Posts Tagged ‘Roc Marciano’


Ka “Our Father”

On “They Know It’s About,” the first track off the follow-up to last year’s seminal low-fi 100% DIY effort¬†Grief Pedigree, Ka assaults listeners like Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Shadows in a dark cavern, or perhaps more accurately like a crew of starving hooded teenagers jumping a wayward stockbroker in a dark alley deep in Brownsville in 1993. ¬†It’s a fitting re-introduction from a rapper who would prefer to pitch his new vinyl and CD in front of the ghost of Fat Beats to dropping a mixtape on datpiff or bandcamp. ¬†As with his previous efforts, it’s clear that Ka poured many late nights with a pen, pad, turntable, and sampler into the creation of this release. ¬†If Rakim, GZA, and early Nasty-era Nas are the gods of the rap game then Ka’s today’s most orthodox monk, crafting lines with a painstaking alignment of syllables, meaning, symbolism, and wit. ¬†If his rhyme writing isn’t a devote enough process for classic rap heads, he approaches beat-making with equivalent asceticism and has drastically elevated his skills behind the boards over the course of his first three solo albums, to the point where it’s hard to image any producer capable of crafting a backdrop for Ka more fitting than the ones he develops himself. ¬† Then there’s the videos, which he shoots himself, with his keen photographer’s eye and stars in. ¬†There’s so much subtlety to absorb in his work, that any distraction can easily lead the listener to miss crucial metaphors, wordplay, and double entendres. In order to best appreciate his work on a single listen, it’s likely that his albums would need to be heard in a sensory deprivation chamber, where every kick, tick, sampled vinyl crackle, emphasizing overdub, word, syllable, and phoneme could completely sink into the listener’s psyche without distraction.

While in many ways the refinement in production Ka displays on The Night’s Gambit¬†parallel’s the growth his frequent partner-in-rhyme and production symbiote Roc Marciano displayed on Reloaded¬†– a few lusher backdrops, and when the loops are stripped down they’re more idiosyncratic than those on¬†Grief Pedigree¬†– ¬†Ka’s vantage point does not see an overhaul similar to the gutter to parapet ascension that Roc showcased between his solo debut and sophomore release. ¬†This isn’t surprising, as there is no doubt that Roc Marciano’s life, bank account, and ego had all undergone more significant changes since the release of¬†Marcberg than Ka’s have since he dropped Grief Pedigree a little over a year ago. ¬†Despite the critical acclaim surrounding his album last year¬†and his two guest appearances on¬†Reloaded, Ka remains largely an unknown figure to the rap world. ¬†There’s no doubt that the occasional shows, and a few digital sales help the former Natural Elements member to support the costs associated with his music creation and maybe garner him a little extra pocket change, but they haven’t changed his perspective one bit. ¬†He’s still the same “smart ass pawn” outlined by Bodie from The Wire¬†sample utilized during the opening sequence on “Peace Akhi.” ¬†He’s not quite sure how he’s managed to stay alive through the wars, hells, and purgatories that he’s narrated throughout each of his three full length projects, but he’s back once again to impart the wisdom he’s gained by enduring his struggle.

In terms of imagery,¬†The Night’s Gambit¬†is once again filled with Ka’s familiar varied religious iconography, ranging from parables and lines the Bible’s two testaments, to Islamic verbiage, 5%er math, and probably a few remnants of other less recognizable belief systems that have filtered from the diverse landscape of the five boroughs into the shadowy corners of Brownsville over the past few decades. ¬†“Our Father,” “Jungle,” and “Barring The Likeness,” demonstrate Ka’s ability to complexly entwine systems of spirituality within a context of¬†the images of war, gambling, the jungle, basketball, drug trade navigation, and the gutter that were prevalent throughout Ka’s first two releases. ¬†Where card and dice games have been frequent motifs for Ka before as well, as the album’s title suggests, Ka also occasionally uses the game of chess here as an allegorical representation of his own story of long odds survival. ¬†While there are not a preponderance of specific chess references throughout the album, the comparison between life and a chess match where the odds are stacked against the survival of any individual piece – especially when recognizing that Ka is not a king on the board, but a dispensable soldier (a pawn or at best a Knight) – is clearly something that Ka ¬†has contemplated. ¬†Ka also recognizes, as a survivor, that many of his peers had to sacrifice their lives in battle, while he somehow managed to make it through. ¬†On a less personal note, chess’s evolution also mirrors Ka’s in another way. ¬†The game itself, and it’s pieces, has changed often based upon the religious and societal values of the countries its been introduced to over the years – having Islamic origins and Christian representations – similarly to the way that Ka often picks and chooses from the variety of belief systems he’s been exposed to, in order to make his points, and convey his perspective on morality in his own complex social surroundings.

