On this episode of the “Hear! Hear!” and Now Podcast, I have the opportunity to speak with Kat Dahlia, a 22-year-old pop / hip-hop songwriter who’s already made waves with last year’s viral hit “Gangsta.”
Dig beneath the surface and it’s easy to hear her disappointment with those in her generation who remain content bragging about accomplishments which in the end mean little. This, juxtaposed against her own family struggles as a first-generation Cuban-American growing up in Miami, sets her apart from most in the genre.
With a mix of fun party songs and more serious looks at the world in which she lives,one thing is clear: Kat Dahlia has something to say coupled with the drive to take over your pop landscape. Listen up, she’s coming to a city near you and there’s the chance to get in on this thing from the ground floor!
For a list of upcoming tour dates and to get a copy of her Seeds Mixtape, you can visit katdahlia.com
Quietly putting Oklahoma City on the hip-hop map, Jabee’s “Dreams,” at the heart and soul of his album Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt, which is an example of meaningful hip-hop at its zenith. Chuck D of Public Enemy can already be counted as a supporter, suggesting that Jabee’s subtle thoughtful hip-hop has the distinct potential to change the world. “Dreams” in particular focuses on the dreams we all share, big and small, and the ability we have to overcome circumstances to ensure they become realized, not deferred or deterred. Give this one a listen, I think you’ll agree this is a message worth sharing.
Press play on this one by Southside Chicago rapper Chi City and let the incredible beat reel you in. One listen and I’m ready to share with the world, while blasting the chorus to everyone in earshot: “Hell yeah, fuck ya life!” Though hard-edged, the message is clear. You want riches, fame and respect? Work like a dog for it, put in the time and then maybe you’ll hit on something that sticks. Until then, don’t expect Chi City to cry any tears for you. The track’s got all the hooks needed to worm its way into any hip-hop playlist and stay there. Can’t wait to hear what else these guys come up with in the new year.
Great name for chicks
I know a jealous sapphire
And an amethyst
And if she’s a square
I can work with her
But I prefer my joints to be circular
This one’s not to be taken too seriously, but damned if it won’t stick in your head, the ultimate pop-hop throwback. All you need’s a phat beat, some shiny beads, plenty of Snoop Dogg-sized blunts and you’re ready for what Chris Clarke brings to the table. “Every time you see me I got some fresh-assed clothes and some beads. And some weed,” he raps early on, before seriously breaking it all down for us: “I got rare beads, prayer beads, square beads and player beads.”
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Australian hip-hopper Dialekt has a lot going for him, particularly on his solid single “Fortress.” First off there’s the hook, which echoes but doesn’t carbon-copy the piano-tinged flair of “Love The Way You Lie” by Eminem and Rihanna. Then there’s the chorus, sung ably by Xy Latu, which is as memorable as anything you’ll hear from Mikky Ekko or Gotye, a perfect ear-worm which does as much to demand repeat plays as does Dialekt’s rapping. That’s the clincher, though, is that this kid has serious flow. At first I wasn’t convinced — the first verse sounded a bit too much like B.o.B.’s work on “Airplanes” — but when he really gets going during the second verse, it is immediately clear there’s more here in the vein of Macklemore than anything else in pop-versed hip-hop.
No guarantee he’ll hook our ears with anything else, but “Fortress” is a solid first swing toward the fences. I could hear this song getting plenty of top 40 radio-play, and the video’s professionally produced, with a distinctive look. Start it at the two-minute mark if you’re not interested in the pseudo-story presented by the video, which in the end is just a chance to get Dialekt to light a few giant flares and let a helicopter spread color around him as he raps. What matters is that the quality of the song speaks for itself. This is everything pop programmers salivate over. Will it be enough to break Dialekt here in America? I’m going to bet yes.
Pennsylvania rapper Dubby (a.k.a. Caleb Joyce) is set to put Gettysburg on the map as more than just a Civil War mecca. The kid’s got serious flow, as illustrated by his video for “Game of Thrones,” a track which reminds me rhythmically of Brother Ali, and his ability to speed up and slow down his delivery while maintaining a steady flow. “Collapse the diaphragm / This is a test / Breathe / Stretch / Shake / Mace / Puff / Pass / Rough / Patch / Sandpaper shit / That’s a must have / Pick people for my team who can buff that!”
Collapse the diaphragm
This is a test
That’s a must have
Pick people for my team that can buff that!
You picked a dude that can jump and that runs fast
That overlaps the one runner who comes last just to run laps
But I’ma pick the dude that was humbled
By having defeated his demon
Look for the heart and never the pride
Sure, the things he says take some mental gymnastics to decipher at times, but the hook is there behind the concept. “Game of Thrones” showcases Dubby as a guy on the way up, looking to build his team from other hungry rappers of his ilk, and once he gets that throne, there’s no one going to take it from him. “I’m just waiting for my kingdom to come,” he sings on the chorus, and by the end of the track you’ll believe — even if just for a moment — that success will eventually find this kid. That kingdom’s gonna come and you heard him here first!
