyrics with depth and intelligence, as pushed out by Geologic and the majority of his underground counterparts, too much for radio listeners? Is it that any variety making a beat sound like something you haven’t heard in every Top 10 song for the past 5 years is frightening? Personally, I’m not sure. But what I can tell you is that while Kanye West walks around making an ass out of himself with all of the money the pop-hypnotized public gives to him, quality artists like the Blue Scholars are trying to figure out where the inspiration for and money to produce their next album will come from.

So do yourself a favor. Turn off the radio, stop watching MTV, and do something other than Shazam the latest club track you heard last night while you were drunk off your ass. Check out Indiefeed, your local independent record store or any vast number of music blogs and resources online and find something new, something different, and in many cases, something more artistic.

Bayani Redux comes out with three previously unreleased tracks on September 1st.

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 13

{for last month’s new music update, click here.}

What an amazing month for music! May’s iPod update features over 200 songs of genres from shoegazing indie pop to hard core rap. While not all the artists and albums made the cut for this version of What I’m Hearing, the best things did and I’m proud to bring them to you. Furthermore, several of these albums are available for free download and I’ve included the links to them here. New music, download links?! What more could you ask for?

Au Revoir Simone, Still Night, Still Light: When I first reviewed Au Revoir Simone’s 2007 release The Bird of Music (WIH, Vol. 9), I talked about the potential that their sweet sounds could become too sticky without the proper balance. Happily, I can say that on Still Night, Still Light ARS loses none of their charm while actually increasing their skill in finding a nice balance in the electro-indie pop-shoegazer triangle. At times sounding like a slightly more fleshed out Elysian Fields and at others like a less depressed Postal Service, this trio puts out easy tracks that range from joyous to melancholy without missing a beat. The female vocals are breezy, seeming to hang over the music, which through synths, keys and drums all working together, become stronger than on the previous album. ARS seems to have found their musical niche, nicely contrasting the sweet with the bitter, and sounding more comfortable with the balance throughout. Don’t Sleep On: “Shadows,” “Knight of Wands,” and “Another Likely Story.”

Chubb Rock and Wordsmith, A Crack in the Bridge: While hip-hop and rap seems to be on a definitive futuristic trend with the likes of Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West and Kid Cudi surfing the radio waves, this duo out of the East Coast seeks to bring hip-hop back to more standard roots. Relying on tried and true production and lyrics that are more about having a good time than sporting bling, Chubb Rock and Wordsmith have crafted a mixtape prelude to their June release Bridging the Gap that strips away the pretension of hip-hop in favor of sounding good and having fun. Chubb and Wordsmith have a nice contrast to their voices and delivery, an important part of a hip-hop duo. With a deep voice and an almost trudge-like delivery, Chubb Rock sounds patient on the microphone, willing to move with a beat easily. On the other hand, Wordsmith’s voice is higher and his delivery quicker, allowing him to change the feel and tempo of a song simply by rapping. I’ve been listening to Bridging the Gap for about a month now, but you’ll have to come back in June for that review. For now, A Crack in the Bridge provides a sampler of the type of music you can look forward to. Download it by clicking on the album name above. Don’t Sleep On: “Back In,” “Top of the World,” and “The New Street Kings”

Cunninlynguists, Strange Journey, Vol. 1: Cunninlynguists have to be one of the hardest working and simultaneously one of the most under-appreciated hip-hop groups today. Hailing from various parts of the state, the trio of Natti, and producers Kno and Deacon the Villain have released 6 albums since 2001, only actually having them released through a distribution company in 2003. But that hasn’t changed their approach which relies on interesting and introspective lyrics, excellent production and a splash of a grim feeling that it’s not ever going to happen for them mixed with a sense of humor that seems like it doesn’t matter if it does. On the first of two Strange Journey albums, the group looks at life on the road and the state of the music scene among other topics. The retro hooks combined with the modern beats provide the three with a solid foundation for their words, which whether talking about music, women or rapping far outshine anything available on the radio today. Whether you like loops or lyrics, this CD is a hit. Don’t Sleep On: “Don’t Leave (When Winter Comes)” featuring Slug of Atmosphere, “Spark My Soul,” and “Lynguistics,” a live version of one of their most well known songs.

Del the Funky Homosapien, Stimulus Package: The good news? Del’s got a new full-length album out, and it’s free (click on the album name above for the download link.) The bad news? For fans accustomed to the cohesive whole of Future Development (production help from Opio and A-Plus), the visionary approach on Deltron 3030 (produced by Dan the Automator) or the stellar lyrics that grace his work with Hieroglyphics, Stimulus Package is going to fall short. And the problem is that this kind of collapse is completely avoidable for Del. When at his strongest, Del’s intensity on the mic and ability to craft ridiculously great lyrics make him one of the best rappers on wax. However, all too often (this album and The 11th Hour as examples) Del isn’t content to just be on the microphone and opts to pursue the full musical production on the album as well. This is a mistake. It’s not to say that Del’s production is bad, but it is stagnant. There’s nothing much new in the beats here. For the most part, the tracks feel like repackaged West Coast beats from the ‘90s. Now if that were the case and the rapping remained vintage Del, the beats wouldn’t make a difference. But instead, the focus on production seems to detract from his focus on his rapping, and Del comes off sounding almost generic as a result. One need only look to his best work to see that he’s at the top of his rapping game when the lyrics and flow are his focus. His rapping on last year’s N.A.S.A. album outpaces anything contained here, and my hope is to see him collaborate with other producers on future work, because when he’s at his best lyrically, he’s virtually untouchable. Don’t Sleep On: “Hardcore Punks Can’t Take It,” “And They Thought That Was Hell,” and “Get It Right Now!”

