|Westside Gunn's superb 'FlyGod' LP|
Yeah, I'm 44 and I'm going to be writing about hip hop. Film it, it'll last longer. Yes it's like an embarrassing uncle dancing at a wedding. And like him, I CAN'T BE STOPPED. The perma-fear of any critic is being out of touch, behind the times, lagging behind, especially in the internet age where such lollygagging can be earmarked, exposed and bitched about instantaneously. As you get older this fear becomes stronger - you no longer have that 'fuck it, I'M into it so this IS what's going on' bravado, and your general slowing-down of stimulus and response (coupled with the fact you have less and less time every day to do the shit you really like doing) means you're more likely to focus on just a few things, frequently old things, to sustain you musically. If I was just a music listener this wouldn't necessarily be a problem - every now and then I might lash myself for my stuck-in-the-mud reversion to the same old personal-classics but in the main I'd be happy listening to Miles Davis boxsets forever. As a writer though, you do feel a compulsion to stay in touch with the here and now - nothing is more fucking annoying than some hipster cunt popping up in a comments section calling you an old bastard and pointing out the dozen things you SHOULD be writing about. You lose that confidence you had as a kid, where the isolated niche nature of your listening could be worn like a badge of identity - you start telling yourself the prevailing trulieth that if you're not plugged into the present, ALL of the present, you have no right to critique ANY of it.
Last year I spent my Easter holiday writing The Periodic Table Of Hip Hop. I noticed that the latter stages of the book, when I'd moved into rap's diaspora inwards from the coasts, was getting increasingly angry. Seeing thoughts collated in a wordcount beyond the hundreds and thousands allowed me to see myself and I was somewhat repulsed by what I saw - another old bastard moaning about the current state of rap. Rap of course, just like reggae carries extra fears for the critic - that if you reject the present you're also rejecting black music and turning your nose up at black artists' futurist impulse in preference for those curators of golden ages (backpackers), developing an unpleasantly snooty disregard for the vast majority of the music actually being made in preference of those avatars most palatable to rockcrit (Kendrick). It's a tightrope that's been increasingly difficult to walk in recent years. Reason? Well, for this fan, the death of the music critic at the precise moment where everyone can make hip hop hasn't exactly been . . . .helpful.
Of course the 'pro' critic gives a fuck that critique is 'dead' but who else gives a fuck eh? Get a proper job and just comment on youtube vids like everyone else. Crucially - as a listener I find it next-to-impossible to fucking trust ANYONE around the dissemination and appraisal of hip hop right now. The main sources I use are brilliant in sending the glut of music your way, absolutely fucking useless in allowing you to discriminate. Sites like HotNewHipHop and Datpiff give you ten trillion things a day to download, all of which, no matter how fuckawful they are, get dozens of comments about GOING IN HARD (trans. 'beats as weak as thrice-diluted piss') and THIS SHIT FIRE (trans. 'I'm not sure what wavy means and haven't been able to ask a real black person so I'll keep saying this forever') and G.O.A.T (trans."I have listened to hip hop for about 5 years and my opinion is utterly worthless'). It makes you feel like you should stop being scared of ignoring what hip hop fans are listening to because they've been tutored in joy-through-coprophagia for so long, consume music in a moebius strip of titillation that renders the music substantially indistinguishable from the gossip and bullshit that surrounds it, the music merely the audio-component of the campaign for visibility which is now the sole purpose of the artists. You pan for gold in this endless deluge of ordure and you waste a fuckload of time listening to utter trash. Dazzled by the choice, sure. Enshittened by the actual listening
|Travis Scott, docile fucknuckle and typical shit overrated autotune-rapper|
Of course, as a music you got into as a kid, the older you get the more problems you're going to have with hip hop. Have to say, the ceaseless women-hate is getting very very very fucking tiresome. Not because it's a 'bad influence' or any such hypodermic-displacement folderall. Hip hop fans have always been far more able to read and decode the bigotry of hip hop better than anyone else. [I have never in my life seen Shakespeare/Verdi - rape, disembowellment, murder - complained about, only hip hop and metal and horror i.e those artforms loved by young/poor/black/geeky people in 'danger' of copycatting what they hear/read/see]. Growing up listening to Geto Boys, Ice Cube and other purveyors of misogyny and violence it was always clear to me as a teenager that their most 'offensive' tracks could and should always be listened to as lethally scalpel-sharp diagnoses of macho paranoia, latent queerness, poverty and disenfranchisement. You'd be fucking stupid to hear them as triumphalist because they didn't SOUND triumphalist, they sounded like squalid transmissions from cock-blocked little boys. The unceasing, across-the-board nature of current hip hop sexism, the way it's become a habit new rappers feel they have to fall in line with (and this is perhaps again down to the SHEER GLUT us fans are confronted with on a daily basis) absolutely DOES sound triumphalist, sounds not like a flipped finger to the liberal status-quo but a salute to the patriarchal status quo that fucks over women of all colour on a daily basis, again a fitting in, a fulfillment of withered expectations.
