The Passion of the Weiss

Sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick. But most of the time, I don't rhyme.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Backpacks, Wristbands, and Derby Caps: Paid Dues Festival

My dissatisfaction with the average underground hip-hop fan can best be epitomized by a conversation that I found myself in, while checking out a CD at the merchandise table at the Paid Dues Festival last Saturday night.

Grabbing the CD in question, the latest Felt album from underground mainstays Slug and Murs, I asked the vendor a question, attempting to better ascertain the quality of the album.

“So…which album do you like more? The latest Atmosphere album or this album?”

“Well, I really love, Atmosphere…so I’d have to say that,” the vendor said.

This was enough to dissuade me from buying the album, because like most underground hip-hoppers, Slug, the rapper in Atmosphere, is inconsistent, capable of a great track one moment, followed by something puerile and needlessly vulgar the next.

While he definitely has made some excellent albums (Overcast, Lucy Ford), like most rappers who've put out five or more albums, the act has grown pretty stale. It seems that almost every artist in the underground feels compelled to the stick to the niche has garnered them acclaim . In Atmosphere’s case, it’s girls. That guy has written more songs about girls than any other rapper outside of Too Short. And while I confess that the Lucy Ford EP is perhaps the ultimate hip-hop “break-up” album (if there is such a thing) and definitely meant a great deal to me at one point, there’s only so many times I can hear the same thing over and over again.

So as I already have four Atmosphere albums and had been relatively underwhelemed by the last Felt album, I felt like I didn't need to drop another $10 on album. Right when I was about to walk away, your typical hip-hop backpacker, rocking the wristband and the baseball cap with the tilted brim, speaks to me in the voice of someone from Compton and not Sherman Oaks.

"Yo, yo dawg. You gots to cop that Felt Album. You gots to. That shit's clean. That shit's clean yo."

Hmm, I silently pondered the question. I do like things that are clean. But I don't like shit. This was going to be a tough call.

"Yo, yo," he continued. "If you ain't heard Life Vegas [a track off the album], then you ain't heard nothing."

It was a big statement to make. I figured why not, it's only $10 bucks so I bought the album. After all, according to this dude my whole life perspective may in fact be altered by listening to this much-hyped track. Of course, the album ended up being everything I expected. Some songs are good. Some songs are average. Some songs are just plain bad. Slug and Murs are both very good rappers but the whole thing bored me to tears. I'd heard it before. I wouldn't mind bumping this CD in the car while driving around with nothing to do, but "Life Vegas," didn't make me reevaluate my life. At all. In fact, I thought it was one of the more sub-par tracks on the album.

My problem with the average underground hip hop head isn't necessarily the fact that many of them have bad taste. It's that most just don't have any taste in all. Most of these people can't tell the difference between what's excellent and just mediocre. All that matters is what label the rappers are on, who is validating the album and who does guest appearances on it. As long as something isn't "mainstream," it's automatically brilliant. These kids buy music not specifically because they want to listen to it, but more because they want to buy into a lifestyle. This would explain while throughout the entire concert, hordes of kids were freestyling outside, not even listening to the music that they'd presumably paid for. This is why the guy's praise about the Felt album was so effusive. He just didn't know any better. For all he knew it was "Liquid Swords," All he knew was that it had Slug on it and Murs and it was safe to say that no matter what they put it, it was excellent, because they were infallible, because they were underground, because they had never "sold out."

The truth is some rappers are in the underground becuase they're great and they're more interested in making the music that they need to make, rather than the music their accountant wants them to make. They don't care about soundscan sales, they care about making music and supporting a modest lifestyle and not doing the 9 to 5 thing. One must respect this type of artist.

On the other hand, the underground is filled with mediocrities, people who for one reason or the other, be it luck, lack of skill, or lack of hustle, never got a major label deal. They constantly recite the same things over and over again and expect you to buy album after album of their stuff. This is my opinion of the rap underground and this is why I skipped the entire first half of the concert and so did not see the early Festival acts: Chingo Bling, Grouch, 3MG, 2Mex. These are definitely not my tastes.

The first act I saw was New York City based rapper, Cage. I caught Cage about three or four years ago, in the days before he signed to Def Jux (in my opinion the best label in rap music by far). Back then, Cage was one of these mediocre rappers, constantly reciting the same schtick over and over again. Cage's whole deal was to be as depraved and insane as possible in an attempt to gross you out but somehow intrigue you. Aside from one single, "Agent Orange," where he sampled the theme to Clockwork Orange, Cage was pretty much forgettable.

But in the last year, with a new label and tracks produced by Def Jux mastermind, El-P, Cage dropped one of the best albums in "Hell's Winter." If you like rap music, I highly advise you pick it up. His Myspace page is here, the songs on the page are only decent, but the CD is really quite excellent. The lyrical content is pretty mindblowing as Cage describes his harrowing childhood, including shooting heroin into his stepfather at age 6. It's not for the faint of heart, but it's a unique work of art and definitely worth your time.