Eminem, Relapse: I’ve read a lot of press both positive and negative on this album. Fortunately for my review, I had been listening to Relapse for about a week before it came out, so I was able to form my own judgments without extra media input. There’s no question that this album isn’t Eminem’s best work, which could be construed as a letdown following a four year hiatus that saw him become entangled in drugs and struggling through a lengthy rehab process during which he OD’d and almost died. But there are tracks here that showcase Eminem at his lyrical best. What’s important to consider on this album is that Eminem has found his own perspective stuck between the Slim Shady and Ken Kaniff characters. At times, he’s clearly being silly because he thinks there’s nothing else he can do. But the ridiculousness on this album in such tracks as “3 AM” and “My Mom,” actually serve to attempt to draw attention away from the other tracks. On “Medicine Ball” and “Undergound,” Eminem is back to his full bark, maniacally working his way through outrageous tongue twisters at breakneck pace. And on “Déjà Vu,” Eminem produces one of the most poignant and introspective songs of his career in dealing with his overdose. With a second album slated for release sometime in the next few months, it will be interesting to see which side of Eminem gets more exposure. One can only hope it’s the real Eminem, the one from the freestyle battles, ferocious intensity and introspective lyrics. It is this Eminem, stripped away from the silly accents, high-pitched lyrics and juvenile ideas that produces the best work, and there are certainly glimpses of that on Relapse for anyone ready to look past the radio singles. Don’t Sleep On: “Déjà Vu,” “Underground,” and “Old Time’s Sake” featuring Dr. Dre.

Hanne Hukkelberg, Blood From A Stone: Hailing from Kongsberg, Norway, Hukkelberg continues the trend of obscure Scandinavian singer-songwriters finding a home in the musical lexicon of the States. In contrast to her Swedish counterpart Lykke Li, Hukkelberg’s sounds are less playful and much more subdued, serious and sparse. With light percussion and haunting melodies, Hukkelberg lets her voice drape over the tracks like a singer in a smoke filled jazz club. Her lyrics are emotionally gripping and in combination with the music make the listener feel as if they’re being personally addressed. Don’t Sleep On: “Seventeen,” “Bandy Riddles,” and “Blood From a Stone.”

Kid Cudi, Dat Kid From Cleveland: Normally, I’m not a fan of mixtapes. Seemingly half-thrown together beats, freestyle lyrics that typically fall short of par, and the main question: what does this have to do with anything? For the most part, you can count on one or two excellent tracks and some filler on these outings. This is why I was pleasantly taken aback with Dat Kid From Cleveland. I had heard of Kid Cudi through the usual street/radio buzz, and so when a friend sent me this mixtape, to say I was skeptical would be an understatement. But here, on well-crafted and nicely sampled beats ranging from Dr. Dre to De La Soul to trance music, Cudi brings a sense of energy to his flow. The result is a collection of tracks that could easily be a full album release with a little polish. And the best part? It’s free. Also good to know is that Cudi is talking about a collaboration with Evolving Music favorite Ratatat. Stay tuned. Don’t Sleep On: “Rollin'” featuring Jackie Chain, “’09 Freestyle,” and “She Came Along” featuring Sharam.

Meanderthals, Desire Lines: In the case of the Meanderthals, the album name of Desire Lines could easily have been the band name as well. While the tone of this disc is certainly relaxed, the group has a little more focus in their musical direction than one might think from their name. This is a collection of tracks featuring a wide array of instrumentation from acoustic guitars to steel drums to drum machines and hand claps. The result is a mash-up that I can only think to term “Lounge-Tropic,” a meeting place of sounds that could easily be found in a smoky backroom of a cocktail lounge or drifting calmly across the beach on an island resort. While only 7 tracks, Desire Lines provides a set perfect for the lazy days of summer. The music is light and airy, and despite the variety of sounds, never feels overly dense or impenetrable. Grab your favorite boat drink, find your most peaceful place in the sun and enjoy. Don’t Sleep On: “Andromeda (Prelude to the Future),” “1-800-288-Slam” and “Bugges Room.”

Passion Pit, Manners: Taking generously from dance, pop and electronica, Passion Pit has emerged from Massachusetts and released a very solid product that can play in the great outdoors of summer or the confines of a dance club. New Rave, 80s power pop and electro-synth all find a home here to give lead singer Michael Angelakos delicious mosaics to howl over. Up-beat drums, crunchy bass lines and frolicking sheets of synthesizers all join forces to create simple and energetic songs that carry vocal and chorus parts that feel like they’re going to break free at any moment from their Earthly anchor and find the stars. While I wouldn’t listen to this album on repeat simply because the pop motif might wear thin, as a tempo change or a dance song in the right context, any song on this album can bring a sense of joy to the listener. More importantly, with sporadic listening, the songs reveal a few new tricks each time through. Don’t Sleep On: “Little Secrets,” “Make Light,” and “The Reeling.”