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AKA & The Heart Hurt Goods – “Dotted Line”
(f. Double B / Nathalie Elam)
AKA & The Heart Hurt Goods – “Put On Blocks”
(f. Nathalie Elam / Andrew White / Nicatine of Free Whiskey)
AKA & The Heart Hurt Goods – “Supersonic Love”
(f. Nathalie Elam)
AKA & The Heart Hurt Goods – “Last Call”
(f. Nicatine of Free Whiskey)
From the land of the mighty Pacific Northwest comes the rumbling of a burgeoning hip hop community, that is uniting all things hip hop. Graffiti, Djing, B-Boying, Emceeing and a growing battle rap scene.
The evolution of Snoop Dogg from hip-hop to wannabe Rasta is hands down the most frustrating musical development of 2013 thus far. There’s nothing about this music which isn’t both over-calculated and under-inspired. It isn’t surprising that Snoop would gravitate toward the American idea of Rasta culture, being that he’s made a career out of loving all aspects of weed society, but crossing that over into his music means we’re inundated with every faux-reggae cliche.
“No Guns Allowed” fails in every aspect, drawing on cliches at every corner, decrying gun violence and a society where “money makes the man,” while mixing the message. “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” is the implicaton, but there’s also the idea that if we were all rich, we’d spend more time with our children and keep them from choosing violence. That, and “the District Attorney could use a conviction … they can’t wait to get you in the system.” So which trope should we latch onto?
At least “Lighters Up” and “Cali’ Livin’” play to Snoop’s strength, trying to get us all to unite, “east side, west side, north side, south side unified” — nothing can divide us if we just light up with Master Snoop. But the beats lack inspiration, drawing on a sound which brings weak UB40 Casio-reggae hooks together with weak iterations of early-90s Snoop gangsta, pleasing fans of neither in the end. It remains easier to unite behind bashing this material as a crass cash grab than to find any real musical impetus behind its reason for being.
Meanwhile, the less said about his collaboration with Miley Cyrus, “Ashtrays and Heartbreaks,” the better, as we al raise a glass to what used to be Snoop’s “career.”
At the very least, the most successful of these singles — “Cali’ Livin’” — makes me long to hear the Mamas and the Papas and perhaps “Nothin’ But A G Thang,” while I pretend I never heard any of this Snoop Lion nonsense. I suspect April 23 will prove I’m not the only one leaning in that direction when Reincarnation rightly bombs.
As great as P.O.S.’s We Don’t Even Live Here is, the album’s been overshadowed by the rapper’s inability to properly tour to promote it, so it’s great to hear he’s getting the chance to go out and do a few dates this spring, including Sasquatch Fest in Washington state this May. With his otherwise well-documented health issues keeping him off the road for the last few months, I suspected he might have something to say to fans about the album and his collaborative spirit, which has seen him working with everyone from Doomtree to Building Better Bombs and Marijuana Deathsquads. Sure enough, there was enough great discussion fodder in a few minutes to fuel hours of conversation, had there been the opportunity.
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I’ve been really impressed with the collaborative spirit of Minneapolis hip-hop over the last decade. What would you hope the mainstream contributors to the genre would take from that?
I don’t know, I guess I really think that you’re starting to see that more anyway without someone having to get out there and say anything. I think having a band behind you is pretty fun, but it’s more about finding people who are good at something and working with them. Really thinking about everything as more of a project.
I’d noticed with the new album that, on tracks like “Fuck Your Stuff,” it seemed you were talking about getting people to get up off their asses to do something constructive rather than just bragging, hyping and buying stuff.
Yeah, it’s not just about musicians, but more everybody.
Have your fans taken that message and run with it?
I don’t know! I think some of them have, but I don’t know if all of them go beyond the music. The problem with talking about some of the stuff I talk about on this record is that we still live in the world that we live in, you know? It’s still all about the money you have and what you can afford and brag about. Whether I rap about trying to find a better way or a different way, that’s still where people’s lives are. They have to work and get money, whether they care about money or not.
Do you feel you have a responsibility since you have that “voice” through hip-hop, to push that Occupy message as far as it’ll go?
Sort of. I don’t know if it’s an Occupy message, but more of a general “if we live in a capitalist society, that’s where we live” mentality. There may not be anything you can do about it, but that doesn’t mean we all just have to take being wage-slaves and being treated like that’s what we want to do. I don’t know anyone who wants to be a wage-slave.
You got your start in the realm of punk music. Comparing that genre to hip-hop, do you think there’s really much of a difference between hip-hop’s lyricism and punk’s more furious roots?
No. I really don’t. I think that when I was first getting into Wu Tang Clan I was definitely very aware as a fan of music of how really punk-rock it was. I think at the very roots you can go all the way down and they both have their fun, they both have their carefree side, but at the most fundamental level they’re about doing something constructive with your life, looking at things from a different angle.
Listening to your music, you’ve covered all the different angles, with four solo albums, your work with Doomtree, and then you’ve been part of Building Better Bombs and Marijuana Deathsquads. How do you keep challenging yourself to maintain that level of work?
