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).
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"
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"