Hip-hop

Genelec & Memphis Reigns - Scorpion Circles

ARTIST: GENELEC & MEMPHIS REIGNS

ALBUM: SCORPION CIRCLES

LABEL (YEAR): HHI (2002)

FOR FANS OF: CANNIBAL OX, DELTRON 3030, BINARY STAR

Words by Gummo Clare


If you’ve come across this album before, you’ll know that it’s become pretty sought-after online – I saw a Youtube commenter offering $250 just for a CD version, and vinyl copies seem to be pretty much non-existent. Neither Genelec nor Memphis Reigns have released a huge amount, and there’s not that much information about the record floating around online; this obviously adds to the album’s mystique (and, presumably value).

But otherwise, on paper, this album doesn’t necessarily offer much to explain its cult status or differentiate it from the swathes of underground hip-hop released in the early 2000s: the sci-fi-influenced lyrical themes that reappear throughout the record, and the brooding production immediately suggest heavy influences from better-known peers. Most obvious is the connection with DJ Shadow’s groundbreaking production on Endtroducing….., with clear nods to his work appearing on a number of tracks – the ‘Organ Donor’-channelling beat on ‘Organisms’, and the drums-and-piano loop on ‘Prepare (Interlude)’ in particular show unmistakable signs of Shadow’s influence.

While, alongside Shadow, parallels between this album and the sound that drives artists on El-P’s Def Jux label (especially Cannibal Ox) are obvious, there is one clear difference. Where El-P often relies on density to create a sense of darkness in his beats, on Scorpion Circles Genelec’s approach is spartan, employing a limited selection of samples to create a taut and often unsettling sonic landscape. He employs drum loops that stray from the funk breakbeat key to the boombap sound, with a select few other samples drenched in reverb, providing a sparse backdrop for his own rhymes alongside Memphis Reigns. His occasional sampling of Indian, Turkish, and Japanese traditional instruments throughout the record reminds me of the some of Madlib’s production; it also provides a consistent and strong sense of identity to the album.

Another standout feature on the record is the sparing, but vital, use of scratching. At points scratched breaks almost serve as an extra voice – the best example being the close of track ‘Sunwheel’, where the final scratched ‘verse’, over a loping sitar and double-bass-driven beat rounds off what is the standout tune on the album. Similarly, DJ Gamma Ray’s scratch feature on ‘Anarchist Cookbook’, a track that, in its subject matter, draws parallels to MF Doom’s cartoonish supervillain narratives, feels like a separate voice in itself. As MCs, the pair are more inventive lyrically than they are in terms of delivery; however, Memphis Reigns’ flow, which often cuts across bar lines and often offers couplets in unexpected places offers an interesting counterpoint to Genelec’s relatively straight rhythmic approach.

This record is an underappreciated gem, and it’s a record that I’ve found myself constantly coming back to since I came across it a couple of years ago.

Cannibal Ox - The Cold Vein

ARTIST: CaNNIBAL OX

ALBUM: THE COLD VEIN

LABEL (YEAR):  DEFINITIVE JUX (2001)

FOR FANS OF: WU-TANG CLAN, RUN THE JEWELS, DR OCTAGON

Words by Theo Kotz


I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t have much of a clue about Def Jux until recently. Well, I loved RJD2 as a teenager, and I’ve got a small collection of abstract indie hip-hop with Company Flow nestled between Dr Octagon and cLOUDDEAD that I break out now and again. But originally I didn’t clock the label connection and it wasn’t until Run The Jewels that I’d even heard producer EL-P’s name. I love those RTJ records, the burst-fire breakbeats and general contorted squawk of the production stripped away years of indifference like a solvent. It got me looking for the producer’s fingerprints wherever I could and to my delight there they were all over records I’d had for years, including this leviathan, The Cold Vein.

This record slew me when I first heard it. Unlike other music of that time I had discovered through research and recommendation, it came to me in isolation at a time when my life largely consisted of just that. There in the colourless fug of my existence, escape obscured by thick black smoke, I was collared and dragged into a world as murky and convoluted as my head.

The dense thicket of triple-stacked prose burned pictures of steel-blue New York into my brain. From El-P’s icy and phantasmal beats a cold and deathly city would loom in my mind’s eye, populated by Vast-Aire and Mega Vordul’s fey tales dripping in Miller-esque darkness and a real fear so rare in the bravado-laden world of millennial hip-hop. New York, that most over-subscribed font of inspiration, drawn anew; it was akin to seeing a familiar painting in the flesh for the first time. El-P’s production owed much to what the RZA had pioneered a decade earlier, heavily leaning on descending minor keys and brooding depths of bass, a relentlessly claustrophobic march punctuated by fleeting moments of flight and expansion.

Somewhere in between all of these elements: the overbearing aura of dread, the unabashedly overblown wordplay, the comic-book mythology, the skittish percussion, the high-minded opaque imagery….. somewhere Can Ox hit a sweet spot, a Bermuda triangle whose co-ordinates no-one’s managed to pin down since.