While a majority of the album is dark alley fair, and contemplation of war and survival, there are lighter moments as well, like the obligatory cameo from Metal Clergy partner Roc Marci on “Soap Box.” Like all of their other work together, “Soap Box,” is a solid collaboration, albeit perhaps the only track on the album where Ka’s lyrics seem entirely focused on wit, without the desire to wrap them within one or several larger symbolic contexts. ¬†Similarly outside of the album’s general narrative structure, the album’s closer, “Off the Record,” is created in the same vein as GZA’s “Labels,” “Fame,” “Animal Planet,” “O% Finance,” and “Queen’s Gambit.” ¬†Here Ka urges listeners to “dig through it,” and get familiar with a list of his favorite hip hop albums, while still maintaining coherent narration to the song. ¬†While the concept may not be 100% original, the execution is nevertheless rap masterclass worthy. ¬†On “Nothing Is,” Ka passionately discusses rap as his calling, narrating his growth in perspective over the years and his need to pass it on to others.

While the diversity in the content is appreciated – and helps break up the monotony of his funereal themes – Ka is still at his very best in his most austere work. ¬†Fortunately, that work makes up the majority of the album, and is highlighted on songs like his cautionary tale on betrayers, “30 Pieces of Silver,” his macabre adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer “Our Father,” and the pugilistic “You Know It’s About,” and “Peace Akhi.” ¬†At just over 38 minutes The Night’s Gambit like Grief Pedigree¬†mirrors the length of Illmatic¬†giving the listener just enough great material to leave them itching to start the album over again after each listen. ¬†In all actuality this probably has less to do with Ka’s desire to replicate Nasty’s formula, and much more to do with his desire to fit his albums on a single piece of vinyl. ¬†Regardless of his motivation, with no filler, it’s the perfect length for an album. ¬†Ka once said that he wanted to be a rapper that didn’t overcrowd the market, leaving his listeners to thirst for a new album between releases. ¬†There is no doubt that the brilliance of this album will have fans fiending for the next time Ka chooses to give them a couple weeks notice that he’ll be showing up in front of the specter of Fat Beats with a new crate of vinyl and a bag of CDs.

Ka “Off The Record”

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There have never been more divergent definitions for what makes a rapper good at rapping than there have been in 2012. ¬† HB’s formula is made up primarily of technique (originality as well as execution), writing (complexity as well as relatability), and the degree to which a rapper can draw you into his or her own world. ¬†None of this is a science, but there’s no doubt that the work of these 10 individuals stood out in 2012 (in no definite order). ¬†Happy New Year.

Roc Marciano “76”

Roc Marciano

Roc Marcy’s ascension from the trenches to the parapets was pretty meteoric. ¬†In hindsight, the ease with which he executed this transition over just a two year period has to have a lot to do with the decade plus he had in the game before ¬† he really blessed the world at large with a proper solo debut. ¬†Training alongside the likes of Busta Rhymes & Flipmode, developing his craft with the U.N. & Pete Rock, and polishing his solo skills for a few years before releasing¬†Marcberg¬†had a huge impact on his end game. ¬†Roc’s and partner Ka’s journeys are the type that makes one chuckle at the plight of young rappers who have been at it for 12-18 months and complain that they are being slept on. ¬†Come back and say that in a decade or two. ¬†Regardless of the journey, Roc’s craft is just on a different level than all of his contemporaries at this stage. ¬†He unloads vivid imagery and slick talk at a pace that even makes Ka seems a bit out of place alongside him at times. ¬†In some ways it’s easier to compare Roc at this point in his career to Iceberg Slim or Donald Goines than it is to compare him to Meek Mill, Future, or Chief Keef. ¬†It ain’t checkers it’s chess.

Emeralds,” “76,” “My Persona,” “We Ill

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2012 has been an exceptional year for rap music. ¬†It’s hard to think of a year over the course of the last half a decade that saw the release of so many excellent rap albums. ¬†Remarkably ten of the albums that made the Hardwood Blacktop Top Fifteen for 2012 were produced by just one producer, in three cases (Grief Pedigree, Mista Thug Isolation, and¬†Skelethon) the albums were entirely self-produced by the artist. ¬†Also of note, only two of the top fifteen this year were released by Major Labels, granted there were a few major label releases that were on the cusp of this list (Live From The Underground, The Game’s¬†Jesus Piece, Big Boi’s¬†Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors, Nas’s Life Is Good,¬†and Mr. MFN eXquire’s¬†Power & Passion), a few others of some note (2Chainz, Rick Ross, Meek Mill, Self Made Vol. 2, Cruel Summer), and there’s still major label releases from TI and Chief Keef to contend with before the year is out.¬†¬†That said, at this point we can be reasonably confident by the sheer excellence of these fifteen albums and by the recent batting averages of the two remaining contenders that in all likelihood this list will stand-up as HB’s Best of 2012 even after the release of¬†Trouble Man, and¬†Finally Rich. ¬†What this tells us more than ever is that some of the best rap music these days is released for free (six of the list’s fifteen albums were at least at one point available at no cost), without major label financial or promotional backing (thirteen of fifteen), and that nothing beats the artistic clarity and vision of a rapper sitting down with one producer (or all by himself) and pouring his heart and soul into a project. ¬†May 2012 bless us with as many substantial rap albums as 2012 did.