At any rate, I only caught the last half of Cage's performance but he had definitely upped his game in the last few years. Gone were the histrionics and gross-out spectacles of the old Cage, in his place was a confident performer, who had the crowd going nuts, particularly when he closed the set with "Agent Orange." If I hadn't been before, I definitely became a believer after seeing Cage live.

After Cage, I was treated to about two hours of mediocrity in the sets from Living Legends and Brother Ali. First up was Brother Ali, a rotund albino rapper from Minnesota. To be quite honest, he just bored me to tears. I guess he's technically proficient as a rapper. He isn't terible or anything like that. I feel as though I should save those designations for abominations like Chingy, Nelly and P.Diddy. Those are terrible terrible rappers. Brother Ali is just average. His lyrics aren't especially deep nor are they particularly dumb. His rhyme scheme is fair. His delivery is fair and his stage presence is rather lackluster, though it might not be completely his fault, as he's at least 40 lbs overweight. I bet Big Pun live wasn't exactly an energetic proposition either.

My main gripes with Brother Ali are twofold. 1) A great deal of his raps deal with his dedication to Islam. Look, I don't give a flying fuck if he wants to be a dedicated muslim provided he is a peaceful adherent of the religion. I just don't care, nor do I particularly want to hear rap about it. And it isn't because he's Muslim. I don't like religious artists, period. I think Matisyahu is wack as fuck (even though I really really really really hate to admit that King Without a Crown is a great pop song) and I think all those Christian rockers like Staind and POD are mind-blowingly bad. If you want to be a religious artist, more power to you, but do it subtle like Sufjan Stevens or don't do it all. Period.

2) I just don't want to watch someone that damned ugly. I'm not trying to be cruel but look at this man (click here) Is that someone you want to pay money to watch? I rest my case.

As for the Living Legends, they are perhaps the most mediocre rap group in the history of time (listen here) . Not all of their songs are bad, in fact the first track on their Myspace page Nightcrawler is quite good. But the majority of them are just painfully mediocre. Somehow they've developed a die hard contingent of fans. I don't get it. I've been seeing them since I was 15 years old back when they used to always play with Shapeshifters, Planet Asia, Rasco, Cali Agents and High and Mighty at the Roxy. Even back then people LOVED them. I don't get it. They bore me to tears. It's the same people saying the same thing over and over and over and over. Sort of like this review. I won't waste your time. I'll move onto the good.

First off, I don't care what anyone says. I don't care who wants to argue with me. Aesop Rock is the best lyricist in music since Bob Dylan. Period. Damn right those are strong words. But I've listened to practically every word the man has ever written and rapped and he is a flat-out genius. I try to write for a living. It's what I do. I'd like to believe I know what I'm talking about. And Aesop Rock is a writer on par with any poet I've ever read, and though I don't like to talk about it much, I've definitely read my fair share of poetry. Aesop Rock is as pure of an artist as they come.

I don't really understand why more people haven't caught on. I understand that his lyrics are often dense and impenetratable and granted, not every line is a golden parable. Hell not every line makes sense, still that never stopped Ghostface from being absurdly great. And most of the lines do make sense, they just require time. They aren't the kind of music you'll bump at a party with friends. But if you think rap music is just a bunch of people talking about shooting people and slanging drugs or people writing lyrics about how great their lyrics are, buy Aesop Rock's "Labor Days." Especially if you don't like to work, this will be the new soundtrack to your life. It's brilliant. I'm just repeating myself now. I'll go on.

As for El-P, the rapper who shared the stage with Aesop, he's pretty damned brilliant too. For the record, "brilliance" is not an adjective I toss out often. Let me reiterate. Both El-P and Aesop Rock are BRILLIANT. El-P, the head of Def Jux, is another incredible lyricist who doesn't rap about topics you've ever heard before. I highly recommend buying "Fantastic Damage." All I have to say is how many other rappers do you know that namecheck Phillip K. Dick and George Orwell. (Okay fine, Fat Joe's clearly a major "1984" fan, but who else?) El-P's also one of the best producers around. Needless to say if anyone ever tries to argue with me about how Kanye West is the best rapper/producer in the rap world than they obviously haven't listened to El-P. And if they have, I don't want to hear about your taste in music. Go cop a Paul Wall album or something.

Anyway, for about an hour Aesop Rock and El-P crushed all competitors, delivering a fierce and impassioned set. Again they don't make party music. They make songs that actually make you think (an all too rare commodity in the increasingly insipid world of music). El-P dropped songs like heavy bombs, doing tracks like "Patriotism," an unbelievably dense and eloquent crituque of American foreign policy, "Stepfather Factory," a look at the alcoholic stepfather who helped raise him, analyzed through the metaphor of a robot factory, and "Deep Space 9MM," a Blade Runner-esque paranoid journey through the gun-filled streets of New York.

