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Elevator 8: Aesop Rock

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It was a great moment. Dj Cro looked at me wide-eyed and smiley, “You don’t know Aesop Rock? Well, you should really listen to ‘Daylight’ first. Then you’ll get all the cross references in ‘Nightlight'”. I was flicking through 12inch singles at a now long forgotten record shop in Birmingham city centre and had come across ‘Coma’ and ‘The Daylight EP’, both tracks off the Aesop Rock’s 2001 album ‘Labor Days’.

“Actually”, Cro continued, “just listen to ‘Labor Days’. It’s incredible.”

So I did. And 11 years later I still dig every minute of it. From the weaselly electric chord attack on the opener to the beautiful assonance of the chorus on ‘Shovel’ this album is a perfectly constructed hour of verbal gymnastics, vivid imagery and the ache of a working day wasted in some call-centre selling a product nobody needs for a meagre wage. Yes, Aesop nails that mood.

Also embedded throughout the ‘Labor Days’ album is a contrasting insolent mood – a rallying cry to break from the pack and find a new path.

Aesop Rock’s lyrics are often cryptic and/or abstract. The lazy reviewer might whine about how dense, even impenetrable his material is or mock Aesop’s supposedly scatterbrained non-sequitur verses, but like all well-formed hard-graft poetry, Aesop’s lyrics are meant to be mulled over. I still catch new wordplay and moments of sublime perceptiveness almost every time I don headphones and get immersed in his world. How ’bout ‘Battery’? You can follow along with the lyrics here.

He can do simple storytelling too; ‘Regrets’, his tale of 7-year-old outsider Lucy must have single-handedly won him many new fans.

‘One of Four’, the hidden ‘thank you’ track at the end of ‘The Daylight EP’ is so vulnerable and disarming that it’s hard not to feel strong sympathy for Aesop.

Aesop is not trying to constantly baffle the listener. He just wants them to dig deeper. His 2005 EP, Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives featured a 88-page booklet of his lyrics, a little goldmine of alliteration and aha! moments. In the fortnight running up to the release of his 2012 solo album Skelethon he gave a short intro to each of the songs on the album. Even with these explanations, Skelethon is a monster of an album to absorb, but it is SO WORTH IT.

With Skelethon Aesop Rock is showing us that there is new territory to cross and as a wordsmith he should be considered one of the top poetic writers in the English language in the 21st Century. Here’s the Pitchfork review.

The low end on Zero Dark Thirty is wonderful, so don’t even bother to play this on your computer. Hook this up to some speakers.

In this video to Cycles to Gehenna we see an appreciation of the beauty and grace of the female form, without anything willfully erotic to obscure the view.

ZZZ Top captures the moment of discovering and embracing the power of music and throwing your lot in with the outcrowd.

Aesop is a collaborator and he seemed particularly at ease when performing with Rob Sonic and Dj Wiz as Hail Mary Mallon. Grubstake is the 3am banter with your best mates at the diner and Smock is paranoia dropped in a vat of biro funk.

Oh, and now he’s part of a duo with singer/songwriter Kimya Dawson called The Uncluded.

With 9 lyric-filled releases since 2000 there’s a lot of Aesop Rock material to digest, but if you’re stuck with where to start, meet the man as he explains his new motto, “Take the brain out, leave the heart in”.

Here’s Aesop’s label page with the latest on his various projects

Thank you, Dj Cro for introducing me to Aesop Rock. My life and vocabulary are richer.

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Elevator 7: Soweto Kinch

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This week someone from my home city of Birmingham released a 41-track Dante-inspired hip-hop jazz concept album called ‘The Legend of Mike Smith’.

Read that opening sentence again if you need to.

Yes, you’ve read that right and Soweto Kinch is that someone.

Soweto Kinch is an unstoppable force in UK hip-hop with an insatiable desire to experiment and explore. Since 2001 he’s been sparking off projects and drawing collaborators to his bubbling cauldron of jazz, rap and dramatic narrative.

Perhaps more than most artists featured in 70 Elevators, Soweto has received high profile awards and nominations for his music. He is a respected jazz alto saxophonist and he plays at jazz events around the globe.