That triumphalism is key to my distaste - analogous to the queasy tightrope characters like Alf Garnett walk. Speight's finest moments with that character are when Alf's railing against forces that have already won the battles he wants to fight, when there's a poignancy to his rants because he's revealing a mindset (and by dint of that uncovering, tearing it apart), rather than just enabling the audience to revel in that mindset. The sexism I used to hear in rap was mainly fairly cartoonish, sporadic, a detail rather than the drive, the snarling of the disempowered (for a current equivalent listen to Cult Mountain - horrifically sexist but so wasted within and without none of their sexism sounds like anything but monomanical drugged-up mindrot) - that sense of pathetic revenge doesn't excuse it remotely but it made listening to it not feel like a process where you had to sign up to those prejudices, rather a process of unpicking the sorry tangled nest of precepts and poverty that went into the American male. The sexism I now hear in rap is so omnipresent, so casual and ceaseless, it comes across as something both you, and the women targeted, simply have to accept whether the rapper is an up-and-comer or a superstar. And so of course Chris Brown is welcomed back with open arms but I'm 44 ferchrissakes, I can't justify listening to that shit anymore. At no point in 30 years of hip hop listening did I feel like I hated women or that I would want to hyuk-hyuk along with the(se) guys. But where previously those guys were willing to make themselves the target, expose their own weaknesses to make that music, right now I fucking hate those guys, those entourages, those packs-of-twats so bereft of self-awareness, drowning in self-pity and self-love. Because they sound sickeningly comfortable. I don't want voices that sound comfortable right now, that sound like they just want to make it, want to be here. I want voices that sound like they need to be here. Voices that sound like they don't want to be here.
NEDLOG ERA's 'SGLP' tape has only picked up a measly 10K views on HotNewHipHop in late January this year. Like many other mixtapes that aren't 'feature'-heavy (i.e laden with guest producers and MCs that people have heard of) it's now kinda dissappeared into obscurity, dl'd by just over a thousand people, picking up only 5 comments and a mediocre 75% rating. This is what occurs when hip hop is purely evaluated by the herd(-who-need-thinning I didn't say that don't know how that slipped in there), many of whom have grown up with hip hop as little more than another branch of sports entertainment, many of whom won't even bother listening to something in 2016 unless it features several rappers whose first names are Yo/Yung/Lil' and unless it gives them the chance to let the world know that THEY know Sonny Digital/Future/MetroBoomin' went in hard. Consequently, Nedlog must be feeling a little unsupported and a hell of a long way away from the mainstream rap industry. It would be criminal if they were overlooked because SGLP is a masterpiece. Here it is. Listen.
If Trap is Southern Ambient, Nedlog are Southern Gothic Ambient, and I might be bullshitting but dammit Nedlog make such fanciful formulations real (just listen to SGLP's 42 second opener 'Burn' that manages to sound like Linda Sharrock & Nina Simone all at once) flesh it out in sound and vision and word. They come from Stone Mountain, an area of Atlanta with a history that would force pressure on anyone living within its confines, let alone Nedlog Era (a neat flip of golden-age rhetoric), young kids, smart kids, confronted with a place where memories of the KKK, of the confederacy, of the auld whip hand and the injured-pride of un-deposed yet nostalgic cultural imperialists still holds strong, bubbles into their everday from the collosal rock that towers over them. After the original Klan (founded in the 1860s, internally weak, disorganised and overpopulated with sadists and criminals) had fizzled out, emboldened by 'Birth Of A Nation' the second-coming of the KKK found the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 the perfect flashpoint around which to regroup and relaunch itself . On November 25 of the same year, a small group, including fifteen robed and hooded "charter members" of the new organization, met at Stone Mountain to create a new iteration of the Klan. This rebirthed Klan based its growth on a new anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-semitic and prohibitionist agenda, reflective of the social tensions and prejudices of the new era and it was Stone Mountain that attained in Klan mythology the status of a new Bethlehem or Mecca, the confederate ground that seeded a new wave of poison. A century later, in 2015, when other states made moves to remove signs of the confederate battle-flag, Georgia stood firm by state law prohibiting anyone even touching Confederate figures carved in stone, calling such removal 'destruction of art history' due to part of the carving being done by Gutzon Borglum, who later went on to carve Mount Rushmore. In October 2015 the state-park denied a proposal for a 'freedom bell' commemorating MLK (including the line "Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia" from King's I Have A Dream speech of 1963). In such crosscurrents of history, in such a hurricane of bigotry and auld enmity, inevitable that Nedlog come out sounding young, confused, dazed, both by themselves and their surroundings. They're walking dead and they know it, but they sound so alive. They're akin to an Odd-Future-style crew of fiercely smart kids, but with no hipster hope, no way out. They've made for me one of the most endlessly fascinating releases of the year.