Rhymefest, Man in the Mirror: More surprising than one hip-hop mixtape in a monthly music update? Two. But here, Rhymefest has succeeded in creating a collection of songs that overflow with positive vibes and solid rapping. The premise here, as indicated by the album title, is a salute to Michael Jackson, as various songs from his history are sped up, slowed down or otherwise mashed to provide the backdrop for the rap. This is a must listen for any Michael Jackson fan, if only to see how the old classics sound freshened up with hip-hop, and a necessary mixtape for any hip-hop aficionado for the creative use of something else to form a breathing set of tracks. Mark Ronson provides the production. Don’t Sleep On: “Man in the Mirror,” “Foolin’ Around,” and “Coolie High” featuring Camp Lo.

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 11

For February’s music update, click here.

March has brought me some fantastic new cuts, and several blasts from the past that I hadn’t heard before, making them new to me. I will say that I downloaded The Jackson’s “Blame it On the Boogie” which is simply sublime. But through 56 new songs, including an album that won’t be released until next month, March was good for music. I’m almost sad to see it end, until I remember that once it does, I get to start all over again with April…

Dessa, False Hopes: Released in 2005, False Hopes is a 5 song EP from Dessa (@dessadarling) of Doomtree. Why write about a 2005 release as “new music?” Well, have you given this EP a listen yet? While short in length, this EP is huge on style and poignant, introspective lyrics against musically gripping backdrops. “551” looks at an addictive and damaging relationship over a dark beat laced with piano. Throughout the album, Dessa mixes her vocal talent with her rapping and slam poetry background to great effect. “Mineshaft” utilizes an urgent string backing and heavy drum beat to accentuate the sense of loss in the song. Many of the lyrics focus on a central theme of personal loss (“The list of things I used to be is longer than the list of things I am,” “I lost an octave to the Camel Lights”) and they’re delivered with such intensity that her personal experiences become visceral for the listener. “Kites” delivers an eerie underwater feeling that brings to mind the melancholy feeling I first heard on listening to Atmosphere’s “God’s Bathroom Floor.” Through just 5 solo songs and her contributions to Doomtree, Dessa rivals P.O.S. in her passion and creativity on this album, and one can only hope that her poetry, lyrics and music gain the public recognition that they deserve. Don’t Sleep On: “Mineshaft,” “551,” “Kites.”

Kero One, Early Believers: This man does it all out of his self-run label, Plug, in the Bay Area. DIY in every sense of the word, Kero One plays his own instruments, makes his own beats, writes his own lyrics, produces and mixes his own songs and then created a label to self-distribute. For the full review of his sophomore release, Early Believers, set to drop April 7th, click here. Don’t Sleep On: “This Life Ain’t Mine,” “Welcome to the Bay,” and “On and On.”

N.A.S.A., The Spirit of Apollo: The idea behind this collaboration album is bringing North American hip-hop together with South American beats and influences to create a cultural mash-up album with global appeal. And for the most part, the odd pairings of guest artists along with the sample heavy and culturally defiant music does the trick. As hip-hop laced with world music continues to gain traction on radio airwaves and popularity among listeners, it comes as no surprise that artists with a broad fan base such as Kanye West, Tom Waits and George Clinton were willing to contribute. Other international artists got in on the act too, with Santogold, Lykke Li and Seu Jorge joining the fray.

If there’s one drawback to this album, it’s that some of the songs come off as too packaged, relying more on the featured names than on the music itself. “Spacious Thoughts” featuring Tom Waits and Kool Keith is interesting, but forces too much of a juxtaposition between the rapper and the singer, leaving the transition from verse to chorus feeling fractured. If you’re into heavy, crunchy dance tracks, “Whachadoin?” feat. Spank Rock, M.I.A., Santogold and Nick Zinner is dense with bass and electronic flourishes, but a bit repetitive. Of course, where the songs are on, they’re on. DJ Qbert and Del tha Funkee Homosapien rip “Samba Soul,” the beat perfectly capturing Del’s sense of pace and timing, and “Gifted,” the track with Kanye, Lykke Li and Santogold has almost instant club appeal with grimy effects offset by a starry and airy video game tone sequence in the background. For the most part, N.A.S.A. plays like a who’s who of guest stars where the sum total of the music falls short of the artists involved, but on a handful of songs, the desire for North to meet South in interesting ways comes through. Don’t Sleep On: “Samba Soul” featuring Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and DJ Qbert, “Money” featuring David Byrne, Chuck D, Ras Congo, Seu Jorge and Z-Trip, and “Gifted” featuring Kanye West, Lykke Li and Santogold.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart: After a 2007 EP release, PoBP@H released this debut self-titled effort in February on Slumberland records. The initial offering finds the group exploring the various genres of Indie Rock, Shoegaze and Sugar Punk and the spaces between them. The band utilizes a variety of sounds to evoke different moods, not shying away from using both electric and acoustic guitars depending on the song, and descending into lo-fi static where necessary. The lyrics seem less important to the songs than the contribution the singing melody lends the tunes and the drums remain consistent throughout to lend the backbone to a group that alternates between sulking and exulting. In some places, 80’s influences sneak through, “The Tenure Itch” being a song that could have easily made the Donnie Darko soundtrack. But whether they’re soft or hard, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart remain effusive in their energy, bringing a sense of urgency and drive to every song that keeps the album moving. Don’t Sleep On: “Stay Alive,” “This Love is F*****g Right!” and “A Teenager in Love.”

