The Passion of the Weiss

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

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Notes From The Underground Pt. 1: The Rise of the New Old Underound

Because Fyodor was way down with that Subterranean Boom-Bap

The other day, idling in the parking lot known as rush hour Los Angeles, I was struck suddenly with the realization that for the first time in years, I actually liked hip-hop again. Sure, I've enjoyed hip-hop songs and albums over the past half dozen years, but as a whole the genre seemed moribund and incapable of producing new stars. It obviously wasn't dead, but it certainly was dull.

In particular, the independent hip-hop world that had seemed vibrant only a few years earlier seemed suddenly obsolete. Whether it was break-ups (Cannibal Ox), strident self-righteousness (Talib Kweli), Hollywood acting classes (Mos Def), lack of artistic growth (J5, Dilated) weird unexplained hiatus' (Pharoahe Monch, Aesop Rock, El-P), or death (Dilla), things felt stale. At best, you'd hear well-recited nebulous Golden Era fantasies of "keepin' it real" or collaborations with Milkshakes. At worst, you'd get Dave Matthews to guest-sing hooks on failed attempts for commercial viability. Hell, even the one notable independent success story, Little Brother, immediately rushed to sign with a major label.

But Little's Brothers recent declaration that they'll never record for a major label again isn't the only sign that the underground is in resurgence. Just four months into 2007, it's the strongest year for independent hip-hop in recent memory, with six very impressive subterreanean efforts from El-P (Def Jux) Brother Ali (Rhymesayers) Evidence(ABB), Dalek(Ipecac), Black Milk (Fat Beats), and Marco Polo (Rawkus).

Black Milk: Because Chocolate Milk Just Would've Been Stupid
It's not hard to see why Black Milk is regarded as Dilla's creative heir, considering he made beats for Slum Village, he's a producer/MC and as Joey pointed out, his beats distill the essence of the Detroit Sound that Dilla pioneered. Full of stutter-step drums, chopped-up soul samples, and fluid symphonic arrangements, Popular Demand is unabashedly steeped in its regionalism, a fact that Black Milk's rock-solid production works to its advantage.

Maybe the most relevant record to be released on Fat Beats in years, Milk is one of the better rhyming producer/rappers to emerge in recent memory. While his lyrics are fairly pedestrian, hewing strictly to battle rap type boasts, Milk's flow darts and zig zags across his tangled canvas of odd rhythms. Not even the most byzantine of his beats fazes him for a second, as he agilely rides wobbling basslines that would leave lesser MC's gasping for breath.

I'd hesitate to call the record a classic, but it's tantalizingly close. Enough to leave one hoping that Milk evolves lyrically and streches the boundaries of his sonics further. With Dilla's untimely demise halting his opportunity to press the Detroit sound to its most unruly perimeters, Milk seems the best bet to carry on that tradition.

MP3: Black Milk ft. Guilty Simpson-"Sound the Alarm"
MP3: Black Milk-"So Gone"
And He Also Brought Spaghetti to Italy!
Fat Beats isn't the only seminal hip-hop label returning from the dead in 2007, as the resurrected Rawkus Records finally has its first success with the debut album from Toronto-reared, NYC-based producer/MC Marco Polo. As you'd expect from the label that caused thousands of otherwise sane-minded teenagers to purchase backpacks, Port Authority might be the least forward-thinking record in 2007. And I kind of love it because of that.

If you believe that DJ Premier and Pete Rock are two of the greatest ten hip-hop producers of all-time, chances are you'll really like this album. Like Milk, Polo's sonics are nakedly retrograde, except rather than take his cues from Dilla and the world of late 90s/early 00s Michigan hip-hop, Polo's record is an homage to 1993 NYC hip-hop, replete with scratchy breakbeats, dusty drums and rugged raw rhyming. Wisely Polo opts for help early and often, enlisting the services of a who's who of underground underrated early 90s rappers, including Masta Ace, Ed O.G., Large Professor, Buckshot, Kool G Rap, Sadat X and Ju-Ju from the Beatnuts.

While it breaks no new ground, Port Authority retains the feel of a long-lost gem that slipped through the cracks only to be discovered 10 years later. It has no Timbaland-esque futuristic spasms and blips, it has no hard-clapping Southern synths, instead it successfully re-creates the feel of the most recent golden era of hip-hop and gives hope that another one might be possible. Even if the Mims record will probably move ten times more units than Port Authority and Popular Demand combined, Polo and Milk's rise prove that a worthy second generation of underground rappers has emerged. Let's just hope that none of them ever collaborate with Dave Matthews.

MP3: Marco Polo ft. Masta Ace-"Nostalgia"
MP3: Marco Polo ft. Large Professor-"The Radar"


At 8:38 AM, Anonymous floodwatch said...

Nice post, J. I've been rocking Black Milk's Pressure mix CD a lot recently; I'll have to check out Popular Demand. And "The Radar" sounds a bit like an outtake from Gang Starr's Moment of Truth, but with 'softer' drums.

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Rap Jack Bauer said...


Did you listen to the Marco Polo/Mick Boogie mixtape? I'm not sure how much of the material on there ended up on his LP, but your description of his sounds is perfect. He had the best beats on the last Boot Camp album by far. Plus, he even made Scoob from Das Efx sound ill on the Mick Boogie mixtape.

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Commish CH said...

They interviewed Black Milk on the local Hip Hop show, and the cat was especially grounded. No fake persona, shout outs, or posing.

I think 07 could shape up to be a good year for the indies scene as well.

At 2:26 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

Flood: I knew you'd like that Large Pro joint. You'll like the album. Just pure hip-hop that you grew up. no frills. Just the basics. But damn well executed.

Zilla: Didn't hear that one. I've just been trying to digest the record. Sounds like I should d/l it post haste.

Commish: Yeah, Milk seems pretty grounded in the interviews I've read. It's sort of refreshing to read a piece without hearing the rapper big up him and his crew the entire time. The music should do the talking.

At 3:35 PM, Blogger Scott said...

Just wanted to reiterate the awesomeness that is Black Milk. I always get a lil puffed up when one of my fellow Detroit natives comes with the new hotness. Good lookin' out.

At 10:00 PM, Anonymous angrycitizen said...

I agree with everything said here. I've also enjoyed Don't Quit Your Day Job by Consequence. Jeff, have you listened to Hell Razah's new album Renaissance Child? Am I the only going nuts over this album? Off topic, but the Nationals new album is oh so good.

At 10:11 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

I haven't heard either of those but would love too. If you wanna' send them my way I'd be much obliged. I'll trade you for the Clientele and Dungen which are both must hears.

At 11:38 PM, Anonymous angrycitizen said...

Jeff, check your email. peace.

At 12:18 AM, Blogger Shorty said...

Interesting...Is Black Milk a Bad Choice? I have some Guns N' Roses downloads If anybody wants em...


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