Well, I think the point is to make things that are challenging. I don’t know that it’s a matter of “how do I keep challenging,” it’s a matter of making songs that are interesting to me. If it feels that it’s not interesting for me then I can’t roll with it, you know? I never really think about it in terms of “how am I gonna outdo myself?” It’s a matter of making more music.
Do you feel that you have to have multiple things going on to keep yourself inspired?
Yeah. Definitely, if I was only rapping I’d be bored out of my mind.
Looking at Minneapolis in particular, in the 90s it was a flourishing punk and alternative scene, and now it’s been hip-hop since Rhymesayers really took force.
Right, but in all that time there’s still been that rock influence. Everything that’s happened, there’s not a lot of ska bands, since ska kind of just “went away,” but as far as different styles of music you can always find it. This is a very unique and interesting music city.
What makes a city build a good scene?
I think it’s because there are no major labels, just small labels big enough to handle the music local bands collaborate on. I think there’s a tradition here. I definitely wasn’t born when the music scene started here, but by the time I was old enough to listen to music, there were already bands like Husker Du and the Replacements, all these awesome bands that had worked the scene here. So I think if you’re a musician, if you’re just starting out it feels impossible to break through, but you only have to make a little bit of headway to realize just how wide open it is.
Artists often get pigeonholed into the same conversation over and over again. What do you wish someone would ask you but they never do?
Honestly? On my last record I was more annoyed. The questions this time around have been really good because people are starting to pay attention to the subject-matter of the songs. And I think culturally people are a little more awake than they may have ever been, if you take the Internet into consideration not just for music but for information. You can have an opinion and a set of ideals that maybe you didn’t have a few years back even. Things can happen so fast, it’s just a matter of taking the time to actually read things past the headline.
Is there something you wish no one would ever ask you again?
There are always the standard questions about “what are your favorite bands,” and stuff like that. I never mind sharing, but it’s always like “you could probably just read another interview.”
I’m always more interested in what artists are currently inspired by. Are there groups or solo writers coming up who you think we should be more aware of?
Yeah … I think that there’s a rapper named Haleek Maul who people are kind of sleeping on right now. But there’s always so many rappers, there are a million people. I’m really super-inspired by podcasts and current events. Musically I’m still into my favorites and I’m always listening to new stuff.
Do you think artists have a mandate to keep pushing people to think more deeply about the world?
No. I don’t at all. I think there’s always a place for stupid love songs, a place for completely mindless songs. I think there’s room for everybody. There’s a common thought in underground rap that mainstream rap is stupid. Underground punk bands think mainstream bands are stupid, since people who grew up loving Green Day hate Green Day now. I think there’s room for everybody to do pretty much whatever they want, there’s enough people out there to be successful. If you believe in the music that you’re putting out, you should stand behind it. When I was younger I was really mad at the direction hip-hop culture drives people, and there’s always going to be anger and ignorance, whether it’s rap or anything. But that’s me. Part of my personality is that I want to talk about things that affect my life, the world around me. It doesn’t mean everybody needs to do that.
If you’re going to write silly love songs, at least be willing to stand up for that.
Exactly, but there are people who – think about the Queers or bands like that – part of their charm is that they make silly stupid songs. Some are good, some are bad, but they all have that bent to them. For someone like me, I love Minor Threat because they talked about things which mattered to them, but I also liked the Vandals, where every song just seemed to make fun of something. There’s room for everything.
No such thing as a guilty pleasure then?
Not for me, at least not since I was 25. At that point I decided fuck it. If I like it, I like it.
I know you’re scheduled to play at Sasquatch Fest this spring. What should we expect to hear from you guys in the coming year? Are you working on any new material or are you just excited to get out there and promote the current album now?
I’m getting excited to promote the current album, but with all the health stuff sidelining the tour, I’d be bored if I wasn’t making something. It’s still been tough, I haven’t gotten my transplant yet and I’m booking shows on faith that I’ll be able to get out there. My docket’s still pretty open at this point.
If you had one album through which you could introduce the world to hip-hop or rap, which would be your “most essential” pick?
Oh man, there’s a lot of albums I personally like. I guess just because you’re asking me today and I’m thinking about it today, I’d say My Ghetto Report Card by E-40. It’s a really good record, because he’s one of those guys who is a true innovator and he’s not always dumb. There’s enough party, enough bullshit and enough smart stuff, and the beats all knock. And nobody sounds like E-40.
Classical piano meets Lil Wayne’s lyrical perversions on “IANAHB,” subverting any claim to good taste
For a minute you might be forgiven for wondering what the hell this track is — have I stumbled onto some odd alternate universe wherein Lil Wayne has converted into an off-kilter pianist?
“I’m in a crib, butt-naked bitch,” he chimes in ninety seconds in. “She said my dick could be the next black president.” Whatever the hell that means. From there, “IANAHB” expands to celebrate everything which is patently absurd about the entirety of Weezy’s schtick.
Yes, he’s crazy.
No, he doesn’t care what you think.
For those reasons, he’s willing to throw any ridiculous sleaze rhyme against the wall in hopes that it might stick and piss off someone, anyone, anywhere. In the course of nearly six minutes of perversely inane lyrical mind-fuckery, Lil Wayne manages to boast about everything from fucking every bitch in sight to even fornicating with the very piano backing his rhymes.
