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April 5, 2002

++ Indie Hip-Hop Part 2

++ Last week I waxed rhapsodic about the recent pace of outstanding independent hip-hop releases. Part of it, admittedly, could be my own short attention span, in which every few months I get exhausted with a given genre and plunge headlong into another, whether something brand-new or a collection of records buried deep in my shelves. And part of it is dependent upon context: lately I've been playing every Saturday at a bar in the Lower Haight where dance music doesn't go over so well (well, that and the fact that my DJ partner forbids the playing of house music there).

As a result of this DJ gig I've been digging into my dub, downtempo and hip-hop collections for more chill-amenable selections. One good record leads to another, classics lead to curiosity, and the next thing I know I'm walking out of Amoeba with my wallet about a bill and a half lighter and my arms weighed down with black gold (Not for nothing does Peanut Butter Wolf declare, "My vinyl weighs a ton").

Prize find last week: East Flatbush Project's 2000 single "Everything We Spit Is Hard," a fantastic follow-up to their legendary single "Tried by 12," which was remixed by the likes of Squarepusher, Autechre and Funkstörung for Chocolate Industries.

++ The San Francisco/Los Angeles label Ubiquity Records strengthens its hip-hop roster with the debut album from LA's Darkleaf, a five-man group with roots in the Unity Committee, which also spawned Jurassic Five. The first thing that stands out is the drums: sound barrier-snapping, water-smacking whipcrack snares; metallic clanking and industrial crunch. Thick darkness presses in around those glaring bursts of light in the form of atonal piano, acid-rock guitar solos, blaring horns. Mixmaster Wolf's scratching feels like a malevolent force, and the rhythm of the whole thing flows like a riot. Oddly, there's almost no bassline on most of these tracks, no funk in the traditional sense, but they still lurch and swagger, locking your head into a permanent nod. Something about the density reminds me of the Bomb Squad. There's no way to replicate the radicalism of the early Public Enemy productions, but something here — some steely intensity, some ill will — is borne out in the violent collision of sounds in such a way that it takes me right back to "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos."

It's not all so oppressive, though: "Word Bound," heavy with blacksmith-hammered percussion and MC Longevity's guttural "unhs," opens up into a surprising circle of light with the entry of swung piano chords that are as agile as they are dusky. Reflecting their L.A. surroundings, "Sounds of Armageddon" and "Spanish Fly" even sample mariachi horns, conjuring dry heat and towering palms in the inner city. As for the lyrics, delivered with rubbery, collective muscle by the four MCs — Longevity, Jahli, Kemit and Metalogic — they're contorted, Afro-futurist discourses on politics, history and consciousness. "Fuck the people and their attitudes, duck the con," they enjoin, and I can't think of a better anthem on a smoggy early-spring day when I've just thrown down the newspaper in disgust for the umpteenth time, sick to death of the same ol' same ol' stories of corruption, greed, and ignorance. Throw this one on when you're imagining the system going down in flames, and be glad that crisis has a soundtrack this good.

++ Darkleaf aren't the only ones reinvesting the rage in hip-hop: count in Botanica del Jibaro, the new hip-hop offshoot of the Beta Bodega Coalition, a shadowy collective known for combining experimental electronic music with leftist Latin American politics. Run by Miami's La Mano Fria and Atlanta's Scott Herren (Prefuse 73, Delarosa and Asora), Botanica del Jibaro takes Beta Bodega's revolutionary rhetoric and backs it up with inflammatory rhymes. On the label's first release, "Suffer Great Nation," the Miami trio Algorithm adopt the alter ego Void to explore the perspective of a terrorist. "There's no turning back/ I left my home burning in flames this morning/ Knowing the day after creates a new day dawning," begins Dr. Faustus, kicking off a rhyme that just gets darker as it goes on, twisting up gangsta rap narrative with global realpolitik. That the track was written before September 11 and before the current Intifada may or may not change your impression of it; plenty of listeners may be put off by lines like "Then you wonder why we extremists/ We dealing with a nation run by demons," but Faustus' skill is in speaking in another's voice, flip-flopping identities until you're not sure what he really thinks — and sometimes your own assumptions slip a little in the process. For all the grim subject matter, it's not without a sense of humor, as when he raps, "What if the wretched victims of imperalism were to rise up/ The ignorant were to wise up.../ Revolutionaries organized crossed their T's and dot their I's up." Oddly, Algorithm/Void are much less sonically bombastic than Darkleaf: Plex's productions for the group favor crisp, rimshot-pocked breaks, soft keys and Eastern European-sounding string cadenzas. The most distinctive element of "Suffer Great Nation" is the keening female vocal wrapping it up like a bandage, a mournful, wordless ululation that recalls the music of the Georgian Republic — a country that's known its fair share of terrorism, both rogue and state-sponsored.

Sporting similar production techniques and the wordplay of Seth P. Brundel, Algorithm's "Defective Experiment" EP (Counterflow) offers rhymes that spray rage in unsteady circles, touching on every subject and tying together crime, capitalism and identity politics in six degrees of sufferation. (You'd never guess it if you just listened to the instrumentals, though: Plex's laid-back backings are as placid as the MCs are spiteful.)

Cyne, fronted by huALLAH Star and produced by Speck and Enoch, tread similar territory on their Botanica del Jibaro single, "Midas." (It also boasts two outstanding remixes by Algorithm's Plex.) The title track re-tells the mythical tale of the king whose greed destroyed him, and no matter how familiar the parable is, it seems more relevant now than ever, as Enron collapses, Andersen sits on corporate death row and the RIAA seems bent on a Vietnam War-era strategy for retaking popular music, burning the industry down in order to save it.

++ Taking a much less confrontational tack, Cincinnati's Five Deez — also recording for Miami's Counterflow label — focuses on deep, deep, deep productions and nimble ensemble work to bring back something of the old Native Tongues vibe. On their new album, Koolmotor, Sonic, Pase, Kyle and Fat Jon the Ample Soul Physician team up for amiable boasts, laid-back meditations on love, and loosely spooled riffs on rhyming itself. But make no doubt, the real meat here is in Fat Jon's aquamarine grooves. His solo album for Mush, Wave Motion, established him as a top-notch purveyor of purple fusion and blunted soul-jazz, and he brings the same echo-drenched vibe to Koolmotor. For proof of Fat Jon's prowess, look no further than "Possibly," one of several instrumental tracks on the album, awash in worn-wax string samples and high-necked basslines, all set over a cantering disco glide. (Koolmotor is also available in an instrumental version on both LP and CD, for full appreciation of Fat Jon's standalone grooves.) And the standup bass-driven "B.E.A.T." rocks a break as deep as DJ Shadow. 3582, Fat Jon's collaboration with J. Rawls of Lone Catalysts for the German label Hum Drums, is well worth seeking out as well — look for the single "Yesterday" and the full-length The Living Soul (the vinyl version of which comes packaged with both a vocal and an instrumental version). More stripped-down than Five Deez, the project sheds some of the latter's studio gloss in favor of simple blocks of piano, muted guitar, and curlicued loops of soul vocals — a brilliant continuation of A Tribe Called Quest's low key, low-end legacy.


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