Indiefeed Hip-Hop: Dirt E. Dutch from Indiefeed (@dutchman) brought out some more stellar cuts this month, but one of my favorite, Dutch’s “Welcome to the World Kayla Vivien!” is a smooth and mellow instrumental affair to celebrate the birth of his daughter that was actually put out in February. Finale’s Black Milk remixed track “One Man Show” moves with low-end bass touches and high-end electronic agility while B Real’s “Don’t You Dare Laugh” uses an interesting interpolation of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” All in all, a positive showing this month.

The next few months are looking solid for new music releases, so keep it tuned.

Kero One – Early Believers Review

Early Believers

When Kero One released his debut album Windmills of the Soul, he had no backing and no name recognition to speak of. The album’s success came about through his persistent work to get it heard which resulted in it becoming a hit in Japan first, a humorous twist for a Korean DIY hip-hopper born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through this success, he has managed to remain independent, starting Plug Label, releasing The Tones’ debut album and doing end-to-end production on his sophomore release Early Believers.

It is this spirit and energy that infuses Early Believers with an unfettered sense of optimism and musical joy. From the instrumentation to the lyrics, the album is unmistakably a complete work by a focused artist. The music is consistent and full, utilizing both hip-hop and jazz influences, while the lyrics are often personal and focused on a specific story. The marriage between Kero’s thoughts and his beats serve to offer an album that never feels forced or out of place. Unlike some current hip-hop albums that feel like the goal is musical shock for shock’s sake, Kero One never tries to do too much or move too far out of his range. On the opening track “Welcome to the Bay,” Kero raps about the pros and cons of the area where he grew up over an easy synth and fresh beat produced by King Most. Jacqueline Marie provides the chorus about the mentality of never leaving the bay for a piece that is heartfelt and unmistakably San Francisco.

“When the Sunshine Comes” is an easy, sunny day melody. The pace and mood of this song seem to be the best fit for Kero’s vocals, letting him sit back and rap without tempo pressure. The smooth delivery of tongue twisters is unhurried enough that it doesn’t make the listener feel stressed that the words won’t come out. This track gives way to “Keep Pushin’,” a much more up-tempo track that lyrically resembles something Kanye might have produced, with a little more pop to it. The fusion of jazz and a glitchy stop-and-go guitar/handclap back and forth brought to mind edIT’s “Crunk de Gaulle” off Certified Air Raid material. On his “I’m better off single” track, “Let’s Just Be Friends,” Kero brings a sing-along melody to the chorus (performed by Tuomo) and manages to make his desire to stay single sound happy and upbeat. The album then moves into Latin Jazz influences on “Bossa Soundcheck,” where Kero displays the keyboard and piano education he was brought up on. Sounding like it would be best heard in a dimly lit lounge atmosphere, Kero manages to make a hip-hop song that would fool non-hip-hop fans into listening and enjoying.

A solid feature of Kero One’s music is that he doesn’t sacrifice his choruses like most contemporary hip-hop and rap acts have done to get radio air-play. There’s no, “she made us drinks to drink, we drunk them, got drunk” fillers here. The choruses are integral parts of the overall whole, demonstrated again through Tuomo’s easy delivery on “Love and Happiness,” bringing to mind some of the better work done with Codany Holiday on Zion I’s latest album. This is the second King Most produced track on the album, and together they make the only two not produced by Kero himself. In “Stay on the Grind” Kero raps about the difficulties and rewards of choosing the DIY route, and just when you thought the whole album would be hip-hop, “A Song for Sabrina” shows off the instrumental prowess in a hip-hop/jazz/funk fusion track that includes Vince Czekus on bass and electric guitar.

In the most poignant and introspective track on the album, “This Life Ain’t Mine,” Kero uses an easy and straight-forward hip-hop track to back an autobiographical story about his life and entry into the hip-hop career, looking at his choices in friends and religion. The easy keys sprinkle melodies over “I Never Thought That We” as Kero looks at his unlikely and unpredictable path from his parents’ wishes to his chosen career. And, without missing a step, the album ends on a Kero One exclusive instrumental, “On and On,” which lets the album fade out in a jazzy way, reminding the listener of the progression of the album as a whole, and that it wasn’t just rap or hip-hop you were listening to.

An easy listen, Kero One’s Early Believers takes chill to the next level at every step. Gone from this album are the stereotypes that you need raps about money and women, pop-induced repetitive hooks and coarse language to produce a solid hip-hop outing. Instead, Kero relies on excellent production, live instrumentation and honest lyrics from his point of view to make an album that flows from start to finish and will most likely end the year in more than a few top ten lists. While it isn’t edgy or controversial, and some listeners will harp on a lack of perceived street credibility, Early Believers reminds us that hip-hop doesn’t need to be any of those things to be fun. Early Believers will be available from Plug Label on April 7th. Check back here for our exclusive interview with Kero One.

