Friday, July 20, 2007

Rasheed Chappell - "Project: Stance" Album Review

Project Stance – Rasheed Chappell
**** ½

“We enjoyin the vibe, just enjoyin the vibe –
Relax yaself, let ya conscience be free and enjoy the vibe…”
- Rasheed Chappell from “The Vibe” off of Project: Stance

Hip hop in its purest form is escapism. In much the same way as the work songs of American slaves lifted spirits and propelled hopes to ultimate freedom, hip hop music is rooted in that same idea of speaking on reality to move towards triumph. It’s not removing oneself from something in the traditional sense of the word – this brand of escapism is hip hop sitting above the facts and offering a different interpretation. Call it pointless, call it na├»ve, but it exists outside of rap music’s majority today as a foreign paradox that most find hard to identify with in the current pop music plantation climate. Maybe that’s what Nas meant when he said Hip Hop Is Dead?

“Project: Stance,” the latest from the ever-busy, never-at-a-loss-for-a-verse New Jersey emcee Rasheed Chappell, is an album that attempts to unearth the roots of those work songs and breathe life back into a hip hop that’s confused about which way it wants to go. And for most of the album, he succeeds. Infusing lines with hard-nosed tell-it-like-it-is bravado while still delicately recalling the African-American struggle from slave-times to 2007’s gangster mental, Chappell gives us history as well as future within the same song. The true appeal for the listener, though, shouldn’t be the natural charisma oozing it’s way out of the speakers with each BOOM BAP that tells those stories – it’s Sheed’s ultimate belief that redemption and connectivity can shed light on each other and give rise to understanding that make this album so special.

Many emcees that actually have content in their raps are accused of being soft. Chappell is the answer. Each rhyme is edgy, and the sharp, staccato with which the lines are delivered belie his easy, fluid delivery. Think Kweli’s precision sharpness in annunciation with a voice and flow reminiscent of Q-Tip. But understand the catalogue of content is all his own. Sheed (or Sheedy for the ladies) bounces over topics with schemes that could probably match any beat you threw at him.

And the beats are, well… if you haven’t heard of Cassius Clay yet, you will. Already knee-deep in a project with M-1 of Dead Prez, Clay is a fucking beast, there’s no way around it. Each instrumental is crafted with a powerful, soulful thump that’s as distinct as it is familiar. The soundscape is lush and layered with usually a main sample and an assortment of carefully arranged chopped samples, strings and, of course, percussion. In the same way that Dre has drums, Clay has drums, too. Each pattern speaks to the emcee, guiding the flow not where it should go, but where it can go. There hasn’t been a better beatsmith and emcee combo since Gang Starr. And perfection is attained on several cuts, namely “Soul Possession.” With songstress Rae-Sheen on the chorus, Sheed gives his ode to music with a purity not heard in today’s music, by ANYONE, period.

There are several tracks that borderline on ridiculous. The swagger-laced “Fly” has Sheed channeling Slick Rick over a thunderous drumline. There’s even a “mirror on the wall” reference. If only Kanye had this kind of swagger. For real. “Child of The Ghetto” and “Gangsta Boogie” are two of my other favorites for true, gritty hip hop. If you’re looking for music to take you somewhere else, though, there’s the introspective “Who I Am” and “Not What You See.” From the latter, Sheed reaches back and pulls out memorable lines like, “How can you judge a man, without knowin his soul, knowin his heart and what pulls him apart? What builds him up, what gave him the spark?” And for unabashed commentary on the impartial hypocrisy of the ghetto, look no further than “Salvation” – a story about the parallel paths young men with no options are forced to choose. And yes, that last sentence is meant to be oxymoronic.

In truth, it’s incredibly difficult to find fault with any of the album. However, as it goes, there are a few, small flaws that prevent this from creeping undoubtedly into five-star territory. Like every great jazz song ever written or sex that was had, there’s an ebb and flow to the experience. Here, the tracking of the songs are a bit choppy and to me, it really prevents the story from unfolding, again, not as it should, but as it can. Additionally, songs like “Paint a Picture” and “Let Me Be Good To You (Spoiled)” could have been left out, as they don’t really add anything to the overall quality of the rest of the songs. The former reminds me of “Life’s a Bitch,” of course a classic in the annals of hip hop history, but one of my least favorite songs. Something about the way Sheed and his guest emcee have their voices hit the notes in the beat, the bare chorus, the monotonous sample… none of it resonates as well as the other tracks on the album. And because they’re all stand-out tracks, nothing less than that will do. Another thing that might have brought the album up was exploring third verses in a few spots. Instead, the tracks opt to go the 50 Cent route of two verses and a bridge/outro. My last request would have been to hear Sheed switch up the flow in spots – something over 120 bpm and a joint with some double-time would have given the album a more rounded, technical sound, something of which the emcee is surely capable. Minor details but they may have helped complete the masterpiece.