The message in the end is that he’s not a human being, so there’s no line he won’t cross in search of so-called hip-hop greatness. That, of course, is already clear to anyone with ears, as any rapper who would think it’s even remotely reasonable to equate the murder of Emmett Till with hardcore rough sex lacks the humanity to understand the concept of what it means to cross a line.
This is Wayne’s World, and if there ever was a line separating good from bad taste in hip-hop, he’s already gotten it drunk and had his way with it.
“We Don’t Even Live Here” — P.O.S. and his “Weird Friends” showcase just how far ahead they remain of mainstream hip-hop via new video
I’ve been a champion of P.O.S.’s magnificent hip-hop effort We Don’t Even Live Here since it came out late last year, but the rapper continues to find ways to mine that album for gold as the new year gets going, proving he leads the genre’s vanguard by a wide distance. Reset your opinions of hip-hop by giving these lyrical anarchists a listen or ten. They won’t be beat, and any chance to dig deeper into their catalog is worth the effort. Their tour was cancelled last year due to P.O.S.’s imminent need for a kidney transplant, but they will be playing Sasquatch! Fest with Mumford and Sons, Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend, the XX and an astonishing number of other cutting edge alternative artists, when the festival takes over George, Washington on May 27, 2013. Based on everything I’ve heard about his live shows, this won’t be one to miss.
Check out the video below! It definitely deserves a shot at wider mainstream acknowledgement, even as the band refuses to give up an ounce of their indie credibility to get it.
With their album released at long last this week, check out the visionary hip-hop outfit ready to set the game on its ear as we head deeper into 2013.
Welcome to “No Tyme For Nowhere,” a column wherein DJ Frank Cardoza, of Olympia, Wash.’s KAOS 89.3, will introduce us to his world of music, featuring bands the rest of us may not otherwise ever be exposed to. This week he features Olympia-based hip-hop acts Afrok & the Movement and AKA & the Heart Hurt Goods.
As I travel through life, there has always been a soundtrack in my head. Songs that fit the road and the cities I visited and created an aural atmosphere for trips. Through punk rock, dirty garage rock and hyper-kinetic ska, I continued to devour music. Foreign balladeers and flirty U.K. chanteuse always tearing a piece of my ear away, with trip hop slow motion and languages that I would never speak but could still feel the emotional bleeding from the melodies. I love music with a passion that has never flickered.
I never had enough skill to stay in groups, I was the bass player who could keep a beat but wasn’t going to be able to hit the strings like Claypool or Jamerson. Yet I always could pick out a great song and frequently was among those people who loved introducing music to others via mix CDs (or for you older people, the ever meaningful mix-tape.) Always wondering where in the musical landscape I could fit in. One day it hit me that I had all the qualities of a great radio DJ. Yes the format is probably ten years past it’s prime as a outlet but in the area I resided in, there was a very well known community radio station that went by the iconic call sign KAOS.
So I ventured down and joined as a volunteer, took the DJ training course and was certified to be a on-air DJ on February 8th, 2012. I spent the first few months subbing on shows and holding down the Monday slot on the KAOS Block Party. All the while I was putting together the plans for my own radio show, No Tyme For Nowhere. A show that would encompass all the music that I’ve heard and felt throughout my 36 years and the newer music I’m still discovering. I finally found the perfect slot on May 26th, midnight, and ending when the time felt right. I’d had the idea of starting each show with a song from The Clash, a couple picks from the vinyl library in the KAOS studio and a 4 song set at the end I dubbed “The Last Call Set.”
As months passed, I came to love the process of putting together a set list that would be encompass new music, but would also keep some of the older music that may have never had much play into the ears of my late night listeners. With a chaotic playlist, I especially keyed in on some fantastic local hip-hop that is very prevalent in the Olympia area, a much maligned genre of music that in Olympia takes a lot of different forms.
Two of the unique groups that cover not only Hip-Hop but R & B, rock, funk and in some instances a vocal type of jazz.
Afrok & The Movement “Doin’ My Thang” Live at the Olympia Ballroom for Hip Hop 4 The Homeless
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AKA & The Heart Hurt Goods “Falling off the End Of The Middle” Live at the Eastside Club
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Just an introduction to the madness and the beginning of this madcap journey. Until next time I shall leave you with the immortal words of Joe Strummer “If I had five million pounds I’d start a radio station because something needs to be done. It would be nice to turn on the radio and hear something that didn’t make you feel like smashing up the kitchen and strangling the cat.”
Outasight doubles down on the high energy of Fun’s “We Are Young” via his latest single “I’ll Drink To That,” an ode to clearing one’s head in the city that never sleeps. “Times are hard so let’s drink to what we’ve got,” he sings on the instantly joinable chorus, more than earning the praise he’s already received for Nights Like These since its release November 27. The Yonkers native has more than a single hit up his sleeve, however, blending rap, pop and rock on “Tonight’s The Night” as well, an equally ear-bending twist of pop refreshment which already has achieved platinum status. For a casual pop listen with enough emphasis on solid hooks to keep you grooving through the entire listen, it’s worth considering Outasight as we head toward the new year.