Tra.kz Artist Spotlight: Trifonic (“Gutter Box”)

trifonic_200Trifonic is brothers Brian and Laurence Trifon, a San Francisco based electronic act that seamlessly fuses experimental production wizardry with beautiful melodies and traditional song structures to craft music that is both unexpected and accessible. Their 2008 debut album Emergence combines elements of downtempo electronica, IDM, post-rock and classical music to create a deep, lush musical experience distinctly their own. Recently, they invited you to make your own remixes of Emergence, after demonstrating their own remix chops on Kanye’s Love Lockdown.

Now, they bring you “Gutter Box“, a previously unreleased track fresh out of the studio, that picks up where Emergence left off. It’s rich micro-tech, IDM, and electro sounds will captivate your ears and leave you wondering what the Trifon brothers will do next. Listen to it here.

Part 1: Opio and Tajai Interview (Souls of Mischief)

Opio of Souls of Mischief

Opio of Souls of Mischief

Tajai of Souls of Mischief

Tajai of Souls of Mischief

Since the early 1990s, Oakland, California based Hip-Hop collective Hieroglyphics has taken on many shapes and sounds, from the lyrically complex and dense solo stylings of Del tha Funkee Homosapien to the rapid-fire and diverse delivery of Hieroglyphics to the smooth and masterful underground sound of Souls of Mischief. Spanning nearly two decades, Hiero and Souls of Mischief have brought new sounds and ideas to the industry while also providing a backbone of creativity that has helped influence the entire Bay Area music scene.

In November I had the opportunity to sit down with Tajai and Opio of Hiero and SOM, two members responsible for an incredible amount of solo and collaborative work for the HieroImperium. In part 1, we discussed their musical backgrounds, the formation of Hiero and the difficulty of staying relevant in a music industry that places an emphasis on the “next big thing.”

ACtual: Starting off early, what were both of your initial musical influences and inspirations, and when did you decide that rapping is what you wanted to do?

Opio: I used to be hella into Reggae, really. Yellowman is one of my favorites, obviously Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, they had the swagger that got me on rap. My parents were really into music, so through them I heard Earth, Wind and Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic, stuff like that. When I first really started to hear rap, I heard “Rapper’s Delight,” stuff like that, Grandmaster Flash. They used to play Rock and Roll stations out here, mixing, like college radio. Really the first time I heard “Rapper’s Delight,” I was just hooked to the way he was spittin’, it was cool, and it just evolved from there. All the older cats in my neighborhood were listening to them, breakdancing, graffiti and all of that was a part of it too. At the same time cats were breaking, graffiti artists, so it was that whole Hip-Hop culture, it wasn’t only just the rapping, I was breakdancing, all of that.

Tajai: Funk, I would say Funk was my biggest influence. Parliament, Bootsy, George Clinton, and then Too Short is probably the main reason I rap just because all the other rappers, I saw other people doing it, but I didn’t think that people from here could do it. As a kid, it was just my perception of it was something that other people did until I saw Too Short rapping and then I was like, “He’s from here and he raps.” That’s when I really started seriously rapping.

AC: You two as well as the Souls of Mischief crew met early on. Talk about how all of you met, came together and the creation of both Souls and Hieroglyphics.

T: We grew up in the same area, so I’ve known Casual and A-Plus since like Kindergarten, 1st grade. Del was at the same school as us, we just sort of all had a mutual interest in Hip-Hop, so once Del got on in ’91 he sort of brought us into the industry, but we had been rapping together for a long time before that. Casual went to junior high with Op.

O: The first time I went into the studio ever, me and Casual rented a studio in the 8th grade. Our man Terai came with us, he was in the 7th grade. I wasn’t even rapping then, I was a DJ, so I was DJing, scratching during that time. This is in the 7th/8th grade, me and Casual went to junior high and he already knew them. I would listen to their music when I was in junior high but I hadn’t really started to kick it with Tajai and A-Plus, but he would have tapes and be like, “listen to my partners.” I’d see them up the block and be like, “there goes Tajai right there.” We really started hanging out in high school, but the whole time we lived right around the same area. We all lived around the same block as each other but we weren’t really in communication until high school, and that’s when we really became a lot more serious about the rapping.

AC: You were released on Jive Records in 1993. Talk about the process of creating that album and what working for a major label was like. You were what, 17, 18 when that album came out?

O: Yea. That album to me was something, that, I would listen to songs that they had done when I was in junior high and me and Casual went into the studio, we were kinda serious about the whole rap thing. Tajai and A-Plus were working with Sir Jinks and they had a professional sound that inspired us to get on our business a little more. This is early on, so we had been working on our craft until we came out. We were probably 13, 14 really serious going to the studio.

That album, even though we recorded it in 2 weeks, it was something that was formulating for a lot of years. I really think it was highly influenced also by the whole crew aspect, not just the fact that we were Souls of Mischief, because we’re competitive by nature within Souls of Mischief, but then there was also Del and Casual, Pep Love, we had these other fierce MCs. Even during the time before ’93 til Infinity came out, everybody heard the demos, so we had something to live up to. People would hear the demos and be like, “the album will be wack, whatever,” and they heard other cats around us that were really shining, so it was a long time coming to me, that album getting done, even though it seemed like it popped out of nowhere, we had been working for some years.