15 Most Noteworthy Rap Albums of 2012:

Ka “Vessel”

1. Ka – Grief Pedigree

It’s hard not to root for the underdog and Ka certainly qualifies as that given his interesting, but unheralded career as a non-central member of 90’s NYC underground favorites Natural Elements, and as a solo artist with a sparse guest spot discography, and one promising, but underdeveloped solo album. ¬†It seems that he must have been galvanized by the success of close friend and collaborator Roc Marciano, who took him under his wing a bit on the production tip a bit during the creation of Grief Pedigree. ¬†Interestingly enough though as we look back at the year, Ka championed the nearly drumless gritty sample without the boom-bap production aesthetic at a time when Roc reportedly told him “you might be in for some quiet shows,” and yet Roc ended the year by releasing an album where his own utilization of that rebellious percussion technique stands as the lone criticism from many purists on his excellent¬†Reloaded. ¬†Although Reloaded may have been a more polished and ultimately more musically stunning album, like good kid, m.A.A.d city,¬†Grief Pedigree earns some points for it’s unusual vantage point. ¬†Ka¬†provides the unique perspective of an aging rapper, a veteran of the drug war’s trenches during the NY crack era, but who never made enough as a rapper or through other means to move out of Brownsville. ¬†With¬†Grief Pedigree, Ka¬†combines Rakim’s approach to rhyming by using his words to craft complete rhythmic structures and patterns that you can almost visualize – like architectural designs or seismograph print-outs – with Nasty Nas’s ability to describe his surroundings so intricately that the listener begins to feel and smell the world being narrated around them. ¬†The whole album is connects with the senses in a way so little music manages to do these days. ¬†And then there are¬†the bars. ¬†A lot of rappers claim to be lyricists, and a lot of critics spend times trying to debate the merits of certain types of lyrics or punchlines over others. ¬†That said, those who invest an engaged listen are rewarded with lyrical gemstones:

“I own the night, the heat’s my receipt”

“Stayed in hell all my life, I need heaven’s visa / Know it’s right, but can’t change over night, like Ebenezer”

In Kings county where the Queen never faked a jack/ ¬†the mac-10, and a 9, and my Ace is strapped”

In case you missed it: Here are the two pieces of the interview I did with Ka this year on the making of Grief Pedigree (Part 1: Track-by-Track, Part 2: Additional words)

And here is the entire album in video form in one place, like the rhymes and production, all of the videos are directed by Ka himself.

Ka –¬†Grief Pedigree (the complete video collection in long form)

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In 2012 Roc Marciano is the slickest motherfucker on the planet, but it wasn’t always that way.¬†Despite over ten years perfecting his craft as a member of Flipmode Squad, The UN,¬†(interesting situations that he thankfully never bats an eye at lyrically) and as a solo artist, when Roc dropped Marcberg in 2010, he was just getting around to telling his story to rap fans.¬†¬†Marcberg¬†was an unequivocably¬†strong testament, proving that a New York rapper¬†with ties to 90’s NYC rap could make a¬†legitimate classic minimalistic boom-bap sample-based¬†rap album¬†over a decade removed from that era.¬† Many considered Marcberg¬†a throwback masterpiece, and there were obvious elements of a hustler’s crack era nostalgia, but those who classified it as a successful 90’s themed boom-bap record did miss the point a bit.¬† There had been literally thousands of unsuccessful 90’s NYC throwback albums over from ’05 through ’10, but with¬†Marcberg Roc somehow managed to create a distinct¬†artistic statement.¬† Entirely produced and written by Roc – aside from one guest shot from Metal Clergy cohort Ka¬†(a pattern Ka would mirror on his second album Grief Pedigree)¬†– it was marked by a stark and¬†dusty¬†minimalism sonically and¬†the words of a¬†slick talking hustler with¬†the unique¬†ability to paint crystal clear imagery and¬†illuminate his own set of Scarface dreams.¬† Roc wasn’t merely reminiscing about the 90’s nor was he trying to relive them in 2010, he was narrating his own¬†blaxploitation flick set nebulously in the crack era.¬† The story line was one of criminality, street hustling, the pimp game, and turf wars.