I’m not sure what to make of this oddity, which brings British rapper Devlin and Ed Sheeran together to modernize Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Based on the mediocre rap melded onto the memorable original’s chorus, I’d have to say this is the cover that broke the camel’s back. Maybe it would sound better had producer Labrinth not elected to muddy Sheeran’s passable solo work underneath a crushing wall of Travis Barker-esque percussion. But based on the rest of Devlin’s singles catalog, perhaps this is one rapper who should forget about jumping the pond, especially if this is the best he can do.
I never cared about your bucks
So if I run up with a mask on
Probably got a gas can too
And I’m not here to fill her up, no
We came here to riot, here to incite
We don’t want any of your stuff
Keep sticking to the script, mane, we never seen that shit
We knew the secret before they went ahead and Wiki leaked it
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P.O.S.’s We Don’t Even Live Here got at least a taste of wide exposure, peaking inside the top fifty of Billboard’s album chart upon its debut, but the album deserves greater reach, limited by the Doomtree member’s need of a kidney transplant. Unable to tour the nation’s hip hop clubs and win fans over one by one live, the album’s material has to speak for itself.
Trust me — this is the kind of album Rhymesayers has built its name on, lyrically incisive and sonically diverse, ready to dominate the speakers of anyone who plays it for the indefinite future. AV Club called the album:
… a solid, confident step forward for the Minneapolis rapper, taking his confrontational punk-rap style and injecting it with a dark, danceable energy that sacrifices none of his signature hardcore edge.
But don’t take their, or my, word for it: give the album a listen, from the raw confrontational blitz of “Fuck Your Stuff” to the ominous keyboards and taut vocals of “They Can’t Come,” the album never lets up the intensity. It’s flame through both headphones, a frantic assault on weak-willed radio hip-hop, ultimately indispensable as 2012 stumbles to a close.
Mixed Blood Majority ready to take 2013 by storm, Mayans be damned! If you’re not listening to “Fine Print” on repeat, you’re doing it wrong
The best thing about rap music today is how, among underground collectives, there’s been a trend toward collaborating on entire records. A rapper might work with several fellow collaborators on material, allowing for a constant stream of amazing music to reach the listeners. Get ready, because the next big super-collaboration has arrived, in the hands of Mixed Blood Majority, which brings together Crescent Moon (Kill the Vultures), Joe Horton (No Bird Sing) and the ever-talented Lazerbeak (Doomtree). The group’s first single, “Fine Print,” heralds the eventual arrival of a full-length in early 2013.
Now we’re all fine with the words that confine us
Defined by the climate designed by the fine print
Did you read the fine print?
No, but I signed it
Soon you’ll be reciting it like poetry
Lazerbeak’s thundering beat flips the switch to midnight as Horton and Crescent moon flip consistently incendiary verses which showcase the state of music today — seemingly trapped by a previous generation’s ruined paradigm, these three use their collaboration to flip convention on its ear, “staggering their tracks to wake the sleepwalkers.” No more need for frustration or fatigue — fuck the fine print, it’s a new hip-hop revolution. If you’re not playing this song over and over, steeping in Mixed Blood Majority’s dark twisted view of where modern hip-hop is headed, you’re doing it wrong. Get in on the ground floor — based on what this single offers, the full-length should be required listening.
The last time I wrote about Skipp Whitman he just wanted to be famous, and knew he meant it. Now he’s got the confidence of ten men and he’s ready to take the rap life by storm. 5AM is a rare sophomore effort which exceeds its predecessor without changing what made the first album work. These songs flow together and showcase Whitman’s laid-back Jay-Z inspired grooves even as he further stylizes his own flow.
“Strangers told me I should be patient / angels sitting on both my shoulders / telling me ‘don’t go changing’ / just to try to please anybody at all’ / but I told them I was having a ball!” he raps on “Won’t Change,” marking a template for the rest of the album. It isn’t that he’s changed, it’s that he’s built on what came first and improved it, making for a fresh listening experience. “LA in the Rain” speaks of what pressure there is to “make it” in an industry where you have to be confident enough to say no to the hangers-on who will ditch you surely for every next big thing. The thundering repetitive drone of the backing track makes the song stand out as claustrophobic like a traffic jam, echoing the restlessness Whitman’s experienced coming up in the world of hip-hop, fighting for every opportunity.
The album’s clincher, however, is its most radi0-ready track, “The Upgrade,” which features the best of Whitman’s rhyming coupled with a sung chorus featuring Louie Bello that brings the hook times ten. “Here’s to the people who said it would be years / before I got any music-related bread,” Whitman sneers, making cracks about hangers-on who want to get a taste after even the slightest success. The melody of the beat will stick in your head, and you’ll be singing Bello’s chorus long after the song’s come to an end.