AC: When Hiero formed, what was your original vision for the group and how did you go about making Third Eye Vision?

T: We’ve been together as a crew since before Del’s first record. Our vision then was let’s just all be the best we can be, get signed and be super stars. That’s different than how things progressed just dealing with major label politics, and the fact that, for someone to walk into Hip-Hop today, they have no idea that even when we came out it was still like a sub-culture. So being a super-star and blowing up meant selling a couple of thousand records, maybe going gold, but not platinum. The only people going platinum were guys like Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer.

So once we got off the majors, it was like let’s not stop making music just because we don’t have a label, let’s keep making music and then Domino was like, “Shoot, we might as well put this record out instead of trying to shop it, and from there we started Hiero Imperium and we’ve been rolling since then because it’s been, I’m not going to say easier logistically, but easier in regard to being able to be agile and creative. And now, almost 10, 11 years later, we’re really reaping the rewards of having laid that groundwork of being independent so long. Third Eye was something we recorded out of the need to make music, and then from there it built up to this independent label.

AC: With HieroImperium, you guys have been putting out albums and podcasts for a while now. What do you find to be the hardest part of being in this industry for as long as you guys have?

T: We’re not new, that’s the problem. To people who have never heard of us, which is not that many people, it’s like, “Wow these guys are fantastic!” But to people who have, it’s like, we come with something we feel is our best work and it’s like, “Ok, that’s dope.” There’s so much garbage out here that gets attention because it’s new, and that’s the frustrating part about it. If you’re consistent in music, that’s not good enough a lot of times, you have to have controversy or you have to fall real low to bring yourself back up, but we’ve been consistent and there’s so many of us, that that’s the biggest problem I see, we’re not new.

O: Also, over the years of doing it, touring, consistently going out and being on the road, not just only recording the albums, but the whole rap life in and of itself can take its toll. Sometimes people get jaded, but I think that luckily because there’s a lot of us, we’re able to keep ourselves focused and sharp. Without other people pushing you, and you’re hearing people recording songs and maintaining that creative energy and you don’t have it, your brother can lift you up a little bit and you hear some new shit, “oh man that’s dope,” it kinda gets your juices flowing. Maybe you’re at the house just bored, you wrote so many raps you’re through with it for a hot second, so it’s always a good thing to have other cats around you working and doing stuff. Casual, he’s always busy, Del is always in the lab working, A-Plus just consistent with the beats, so you can always go to those guys and be like, “What’s new?” just to get a little spark.

AC: In terms of approaching the writing, how would you say that your styles differ when you’re trying to come up with stuff for an individual album vs. working on a Souls project or working on a Hieroglyphics project, how do you approach each of those differently?

T: You’re competing against yourself when you’re making a solo record, so you get to look at things more holistically, you look at the entire project as a whole and where things fit in. Whereas when you’re in a group, you’re looking at how you fit into that particular song. With your own records I think it’s harder because you have to push yourself a little bit harder to be better than yourself, verse by verse and song by song. With a group album I think it’s easier because there’s so many other people you’re competing against that you have to come with your best work, that’s the main difference for me.

O: To me, I just feel more comfortable in the group element whether it’s Souls of Mischief or Hieroglyphics, I like the collaboration aspect of things and working with other cats, so to me that’s always been fun. I saw the challenge more so than doing music with others, trying to do something by myself like it’s a Herculean task cause you have so much more that you have to do. At the same time, once the process gets going, you kinda relax in your environment and it’s a good place to be because you can advance your style a little more. You get to go longer.

Especially in Souls of Mischief, we try to keep that quick jab approach so for me it’s kinda fun to just run my mouth for a little while. I’ve always been trying to explore more avant-garde styles whenever we’re doing songs with Souls of Mischief, so you can see the different elements that we bring to the table when you see our solo projects. You can see the different parts working. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what it’s like when you’re listening to the group all together then you get to hear the solo and be like, “So that’s how Souls of Mischief comes together,” at least for me because I’m a fan of Souls of Mischief too, even though I’m in the group, when I’m with other cats I love to hear the music and I like to hear the solo albums as well to see them even go further with it.

AC: Going off what you were saying earlier about the hardest thing is having been here for so long because new stuff always gets more attention. You hear a lot of mainstream writers, media people that say Hip-Hop is dead, and rappers will sometimes say that too. But there’s a lot of really good Hip-Hop out there if you know where to find it, so what do you listen to and what other artists in the genre inspire you?

T: Percy P, Guilty Simpson, Madlib, Black Milk. There’s a lot of groups that you probably won’t hear anywhere but satellite radio. I like Lil Wayne because he’s pushing the boundaries of mainstream but he’s doing something wild and crazy to something that just listened to dance rap so that’s good because maybe their minds will open a little more to people who dwell completely outside of that, but ain’t really much on TV that I like, not because it’s on TV, but because Rap music is really Pop music now. Hip-Hop can’t ever be dead. It may not inspire you the way that it used to, but that’s probably because you’re just not into it anymore. But as far as Hip-Hop, when we do shows and there’s thousands of kids there, it’s like, what are they talking about?