The only song I’m torn about is the last song on the disc, entitled “Pain.” It reminds me of “Raging Bull.” I liked the movie but it left such a strong feeling of distaste for De Niro’s character that it became almost unenjoyable and soured the overall experience. Same for Sheed’s “Pain.” It’s by far the darkest song on the album and can be seen to either end the album on the wrong foot or truly serve as an artistic statement, to leave that distaste of oppression, pain, frustration and confinement in the ears of the listener. Perhaps only the artist knows what was intended.

Bottom-line, Rasheed Chappell is a one-of-a-kind artist blessed with a gift of gab and an incredible collaborator in Cassius Clay. His years of grinding in the local area, countless hours in the booth and life experience show in each bar he spits, and as an obvious disciple of hip hop, this album is a beautiful homage to it’s purest form. It’s never more apparent that an understanding of resolution needs to be found than when “What Goes Up, Must Come Down” guest artist and Rasheed’s father-in-law proclaims: “wickedness provides no escape.” That line has never been more urgent. Because while his contemporaries toil with their backs to the sun under the threat of exhaustion, Sheed’s eyes, spirit and soul are turned steady upward, unafraid to stare-down and pursue the light that may ultimately provide him with the ultimate escape – eternal life.

Tracks in Order – (names may be incorrect)

1. Gangsta Boogie
2. Once Again
3. Die For Today
4. Let’s Ride
5. The Vibe
6. Let Me Be Good To You (Spoiled)
7. Soul Possession
8. Fly
9. Who I Am
10. Child of the Ghetto
11. Not What You See (Dream With Me)
12. Salvation
13. Paint A Picture
14. What Goes Up Must Come Down
15. Revolution
16. Pain (Live With Ours)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Hiphop - Is It Really Mainstream?

This is an article I did for a pub called Backstage Pass Magazine down in Daytona Beach, FL. Shouts to company disorganization and being an ill journalist amidst chaos. Real shouts to the contributors of this piece. Czec -

When the Sugar Hill Gang exploded onto America’s dance floors in 1979 with “Rapper’s Delight,” partygoers were still trying to stay alive, but the soul of popular music seemed to be fading with each turn of the disco ball. Twentyfour years earlier, when Rosa Parks decided on that particular day that she was not going to relinquish her seat on that particular Montgomery city bus, historians penning a certain future were forced to adjust their journals.

If we rewind America so that we can see how the past has influenced who we are today, the human side of us should collectively concede that these events are not independent of one another – they are in fact synonymous. But they are synonymous only in the sense that they were both a result of larger forces at work.

Dr. Craig Bythewood is an Assistant Professor of Finance at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. He was recently selected by ABC television to co-host the St. Petersburg Martin Luther King, Jr. parade, and he says that African American culture and hip hop culture are not synonymous in the way that most people view it.

“Hip hop is associated with music and an age group,” he said in a telephone interview with BSP. “It was created by African American males, and because society often jumps on the vilification of the black male, as a result, we see those two ideas put together.”

By pairing them the way that many people outside of hip hop’s inner circle might do, the perception is that the whole of African American culture advocates violence, drugs, partying, lavishly spending money and a subservient view of women.

Comparisons can be drawn to the stereotyping of bikers, rednecks, homosexuals, and ethnic groups – any groups of individuals who draw the ire and scrutiny of the whole for various reasons, largely do to their perceived behavior. In each group, a few can spoil it for the rest.

Bythewood attributes stereotyping partly to human nature, with the media shouldering some of that blame.

“For whatever reason,” he said, “the more negative it is, the more interesting it becomes. Movies, television, newspapers – it’s all there. You’d like to believe that artists and record labels would promote positivity, but that’s not what happens. Hip hop tends to put [the idea] in people’s heads that a whole race is bad, which isn’t the case.”

Dean of Social Sciences at Bethune Cookman College Dr. Sheila Flemming says that Black History Month was originally intended to dispel such views and educate the populace by integrating a race’s history that was largely ignored in textbooks and discussion.

“The goal of hip hop is to entertain,” she said. “But hip hop is not black culture. It’s American culture. Hip hop is the same as R&B and jazz music – it may have grown out of black culture, but now it’s an American form. Simply because it was born in a certain place doesn’t mean those particular individuals are doing it. We don’t live and breathe different air. Separateness is what destroys a society and to think about hip hop and black culture like that is to keep it separate from everything else.

“Hip hop is a genre [belonging to] young people, and every generation has a rebellious nature. As far as America goes, we haven’t lived up to our decree of freedom, of an equal society. Hip hop is their rebellion to an imperfect society. The negative side you see is not necessarily African Americans acting out – it’s individualism. I think that idea has taken over more so than race or a specific group identity. Young people are individuals and feel a need to express this. Hip hop is a result of the American experience.”

Rosa Parks’action on December 1, 1955, was a result of her American experience. Her decision, though spontaneous, was likely rooted in her beliefs developed as an active member of NAACPand a sense that being tired of something was all right. She was tired from work that day. In the subsequent speech that the newly elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association gave in the wake of the courtlevied fine against Parks, there rang the same message: “There comes a time,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “that people get tired.”

Hip hop’s growth and evolution is a result of change within a population, regardless of its particular race. That is what makes it what it is – an expression of the soul that was fading from the music in a smoky, laser induced haze, and an expression of soul from a group of people tired of their situation.