Skipp Whitman’s building his reputation as a brashly fearless rapper who understands his skills and is willing to work to get to the top even if it has to be one album sold at a time building a fanbase on the ground. 5AM stands tall as a sophomore album which avoids the slump frequently plaguing hip-hop artists who experience sudden fame and can’t handle it. He’s not rapping about making millions and getting a stable of bitches. It’s a matter of his smaller goals being reached, or at least becoming attainable. “I told you that I couldn’t straighten up and sitting on the sidelines ain’t enough,” he raps on “When I Let Go.” “Just being a spectator ain’t on par with how I see my life going.” This is the hip-hop album for those of us who first dream big, then do bigger — no apologies.
I’ve got a reason for believing
That just dreaming gets you through
Stop complaining, you’re always blaming
We can get them, me and you
Dublin’s Trap Door hits hard from the word “go” with their just-released single “Wake Up,” an alterna-ska romp which echoes the late Joe Strummer mixed with elements of Australian hip-hop outfit the Herd. The resultant hook-filled four minutes succeed, drawing listeners in to an instantly repeatable trip through alt-rock, ska and retro-punk. The song’s available on the band’s EP Lata Town, the title track of which proves the new single is no fluke. These guys know what they’re doing, and they’re easily on the verge of wider exposure. Forget “Dublin’s lost and found” — ” Trap Door’s ready to cross the ocean and give America a run for our musical money!
Rench, producer of the up-and-coming band Gangstagrass, wants to redefine how we look at American music, starting with an innovative blend of hip-hop and bluegrass on his collective’s sophomore album Rappalachia, due out June 5th on his own label Rench Audio. It’s a daring blend of innovative modern swagger and classic Americana cool which dares listeners not to come along for the ride.
“I’m doing it because I like it, and whether it’s going to be become mainstream and what effect it might have on music in general, I don’t know,” he says. “But that’s certainly something I’ll be glad to find out. I know that, aside from the people who say “I like country and I hate hip-hop” or “I like hip-hop but I hate country,” those appear to be the extreme cases. There are a lot of people out there who have Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on the playlists on their iPod.”
Rench sat down to talk to “Hear! Hear!” about the process behind his music, what continues to inspire him, and why sometimes it’s better just to listen to something because it sounds good, meaning be damned.
Elmore Leonard has said that Gangstagrass created a whole new genre of music from polar opposites. But I wondered, do you think the two genres – rap and bluegrass – are really such opposites in the first place?
Only in certain ways. The thing is, they’re perceived to be polar opposites and right now there’s a cultural divide, but definitely under the surface there’s plenty of common ground where hip-hop, bluegrass and country music are all coming from a very American tradition. Each genre is built upon aspects of communities coming together to tell their stories, about the hardships and the heartache, the pain of surviving hard times. That, and there’s always been the American tradition of combining various types of music.
Country music and bluegrass grew out of the combination of the folk music which had come up in Appalachia from European immigrants, and the gospel music which was coming from the south with the slaves. The banjo was an African instrument brought here through the slave trade, and combined with the fiddle from the European traditions, bluegrass was born. And hip-hip started literally through the cutting together of different records to make something new.
So there’s definitely enough common ground for you to look at both genres as coming from similar places. But I think in this country there’s defniitely a conception that there’s a separateness: there’s black music and white music. But that’s something which has been perpetrated by the industry more than anything else. For decades they’ve had separate charts, markets and radio stations.
It’s interesting that you should say that. I live in southern Indiana and over the last fifteen years stations which used to be pop and rock have shifted to more of an urban hip-hop format, going up against the regional country stations. So there’s a sense that the two genres are being set up as diametrically opposed: the country fans hate the rappers, and the rap fans hate the country people. What do you think it is about the two genres which inspires such a love-hate relationship?
They’re seen by people as the most central musical elements in this urban versus rural divide people perceive, the whole “red state / blue state” thing. But I think we’re going to get over that. I think that’s something which has to be reaching its peak. Eventually we have to appreciate the overlap, how much purple there is out there.
Do you think bringing the two genres together bridges that gap and makes them more mainstream than they otherwise would be?
That’s yet to be seen. I’m not sure. I’m doing it because I like it, and whether it’s going to be become mainstream and what effect it might have on music in general, I don’t know. But that’s certainly something I’ll be glad to find out. I know that, aside from the people who say “I like country and I hate hip-hop” or “I like hip-hop but I hate country,” those appear to be the extreme cases. There are a lot of people out there who have Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on the playlists on their iPod.
You’re just bringing those two worlds together.
Yeah, and I’m doing some integrating of different styles the same way American music has always been made, by people taking genres which already exist and then combining them in new ways. That’s been “progress” through American musical history, as people pulled together the disparate streams of the culture which came before.
As I listened to other interviews you’ve done, I learned you were raised in California but your father was from Oklahoma. That got me thinking about Bakersfield country. That hybrid was nomads bringing country music with them as they traveled west during the Depression, eventually merging it with Rockabilly. So is Gangstagrass doing that same thing in the 21st century, taking what we already have and making it new?