O: The way that Hip-Hop has been brought to the table and how it’s shown, it’s really not the true artform of it. It doesn’t represent. It’s more for trying to sell products, clothes, alcohol, stuff like that. It’s like a big commercial. But when there’s true artists trying to explore the creative process and what it takes to make a great song or a great lyric, a guy like J Electronica for instance is really dope. There’s people out there that’s doing it, but when you watch Rap City, you don’t get to see those guys that often.

I just feel like the vehicle that people are going to start getting Hip-Hop with is going to open the doors for more creative styles, people that are pushing the envelope stylistically and creatively which for me is the essence of Hip-Hop. How it was when De La Soul was coming out and A Tribe Called Quest was coming out, new flavors. I feel like that old form of commercialized, over-commercialized Hip-Hop, that is dead. It’s old hat, you can only use that so much before people get numb to it and it becomes a hard sell, pouring champagne everywhere, throwing money everywhere, people have seen that so much it doesn’t sell shoes how it used to, so now they’re going to start looking to the underground to do that.

AC: We were talking earlier about your latest project, Vulture’s Wisdom, Vol. 1. Talk about your vision for the trilogy, when the other albums are going to come out and what the idea behind these solo albums is.

O: I was just working with my man Architect, I’ve always been a fan of his music and his beats for a long time. He’s always been a cat that was out there, the style of his music is something that I always had a good time and enjoyed listening to. He worked next to us at High Street studios, he had a spot next to me so we had more of a chance to kick it and hang out and we were talking about doing a record, but it never really came together. Eventually I saw him in traffic one time and he was like, “I’ve got some beats, I’ve been thinking about you, we should do an album together.” When he hit me some of the beats and the style he was working with, it was perfect, we were right on the same page at the same exact time, so from there we just started collaborating and made a lot of music. Then we decided that we should not really stop at just one thing but hit cats with at least three projects, so that’s how the whole idea for the trilogy came up. The concept behind the title, like we were talking about earlier how everyone says Hip-Hop is dead, there’s nothing there, it’s over with whatever, we were like, “Nah, we can eat here, it’s still a viable option for us,” so that’s how the Vulture’s Wisdom title came into play.

We just are really trying to kill the backstory in terms of that being the forefront, we want to make the music the forefront, the style, the beats, the rhymes, the lyrics, not really like this guy did this, that, and the other. There’s always the story and sometimes it’s more interesting than the music and then you hear the music and you’re like, “this is what all the hoopla is about?” We want to bring it back to where the music is what people care about more so than the imagery. I feel like the 90s are something that people are trying to reach for right now, like that’s the golden ear, which for me is ’88, but other cats are more caught up in that ’93 era right now, always reaching back to the 90s and trying to bring it forward to here. Whereas I’ve always been a part of that connected to the whole essence of real Hip-Hop, so that’s where I come from, that’s my pedigree, whereas other cats might be trying to bring that back, I’m just trying to stay in that vein that I’ve always been in, that true essence of Hip-Hop, so it’s not a stretch for me to come and do something that people might call “real Hip-Hop,” that’s what we do, that’s Hieroglyphics, some of that good shit.

AC: Tajai – Stanford Anthropology grad, is that right?

T: Yea.

AC: How do you feel that education, that degree has helped your music? Have you incorporated that in your career at all?

T: It’s helped me with research, but that’s about it. School is school, it’s different from music, it just helped me research topics. Aside from that, it maybe helped me be organized in terms of my business, just going to school in general, but that’s about it.

AC: How important is it to you guys that you’re not major label? Do you think that you would have gotten anywhere near what you have accomplished if you were working for a major?

T: You’re just at the mercy of the market. There’s artists like J*Davey, Bilal, artists that you’ll never see their record. They’ve been in the industry now for almost a decade but because it doesn’t fit the labels idea of what records are supposed to be, it never comes out, so in that respect we probably would never have been able to bust the moves we could. It’s still different, it’s not like you’re doing it for a more noble purpose when you’re independent or you’re major. The way it is now, we’re like a major independent, us, DefJux, Rhymesayers, probably Stones Throw are labels where people want to get on the label, so it’s like they’re treating our independent record label like we would treat a major as a signed artist. We have more control, but really the market determines a lot of it and it’s harder right now to not be seen as generic in this marketplace because there’s so much. I mean, I think there’s more musicians than fans almost, especially rappers. So it’s hard to distinguish yourself as far as “into the marketplace,” so in that respect, it might even be better to be on a major label where they have the money to market you, where you have a shoe and a commercial and an appearance on Entourage and all these different things that are going to give you more exposure. Like when we put out a record, when we put out Vulture’s Wisdom, it has 8 videos, and how many of those are going to be on TV? We send them to TV, but do they end up on TV? No. So it’s really like we’re relegated to YouTube and MySpace and satellite radio and internet radio, and that’s the downside of being independent. It’s more a matter of exposure and it’s a double-edged sword. They’ll spend the money to expose you, but if they don’t like what they hear, they’re not going to expose you at all and you might never see the light of day.