But he is also a formidable storyteller, rap lyricist, freestyler and hip-hop beat maker. His debut album ‘Conversations With The Unseen’ was released in 2003 followed by ‘A Life In The Day Of B19 – Tales Of The Tower Block’ three years later. Increasingly Soweto proved that proper rap and serious jazz could not just co-exist on an album but could actually compliment each other. Listen to Ridez off ‘A Life In The Day…’

Here Soweto talks about touring ‘A Life In The Day…’.

As well as recording and touring, Kinch curates The Flyover Show, an inspiring and community unifying music festival which takes place under a dual carriageway bridge in Birmingham. Here he is back in 2008 trying to visualize it.

And making it happen.

In 2012 he took The Flyover Show concept to Freedom Square, Johannesburg, South Africa. 3000 came to the show.

But let’s listen to more of Soweto the rapper. Here he takes on the persona of the tyrant controlling the tyrant and tears up ‘Axis of Evil’. Awesome delivery.

This track ‘Head For the Hills’ from his 2009 EP ‘War in a Rack’ also showcases Soweto’s unrestrained flow.

The brand new 2-hour ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ adventure ‘The Legend of Mike Smith’ is available online here and here. ‘Gula’ and ‘Avaritia’ are the stand-out tracks for me so far. Here’s a review of it.

The great thing is knowing that after this impressive, complex piece of work Soweto Kinch will produce even more unusual and beautiful music. His well has not run dry. In fact he’s still warming up to make a genre-defying magnum opus. Mic in one hand, sax in the other Soweto has dug deep and found a rich seam of soul-searching narrative hip-hop and feisty lyricism.

Birmingham is the city of a thousand styles and Soweto has mastered more than a few of them.

www.facebook.com/sowetok

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Elevator 6: Eternia

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A few years ago when I heard about Eternia’s tour of high schools as part of a Plan Canada charity initiative, I felt compelled to write her to just say: ‘Keep on doing what you’re doing – you’re changing lives’. The tour addressed women’s and girls rights. As a parent of a young girl I’d be dead excited to have a female rapper who’s not afraid to be perceived as a role-model come to speak and rap at my kid’s school about identity, self-esteem and girls rights.

Eternia, originally from Ottawa, now based in NYC, exudes generosity. She’s not content with making records. She whole-heartedly champions various causes and artists. With trademark gusto she hosts this recent free-to-download ‘World Hip Hop Women’ mixtape.

She writes heart-on-sleeve raps. In this interview with Canadian Journal This Magazine she explains: “one of the running critiques of It’s Called Life [her debut full-length release] was, “Great album, great album, too personal.” People don’t want you to go that deep, almost like it made them uncomfortable. But I can say for the most part people really relate and appreciate having someone else speak their story.”

I’m partial to this Beach Boys sampling scorcher of a track ‘Evidence’ from that early album.

In 2010 Eternia and collaborator hip-hop producer MoSS released the heavy-hitting album ‘At Last’. Album opener ‘Any Man’ certainly pulls no punches.

But my goodness, it’s this song ‘To the Future’ which just melts your heart and shows Eternia at her most personal and profound.

Last week Eternia answered a few questions I put to her:

70elevators: Which of your positive attributes is most evident in your music?
E: Probably my faith. I like to think my music has a ‘victorious’, ‘overcome all odds’ feel to it, for the most part. And that is an accurate reflection of my personality and approach to life. The glass is half full no matter what the circumstance. I do my best to appreciate the journey, even in the lowest of moments.

70elevators: If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?
E: People living compartmentalized lives and viewing the world in compartments.
Stereotyping, judging, making assumptions: this type of thinking and approach to life drives me crazy. I prefer a more holistic view and approach to all things and all people.

70elevators: If you were introducing someone to hip-hop music which album would you have them listen to?
E: That’s hard. Off the top I would probably say Nas’ ‘Illmatic’.

Here’s her music site: http://eternia.bandcamp.com

And her everything else site: http://therealeternia.tumblr.com/

Down-to-earth, undaunted, positive & profound, Eternia’s a one-woman destroyer of stereotypes and the brilliant thing about a vanquished stereotype is that when it’s gone it’s usually gone for good.