OthaSoul - The Remedy

ARTIST: OTHASOUL

ALBUM: THE REMEDY

LABEL (YEAR): SELF-RELEASED (2015)  

FOR FANS OF:  LITTLE SIMZ, JEHST, A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, SOULS OF MISCHIEF

 

Words by Jasper Morvaridi


In recent years, UK hip-hop has in many ways been overshadowed by the growth of grime. Although the likes of Jehst and the High Focus Records roster have continued to keep the hip-hop flowing, last year Camden-based OthaSoul breathed new fresh air into the UK scene with their self-released debut, The Remedy. The trio are made up of Louis VI, Dozer Carter and DMobbs, and this album is their follow up to 2013 EP, Real Talks, cementing their neo-soul inspired boom bap hip-hop sound.

The Remedy is a very considered LP, in which you can really hear the trio’s deep musical knowledge and influences through their flow, subject matter and production. On their Bandcamp, they aptly describe the album as a “reflection on the state of the world and the struggle of their home city”. Conscious lyrics address the politics of race and the fact that so many of our generation are being habitually screwed over by inequality and a ruling elite. Despite the laid back delivery of such hard-hitting topics, you can still sense the trio’s anger and frustration.

In terms of production, beats are carefully constructed and you can really hear the influence of groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Souls of Mischief. On ‘The Sickness’, for example, the group’s use of a jazz sample acts as a nod to early-90s hip-hop. Guest appearances from Nikki Cislyn, Poppy Ajudha and Soulection’s Tom Misch round off an LP that truly exhibits OthaSoul’s incredible potential in making an album that neatly fuses hip-hop and neo-soul.

This is a great example of how hip-hop coming out of London is back on the rise. With other artists such as Little Simz also self-releasing successful rap albums in 2015, it would appear that a new era in the UK scene is upon us... And I’m more than excited.


Robert Glasper Experiment - Black Radio

ARTIST: ROBERT GLASPER EXPERIMENT

ALBUMBLACK RADIO

LABEL (YEAR): BLUE NOTE RECORDS (2011)  

FOR FANS OF: ERYKAH BADU, MOS DEF, D'ANGELO, JILL SCOTT

 

Words by Milo Craig


Welcome to the Robert Glasper Experiment. You won’t regret this.

First question: Can this record, one that uses tried and tested genres, truly be called ‘experimental’? A thousand times yes. With Black Radio, The Robert Glasper Experiment smashed all goals and hypotheses to deliver unto us a eureka moment of jazz/hip-hop/r’n’b perfection. Black Radio is a precise fusion record, at times transcendent, always beautiful. It pushes the boundaries of just how perfect an album can be and the best part is that it’s refreshingly approachable and un-elitist. You are in safe but ambitious hands when listening to Robert Glasper.

Second question: How the hell did this guy not buckle under the pressure? Just look at the roll-call of Mobo talent; we have Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Badu(!), a pre-retirement Yasiin Bey, Lalah Hathaway and so many more (bonus: it’s not totally exclusive, don’t sleep on the David Bowie and Nirvana covers). What’s striking is that there is perfect balance – no single voice jostles for space over the others. Each is afforded their own place to shine freely and equally, probably due to the sheer consistency of brilliant songwriting. It sounds like the music could only have ever been vocalised by each performer and nobody else. 

Black Radio is an album that caresses, that communicates, that lovingly invigorates the listener and, like a smug dog that rolls onto its back to be stroked, I only want more. It’s an album to get stoned to and feel sonic textures but also to have moments of absolute clarity. It’s an album to make love to, it’s an album to be alone to in the middle of a rainy night, tenth glass of rum in hand, realising that all your previous days were shite and grey and life should be more beautiful. Hendrix had his Experience, Prince had his Revolution, thank god that Glasper has his perfect Experiment.


Jehst - The Return of the Drifter

ARTIST: JEHST

ALBUMTHE RETURN OF THE DRIFTER

LABEL (YEAR): LOWLIFE RECORDS (2002)    

FOR FANS OF: TASKFORCE, BRAINTAX, MOS DEF

 

 

Words by Jasper Morvaridi


The UK hip-hop scene was in many ways overshadowed by the hype surrounding grime in the early 2000s. That said, artists such as Jehst made a lasting imprint on the scene with releases such as The Return of the Drifter, Fallen Down and more recently, The Dragon of an Ordinary Family

With production and features from the likes of Harry Love and Chester P, 2002's The Return of the Drifter is incredibly consistent. The use of samples and fairly simple beats throughout lend themselves well to Jehst’s flow. The moment that anthem, ‘Alcoholic Author’ drops – “Like Bukowski, the alcoholic author // son of the devil, I turn wine into water” – will never get old for me. Other highlights include ‘1979’ and instrumental track ‘Bluebells’.

Jehst's debut LP, The Return of the Drifter was released in 2002 on Braintax’s former imprint, Low Life Records, a label with an extensive back catalogue that helped establish UK hip-hop.

If you're new to the genre, this classic is definitely one place to start; if you're not new, give this record another listen and re-discover why Jehst is a legend in his field.