O: If you’re doing it in terms of a business endeavor, you have to take advantage of what’s out there. I feel like for Souls of Mischief at the time, how the market was, us going major label was the best way for us to go at the time. To try to go independent would have been a bad look. It gave us a really good opportunity to get our music out there. We made what we really wanted and it got out to the people. For a time, the labels were all about trying to make super Pop Hip-Hop and I don’t know if they were going towards super avant-garde now, but definitely the tide has changed in terms of which artists are selling records. Lupe Fiasco is outselling artists, he’s like top-tier in terms of who the guy is. Kanye West outselling 50 Cent, so there’s a changing of the guard where if you are really more on the creative side of things, you might be able to get in and bust some moves, if you’ve got what it takes. Some people don’t necessarily have that appeal so it might be bad for them to go the independent route, you gotta really weigh your options. Cause the main thing, what you want to do is get your music out there for people to see you and listen to you and at the end of the day, to me that’s the most important thing. Then you can do whatever you gotta do with your hustle.

Check back with Evolving Music on Friday for part 2 where we discuss the future plans of the group, their thoughts on the remix culture and their favorite Hip-Hop albums of all time.

Musical Musings

With 2008 and all the music that came with it steadily speeding away in our rear view, I got to thinking a lot about what we did and didn’t see last year in the musical world, and what’s coming. When it comes down to it, 2008 was largely defined by some of the musical trends we saw, the continuing struggle over DRM and the ever growing attempts to market, brand and distribute music in ways that utilize multiple media and social platforms.

Musically, there was a greater push towards mash-ups (AmpLive Interview) and punk fueled Indie rock. Bands like Fall Out Boy and Bloc Party among many others kept driving guitars, sometimes melancholy lyrics and music that’s in your face in terms of pace at the forefront of the radio mainstream. Hip-Hop continued its usual pond-like trend: scum on the surface, beautiful water underneath with “artists” like T.I., T-Pain and Flo-rida topping the charts while rappers like Akrobatik, eLZhi and Black Milk continued struggling to boost their word of mouth. The line between Hip-Hop and Pop was continually blurred as radio Rap brought in more Rock and World music sounds into their songs.

We saw Kanye West rebound from a personally disastrous year to re-vamp his sound with 808s and Heartbreak, and we saw Guns ‘N Roses dig themselves out of a nearly 20 year grave to release the much anticipated Chinese Democracy album, something that many fans thought they’d never hear. Of course, most fans expected to hear either a new Eminem album (Relapse) or the long awaited and highly anticipated Detox album from Dr. Dre, and they got neither.

The DRM battle raged on in 2008, and in even just the beginning weeks of ’09 we’ve seen a nice movement in the area. For most of 2008, the IFPI (2) and the RIAA battled downloaders, both large and small, in court. Looking for lost compensation, they took to trial serial filesharers and spent massive amounts of time and money scaring college kids into settling out of court for fear of an expensive and punitive sentence against them. In the end, these efforts were largely useless, and in my mind, a joke, as they claimed to be fighting for the artists, while we all pretty much know how little the labels show the artists from individual song downloads.

The record industry spent months wringing their hands over lost profits and ways to control music that they long ago lost almost all control over. You have to wonder if, looking back now, they aren’t thinking of all their recent efforts as merely shutting the barn door after all the animals already escaped. And the change in tune has been brisk… Now, just two weeks into ’09, Apple has announced one of the broadest and most accessible withdrawals of DRM and price restructuring of MP3s in years. The four major labels have helped produce this movement, and it shows the increasing power of the consumers in the music marketplace. Once tied to hard copy formats like CDs with an average price table, consumers this year found diverse and creative ways to obtain their music, forcing the hand of the labels to recognize that DRM is not what the people want. How this lack of DRM will effect iPod sales or iTunes downloads remains to be seen. The launch of the App Store on iTunes also took music mobile with an incredible number of music related apps (and a few apps that are just plain incredible) designed for the iPhone.

The idea of Take Away shows and having artists perform live in unconventional venues took off. Nine Inch Nails picked up on Radiohead’s experiment with a free download format of an album, but they’ve taken it a step further now by offering over 400 GB of HD video footage from their concert tours up on torrent streams for fans to remix and create DVDs. This fan interaction has become tantamount to bands in the last year with MySpace including music, and a large number of acts going from conventional websites to social networking platforms.

And while these social networking sites and the bands that use them were beginning to become increasingly entwined, musicians were getting in the mix as well, literally. Late in 2008, MixMatchMusic officially opened its doors to musicians from all over the world to create, upload, collaborate and work with stems to broaden the ways people approach making music. With the DemoGod award at Demo ’08, a write-up in the San Francisco Chronicle and the ever-popular RemixSarahPalin.com, this vision of worldwide musical collaboration and the power of mixing and matching steps closer to being a full-fledged reality. (MixMatchMusic)

So what’s next? With the DRM barriers falling, the new foundations of band and fan interaction being laid and Web 2.0 casting a wider net over the ‘net, music in 2009 could be anyone’s game. Personally, I’m just waiting for The Detox… And now a moment for the outstanding musicians we lost this year, Bo Diddley and LeRoi Moore, among others.


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