I’d be happy to say yes to that, to take that on! I’m definitely, myself, a big fan of the Bakersfield sound. I love those guys like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard. They were part of this outlaw movement which definitely bucked the trend at the time of country music getting really soft: “country-politan” as they called it. Like I said, I don’t know where this is going to go, but if this brings in a new direction, I’d be happy because I personally feel what’s happening with hip-hop and country in the mainstream – what’s at the top of the charts – is not that exciting in terms of the potential of those two genres. There is a lot of exciting stuff happening with hip-hop and country music, but you’re not going to hear it on the radio.
Both country fans and rap fans have for years wanted their music to be mainstream. But now they’ve both gotten their wish, it seems perhaps many wish they hadn’t because mainstream success stymies what you can do creatively.
I think there are people doing really creative things. Outkast has done incredibly creative things with hip-hop, so that’s one example and there are plenty of things I listen to in terms of people doing interesting things with hip-hop, like the producer Dan the Automator, who I think has really great sounds going on. But the stuff they’re doing isn’t what hits the charts. The mainstream of hip-hop in general is pretty bland. The same goes for country. The Nashville country music industry has been putting out pop music with drawl, which is all that distinguishes it from pop music. Now and then you’ll get some fiddles mixed up in there, but I’d definitely like to see more out there with people getting back to the real country sounds in a way which isn’t backwards looking. Pedal steel and banjo are where it’s at, but we can use those to go forward in an exciting way as opposed to what happens now: “Let’s just make it sound like a rock record with drums, electric guitar and a singer with a southern accent.”
How do you go about writing music for Gangstagrass? Does the music come first, or is it more of a fluid collaboration between musicians and lyricist?
A lot of it is a managed chaos which I do as a ringleader, and I bring in these different people at different times and I orchestrate the way it all fits together. I’ll have the bluegrass guys come over and do some playing, and sometimes it’s just a matter of having them get together and do a bluegrass jam and see where I can take that by adding beats. Other times I come up with the beats first and see what they decide to play on top of that. I try to mix it up so that each song doesn’t sound like exactly the same thing. On Rappalachia, which we’re putting out in June, you’re going to hear a lot of different ways of mixing things together. Because of that, the songs come out with a different feeling depending on which we started with on that particular track, the beat or the bluegrass music and the rapping.
Speaking of Rappalachia, hearing the album in sequence, I liked how you kept some of the songs as pure instrumentals. But songs like “Honey Babe” stand out, with Brandy Hart singing as Dolio the Sleuth lays down his rhymes over the bluegrass picking. Everything blends so perfectly it’s as though you recorded it live on the spot. I know that’s not how it works, but the illusion is there.
I take that as a compliment, because that’s certainly one of the skills that I try to bring as the producer. One of the goals is to really make it flow together to where everything sounds fluid. Even when they are recorded separately, I definitely take pains to get that feeling right. If it’s not flowing together and feeling like a jam,
then to me it’s not working at all.
On your previous album, Lightning on the Strings, T.O.N.E.z was the main MC, but there’s more variety on Rappalachia because there’s a rotating group of rappers and singers. How did you decide to expand that Gangstagrass collective?
Gangstagrass was initially conceptualized as something where I could be working with different rappers on different tracks. My initial experimentation with that idea was on something called Volume One, which is not available anymore, but we had lots of different rappers on that. But when we did the theme song for Justified, and I knew Justified was about to start airing, that I thought: “Let’s do an album with a bunch of tracks with T.O.N.E.z so we can have more material with this same sound, the same lineup, as the Justified theme song for people who are going to come looking for that. Now that we have that out there, the idea on Rappalachia was to get back to the idea of opening things up to work again with the other rappers I enjoy collaborating with.
Has the association with Justified and the success of “Long, Hard Times To Come” made it easier for you to mainstream the bluegrass-hip-hop fusion?
It has definitely given us more opportunities to get out there where we otherwise wouldn’t have. Being nominated for an Emmy is nice to be able to mention when you’re approaching people. It definitely helps get phone calls returned when you can say you have this theme song on a hit show and it’s nominated for an Emmy. People tend to listen a little bit more. And it’s certainly great to have the exposure every week when Justified is on. Millions of people get thirty seconds of Gangstagrass in their ear, and we see the weekly wave of people on Wednesdays, new Facebook fans who tuned in to Justified and thought: “What the hell was that I just heard?”
Do you ever still come up against audiences who aren’t prepared for what you’re doing?
Online, yes. In terms of live shows or anything like that, no. The people who come to our shows are generally the ones excited about what we’re doing. There are purists, and in that respect it’s more on the bluegrass side of things.
I could have guessed. I’ve seen what they’ve done to guys like Chris Thile of Nickel Creek / Punch Brothers. They’ve run him up the flagpole and here he is the most innovative guy who just loves what he’s doing.
Yeah, there are the people for whom bluegrass is only in this particular formulation, and you can’t mess with it. For people who do something a little bit differently with it, they’ll say “that’s just not bluegrass.” But putting rap on it, that’s more of a crime against nature! It’s just really unacceptable. And there are people out there in the bluegrass community for whom if there’s swearing on a song it’s just not music anymore. But I would say that’s a thin slice of the community. That’s a particular set of traditionalists, but a lot of the bluegrass fans out there are really open to the ideas we bring to the table. We hear from people who say it’s great to have people expanding the genre, doing new things with it. You still have the authentic bluegrass there.
