Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.
DC the MIDI Alien: “National Threat”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/DC_the_MIDI_Alien_National_Threat.mp3|titles=DC the MIDI Alien: “National Threat”]
During his 10 years of deejaying, DC the MIDI Alien has racked up an impressive résumé. He’s worked with Immortal Technique, AZ, and Wordsworth as well as remixed Nas and others. In 2008, he formed the group East Coast Avengers with MCs Esoteric and trademarc, and their gritty, politically charged debut Prison Planet garnered them national media attention with its lead single, “Kill Bill O’Reilly.” DC returns this February with a semi-solo LP, Avengers Airwaves, which further cements him as a force to be reckoned with in the hip-hop world.
DC produces the record and brings in a gaggle of rappers to provide the rhymes — from his East Coast Avengers bandmates to Jedi Mind Tricks’ Vinnie Paz and DJ Premier acolyte Termanology. DC’s production style is decidedly old-school: the songs are built on steady, mid-tempo drum beats with only a few looped samples. Standout track “Man Made Ways” exemplifies DC’s old-school skill — an echoing, droning organ loop creates an atmosphere of paranoia and foreboding, punctuated by bursts of loud, crunching guitar. The production doesn’t falter throughout, recalling early RZA with DC’s ability to create maximum effect with minimalist beats. Although DC doesn’t speak a word on the record aside from skits, the album has every right to bear his name on the cover.
The album’s concept is that DC and company have hijacked the radio station of a Rush Limbaugh-type in a mission to wake up the minds of the people. In essence, this gives a framing device for unashamedly political lyrics, and this album delivers them in bulk. The first non-skit track’s reference to Public Enemy makes it clear that DC and the Avengers want to take up that group’s mantle of hip hop’s foremost political agitators, and, for the most part, they succeed.
It was easy to think that left-wing commentators would miss having such an easy target as George W. Bush after he left office, but fortunately (or unfortunately), there’s still much to complain about. Check the line “It’s over, America voted for Obama, but the change hasn’t hit my hood yet, ’cause I’ve still got drama,” from “Riot Gear” to see the album’s pervasive theme of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the man that many hoped would lead America back to prominence.
Trademarc gives one of the album’s best verses on “Another Hundred Days In,” which offers surprisingly specific criticisms of Obama and the media, while also delivering impressive internal rhymes and imaginative wordplay: “Hope’s just a four-letter word / it’s a verb that some hippie turned upside down and back around to a proper noun / it’s absurd, blurred by Wikipedia, slurred by wicked media clowns while news revised and rewritten / surprised when we listen, news anchors so smitten when the president talks of new anchors hitting bottom off Middle Eastern borders in neutral waters.”
Some verses are relative duds, offering generalized anti-authority statements, like Blaq Poet’s “You can’t trust the government / what happened to the weapons of mass destruction? / We bombed Saddam for nothing, they tried to blame him for 9/11 / thousands of souls sent to heaven,” from “Pawns and Rooks.” Moments like these could be much improved with the addition of specific insight beyond restatement of historical events, but fortunately, verses like this are scarce on Avengers Airwaves.
Strangely, for all of the album’s political themes, there is little offered in the way of a solution. The lyrics paint vivid pictures of the problems facing America, and expose the un-trustworthiness of the government, but say nothing about what the listener should do about it, rather than “wake up.” It’s not necessarily the responsibility of art to tell people how to live, but the overtly didactic and topical lyrics on Avengers Airwaves show that DC and his coterie aren’t afraid to proselytize. Had the lyrics gone one step further and given some real shape to the so-called “revolution” that DC wants to invoke, the album’s message would be that much stronger. But really, with an album full of beats and rhymes this solid, a complaint like that is easily forgotten.