As hip-hop solidifies its position as America's most popular form of
music, it's continuing to develop its own case of nostalgia for the
past. Of course, in rap's hyper-accelerated evolutionary scale
fast enough that people actually make non-ironic references to Biggie
and Tupac as "old school" the "good old days" can be as recent
as the Clinton administration.
Monsta Island Czars are a nine-man NYC group who painstakingly
recreate the crawling, minor-key beats of early-'90s underground NYC
hip-hop like Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang Clan. They even share the
Wu-Tang's fascination with sampling movie dialogue, only this time
it's Godzilla instead of '70s kung-fu flicks.
This project is being marketed under the aegis of MF Doom (billed
here as King Ghidra), the mask-wearing legend once known as Zev Love
X from KMD. MF's Operation Doomsday LP from a couple years ago
was a lo-fi masterpiece that mixed his offbeat rhymes with dusty
samples culled from forgotten '80s pop R&B records.
Monsta Island are his crew, but unfortunately few of his cohorts
exhibit Doom's charisma or creativity. It's telling that "MIC Line"(a
solo song that features the only Doom vocals on the album)
overshadows anything his partners bring to the table. He's also
notably absent on the boards, contributing only a handful of the
album's 20 tracks. Producer X-Ray (who handles the bulk of beat
duties) does an admirable job of duplicating the basement feel of the
group's influences, but doesn't really manage to do anything more
than what RZA and Mobb Deep's Havoc were doing better a decade ago.
Unlike Doom, whose slurry, mush-mouthed delivery is one of the most
distinctive voices in rap, all most of the assembled MCs can manage
is to whip out tongue-twisting extrapolations of Masta Killa and
Inspectah Deck's (the two "realest" AKA "least popular" members of
the Wu-Tang) demanding wordplay. I suppose it's the instinct of
professional underdogs who seem to sense that they might never have
another shot at the mic therefore why not try to put every
single rhyme you ever thought of in one verse? It's that sense of
desperation and intensity that makes this album both compulsively
listenable and ultimately tiring. Somehow, I doubt that Monsta Island
even dream that they're going to get out of the underground
commercial ghetto. At one point, one MC even drops the wry joke:
"I'll bet a dollar this goes gold." Call it the hip-hop of diminished
Despite their numerous flaws, I will give Monsta Island this: When
they're hot, they're hot, especially on "M.I.N.Y.A.," which marries a
wicked boom-bap to a stumbling electro bassline, and "Gunz 'n'
Swordz," the home to a sweeping string sample epic enough to make RZA
jealous. Also, a couple of the MCs do stand out from the pack.
Kamackaris, the closest these cloistered underground monks have to a
Method Man, does display a charismatic late-'80s flow that helps
break up the often overwhelmingly dense lyrical onslaught. He's no
great shakes, but a little humor and a good sense of rhythm can go a
long way amidst all the dreary "keepin' it real" jive.
The one member who manages to shine on a fairly consistent basis is
Rodan, who spits his bogglingly complex lyrics like free-associative
refrigerator-magnetic poetry. Somehow, though, he manages to make
each verse feel like a daring tightrope act, where you can't help but
listen to see if he's going to rhyme himself right off a cliff.
Here's a pretty typical line (and keep in mind this all takes about
six seconds on record): "Got you deaf, dumb, and mindless/
Triple-stage criminal life blinded/ Rip your vertebrae/ Oh, silly me/
I forgot you're fucking spineless/ deep space stun phaser/ new
frontier gun blazer/ gotta dream/ shoot-out your local KKK
Hell, it's every bit as reactionary and retrograde as any garage-rock
Nuggets tribute artists worth their greasy jeans jackets, but
I can't help liking it despite myself. If, like me, you're an old
codger who tries to pretend you love Missy Elliott, but secretly
cling to your old Smif-n-Wessun records and think rap peaked at
Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Links, you owe it to yourself to
check it out.
However, even as your freshman-year memories come flooding back,
you'll also have to come to terms with the bad things about
underground hip-hop: Too much complexity for complexity's sake, too
many rhyming words for the sake of rhyming, and far too many flows
that run roughshod over the beat with no regard for cadence or meter.
That, and the nagging feeling that you've heard these songs before.