Have you heard any other bands building on your sound?
Not specifically bands which are doing it to imitate Gangstagrass. But in a way I hope there are bands doing that. I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for more than a decade as I’ve been doing this stuff, and there have been plenty of people trying it. But it’s very rare that someone does it well. Usually it’s pretty disappointing when I hear of something: “So and so’s doing country and hip-hop!” And I’ll look it up and they just have a boring 808 hip-hop beat with a loop of dueling banjos.
What would you say to people who think Gangstagrass is just a novelty, or that you’re somehow violating the history of either bluegrass or hip-hop?
Those who say we’re violating the history, they just want a certain thing and aren’t interested in us doing new things with it. But that’s not something for me to worry about. Violating the way a genre works is the way American music has always been made. When people move into new ideas there are always going to be people who don’t like it. That’s not going to concern me.
How did the collaboration with Kool Keith come about on “Western”?
We just approached him. He’s someone I was really into, in terms of how creative he is with his lyrical approach. I mentioned it to people we were working with on reaching out to get guest musicians, and he responded positively as I’d thought maybe he would. If there’s anyone who’s going to be into weird stuff it’s Kool Keith.
As a producer, how do you know when you’ve hit on something worth keeping?
You just have to go on the feeling that it gives you. It’s a matter of going with your gut. When I’m in the studio I’m either really excited about something or, if I’m not, I’m saying: “OK what’s wrong here that I’m not freaking out over this yet?” The tracks I put out are the tracks that, while I’m working on them, I’m thinking: “Hell yes! Let me just listen to that again!” Sometimes I’ll end up not getting much work done for a while because I have to hear that particular track one more time. Then there are other tracks I might work on and think: “it’s okay … but it’s not hitting hard enough, something’s missing.” I’ll either take a step back and find something else to do with it, or I move on and leave that one off to the side.
What would you say makes for meaningful music?
Right now “meaning” in the music is not something I’m totally focused on. For me it’s about the feeling more than the meaning. It’s about the experience invovled in creating something that grabs you and makes you feel like dancing or stomping around. I’m very much focused more on that visceral reaction to the process. You’re experiencing and living the music more than you are thining about it. It’s the turn it on, turn it up and rock out approach, which goes back to that gut feeling I was talking about. It has to feel good. Think about food for a second. I’m looking for something with a whole lot of sugar on it. I’m not concerned about whether it’s good for you, I just want to know: “Does it taste good when you put it in your mouth?”
Where would you like to take the music of Gangstagrass in the future?
Well, I’d like to keep making it, first and foremost. I think there’s still plenty of potential to keep exploring new ways to do it, and plenty more music yet to be written. And there are plenty more people to attract to it, people who are going to love it. One of the stumbling blocks promotion-wise for us is that there are plenty of people where if you just say this is bluegrass and hip-hop put together, it’s going to turn them off as much as it’s going to turn them on. They hear it described and think: “That’s not what I’m looking for!” But when they just hear it, Gangstagrass as it is, they say: “Whoa! This is actually pretty cool!” It’s hard for us to go out there and promote with words what we’re doing, which is why Justified is the perfect promotion for us. It just comes on and people hear it. There are still plenty of people out there who simply don’t know that this is something they’d be into until they get to hear it. So we’re just going to keep on trying to get that exposure out there. We’re getting to the point where we can do some more touring and do more promotion of the music we’re putting out, to hopefully reach out to a wider audience.
I found this track thanks to a post at Nation of Hip-Hop, and couldn’t help but want to spread the word about K Dot G. The 19-year-old rapper from Halifax, Nova Scotia, definitely has a flow reminiscent of early 2Pac, and though the lyrics belie his age, the hook itself is easily enough to keep this song playing on repeat. “Alright” is a solid introduction to an up-and-comer who has a great deal of potential. I’ll be interested to see where K Dot G takes things now that his EP Blood, Sweat & Tears has gotten him noticed.
Hip-hop stands as one of the few uniquely American cultural developments of the last century, yet the genre remains misunderstood. Because the line between pop and hip-hop have blurred over the last two decades, a majority of casual listeners continue to define the genre based on what they hear on the radio. Many music fans paint the entire hip-hop world with a stereotypical brush rather than take the time to understand it. Whether you’re a hip-hop fan since birth or just looking for an intro to the genre, these ten classics deliver.
Join the discussion at PJ Media! There’s always a lively discussion going on, and I’d love for regular “Hear! Hear!” readers to join the fray.
I’m no Luddite, but there are some aspects of technology which give me pause. I wrote this morning on PJ Media’s Lifestyle page of Tupac’s Coachella resurrection via hologram, and the potential future implications of such technology. I’m posting the link here so my “Hear! Hear!” readers can join the conversation. What do you think? Should posthumous record releases be enough, or would you pay to see Tupac live … or any band for that matter? Would it be even remotely fulfilling to see the Hologram Beatles onstage for one night only? Or would it be simply soul killing?