On a weekly basis, The Groove Seeker goes in search of killer grooves across rock, funk, hip hop, soul, electronic music, jazz, fusion, and more.
Qwel & Maker: Owl (Galapagos4, 9/14/10)
Qwel & Maker: “Letting Life Pass By”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/11-qwel_and_maker-letting_life_pass_by-noir.mp3|titles=LettingLifePassBy]
Although Chicago’s underground hip-hop scene has roads that point back separately to both MC Qwel and DJ Maker, their partnership has helped them reach audiences beyond the confines of the city’s gridded streets.
Qwel gained an underground following starting in Chicago’s south-side neighborhood of Hyde Park as a founding member of the Typical Cats in the late ’90s. Between periods of work on Typical Cats material, he has released several projects that enlist fellow artists at Galapagos4, the indie label that has put out nearly 20 Qwel releases since 2001. That expansive list becomes larger with Qwel and Maker’s third record together, Owl.
During the same mid-’90s time frame, Maker was breaking his way through the Chicago DJ scene, providing the soundtrack for late-night drinkers and hip-hop-heads alike. But when Qwel and Maker hooked up for the critically acclaimed 2004 album The Harvest, it ignited a serious collaboration that took them on a tour spanning Europe and the USA.
As a regular record-hound, Maker finds old and forgotten grooves in a sample-based production style that mixes old sounds with new techniques. Besides his work in the DJ crews Glue and The Comeups, Maker’s creative skill can be heard on solo efforts such as Maker Vs. Now-Again, where the beat-maker was asked to re-envision the back catalog of Now-Again Records, a label specializing in global funk and psychedelic grooves both old and new.
On the heels of the duo’s 2009 album, So Be it, Qwel and Maker have dropped another back-to-basics vision that does not waste any time in experimentation. Instead, Owl is highly attuned to an old-school hip-hop state of mind, as Maker’s production centers on soul-heavy samples that sound like they were channeled through a short-wave radio. Rather than being a highly refined and polished product, the album brings together hip-hop’s elements in raw form.
The beat-smith provides a fitting canvas for Qwel’s observational lyricism, whose flow is known for having certain urgency: the MC has a lot to say with not enough bars. Qwel trusts the listener’s intelligence, rapping with an intense fervor that comes off strong and compelling. He crams what seems like every bar of Maker’s soundscape with sharp and varied deliveries, and for Owl, his lyrics are filled with the lessons learned from being a young veteran in the industry.
From industry-bashing tracks like “The Down Dumbing” and “Cookie Cutter” to earnest autobiographical offerings like “Letting Life Pass By,” Qwel shares the pitfalls of his own past in hopes of leading listeners down a different path.
Standout track “El Camino” emits a classic hip-hop vibe: Qwel’s harsh reality of life on tour is matched by Maker’s hard-hitting drum kit. Maker achieves a mature sound with a highly imaginative arrangement, allowing Qwel’s lines to come off smoothly and effortlessly. Leaving the pretentious rap for his contemporaries, Qwel’s criticisms are subtle and cunning, posing questions that aim to be rhetorical rather than condescending.
“The Game” shows Maker’s gritty boom-bap-era styling, yet the track is rounded out by a collection of soul- and funk-tattered samples. The kick drum is weighty, the snare is crunchy, and the gritty horns and funky guitar licks move the track forward. Maker creates a neat package with a complex array of sounds that explodes every time Qwel steps to the microphone.
As their third release together, Owl displays how Qwel and Maker have matured — first and foremost as duo but also as separate entities. The album is not nostalgic because it aims to be so; it accomplishes the feeling because of Maker’s simple creativity and Qwel’s reflective and complex lyricism. In doing so, Owl delivers an unadulterated style of hip-hop that remains refreshing and innovative.