Skipp Whitman

Beats & Rhymes: Skipp Whitman’s Skipp City

Every other week, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

Skipp Whitman: Skipp CitySkipp Whitman: Skipp City (self-released, 11/1/10)

Skipp Whitman: “Famous”

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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 and proves 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

Beats & Rhymes: Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up

Every other week, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

Shabazz Palaces: Black UpShabazz PalacesBlack Up (Sub Pop, 5/31/11)

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.

Blue Sky Black Death

Beats & Rhymes: Blue Sky Black Death’s Noir

Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

Blue Sky Black Death: NoirBlue Sky Black Death: Noir (Fake Four Inc., 4/26/11)

Blue Sky Black Death: “And Stars, Ringed”

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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.

Del the Funky Homosapien

Beats & Rhymes: Del The Funky Homosapien’s Golden Era

Del the Funky Homosapien: Golden EraDel the Funky Homosapien: Golden Era 3xCD (The Council, 4/19/11)

Del the Funky Homosapien: “One Out of a Million”

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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.


Beats & Rhymes: Atmosphere’s The Family Sign

Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

AtmosphereAtmosphere: The Family Sign: The Family Sign (Rhymesayers, 4/12/11)

Atmosphere: “Just for Show”

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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.

Pharoahe Monch

Beats & Rhymes: Pharoahe Monch’s WAR (We Are Renegades)

Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

Pharoahe Monch: We Are RenegadesPharoahe Monch: WAR (We Are Renegades) (Duck Down, 3/22/11)

Pharoahe Monch: “Black Hand Side”

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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.


Beats & Rhymes: Blueprint’s Adventures In Counter-Culture

Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

Blueprint: Adventures In Counter-CultureBlueprint: Adventures In Counter-Culture (Rhymesayers, 4/5/11)

Blueprint: “So Alive”

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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.

Talib Kweli

Beats & Rhymes: Talib Kweli’s Gutter Rainbows

Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

Talib Kweli: Gutter RainbowsTalib Kweli: Gutter Rainbows (Javotti Media, 1/25/11)

Talib Kweli: “Cold Rain”

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There’s a certain sternness to Talib Kweli‘s rapping. It’s a constant in his music, and it makes you listen a little harder to differentiate where he’s going from song to song. He tends to give his work an intimidating surface, though at heart it’s accessible, unrestful, richly stimulating hip-hop, fiery in spirit and not prone to corny messages. Since the 1998 collaboration Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, he’s delivered his words with a bold shove forward.

Kweli doesn’t sound humbled or chastened on the new Gutter Rainbows, nor does the bass line that smoothly slams the bolts home on the title track. He says in the liner notes that “this is my second album (after Liberation) that the music industry did not help me create.” This fact cuts both ways. There’s a different producer on nearly every track, but nearly all of them (from M-Phazes to Oh No to Ski Beatz) somehow connect back to the warm instrumentation (flute, guitar, swirly soul vocals) of 88-Keys‘ intro track, “After The Rain.” It’s a busy and collaborative 14 tracks, but thoroughly solid.

DC the MIDI Alien

Beats & Rhymes: DC the MIDI Alien’s Avengers Airwaves

Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

DC the MIDI Alien: Avengers AirwavesDC the MIDI Alien: Avengers Airwaves (Brick Records, 2/15/11)

DC the MIDI Alien: “National Threat”

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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 TricksVinnie 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.

Beats & Rhymes: Sims’ Bad Time Zoo

Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

Sims: Bad Time ZooSims: Bad Time Zoo (Doomtree, 2/15/11)

Sims: “Burn It Down”
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Anyone who has seen Twin Cities rapper/producer P.O.S live between the gradual success of Audition in 2006 and Never Better in 2009 has also had the chance to sample the Doomtree crew of which he’s a part. One of the stronger presences at these shows has been Sims, who’s by no means exactly like P.O.S, but is a worthy kindred spirit who gets the crowd in a similar, righteously agitated state of mind.

The lean-built MC is as averse to laid-back songs as his half-rapper, half-hardcore-dude friend. He’s strong through the shoulders and busy with gestures, a good frame for his sharp, often-terse flow. Another vital presence, less obvious onstage but still essential, is producer Lazerbeak, who has made beats for nearly every Doomtree release and doesn’t hear much of a border between catchy synth-based production and scratchy horns-and-soul-vocal melts.

The strength of Doomtree is that no two artists are too terribly alike (see the crew’s self-titled, all-member-pile-on album from 2008). The spectrum runs from the pugnacious Mike Mictlan to the patient density of Dessa‘s 2010 release, A Badly Broken Code. The group supports its members’ identities without intruding on them, something that holds true on Sims’ second proper solo album, Bad Time Zoo.

Sims goes it alone for nearly an entire hour, with just one guest verse during the whole thing (from P.O.S, on “Too Much”). Lazerbeak produces every beat here, making for a collaborative but focused feel. The identity that emerges for Sims, at first, has a lot to do with his opening verse on Never Better‘s “Low Light Low Life.”  His specialty is creating the feeling of being sealed into a living nightmare of isolation, reckless corporate domination, and hopeless social ignorance. What comes out over time, though, is that Sims is a straightforward MC who’s brave enough to work through the contradictions of his own emotions.