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In hip hop we generally think of rappers approaching their forties as being removed from the inner city youth that shaped their music, running out of subject matter and too distanced from their youth to connect to the things and subject matter that caught listeners attention the first time around.¬† Ka has the benefit of being able to look back over the course of nearly 4 decades living in the same borough of New York City.¬† From being the wild kid just doing what he needed to survive, no matter who was looking, to the grown man telling some teen to slow down because women or kids are around.¬† It’s a perspective not shared by most rappers in their late thirties, and it makes for a uniquely entertaining album that some are already dubbing a modern classic.¬† I had the opportunity to sit down with Ka and walk through the album track by track to discuss inspirations, beats, rhyme structures, and many other aspects of Grief Pedigree.

From the start The Making of Grief Pedigree does not work like a traditional “Making Of.”¬† There aren’t 10 different producers to interview, a couple DJs, maybe a weedcarrier, and a few guests and A&R’s.¬† Other than Roc Marciano’s verse on “Iron Age,” there were no other artists, label representatives, or¬†producers involved in Grief Pedigree, so everything we can glean about the creation of the album, comes from Ka himself.

Despite his former history with Natural Elements and a lifetime of rapping, the DIY Iron Works¬†was his solo debut in 2008.¬† It received some acclaim and some criticism,¬†it seemed¬†Ka¬†put more energy into the album’s lyrics and rapping then he did into the production, or perhaps his production techniques just weren’t as developed at that point, but either way Ka decided to go “all-in” on the creation of Grief Pedigree.¬† He worked hours of overtime and extra night shifts to save up the funds to record Grief Pedigree in a professional studio setting.¬† Knowing that if he didn’t give 100% on the album that he’d always live with the regrets of not producing the album he knew he was capable of giving to the hip hop music he felt had given him so much over the years.

“Chamber‚ÄĚ

Starting the album with the shout-outs on the first track was intentional.¬† I put the shout-outs on the song where it’s upbeat enough where you probably won’t cut it off.¬† It’ll keep you up so you still listen all the way through to the end of the track.¬† I wanted to get that done up front so if they only listened to one song, they could hear their name.¬† And you feel good when you hear your name on a record, on the shout-outs.¬† I know I do.¬† So I wanted to give light to my people up front.

I approached “Chamber” different from how I approached “D.N.A.” (from Grief Pedigree‘s predecessor Iron Works).¬† With “D.N.A.” I wanted to put something slow¬†and tougher, because I wanted to weed out certain cats and only keep a certain type of listener who would really be into my shit.¬† With “Chamber,” I wanted to pull people in, so I picked one of the more upbeat joints on the album to catch people’s attention.¬† So, I got off my elitist shit from Iron Works and really wanted people to listen and get into it this time.

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“Duck Hunt” – Billy Woods (produced by A.M. Breakups)

The rise of Company Flow and Black Star¬†to prominence on the independent rap scene in New York City in the late nineties gave birth and hope¬†to literally¬†thousands of new artists over the years to come.¬† From direct relatives like the Def Jux labelmates to other small imprints like Brick Records, Landspeed,¬†and Embedded¬†and on and on a cottage industry of small independent rap labels cropped up, with emcees and producers embracing the dusty-but-digital aesthetic.¬† The term “abstract” in rap¬†mushroom clouded from Q-Tip to Aesop Rock.¬† As this movement coincided with the widespread rise of the internet the¬†independent market flooded with DIY artists who watered down this aesthetic with cheap bedroom studio¬†knockoffs and imitations. ¬†As quickly as young hip hop¬†fans flocked to this new aesthetic on the heels of Funcrusher Plus, Cold Vein, and Labor Days, they ran from it as the “nerd rap” moniker and all that came with it¬†threatened their self-esteem.

Billy Woods began to slowly garner a following back in 2002 and 2003¬†with the release of his first albums, Camouflage, which featured Cannibal Ox’s Vordul Megallah on a third of the tracks, and Chalice, but at the time these limited pressings were¬†lost¬†amidst the slew of Def Jukies and relatives/offshoots like the artists who recorded for¬†the Embedded and Johnny23 imprints.¬† A lack of promotion, unpolished production, and a crowded¬†market consealed Billy Woods’s talent to¬†a degree, though¬†in hindsight it was clearly¬†there.¬† It didn’t help that he came out¬†amidst the dawn of the aforementioned¬†anti-nerd rap backlash.¬† As the market was flooding with artists possessing similar sensibilities, New York mainstream acts like Dipset and Ghostface Killah offered a more polished and accessible alternative for fans who wished to revel in humorous references and abstraction without facing the stigma of being a “nerd rap” fan.¬† Nevermind that the always diminutive descriptor never really fit Woods (or a slew of other talented artists from that era).¬† Sure Billy Woods creates cerebral hip hop, and has a flow that’s probably¬†more influenced by Chuck D and great political orators than it is by Nas or Jay-Z, but that doesn’t mean that¬†the music he creates¬†is¬†anything other than¬†hardcore rap music.

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