Posts Tagged ‘blockhead’

The distinction between albums, LPs, EPs, and mixtapes was at it’s cloudiest point to date in 2012, and there is relatively no chance that any of those distinctions crystallize into something meaningful ever again.  The reality is that these days most rappers put together “projects,” and those projects either get released for free or they get released for a fee.  Among the projects that get released for free are those where a rapper raps over other people’s instrumentals or samples he or she has no intention of trying to clear.  There are also projects labeled as mixtapes or given away for free, that have entirely original production that get released for free and some of those projects ended up on Hardwood Blacktop’s Best 15 Albums of 2012 list.  To be honest, I’m not overly concerned with those distinctions anymore other than the fact that those of us who like to write about rap like to have a way to differentiate between certain types of releases for the purpose of end of the year lists and things like that.  So here are my picks for best mixtapes of 2012, by my own current loosely defined understanding of that term, which does not necessarily take into account whether a rapper deemed something a mixtape or not (but it might).  In general these projects are not of nearly as high quality as the top albums of 2012, otherwise they would’ve made that list, as you can see from that list there are a couple of “albums” that made the cut that most would classify as mixtapes (Sunday School, ParaphernaliaGod of Black EP, MMM Season).  If you’re keeping score at home, those projects would have been at the top of this list.

Meek Mill featuring Big Sean – “Burn”

1. Meek Mill – Dreamchasers 2 – Download

Sometimes a rapper’s (Jadakiss, Fabolous, and Joe Budden just to name a few) game just translates a little bit better to the mixtape circuit than it does to album making.  Whether that has to do with them being better situated to making “street singles” than it does to them making tracks for the club or radio, or whether it has to do with the lack of record label oversight in the mixtape process, or whether the DJs they work with in the mixtape process are actually better A&R’s than their record label A&R’s, the end result is a consistently better free product vs. fee product. It’s too early to say that Meek Mill will always fall into that category as his major label debut Dreams & Nightmares certainly showed promise and contained some great individual songs (“Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)” and “Traumatized”).  There is no doubt though that in 2012, Meek dropped another mixtape (he’s done this a few times before) that was better than a vast majority of the albums that came out in the same year.  Perhaps the most interesting part of Meek as a mixtape artist is that he’s not just someone who drops a flurry of battle-ready sixteens over a bunch of other people’s instrumentals. In fact, some of his best radio singles have been the result of his mixtape work over the last couple of years, hits like last year’s “House Party,” “Tupac Back” and “I’m A Boss” and this year’s “Burn,” “Amen,” and “Flexing” all came from his mixtapes or from the MMG compilations.  By contrast  only  from the first MMG compilation (a mixtape-like project) has really garnered the same buzz.  And while his label has pushed the hell out of “Young and Gettin’ It,” there’s just no way that’s a better direction for Meek than any of the aforementioned tracks.  Dreamchasers 2 was Meek’s most complete offering to date, bringing tracks suitable to almost every type of rap listener and packing plenty of that V-12 energy we’ve come to expect from Philly’s brightest star. While it does drag on a bit as songs begin to run together a little bit after the first nine or ten tracks on the mixtape, there may not have been a better example of hungry street-oriented rapping in 2012.

Choice Cuts: “Burn,” “Amen,” “Ready Or Not,” “A1 Everything

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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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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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Despot performing a new track on KEXP

Despot first came to my attention back in 2001, when Cryptic One’s Centrifugal Phorce Records released Euphony [note: if you haven’t heard it, you’re seriously missing out, there’s no compilation more indicative of the talents of Atoms Fam as a collective and their associates during that time period at the peak of their promise] an excellent and unheralded release from the days when compilation albums in underground rap were substantial releases, an important way of keeping non-vinyl purchasing fans apprised of the recent developments of independent rap artists as well as providing an avenue for rappers without financial backing to release their material without the costs of personally pressing up a 12″.  There was a Cryptic One produced track on the album called “Cynical Bastards,” which featured two relative unknowns – Despot and Aesop Rock’s darker dusted sonic cousin LoDeck.  It was a simple yet remarkable collaboration of two aspiring artists, each seemingly with a bright future, as LoDeck’s style seemed like it would create a lane somewhere between where Aesop Rock sat then, and Danny Brown sits now – an independent artist capable of painting in psychedelically inspired surrealistic strokes yet charismatic enough to draw in those who might not immediately comprehend the sense behind the veil of absurdity.  If the mainstream hadn’t provided more socially acceptable alternatives (eg Ghostface, Cam’Ron) and the nerd rap stigma hadn’t come to envelope every emcee on the roster of Def Jux, Embedded, and J23, it’s possible that LoDeck could have developed something larger and more lucrative, but as it is he’s had a respectable career along the fringe of the independent scene with releases like his debut EP Bash It just a few months after Euphony and follow-up full-lengths like Dream Dentistry, Behold a Pale Donkey, and Postcards from the Third Rock.

