Archive for September, 2012

When Mikkey Halsted dropped Castro this summer it was a sign of serious preparation for the next level.  Backed by a couple of the biggest names in rap production (No ID & Young Chop), and one of rap’s most influential mixtape DJ’s (Don Cannon), Mikkey dropped a mixtape that showed his potential for mainstream success beyond the kind of “greatest that never made it” barbershop and blog fame he’s held in Chicago for many years now.  Castro wasn’t Mikkey’s deepest effort, but it combined depth with mainstream palatablility through a difficult balancing act, dropping enough witty similes to please the backpack contingent, enough depth to please the coffee shop open mic crowd, enough street imagery to please the hardcore rap fan, and enough gloss to please the labels and the pop crowd.  Ultimately Castro was successful, because it was cohesive, extremely well produced, and well executed on the mic.  That said, it wasn’t exactly the type of Chicago rap that labels are currently chomping at the bit to hawk to the masses.  Despite Mikkey’s assertion that he is “the common denominator between Chief Keef and Common,” the album came off more tinted with the wit, imagery, politics, and soundscapes of the latter in his prime than the cold and gritty callousness of the former.

In my interview with Mikkey about a month and a half ago, he referred to MMM Season as merely “another side of the same coin.”  With a teaser of “Chopper Music,” his collaboration with drill scene representatives Lil’ Durk and King Louie, and songs like his shades of “You’re All I Need to Get By” collaboration with Tia London, “I Got It,” and an anthem for his new financial perspective on the game, “Money Makin’ Mikkey” it was a little tough to judge the validity of Mikkey’s assessment of the work.  MMM Season seemed like it might have the makings of a cash grab.  And who could blame Halsted for making an attempt to finally cash in on half a dozen missed opportunities at fame and fortune.  The crossover for the sake of it strategy would make more than a little sense given the stable of industry vets that Mikkey has behind him and the fact that MMM Season was to be produced entirely by Multi-platinum producer The Legendary Traxster.  The question was, how would this all play out?  Would Mikkey set up two personalities that would duel for the listeners attention?  Would he set up a drill friendly alter ego and then try to make a project where he balanced the Castro style with the MMM style? Would it be something like a Chi-town version of K.R.I.T. where a third of the album would be dedicated to the strip clubs, a third to the drill kids, and a third to the pew sitting parishioners?   The answer, thankfully is much more simple than that, Money Making Mikkey is thankfully, still the same Halsted.  There’s no doubt that he’s spreading his wings a bit, showing his marketability to different aesthetics, and doing so over fantastic production, but he does it all within the lane that he’s developed for himself over time and artistically he stays true to the principles that have defined his career.

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SpaceGhostPurrp – “Tha Phonk”

There’s been a serious drought of Raider Klan material over the last month (despite these two releases this week) – which has to be something strategic given their propensity to release music at a pretty rapid pace.  Perhaps they’re gearing up for some new solos (Amber London and SpaceGhostPurrp both have new projects on the way in the next month or so), but perhaps they’re gearing up for the Raider Klan’s official group mixtape, which has been discuss a lot in my interviews with them, despite the lack of any official word.

This week I’ve decided to go with two new Raider Klan mixes highlighting one area of their work which is probably over discussed with relation to their catalog – their 90’s themed phonk music – and the other which is under documented – their more ethereal, spiritual, and occasionally socio-political music.  Everyone, who has any sense of the Raider Klan, has a pretty good sense of the fact that they’re 90’s babies who frequently recall the music and imagery of their birth decade and reimagine g-funk, Memphis underground, and DJ Screw – along with many other subgenres – themed music into a modern context.  The reality is that looking at them as a collective (something which is somewhat problematic given their diversity of styles) they really don’t create “90’s music” that often when compared to some of today’s revivalists, especially as a percentage of their overall catalog.  It’s certainly not an insubstantial portion of their catalog and there are individual artists like Amber London, Ethelwulf, and Key Nyata that more frequently access those themes in their music, but on the flip side there are members – like their leader SpaceGhostPurrp for instance – who rap over tracks that sound distinctly 90’s relatively infrequently.  Having said that, some of Raider Klan artists do make great music in that vein and the influence of 90’s music and 90’s rap artists is certainly apparent throughout the music of the collective.  No Fakin’ Tha Phonk is a collection of selected pieces of classic Raider Klan 90’s phonk.  In contrast to KLVN MENTALITY, which highlighted the group’s collaborative efforts and diversity, No Fakin’ Tha Phonk focuses on many of the Klan’s best solo acts, in some cases the usual suspects crossover to show up again as Amber London and Ethelwulf for instance are most heralded for their guest spots and their 90’s themed tracks.  There’s also a good dose of artists here who didn’t show up on KM (or only showed up briefly), such as Key Nyata, Young Renegade, Yung Raw, Harvey G, Dough Dough, and Grandmilly.

