Formed in Tokyo in 1990, Sigh isn’t like most extreme metal bands. To the uninitiated: imagine a mad scientist who has left traditional morality behind in his quest for discovery. Imagine Mr. Bungle, doubled down on metal brutality. Imagine John Zorn as a founding member of Iron Maiden. Imagine that someone left Scandinavian-style metal out on the counter overnight and that strange, hypnotic, polychromatic molds have started to grow on it. You still haven’t quite imagined the unique strangeness of Sigh, but you’re getting there.
Rap, understandably, always has placed an emphasis on lyrics, and rapper Aesop Rock is known for his motley blend of allusions, metaphors, and symbols. This is rap on hard mode, and it’s nearly unmatched.
Rappers’ careers live and die on image. So when a rapper is born of middle-class artist parents in the swanky suburb of Brookline, Massachusetts, he’ll inevitably have to deal with being an anomaly in the genre. Compound that with said rapper being a white boy who goes by Skipp Whitman, and it takes effort simply not to be seen as a novelty. Luckily for Whitman, his 2010 record, Skipp City, deftly avoids stereotype andproves that his music deserves to be taken seriously.
This record, Whitman’s debut LP, represents the culmination of years of paying dues on the underground hip-hop scene, a fact that he cleverly lampoons on the opener, “Release Dates.” In a genre where albums are pushed back almost as often as they are released, Whitman finds humor and heart in his honesty, deciding to own up to his record’s delays rather than pretend that they didn’t exist. “Everybody’s been asking, when’s your album dropping? / You ain’t copping nothing, cheapskate,” he raps, continuing in the chorus, “I’ve been waiting my whole life, you’ve been waiting two years,” and “perfection is a bitch, but so is not being clear on release dates.”
Whitman’s tongue-in-cheek self-effacement is one of the album’s brightest qualities. He doesn’t try to hide the embarrassing mundanity of his roots. “I know that I could get nice things doing some other shit, so why am I chasing this fame?” he raps on “Good Morning,” admitting that his middle-class origins could likely have taken him to financial success much faster than hip hop. This willingness to consider and reject the easy route makes him a much more sympathetic and charismatic figure.
Shabazz Palaces: “An Echo From The Hosts That Process Infinitum”
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Don’t bother looking up Shabazz Palaces on Google. Its official website is almost bereft of information, promotional photos are nonexistent, and interviews are scarce. In an Internet age when stars can be made through YouTube views, Shabazz Palaces seems to have gamed the system; its heavy blog buzz is, ironically, at least partially due to its spare Web presence.
Shabazz Palaces ringleader Palaceer Lazaro isn’t a new player on the hip-hop scene, however. He is better known as Ishmael Butler, who is, in turn, better known as Butterfly of Digable Planets. But don’t expect to hear smooth, jazz-infused rap, like Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That),” from Lazaro’s new outfit, Shabazz Palaces. After two acclaimed EPs, the band is poised to release its first full-length, Black Up, a discordant rap album if ever there was one.
The opener, “Free Press and Curl,” assaults the listener with relentlessly repetitive bass blasts. Melodic flourishes arise occasionally, but mostly the production is nothing but bursts of low-end buzz. Make no mistake: Black Up is a record that rewards listeners who have invested in quality woofers. Lazaro’s rapping is mixed low, making it difficult to decipher exactly what he’s saying, and his flow and the rhythm of the production don’t seem to sync up. It all makes for a thoroughly dissonant experience, exactly the kind that Shabazz Palaces wants the listener to have.
During the 28 days of February, hip-hop-influenced composer Son Lux was tasked with writing, recording, and arranging an entirely new full-length album. Read how he accomplished the feat while applying a sampler’s process to his unique brand of genre-bending.
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When one thinks of West Coast hip-hop production, the mind likely won’t rush to the kind of music made by San Francisco’s Blue Sky Black Death. And yet the duo of Young God (Ian Taggart) and Kingston (Kingston McGuire) has become a sought commodity for its production skills, having worked with members of Hieroglyphics, Non Phixion, Jedi Mind Tricks, and Wu-Tang Clan affiliates Hell Razah and Holocaust.
Though its most controversial release is likely The Evil Jeanius, which reportedly featured vocals from rapper Jean Grae without her knowledge or monetary compensation, the duo’s instrumental records have received tremendous critical accolades. BSBD returned in late April with Noir, an album of hazy instrumental beats that skirt the boundary between hip hop and electronica.
Nearly 80 percent of the record is composed of non-sampled instrumentation that’s largely influenced by shoegaze — an unusual muse for a DJ, to say the least. The tracks certainly show it. Many instrumental hip-hop records, even ones lauded by critics and beloved by fans, feature songs that repeat themselves over and over. This pattern provides a useful verse-chorus-verse structure when a rapper is involved, but when beats are allowed to break free, they can be so much more. BSBD understands this and presents tracks that evolve, build, and change as they go, with intensity rising and falling throughout, keeping the listener on his or her toes.
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Del The Funky Homosapien has come a long way from being known as Ice Cube’s weird cousin (who isn’t even gangsta). After lending his inimitable, elastic flow and irreverent lyricism to “Clint Eastwood” and “Rock the House” (singles that helped launch Gorillaz to super-stardom), teaming up with Dan the Automator and Kid Koala for sci-fi concept album Deltron 3030, and helming his own group (Heiroglyphics), Del has carved himself a place in the halls of hip-hop history.
Although Del went from 2000 to 2008 without releasing a solo record, his current rate of output is staggering. His latest record, Golden Era, is packaged with two albums from 2009 that were previously only available electronically, Funk Man and Automatik Statik.