Despot took the second verse on the track, formally starting his career on record with the following lines:

I’m living proof that smallest figures can cast vast shadows of doubt / giving your all to everything and that’ll amount to nothing /I walk the crooked path up to my house huffing and puffing / shaking my fist in the air thinking of something /to tell kids down the block who point and laugh at my mumbling /

His opening bars on “Cynical Bastards,” are a suitable beginning for a rapper who is diminutive in stature and unassuming in person, and often mumbles almost incomprehensibly when speaking normally, but is a certified beast on the mic.  As an artist Despot is the petite white urban weisenheimer’s sardonic response to Lord Finesse and Pusha T, and his primary medium is the witty arrangement of cliches, figures of speech, conceit, and carefully narrated imagery.  The promise that he set into play with his verse on “Cynical Bastards,” began the building of a buzz on the internet – such that it was in those days – in the same places that lauded the work of the Definitive Jux family and other underground and independent rappers.  As is always the case with rappers that build a bit of momentum with an appearance or two, questions about an album began to surface to which the answer was always that he was working on it.  However, unlike LoDeck, who managed to put out several projects, Despot has had a much more tempered output over the last eleven years, something that thankfully has started to change over the last couple of years thanks to features from his Queens brethren in Das Racist and Meyhem Lauren as well as on labelmate El-P’s new album.  In fact, previous attempts by bloggers to put together a mix of his available material have generally amounted in short EP length affairs, as there literally hasn’t been enough material out there to put together a full-length set of songs from Despot.

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“Matter of Minutes” Illogic & Blockhead

Illogic and Blockhead seem like a natural pairing for those who have followed the independent rap scenes of New York and Columbus closely for the last fifteen years.  On the Eastern cusp of the Mid-West, Columbus rappers often made the 9 hour trek to NYC to bring their unique flavor to the larger NYC independent scene.  The likes of the late Camu Tao and his MHZ crew (Copywrite, Tage Proto, Jakki, RJD2) made a seemless transition into the NYC-based Def Jux/Eastern Conference fold in the early 00’s, and while Blueprint maintained a local presence with his Weightless imprint and gained more national attention through his work with Minnesota’s Rhymesayers.  As one of the more prominent and talented independent artists to come out of Ohio in recent memory, it is Illogic’s more intellectual, artistic, and perhaps avant-garde slant in his music that makes him such a perfect match for a producer like Blockhead, who of course cut his teeth as the primary producer behind Aesop Rock’s most hailed projects.  Blockhead, known for melodic, quietly snared, minimalism, perfect for more introspective and contemplative lyricism, had a pretty full-plate until relatively recently between his work with Aesop Rock, Chase Phoenix, a solo instrumental hip hop career, and producing for other Def Jukies and affiliates as well as artists on small NYC imprints like johnny23, Embedded, and Nature Sounds among others.  As has been alluded to often, and occasionally discussed, Aesop Rock’s move out to the Bay Area a few years back has physically and perhaps creatively put some space between himself and former NYC collaborators, including long-time friend and primary collaborator Blockhead.  While Aesop and Blockhead still work together and remain close, Aesop has stated his need to go to entirely self-producing Skelethon in order to get in the proper creative groove for the record (despite the ease of collaboration over the internet, Aesop, like El-P and Ka for example, is among the few rappers and producers  who still strongly prefer to work in close physical proximity to collaboratively develop the proper cohesion for an album).  The absence of Aesop as a primary collaborator and the dead ball era of modern nerd rap (2008-2010) left Blockhead predominantly focused on instrumental work and only occasionally collaborating with emcees who spark his interest.

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Before last week was derailed by the leak of Cancer 4 Cure, I was really questioning what I was going to write about during the last full week of April.  I was contemplating another NBA piece, but if the analytics on this website have taught me anything it’s that people don’t really give two shits about what I think about the blazers or sixers, which doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to stop writing about them, but it’s not the primary focus of my energy on here for the time being.  Fortunately, the end of the week brought some nice pieces of music to talk about a bit.

 Z-Man & G-Pek returned from the ether this week to drop In Case You Forgot, a follow up to their impressive 2005 album, Don’t Forget to Brag.  Z-Man is of course most known for the 2004 Bay Area underground classic Dope or Dog Food, but he did return a couple years ago to drop the enjoyable free EP Show Up, Shut Up, and Rap.  The new album is $7 bucks on bandcamp and well worth the funds if you occasionally (or frequently) enjoy a well constructed album with good beats and fun(ny) storytelling.  As always, the major selling point for me of putting an album on bandcamp is that you can listen to it in its entirety without downloading it.  If you’ve been sleeping on Z-Man entirely, I recommend streaming the tracks from In Case You Forgot, and picking up the free EP from 2010 to see what you think, and then you can go from there.  But all that’s out there from him is worth purchasing so support if you can.  It’s more important than ever in an era where more talented artists than ever are finding it financially imprudent just to make music.  If it was a little longer I would’ve definitely considered giving this album the full album review treatment, but in the spirit of quality versus quantity (which is pretty much my motto these days – no YOLO) it’s deserving of some good critical analysis and I hope it gets some out there.  Definitely one of those albums that makes for a nice Sunday afternoon listen or amusing conversation piece.


“Exist to Remain” – I Self Devine

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