Aesop's topics were similarly intellectual featuring "Holy Smokes," a nuanced look at his lapsed Catholicism (very subtlely done) "Fast Cars," and of course, "Daylight," the song that pretty much made him a name in underground circles.

These two aren't for everyone. But if you like music that will challenge you then I can't push anything stronger. These two rappers saved rap music for me a few years ago, just when I was about to give up listening to it because I felt I might've outgrown it.

Slug and Murs' aforementioned group, Felt headlined the show. I confess I left halfway through the set but they definitely put on a solid performance. Both rappers have excellent stage presences, particularly Murs who might be the most energetic man in hip hop. When you watch Slug rapp you get the impression for some reason that he shouldn't be as good as he is. His flow is quite smooth when he wants it to be, he has excellent control of his voice and he definitely knows how to make a crowd (evidenced not just by the arms being waved side to side, but by the squeals of the 14-year old girls in the audience...apparently, Slug is quite the indie hip hop heartthrob).

They played tracks from both Felt albums including "Dirty Girls," "Hot Bars," and "All I Can Do," and I have to say I was quite sorry to leave. The show was everything I'd expected, mixed with bursts of excellence and bursts of mediocrity. I came mainly to see Aesop Rock, El-P and Cage and wasn't at all disappointed. A great show, even if "Life Vegas," didn't make me change my entire perspective on life. I guess that's what's Ja-Rule's for.


At 7:42 PM, Anonymous Slav said...

Nice review, dude. I didn't make the show, the $30 price was too steep for my boyz, so we opted for the Knit Factory Nightlife later in the evening.
You've convinced me to get an Aesop Rock CD ... but ... the best lyricist in hip-hop I doubt he is. You know who I think holds the crown.

At 8:01 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

Read some lyrics online...I knew that line would get people. It always does. But I really think he uses words as well as any great poet I've ever read

At 11:35 PM, Blogger Ian said...

This makes me think of a Blueprint lyric from "1988": "too many wack rappers fuckin' up the game/too many independent acts are soundin' the same/talkin' shit on the net to get a name/give props to each other, sit around and complain."

I never, ever, ever got into Def Jux though. Honestly, I think a lot of the critical praise for the likes of Lil' Wayne and Young Jeezy are a sort of response to only praising the most dense and complex rap for a couple of years in the 2000's.

And by the by, I absolutely cannot stand Edan. I bought "Beauty And The Beat" and "The Further Adventures Of Lord Quas" on two consecutive days, and it was awful. On the other hand, I agree with in full on Living Legends. I wrote a review of one of their albums and pretty much thought they were the most mediocre rap posse of all-time. I was gonna use the "Pac-10 is about as rugged as a Living Legends cut" joke, but I figured no one would get it. Excellent work, man.

At 3:44 AM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

I definitely agree with your point about Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne getting acclaim as a response to the trend to venerate the complex stuff. I'm surprised though that you never got into the Def Jux stuff, not even Cannibal Ox or RJD2. I don't like all of it. I hate Lif for instance and think that Hangar 18 C Rayz Walz and Camu Tao are mediocre. But I do think that it's an acquired taste. I didn't really fully appreciate it until one day when I was psychedelically altered and I decided that Aesop Rock and El-P was amazing. From there I was hooked.

At 3:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do you not like Mr. Lif?

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

Lif has improved a lot. But I still think his voice is kind of tinny and flat well as he doesn't mix up his flows enough. They are all delivered in one even monotone and to be do that well you better have a voice like Guru's. I have liked Lif songs "Sucess" for one (mainly because of Aesop on the hook). But I don't like his whole deal. He seems contrived. He's kind of just a nerd and I tend not to like the whole nerd rap thing. i sometimes feel like Lif is like Paul Barman trying to play Chuck D. Though I will give him credit, when I saw him at Coachella last year he was really really good. So I'm open minded that his new stuff might be okay.

At 3:48 PM, Anonymous geebo said...

You do not know what you are talking about man this review is absolute garbage. How could anybody in thier right mind put Cage head and shoulders above Brother Ali? I pretty much spread my hip-hop love thru word of mouth but your sorry ass perspective has made me get on here and straighten things out for love of hip-hop. Ali's lyrics focus on way more than just Islam and if you can't see it then maybe you should just go listen to 50 cent. I'm pretty sure he wont have any religious references for you. And what does it matter that Ali is albino? Okay he may not be the best looking emcee out there, but if that is what you are judging him by then why dont you just take your gay ass perspective to another genre and listen to some cutesy boy bands. You are not a hip-hop head. Period.


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