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Elevator 12: Ka

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Ka might not want me to make a big fuss about him, so how ‘bout just a little blog post? This Brownsville veteran emcee is self aware, lyrically raw and, for a rapper, unusually modest.

Ka claims: “I already know my songs are not for everyone. They’re not for the radio, the club or the masses.”

About his previous crew Natural Elements he says: “I felt like I was bringing them down. They were more lyrical than me; they were flipping a lot of fly shit. I went to start my own group Nightbreed. I got a little better. I think Kev was better than me, I still tell him that today.”

His flow is beautiful, every word placed with care. Nate Patrin of Pitchfork labels Ka’s delivery as “quietly straightforward; not an easy way to get a fickle listener’s attention.”

So, yes, Ka’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but his music is growing on me.

I think Ka is an elevator because he paints with care, creating albums with themes that permeate the tracks like a thick smog. Pain, regret, dread and as vivid a street tale spitter as anyone out there.

In this Out Da Box TV interview he says: “In the 80’s I was a teenage…Crack cocaine just exploded in the neighborhood. Some people think they was winning cause they was hustlin’ but it f**ked the whole hood up. I saw the death of the crack wars. We lost a lot. If I had a seed [offspring], I know I wouldn’t want my seed to experience shit like that. I feel like I’m hundred and something years old.”

Clearly he’s content with how his 2012 album ‘Grief Pedigree’ turned out:

Listen to the street knowledge observations of ‘Cold Facts’:

The bleak ‘Summer’:

And ‘Up Against Goliath’:

Here’s his Grief Pedigree album video playlist – He made a video for each track.

The highlights of his 2008 ‘Iron Works’ album are the melancholy ‘Sunday To Sunday’, the deadly storytelling and soundscape of ‘Iron Work’ and ‘Children’.

The refrain in ‘Children’ is a simple profound observation:

It’s the children that bring balance in the hood

So let’s not make them age faster than they should

Another pithy interview: Question in the Form of an Answer: Ka

Grab a cold drink and hang out for a few minutes with a soft-spoken street scholar. Lean in and just listen.

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Elevator 11: The Praying Mantis

11mantisheaderThere’s a steep hill just off the M5 motorway southwest of Birmingham and I’m imagining The Praying Mantis sitting up there in antediluvian body armor drinking green tea and reading scripture as he waits for creatures from the underworld to engage him in a battle for the lost spirits of Mercia.

Like the title of his recent E.P. The Praying Mantis is ‘The Unorthodox Christian’. Listening to his lyrics is like being sucked into an epic convergence of literary and filmic genres. There’s media moguls, angels, politicians, dragons, Moses, postcode gangsters, ninjas and the god Apollo, but there’s also eschatology, autobiography, folklore, esotericism and gothic horror.

His style, forged in the fiery interactions of multi-cultural North Birmingham street life, has a gruff, no-nonsense backbone. Still, there’s lyrical back flips as well as bear grips. His delivery is striking enough that any savvy hip-hop beat producer could find a memorable hook were they to mine his verses.

What makes Mantis an elevator is his feisty battle for personal integration. As he dedicates time to reach out to embittered young people who’ve been neglected or written off, he wants to prove that there’s a new breed of fathers, brothers and mentors whose word IS their bond and who WILL listen to you, spar with you, care for you. His lyrics speak of grace, justice, courage, creativity and the desire for these things to be tattooed onto his life. Mantis explains, “I am very passionate about how I relate to the beat, the mind, the street and Christ, which you’ll find deeply embedded in the rhyme schemes and themes I write about.”

Mantis released his debut solo E.P. ‘Space/Time Continuum’ in 2005 and the ‘The Rusty Halo Effect’ album in 2009 and he continues to record with lyrical partner Quartz Crystallus. Here’s two of their many collaborations [Mantis’ verses are near the end of these tracks]:

Goodness

NUMB3R5

I asked Mantis if he were introducing someone to hip-hop music which album would he get them to listen to? “I can’t think of any one album that embodies the whole spectrum of hip-hop, so I would start with KRS-One’s ‘Return of the Boom Bap’ followed by Shai Linne’s ‘Lyrical Theology‘”!

The Praying Mantis: adventurer, protector, visionary, servant, street scholar. I’m privileged to be able to call this emcee a close friend.

Download his ‘The Unorthodox Christian’ EP here for FREE: theprayingmantis.bandcamp.com.

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Elevator 10: K Flay

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K. Flay aka Kristine Flaherty is skilled. She is a musician, a singer, a hip-hop producer and a rapper.