The odd thing about music, though, is that it crosses boundaries – it just takes awhile before everything that comes with it is finally allowed to be mainstream.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Lifesavas - "Guttafly" Album Review

Lifesavas – Guttafly
**** ½

It’s hard to define a classic hip hop album. I’m not sure if it’s because the music’s catalogue is only about 30 years old (if you count the release of “Rappers Delight” as the music’s official birth) and there aren’t many definitive works to compare new releases against, or if it’s because a classic hip hop album is so different than the best of other genres. Sure, there are a number of releases that sit on the bubble and can fall easily either way, but that said, I surmise it’s not necessarily describing the album so much as processing the feeling one gets from actually listening that is the truly difficult part of giving the creation that timeless label.

What’s easy to understand though, is that classic hip hop records launch stars from obscurity or solidify reputations more powerfully than other genres because so much depends on an emcee’s credibility. That fact makes hip hop unique, and it’s understood a classic album attains that status because of the story and character behind the music that’s already so good. “Guttafly,” the latest release from Portland’s brightest stars, Lifesavas, fits somewhere in between. Mainstream America has no idea who Lifesavas are, but their underground fanbase is huge and extremely protective, mainly because Lifesavas make accessible music. And that’s where the argument for “classic” begins.

“Guttafly” has been described as a concept album, but the duo, emcee/producer Jumbo the Garbageman and emcee Vursatyl, maintain that wasn’t the intent when they began recording it. More accurately, they’ve explained in interviews, “Guttafly” was inspired by Baraka Feldman’s obscure film concept by the same name, several blaxploitation films of the 70’s like “Coonskin” and of course, the Zatoichi series of Japanese cult films. The album allowed Lifesavas to step into the minds of imagined characters (Bumpy Johnson – Vurs, Sleepy Floyd – Jumbo, and Jimmy Slimwater – played by DJ Shines) and reveal more of themselves through that experience.

From jumpstreet, the album has a rich, hypnotic feeling. Interludes tie the songs/scenes together, and ratchet up the tension and overall mood quite effectively. More importantly, though, the beats bang with a tough organic, live-instrument quality that hip hop is missing today (think harder Soulquarians or Roots band music). But even then, Jumbo and the few guest beatsmiths are able to lace enough odd tweaks and clicks and blips in each track to remind you that hip hop production was born out of sampling. It creates a lush landscape here for the emcees, and they capitalize on it. Every song has a mature feel and evokes a swagger and command usually reserved for hip hop’s greatest storytellers. It’s a treat to hear Jumbo and Vurs, with two distinct styles, bounce effortlessly together over the production, from the staccato “Shine Language” to the syrupy-smooth “No Surprise.”

The choice of chorus’ are interesting, too, like a mix of underground lyricism and mainstream melody. “Serpents Love” is a perfect example. The title doesn’t roll off the tongue, but it’s a slick and sexy enough song that it was one of Stuff Magazine’s Top 10 Downloads. The track is gritty; I can see the instrumental providing a Bruce Lee film with some great stalking music or even have the lyrics explain a few frames of recon work in a Smokin Aces-type movie. There’s a sing-along and breakdown element to each song (“Dead Ones”), but it’s done so well that it does nothing to interrupt the flow of each song. Each part of the song works together to enhance another.

But I think the illest part about the album is that each track borderlines on commercial appeal. “Superburn” is a braggadocious joint with the right format and energy to be a hit, no doubt. Yet it’s comparable to all those De La joints that keep the crowd hyped at a show but still have pop kids driving home from school wondering if it is cool enough to dance to. The title track has the most potential for cross-over, and I’d go as far to say that if Kanye’s name was on it, you’d see it on 106 and Park tomorrow (he’d of course let everyone know that his name was on it, too, though, so it’s hard to imagine it not being a hit).

I can’t say enough about this album. There’s so much going on, but it’s all so simple and natural to the ear that all you can do is embrace the feeling in your gut and your chest, that tightness, that calm excitement that tells you you’re hearing something special for the first time. “Guttafly” is a tremendous achievement, ya’ll, it’s a collection of songs that spans the absolutism of obscurity and respect mentioned earlier, but beyond that, it acts as a coming out party for a group with the potential to put a new face on hip hop. It’s genre-bending because it’s accessible, sensible, sexy underground music. This album hit me like Mos Def’s “Black On Both Sides,” one of my fav albums of all time. And with Common, Kanye and Lupe all gearing up for impending releases, Joell Ortiz’s gem “The Brick,” and Talib Kweli’s “Eardrum” and Pharaohe’s “Desire” on the horizon, this year could be an excellent one for hip hop.

If you’re still lost, think of “Guttafly” as a more accessible turn of Little Brother’s “The Minstrel Show.” I loved that album, but there wasn’t the continuity that “Guttafly” has, or even the overall individual build-up with each song. Bottom-line, Lifesavas have turned in a record that’s classic with a lowercase “c.” I’ll let ya’ll fight over the true, correct grammatical nature of it, though. John said.

- john public