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Elevator 5: Buck 65

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I could write a lot about Richard Terfry aka Buck 65 and what makes him an elevator of rap. He is one of the most imaginative rap lyricists I’ve ever met.

Honestly I could go on for ages about this songwriter/rapper/dj/producer/yarnspinner from Mount Uniake, Nova Scotia, but in an attempt to keep it brief, I’ll list seven of Buck’s contributions to the art of rap.

 

1. The Wildlife EP

This fantastical story spread over three songs changed the way I thought about rap. His tone and delivery was pitch-perfect [like he’s telling it as you both huddle over a tiny wood stove in a refugee camp]. Wildlife destroyed my perceived boundaries of narrative rap thus opening me up to be far more adventurous in my writing and recordings. I don’t think I’d be making this film without Buck 65’s Wildlife. Here’s all three songs:

 

2. The Live Experience and Live Ethics

I’ve seen Buck 65 perform on 9 occasions. The first time was in April 2001 in Chicago. He was opening up for Sage Francis, Slug and the Living Legends with a set that was sonically diverse and unabashedly silly. As he rapped his recently penned song ‘Food’ he exuded a sense of joy. He rapped and beat-juggled simultaneously. He performed The Centaur, which managed to be spine chilling then absurd then genuinely melancholic.

[A quick footnote: Reviewer Aaron Newell points out The Centaur is “probably one of the most coherent, semiotically-layered artistic statements I’d ever encountered in music…It illustrates through first-hand-listener-experience how easily context and preconception can lead to misunderstanding. And it does so on purpose, not so much self-defeating as mirroring the cynical listener.” The fact that the Centaur’s main sample comes from the ‘Carrie’ soundtrack is no coincidence.]

Afterwards I introduced myself to Buck and we talked about the use of bread in live shows. Yes, bread.

Buck 65 injects his gigs with a vulnerability, which is rare for performers, especially rappers. Before a performance in Leicester he explained to the audience how he was struggling to deal with a deeply hurtful situation and that it might affect his energy level onstage. He proceeded to deliver a flawless performance, full of sensitivity, latent anger and self-deprecating humour.

He’s content with quiet spectators. He doesn’t want the audience to throw their hands up. He claims he has to put in the work to deserve audience participation.

And yet he’s audacious enough to genuinely hope that both he and his audience can have their lives changed during the course of a performance.

 

3. The Story Magnet, The Stand-up and the Yarnspinner

I asked him once to tell me and my wife Danielle a bedtime story when he stayed over a few years back. He proceeded to beguile us for the next 30 minutes with an incredible and very funny story of a post-gig evening gone horribly wrong. It was as effortless as any stand-up routine you’d pay good money for. Danielle and me sat there snuggled up on our sofa mesmerized. ‘Did that really happen?’ He smiled, assured us that it did and went off to bed.

Buck 65 is a weird story magnet.

How about Riverbed pt.1-5?

But there’s a soaring imagination too: Secret Splendor and another one of my old favorites Hats On Beds

All the songs on his Situation album are set in 1957!

 

4. His deep-rooted morality and his ability to intertwine hope and melancholy

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The wonder of ‘Craftsmanship’

A solid live performance of ‘Bandits’

The fury of ‘Pants on Fire’

 

5. The nuanced, awkwardly intimate but thoroughly sexy Drawing Curtains

There’s not too many rap songs which are awkwardly intimate but thoroughly sexy. Play this one loud and the music will make your skin tingle!

 

6. Deeply affectionate songs about his parents

The exquisite song ‘Ice’ about his mum

The father-son dynamic of ‘Roses & Bluejays’

 

7. The Dirtbike Series

Buck calls this his woodshed demo project, but it’s way more than that. It’s a 3 hour scrapbook of compelling imagery, cracking rap and an encyclopedia of beats.

You can download here for the price of typing in your email address!

He is a troubadour, overflowing with big ideas and driven by the vision to write the perfect song – a song which sticks to you, stays with you, shapes your life. I love his open-heartedness, his wit and his friendliness. He’s a deeply soulful person.

 

Here’s his site

And finally Buck reflects on his 20 odd years as a rapper: