Notes from the Underground Pt. 2: The Rise of the Internet
What the fuck is the Internet?
The ramifications of the Internet and illegal downloading have yet to fully shake themselves out, but not even a full decade after the rise of Napster, it's safe to say that technology has simultaneously created a flat but two-tiered playing field in the world of hip-hop. The major labels have become increasingly risk-averse, delaying albums from left-of-center vets like Redman, Clipse and many other for years (and judging from their tepid sales you can't blame them). The days of an album like Muddy Waters going gold are long dead and the new mathematics reads something like the old: if you don't have a hit single you'll be lucky to move 200,000 units.
Conversely, the continued downturn of intelligent major-label hip-hop has ultimately strengthened the underground. No one has any naive illusions about crossing over without completely and entirely losing their credibility. J5 tried with Dave Matthews and Scott Stoch beats and failed miserably. Dilated had that "Get By" retread with Kanye West, hit the Top 100 on Billboard, and still, no one really cared. With Kanye West being the one notable commercial anomaly, if you're going go platinum in the world of 2007 hip-hop, you either better be a cartoonishly violent cocaine-slinging gangster like 50 Cent or Young Jeezy, or a pathetic minstrel act like the Black Eyed Peas.
But while technology has pretty much killed the chances of groups like Digital Underground and The Pharcyde going platinum on the majors, it's simultaneously set the barrier for entry much lower for aspiring MC's. Sure, this means lots of kids with half-assed mics, weak voices and amateur production values, but it's also allowed for technologically savvy rappers to make in-roads in ways that would've been impossible just a few years earlier, utilizing blogs and Internet music mags (rap and non-rap alike) as not just a legitimate modes of marketing, but also as shared communities. Ultimately, rappers with Pro Tools in their bedrooms now have the ability to jump-start careers sans label, following a model pioneered in the indie rock world by acts like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!
Clean Guns, a rugged duo that batters you with hard-hitting and grimy raps, hypnotic looping pianos, dusty vinyl scratches and eerie head-splitting synths. The brainchild of frequent commentator Zilla, Clean Guns' impressive debut, last fall's Sometimes There is Trouble felt anything but homemade. Despite the fact that Sometimes was one of the first releases on Zilla's Beat Garden Label, they rapped like they were vets, employing brute force to each track, muscling each beat with grit and determination making you recall Philly's most famous export.
Without having the luxury of going through already established indie labels like Black Milk (Fat Beats) and Marco Polo (Rawkus), Clean Guns successfully managed to attract attention and high praise from blogs like Nerd Litter, Straight Bangin' and 33 Jones. Ultimately, the attention stemmed from the success of their debut, yet Guns understood something a whole lot of Soundclick rappers don't seem to understand: it doesn't matter how good you are, if nobody knows about you, you might as well not exist. With the rise of blogs as a new form of media, rappers now have the ability to get noticed without having to be written up in the pages of The Source or XXL, an almost impossible task for tiny bedroom labels.
Proving that Sometimes There is No Trouble was no fluke, Clean Guns have returned this spring with their mixtape, Living in Harmony, another compelling work that proves that the illadephians are here to stay. Rhyming over beats as different as the smooth, slink of "Dead Presidents" to the steel drum tropical breeze of"Wamp Wamp," Clean Guns, accompanied by their Beat Garden family (Anarchy, So-Say, Ask, Black Russian) seemingly embody the label's tagline: many styles. While their flows are often brawny and forceful, both members of Clean Guns maintain a surprising ability to move for heavyweights. Think of them like you'd think of another person tethered to Philly lore: Charles Barkley. They're comfortable bangin' in the low post, but they can surprisingly sky for the board if necessary, with ups/flows belying their sturdy frame.
Buy Living In Harmony
MP3: Clean Guns ft. So-Say-"The Score"
MP3: Clean Guns-"Dead Presidents"
Jamie Radford: A Much Better Rapper Than Jamie Lawson
Jamie Radford's eclectic production touches and style-fusion shouldn't be all that surprising when two of the most commercially viable producers in hip-hop are Timbaland and Kanye West, two producers clearly set on exploring the boundaries of the genre. But Radford's style is clearly infused by more than just hip-hop, utilizing production touches that epitomize the second-generation of underground MC's, a group whose teenage years coincided with rap's gradual evolution into a mainstream form of music. Therefore, it shouldn't be all that shocking when Radford claims Bjork as his primary musical influence, nor should it be much surprise when Zilla of Clean Guns big-ups Tom Waits.
The Freedom to Be Reckless EP is Radford's second effort, following last year's acclaimed Athens that won him praise from the likes of Stylus, Straight Bangin, Gorilla Vs. Bear, Said the Gramaphone, and Byron Crawford. Released on Radford's own, Athens, Ga.-based Travel Records, Freedom uses hip-hop as a jumping off point for sonic experimentation, employing swirling synths,rain-washed twinkling keys, and mellow brooding drums to create a record that sounds like if Prefuse 73 and Hot Chip had a child and he decided to be a rapper.
On "Patterns in My Saturn," Radford issues tongue-in-cheek remembrances of being with an old girlfriend, hearing Aphex Twin for the first time in his Saturn. Indeed, Radford's music almost reads as self-conscious, emo-leaning hip-hop, which sounds in terrible in theory, but through his affable personality and astoundingly good production, he manages to make the whole thing work. As Joey pointed out, Radford favors linear rhyme schemes that come off as a tad simplistic at times, but his lyrical straight-forwardness never deters from the record's undeniable effectiveness. Indeed, reckless is the album's operative word, as Radford never shies from the opportunity to take a musical risk, a boldness that proves consistently rewarding.
Buy The Freedom to Be Reckless (and stream it on Radford's site first)
MP3: Jamie Radford-"Patterns in my Saturn"
See Also Jamie's Profoundly Strange But Funny CD Release Video: Ace Goes to the Party