'Cataracts' starts with a yawn, a stretch, and then it rolls out into your life with its life. Lines leap out from the humming bass and winking loops (throughout SGLP Nedlog cook up a brew as addictive as that last Jay Rock LP, seriously). 'We're moving out white like albinos/Step in sideways sideways sideways/ I'm old enough to feed myself but I can't cook/ I need clarity in action/make my moves and make them slow . . . .' Nedlog smoke but it doesn't help, only feeds their paranoia. They love, or try to love, but it doesn't help, only adds to their sense of self-derailment. The crepuscular funereal ooze of 'Establishment' walks that beautiful line smart teenagers walk when they see through the institutions they're being pushed towards, when they see through the opportunities and apprehend the doom their race and class condemn them to in a world ruled by elites - what's wonderful in a hip hop world fixated on visibility is that Nedlog reflect teenagers true impulse to hide, to observe from a distance and attempt survival, their words and sounds less an extroverted attempt to boy howdy the world, but an introverted alternate-universe they can bring their problems to, and bring their problems out in.
"I try to enjoy this freedom, yeah this fake freedom/ you don't know what I done seen/ you couldn't see, I told you about my dreams and you just couldn't believe that a nigga from the 'Mount could amount to greatness/ emerging from a city that is known for racist white folks/ hanging my folks, amazing almost, blatant when it comes to this/niggas turning they back, rather talk about the flashy bullshit in they raps/ misleading the youths, for the cause we will all turn up like Nat / you fall short, the only problem is removing the corpse/ sorry but I couldn't care less about a show and showing niggas how I look/ cos really round my way that's how you get your life took/ and their aint no coming back from that".
It's roundabout now that you start noticing just what a startling suite of sonics the Nedlog crew have bought to the boil here. 'Redhouse' hinges on a reverse bassline so fucked up and wobbly it could've been culled straight from a slo-mo grime track or something offa Deep Medi, a spooked comatose sound that suits the hook perfectly, every single vocal echoed into dubspace: 'I was just thinking/ drinking/ same thing I did last weekend/ woke up with a sorry soul and a head full of hurt/ I take a look at my window and my driveway full of leaves . . . '. Throughout SGLP it doesn't sound like Nedlog are arriving at these strange sonic formulations through any kind of agglomeration of things they've heard before, rather it's as if their minds are painting outwards in sound and they're just as thrilled by the strange shapes their imaginations can take when flipped out from the mind and into wave patterns. 'Schizo' is like the most diseased, dead-eyed version of 'Yakkety Yak' you ever heard, the line 'High school graduation only gave me a reputation for burger-preparation' popping off before the parents come in on the hook, slowed to a zombified greek-chorus pitched at that perfect whiney level of the concerned guardian, proposing action that made sense in the last world but makes no sense in this one we're in right now: 'get your mind right nigga / spend your time right nigga/ get your mind right nigga get a job/ you been sitting on your ass going out at midnight / get a life, get out, do something, get a job' before the verse skulks at dawn 'a brother probably shouldn't be driving at all/ it's past curfew like five in the morning / momma's still up what the fuck? / put the keys in with my head down/ searching for the hole like a virgin . . . '. What's so refreshing is Nedlog's lack of egoism, the way these songs are endlessly generous vignettes from their lives, a million miles away sonically and lyrically from the pushy ambition that is the default setting for so much young rap in 2016. The freakish backtracked devil-summoning 'Dead' takes on precisely that predictability infesting hip hop, proving, as do the Griselda axis I'll talk about later, that frustration with rap's current holding patterns is certainly NOT limited to old farts like myself. Nedlog reject hip hop, reject the old nomenclatures, the old cliches they see as now being rotted from within beyond purpose, beyond the ability to recycle in good conscience - "Yeah I got a mic in my hand but no I'm not a rapper/ Yes I'm from Atlanta doesn't mean that I'm a trapper or a thug kidnapper/ cut the bullshit, how many Migos we gonna have in the game?/ how many niggers just gon' keep rapping the same? / how many motherfuckers gon' play the same styles and wear the same clothes and add 'trap' to their name?/ THAT SHIT DEAD'. The highlight of an astonishing set has to be 'Lack Ler', a warp of psychedelic guitar shimmering over a bass that buzzes your floorboards, weird lines about 'my whole squad looking like Medusa's head' flickering out over the madness. Frighteningly articulate, gloriously unique, don't let the year pass you by without drinking from SGLP's brackish, brilliant depths. For me, one of THEE standout standalone releases of the past year in ANY genre.