As the title suggests, Golden Era hearkens back to Del’s heyday, with astonishingly funky beats throughout. Smooth, nimble bass lines bounce along effortlessly, with slick synthesizers and guitars providing a melodic touch.
Some tracks, however, stray from this formula, keeping the album from repeating itself. Most notably, “Double Barrel” uses discordant synth bleats and bursts of guitar fuzz to create a noisy, Dälek-lite atmosphere. Tracks like this break up the stretches of old-school funk, keeping the record from becoming monotonous.
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The off-kilter art rock of Norwegian bandleader, composer, singer, guitarist, and kazoo player Jono El Grande is like candy to fans of Frank Zappa and whimsical, progressive rock. In his 10 years of playing with The Luxury Band (née The Jono El Grande Orchestra), he has released four albums, including the multi-layered Neo-Dada in 2009 and the raucous Phantom Stimulance this winter.
Though he has enjoyed success in his native Norway, Jono’s delightfully eccentric music isn’t yet as well known overseas. Here he opens up about composing, why there’s no such thing as a “live favorite,” and how songs can take more than a decade to record.
According to your label, only one song on your newest record, Phantom Stimulance, is newly composed, with the rest being unreleased live favorites, compiled to commemorate your 10 years as a bandleader and 15 as a composer. Why did you decide to record these songs to celebrate this occasion?
There are two brand-new compositions on the album, not one — “Borrelia Boogie” and “Rise Of The Baseless Press-Base Toy.” The other songs are completely rearranged versions of songs that never reached an album and new arrangements of earlier-released songs that have evolved so much on stage during the years that they deserved to be released again, with new titles. “Live favorites” is a term that the record company came up with. Even if this record is presented as an anniversary, it is nevertheless the music that is most important. Always.
Why hadn’t the songs on Phantom Stimulance been recorded previously? Were they more suited to live performance than the studio? Are there any live favorites still yet to be recorded?
I am a composer who likes to develop compositions over time at live shows by adding new themes and parts to them. My working process is very often like this: I write the basic scores at home, then the band rehearses the music, and then we play the material live and mold it until I feel that it is ready to be recorded. And I never know exactly when each song is ready. The reason why these tracks haven’t been recorded previously is that, on earlier albums, there were other compositions that I felt were more ready than ones on Phantom Stimulance. You may call them “live favorites” — to me these tunes were the hard ones, the ones that I had to work a little extra with to make them worthy to be immortalized on an album. We used 40 to 60 tracks on each song. “La Dolce Vidda” contains 10 drum tracks, I think.
It was actually quite the same with Neo-Dada. Some compositions there date back to the ’90s. And to the last question: yes, there will be more “live favorites” to be released in the future. I just have to compose them first.
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The land of independent hip hop is a dangerous, inconstant place. Giants like Rawkus Records and Definitive Jux, once considered among the most vital sources of hip-hop innovation, have collapsed into footnotes. But Minnesota-based Rhymesayers Entertainment has managed to hold its place in the world of underground rap for more than 15 years, thanks in part to founders Slug and Ant’s flagship duo, Atmosphere.
Atmosphere’s previous album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, broke into the Billboard top 10 — an impressive achievement for an underground hip-hop group, and, as a result, Atmosphere represents to the general public what underground hip hop is. Its latest album, The Family Sign, typifies all of the strengths and weaknesses of indie rap, but it’s unusual and accessible enough to be easily enjoyed. If the genre must have a face, it could do much worse than Atmosphere.
Hip-hop veteran Pharoahe Monch is a lyrical force of nature, with an ability to rap complex rhymes with a muscular, rhythmic, and seemingly effortless flow. Even after 20 years, the quality of his three albums with Prince Poetry (as part of Organized Konfusion) hasn’t been diminished.
His first solo LP in 1999, Internal Affairs, was a more thug-inspired record that saw Monch making a significant move towards mainstream success, until legal battles over lead single “Simon Says”and its unlicensed Godzilla sample torpedoed its climb. Monch laid relatively low for the next eight years, releasing occasional singles and guest spots before presenting the soulful and inspired Desire in 2007.
Thankfully, he didn’t make the world wait as long for his third solo album, WAR (We Are Renegades). On his latest, Monch doesn’t waste time reaffirming his place as one of the genre’s best, frequently employing polysyllabic rhymes and repeated sounds that move beyond the simple AABB end rhymes on which many rappers lean. He boasts about this on the standout “Evolve,” describing himself as “The anomaly / your mama nominated me phenomenal / I dominated without a six-pack abdominal.” The machine-gun assonance on display here is just one example of the lyrical complexity that Monch brings to the record.
Known for his lyrical virtuosity, Columbus MC Blueprint won fame as half of Soul Position with legendary indie-rap producer RJD2. After that group dissolved, he produced and released an admittedly retro solo album, called 1988, in 2005, and went six years without releasing a new solo LP. But while RJD2 has spent his time moving away from hip hop, Blueprint’s new record, Adventures in Counter-Culture, makes it clear that he has spent his time going deeper.
As the album unfolds, its sounds swerve and mutate, breaking away from the tropes of the genre and presenting an arresting hip-hop record. Though not all of the experiments pay off, the sheer inventiveness that Blueprint puts into his production and lyrics make Adventures in Counter-Culture worth a look.
The album’s first song, “Go Hard or Go Home,” serves as the album’s manifesto. Over a beat with droning, echoing synthesizers, Blueprint outlines his intentions: “I’ma tear rap down, then rebuild the shit, with total disregard of if the pieces even fit.” From a production standpoint, Blueprint delivers on this promise. Distant, sterile, inorganic synthesizers dominate the beats, serving as an aural complement to Blueprint’s lyrical themes of disconnection and alienation.
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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.