Young Thug - Barter 6

ARTIST: YOUNG THUG

ALBUM: BARTER 6

LABEL (YEAR): 300 ENTERTAINMENT (2015)

FOR FANS OF: VINCE STAPLES, PUSHA T

 

 

 

Words by Evan Musgrave


Placing a Young Thug release in a conclusive context is anything but an easy task – he barely leaves enough time between album-length works for listeners to digest them. This is of course one of his great strengths as an artist. He maintains relevance in a world defined by a digital information overload quite simply by bringing more energy, more consistently than any of his colleagues in the rap game. That all being said, it feels safe to say, for now, that Barter 6 is the definitive work of Thug’s career thus far.

It contains all the essential colours of his palette: social media trolling (the controversy surrounding the title – which is a homage/hijack depending on who you ask, of Lil Wayne’s famous series – spread like wild fire in the build-up to the album’s release); highly-polarising accompanying imagery (he poses naked on the cover, befitting his general assault on gender norms in hip-hop); changes in tone and tempo several times per song (which happens on every song); and an improbable knack for capturing melody in the most unlikely places (ditto). It is in this vain that Young Thug never ceases to challenge the listener’s expectations.

Barter 6's thirteen tracks are cloaked in an atmospheric trap sound which, like several notable contemporary Atlanta artists, symbolises the forward-thinking zeitgeist of contemporary Southern/Southern-influenced hip-hop. 

Young Thug’s perplexing knack for flipping between autotuned croons and staccato rapping (and plenty in between), while never departing from a commitment to maintaining a melodic chain across every utterance, suggests a long and arduous spell spent in the studio ironing it all out. This, paired alongside the fact that his song-writing approach typically involves no more than a few takes – he claims to have created his biggest hit within ten minutes – is an introduction to the crux of modern hip-hop’s greatest enigmatic talent, and the reason why his growing audience is ravenous for what’s coming next.

Key tracks: 'Constantly Hating', 'Dome', 'OD', 'Number'

Vince Staples - Summertime 06

ARTIST: VINCE STAPLES

ALBUM: SUMMERTIME 06

LABEL (YEAR): DEF JAM RECORDINGS (2015)

FOR FANS OF: JOEY BADDASS, ACTION BRONSON, CHANCE THE RAPPER

 

Words by Evan Musgrave


Where most gangsta rappers provide a vivid, cinematic tour of their unfortunate reality, Vince Staples’ debut album is at once a deepening and a departure from tradition – this is an uncomfortable listen which resists the temptation to provide relieving moments of crime-related glamour. It’s elegant, but only in the sense of expertly capturing the cruelty of the world around him. Summertime 06 is a masterful work which hits its stride in the first verse of the opening track – the anti-racial profiling ‘Lift Me Up’ - and simply never looks back.

In the new wave of southern Californian rap music depicting hood life, this album sits in the scintillating terrain between game-changing texts like Kendrick’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City and Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron, yet the sound is entirely his own. Earlier collaborations with fellow LA heads Odd Future endows Staples with the confidence to experiment with song structures and develop a general tendency towards abstraction in songwriting. The sound is jangly and unconventional - radically sparse at times - and the lyrical approach is laced with disjunctive stop-starts over the album’s twenty vignette pieces. At the same time the majority of the album is most definitely headbop-able. Like the two aforementioned albums, it stands as a middle finger to mainstream standards while remaining cognisant of appealing to a large audience.

Unlike Kendrick or other modern LA heavyweights like YG, there’s no nostalgically-tinged neo-G Funk synth lines here; indeed, there’s very little in the way of summery sounds anywhere on the album, which seems to be the general point that Staples is at pains to make – gang life strips one of innocence; there’s no such thing as a summer when you’re dwelling in hell.

As this is a major label release, it’s inevitable some cuts which are friendlier to radio appear in the mix. While this produces some of the album’s more conventional approaches to songwriting (e.g. ‘Loca’) it also showcases the supreme ambition of this rapper and his uncanny knack for crafting hard-edged but strangely catchy tracks (e.g. ‘Lemme Know’, ‘Señorita’, ‘Jump Off The Roof’). The album’s high points are arguably when this unpredictable ruggedness is fully embraced; at times it even takes on a gothic timbre, while managing to avoid being melodramatic, as is the case with ‘C.N.B’. Such brooding, free-flowing landscapes allow Staples to philosophise from the rubble of his surroundings, dropping aphorisms like “the more tan the man, the more alone and hopeless” every odd line.

While he ruminates on society, he never forgets to provide the listener with a window to his own identity. This is where less talented socially-conscious rappers have tripped up: providing a didactic case for change with scant attention paid to presenting an engaging personality. His soul-searching final statements on ‘Like It Is’ that he’s “gotta be the one/ to do it like nobody has ever done” does come off as even a tad unnecessary however - proclaiming his defiant individuality is rather redundant at this stage: he has already proved this with each and every track on the album.


Key tracks: ‘Lift Me Up’, ‘Norf Norf’, ‘Señorita’, ‘C.N.B’