[WHILST WE'RE TALKING NON-LABEL HIP HOP THAT DOESN'T MAKE YOU WANT TO PUKE MAKE SURE YOU PICK UP THESE 3 DOOZIES:
(a) SLAYTER & THELONIOUS MARTIN's spanking 'Dirty Game' EP. Does exactly what the title says and does it fantastically well.
(b) SPARK MASTER TAPE's long-awaited return with 'Silhouette Of A Sunken City'. Still an inexplicably strange almost-ambient delight, strangely redolent of Butthole Surfers and Outkast in equal measure]
(c) Someone with skinny jeans will be along in a minute to tell you to ignore old fuckers like me and keep listening to fucking Young Thug as if 'Slime Season 3' is some kind of fucking masterpiece instead of the crock it clearly is. These people are cunts for not telling you to listen to The Underachievers 'It Happened In Flatbush' which is INFINITELY BETTER if you want some lo-slung jeep music for your hot-hatch.
In comparison to all the above, the work of the GRISELDA GANG , in particular its most visible members, biological brothers CONWAY and WESTSIDE GUNN, puts you on more dependable ground. Both MCs are from Buffalo NY and the whole Griselda crew are loosely affiliated with Roc Marciano. They get props off underground hip hop figureheads like Alchemist, Planet Asia and Action Bronson so you can guess that the production they use from a small coterie of beatmakers including Daringer and Big Ghost, is defiantly out-of-step with the current popification of hip hop - gritty, raw, slow, lurid, grainy, dirty, fucked up, addictive. There's something about Gunn and Conway's voices, and their rhymes, that sets them apart from the more comfortable and comforting voices I mentioned earlier in this piece, some residual unshakeable element of angst that makes them not only fit-ill with these times, but fit-ill even amidst those heroes they'd love to be feted by. They were kids in the 90s and grew up on hardcore NYC hip hop but the way they come to those sources and reenergise and reinvigorate them is a million miles away from any reassuringly retro boombap manouevres. Because of their poverty, because of their obscurity, because of their furious refusal of the tactics of crossover, they actually emerge with a sound too searing, too angry, too twisted to be easily digested as a look back at some bullshit golden age. This is street-rap, crime-rap that sounds touched by those 90s antecedents but that walks new streets, with an entirely new sense of wastage, nihilism and doom. Dark as Show & AG. Dark as Kool G Rap. Dark as Mobb Deep. Just as essential.
KEISHA PLUM, one of the finest female lyricists and poets I've heard in a long time.
Gunn has a delivery that jabs you in the eyes and ears, a sharp snarly style that sits with the frequently mind-blowing oddity of the music with a fractious fury. His latest opus, 'Flygod' (as illustrated at the top of this article) is perhaps his most wrathful wreckage yet. Conway is a more measured presence but he's also created some of the last few years most vital salvos from the war-torn streets of Buffalo. Check out his 'The Devils Reject' mixtape and cop 'Reject 2' as soon as you possibly can.
And make sure you get to hear the WG/Conway/Big Ghost collabo - the astonishing 'Griseldas Ghost' EP to hear two blood-related MCs trade blows in the best way you've heard since Smoothe Da Hustler & Trigga The Gambla were last rolling out. Namechecking Warhol, Basquiat and as dazzling and tough-minded as both. Superb.
That should be enough for you to be getting along with. Don't believe the hype from both young cretins (about autotune autopilot rap being the only story you should care about if you care about hip hop's future rather than its past) and old arseholes who should know better saying everything was better back in the day (do these grey-haired gormless gits REMEMBER how much utterly shit hip hop has ALWAYS been out there, even pre-internet? - clearly not). Rap, as ever, refutes such unidirectional analysis. Dig a bit deeper than the front page. Try those things that HAVEN't got a million likes and retweets and a comments thread full of idiotic hyperbole from dipshits. Rude ill-health going on in all the above. I'll be back when there's more to tell.
Westside Gunn's superb 'FlyGod' LP Yeah, I'm 44 and I'm going to be writ...