During her freshman year at Stanford University as a dare Kristine wrote a pop-rap parody, which she enjoyed enough to start taking hip-hop lyricism and beat-making seriously. Almost 9 years later we are better off because it. She has clearly honed her writing, her delivery, her production to the point where every lyric she conjures up sounds ridiculously natural. K. Flay was made to rap.

Her cover of the Zombies ‘Time of the Season’ sounds unforced and soulful. I’m wary of musical hybrids and I tend to avoid indie-rock-electro-rap cocktails, figuring that the flavours will clash or will be sickly sweet. Yet Kristine has written and recorded some perfect songs, which feature the angst, playfulness and sarcastic cultural critique of indie-rock, the foul-mouthed ferocity and know thy self-analysis of rap music with melodic, hynoptic choruses and hooks to kill for.

Her ‘Eyes Shut’ EP is particularly strong. Check ‘Sunburn’.

And ‘We Hate Everyone’ melds tongue-in-cheek loathing with real emotional wounds that have yet to heal.

‘Less Than Zero’ has got that overcast intensity that makes me think Kristine should collaborate with hip-hop left-fielders like Dark Time Sunshine or the Anticon chaps. They would be well matched.

Here she talks to New York Music News about head-banging.

K Flay’s various recordings together form an emotionally dense, joy-meets-sorrow, confidence-meets-self-doubt, drunken-fratparty-meets-geek, lunatic-lover-of-language explosion. She elevates rap by bringing a long-overdue worldview and woman-next-door perspective in the form of winsome, bittersweet, uncensored and intelligent rap songs.

Sandra Oh’s character in the 1998 end-of-the-world movie ‘Last Night’ tells the man she’s just met: ‘You’d better hurry up. Tell me something to make me love you.’

Kristine isn’t trying to emotionally manipulate us to make us love her. But she clearly connects with her fans both in her cathartic performances and her disarming video blogs. I will certainly be following her future projects. Anticipating the various rites of passage a North American woman in her late 20s – early 30s goes through what kind of music will K Flay be making in ten years time? And how will she deal with the crazy curve-balls life will throw at her? I, for one, am dead curious to find out. I’m gonna start by listening to her new bruiser of a mixtape/album: West Ghost. Visit her site and download it here.

By the way, I realize that this post is riddled with hyphens. I’ll try to make sure it never happens again.

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Elevator 9: Oxmo Puccino

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Oxmo Puccino is a well-known rapper in France, but as we don’t listen to much French rap here in the UK, despite being neighbours, most of us haven’t heard of him. When did you come across him?

Oxmo aka Abdoulaye Diarra was born in Mali but grew up in the 19th district of Paris. Though he was surrounded by the burgeoning hip-hop culture of the late 80’s he himself first took up the pen and the pad in the mid-nineties as a part of the Timebomb crew. He explains: “I was surrounded by artistically visionary people like the graffiti artist Slice. The 19th district is somewhere a little special. We felt we were neither Paris nor suburbs. And I think that geography gave birth to a particular state of mind…where innovation was prized.”

Years ago Oxmo was given the audacious nickname ‘the black Jacques Brel’. Was it for his songwriting abilities, his poetry, his suave delivery? I don’t know yet. I’m sure one of you will tell me.

I spent some time listening to Oxmo’s back catalogue and there’s a lot of material, but it’s his recent work, which I’m most impressed with.

Here’s Oxmo’s ‘Artiste’ from his 2012 album ‘Roi Sans Carosse’ to help get you on his wavelength. Of course if you speak French you’ve a vast advantage, but I’ve enjoyed reading the translations of Oxmo’s work and this video oozes the confidence of a rap veteran and his cracking sense of humour.

Also from his new album: ‘Le Sucre Pimenté’ or ‘Spiced Sugar’

Here’s the satisfying ‘Equilibre’ a feel-good collaboration with Hocus Pocus about the struggle to find balance in life. Play it LOUD.

Oxmo’s manner and vocal tone give him this strong calming presence both sincere and melancholy. These qualities are reminiscent of MC Solaar’s delivery, for example on the superb ‘La concubine de l’hémoglobine’. Going back a few years we have the beautiful ‘Soleil du Nord’ or ‘Sun from the North’, which describes ‘cigarette-less men stuck in horrible jeans between their future and their origins’. Oxmo contemplates whether poverty might be less painful under a warmer sun.

Oxmo’s vocals are clearly compatible with more melodic hip-hop compositions, his sincerity and gravitas grounding the orchestral flourishes and flights of fancy. And the videos as you can see, unfurl in an often unhurried cinematic fashion. His style [both aurally and visually] allows for breathing space, thinking space maybe even grieving space. His music works in a way I haven’t quite witnessed in English language rap yet.

And don’t worry, there will be more French elevators to come. Vive La France!