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Tree “50’s”

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m just catching up on Tree, I just got around to reviewing Sunday School last week and have just begun to do my due diligence on his back catalog of mixtapes and EPs.  However, there is something undeniable about his music, his sound, Soul Trap, and the raw energy and emotion he brings to his music.  There’s no doubt that Tree is an emcee and producer on the rise and he’s got a lot of irons in the fire right now, so I was fortunate enough to catch up with him late last week to talk about the Chicago scene, the upcoming Tree featuring the City album, his forthcoming album Soul Trap, the real story behind his musical influences and inspirations, and why he’s not ready to sign on the dotted line on a major label… yet.

JB: For those that are just catching on, take a moment to let people know about yourself and Gutter City Entertainment

TREE:

I’m Tree, @MCTREEG on twitter, I’m a producer, I’m a writer, I’m an affiliate of Project Mayhem, Mayhem Music, and Gutter City Entertainment most of all, which is my production company, my publishing company, and I created Soul Trap, which is soul and trap music infused.  At this moment, I got the number three mixtape in the country via MTVHive, I’m one of Complex’s top ten producers to watch for, Spin magazine’s top five new artists of August 2012, and top ten songs in Chicago as of 2012 via Fakeshoredrive.com. I’m an instrumental piece to Chicago’s success, and you know, you can go on and on.  Most importantly I’m Tree – I make good music that people listen to, over and over again, not just for this summer, but classic material, I think, they think, we’re all starting to think so.

JB: You produce for a lot of other artists, but you also do projects where you just rhyme and someone else does the beats for you.  Do you see yourself as a producer first and an emcee second or do you even think in those terms?

TREE:

I don’t think in those terms, I just do music and try to stay current as much as possible, that’s the reason for the new releases that I have.  I do projects with producers, because I’m still in love with music, it’s a hobby, it’s a love, it’s something that I do.  When I first started doing this, I wasn’t getting paid for it, so it wasn’t for any substantial reason other than to hear great music, make great music, and play it for people, let people hear it, check it out and see what they think.  So I don’t see it in terms of producer or rapper, I’m both, and the fact that I can step away from producing and make a classic EP, which I think I did with The Lit with someone else and their beats and their style is because I still like music and if it sounds good I want to be involved.  Most importantly, as a writer, as a lover of music, I want to be involved with anything that sounds good.  So me stepping out and working with Tony Baines and just rapping over his beats is me as a rapper at my best.  Sunday School, that’s me and my production, and there’s a few other credits, if you ever heard any other Tree product, I try to keep it up to a certain standard of quality.

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“Dreamin'” – Illogic & Blockhead

Preparing for Capture 2 begins with a sample from a scene in Poolhall Junkies in which Christopher Walken’s character lectures Mars Callahan’s about having a minor league syndrome – messing around with two-bit pool hustlers for so long that he’s begun to lose site of the true scope of his talents, lose site of the fact that he has the ability and talent for something much greater.  It’s an interesting and probably honest choice for Illogic, a rapper who’s skills and abilities as a writer have long suggested that he deserved a more prominent position in rap culture.  After all, at the age of nineteen, Illogic dropped an album in Unforeseen Shadows that many considered one of the best independent rap albums to come out around the turn of the millenium, and certainly one of the more lyrically astonishing debuts  – a masterwork of introspective bedroom rap – the hip hop world has ever seen.  Although he was early to embrace the notion of dropping multiple promotional side projects (the Write to Death series, the Got Lyrics? battle rhyme themed EP, his Off the Clock EP with DJ PRZM) it took him four more years to drop his dense and dark follow-up Celestial Clockwork – a further testament to his savant-like status with a pen when it comes to crafting stories, delivering tracks with strong a strong conceptual framework, and cold getting dumb with the rhymes.  Since the release of Celestial Clockwork, Illogic has certainly put out projects that have plenty of merit, but they’ve been on a smaller scale.  Only 2009’s Diabolical Fun was released on a real label – the same Columbus imprint, Weightless Recordings, that he built along with his longtime collaborator and friend Blueprint.  The Poolhall Junkies sample may also have some meaning to Blockhead who seems to be looking to kick it into gear – by working on producer and rapper collaborative albums – after taking a few years off from heavy producing of rap albums after long-time collaborator Aesop Rock moved out to the Bay Area several years ago.  As Illogic and Blockhead look for a home for Capture the Sun, which Illogic said those around him describe as “the antithesis of Celestial Clockwork” in our recent interview there’s no doubt that both artists have taken their task of collaboration outside of the lens of label oversight seriously, an opportunity for both of them to embrace using their art for more purposeful and personally satisfying ends.

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Sometimes when an artist does something dramatically original it polarizes the listening populace, some shy away from it, because it shocks their senses and their understanding of the confines of their genre, others flock to it merely because it is different without taking the time to investigate whether there is any depth behind the exploration.  When an artist’s originality is subtler – perhaps an unusual combination of existing and previous aesthetics – a lot of times people miss the boat entirely, writing it off as derivative, uninteresting, or uninspiring.  The reason for my delay in reviewing Sunday School is that I simply missed the boat the first few times I gave Tree a listen.  For those that follow the rap world closely, Tree’s buzz has been unavoidable this year.  Often falsely set up as an underground more artistic and cultured foil to Chief Keef and the explosion of the drill scene in Chicago this year, Tree is far from some hyper-conscious coffee shop friendly rap artist.  I came upon Sunday School back in March when I started this site up and began to look around for the best releases of the first quarter to begin putting together some reviews for the site.  Against the unusually stellar first quarter canvass of Ka’s devout lyrical calisthenics and complex patterns, ScHoolboy Q’s rubbery vocal inflected Oxycontin misadventures, Lil Ugly Mane’s otherworldly dedication to a dark Memphis revivalism, Blue Sky Black Death’s stylized soundscapes the psychedelic self-absorbed deity Nacho Picasso, or Big K.R.I.T.’s mainstream ready country rap gospel spitting stripper solicitations – Tree’s album somehow seemed less alluring and noteworthy to me.  Recently I heard The Lit EP and enjoyed it enough that it caught my attention again.  As time has gone on, the year has slowed down, and in the midst of a particularly slow third quarter I went back to give Sunday School another shot.  S/O to my man Alex over at steadybloggin.com for insisting to me that I was missing out on something special.  

Tree “All”

Although he’s been around for a minute on the Chicago scene, Tree has become known this year as the creator of soul trap music, a style he invented by slicing and chopping up samples – often, though not always, familiar soul and R&B samples from the 70’s – into the rhythms of trap beat patterns.  The production style he’s created is a welcome innovation given one the relative lack of sample based music in the trap beat dominated circles and the lack of quality drum work – not to mention soul samples – in the sample friendly cloud rap circles.  While longevity will undoubtedly prove to be an important factor it’s quite arguable that Tree may have fostered the most important movement in sample based production since Kanye and Just Blaze unleashed The Blueprint.  While the cloud/aquatic rap innovators may have their own case to make along those lines, there’s no doubt that nobody has brought new life to soul samples in the same way over the last decade.

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The second installment of the Preparing for Capture EP series hits the web tomorrow

In the middle of the last decade, the thought of Illogic and Blockhead releasing free EP’s of original music to the public in hopes of landing a record deal of some kind would have been absurd.  Illogic was one of the independent rap game’s most prized lyricists, an artist who gained a lot of attention through the internet with the release of his masterpiece of teenage introspection and angst, Unforeseen Shadows, and continued to gain support with follow up projects like Got Lyrics? and Celestial Clockwork – all of which were released by the small Columbus, Ohio imprint Weightless Recordings – a label he helped build with his partner and collaboration Blueprint.  Blockhead earned his stripes as Aesop Rock’s go-to in-house producer, probably best known for producing a bulk of Aesop Rock’s classic Labor Days and his biggest single – at least at the time – “Daylight.”  But as we all know the record industry is not at all, what it once was and there are only a handful of legitimate record labels left putting out rap music at all anymore.

I caught up with Blockhead and Illogic to discuss Preparing for Capture 2, which is available for name your own price download on bandcamp on September 11th, as well on CD with some extra goodies.  We also talked about their forthcoming LP Capture the Sun, surprise guest appearances, and meeting each other in the Scribble Jam/Rocksteady era back around the turn of the millennium.  As we dug into their own creative processes Illogic revealed that he writes most of his rhymes at work at a call center, and Blockhead still produces on an ASR-10 without monitors, does not believe he invented Enya Rap beats, and once sampled John Tesh (sorry Tony I could only bury the lead so far down the page).  Finally we discussed what a good year it’s been for rap music and how the curse of the lack of record labels may be something of a blessing to the creative process for so many artists.

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During my time covering the Raider Klan I’ve had a lot of people ask me “what’s so exceptional about them?,” or “why are you wasting time covering teenagers when there are great artists, more seasoned artists, putting out high quality projects in 2012?”  My initial response to those people is, well, I cover them too.  I have written reviews and lauded praise on the likes of Ka, Billy Woods, Illogic, El-P, Killer Mike, Jackie Chain, SL Jones and many others this year who have years in the game and release a refined high quality product.    Actually, the only Raider Klan related album that I’ve put up for “Best of a Quarter” honors was SpaceGhost’s Mysterious Phonk, hardly a lo-fi bedroom studio endeavor.

However, with Raider Klan my interest goes a little deeper than just the quality of their product.  Raider Klan represents a group of young people across the country who feel they fit outside of the general rap aesthetics of the mainstream, some of their music – though admittedly not all – attests to this.  I admit there is a lot to sift through with Raider Klan, there are a dozens of members, a t least a couple dozen of whom make music, dozens of mixtapes, thousands of tracks on youtube, lots of klvn, 2.7.5., & BRK handles to sift through on twitter to figure out who’s in, who’s out, who’s really in, and which rappers are the rappers one needs to pay the most attention.  The other aspect that won’t intrigue many of my normal readers is that the Raider Klan as a collective are, generally, fairly disinterested in lyricism for the sake of lyricism.  While it’s hard to speak on them collectively – since there are at least twenty five or thirty of them making music – most of them prize style over substance, and most of their substance strokes are broad and indefinite.  Their primary concern musically is the ultimate quest for the phonk, the ability to convey the appropriate musical vibe the marriage of the vocal performance and the beat.  In an era when so much rap is devoid of a strong relationship with it’s musical ancestry, the Raider Klan members are hyper conscious of their roots, and paying homage to those who came before them.  Where else in 20120 can you hear a Bone Thugs influenced rapper, alongside an Ice Cube influenced rapper, alongside a Boss influenced rapper, over a g-funk track fashioned by a midwest producer and have them all be open and honest about the rappers they’re channeling and who truly influences them.  What’s more impressive is that they manage to do this without sounding like a bunch of dinosaurs trying to revive their youth or a bunch of new jacks sharking an aesthetic without any sense of the history behind it.  For those with whom the 90’s shtick may wear a bit thin, especially those of us who lived through the 90’s first hand, they actually make some very good music that competes with their contemporaries quite well on a modern playing field.

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