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Elevator 25: Lecrae

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Since the dawn of hip-hop, rappers have drawn in fans and listeners for different reasons. For many it’s the transgressive, expletive-heavy flying-off-the-handle spirit that speaks to them profoundly, providing an way to express their anger, trauma, exuberance or fears. For others it’s a progressive black empowerment message that catches their ear fostering a sense of belonging, self-worth and steely resolve. The impressive and sometimes obsessive skill of the freestyler has been responsible for breeding many a wanna-be wordsmith. But it’s the attractiveness of the unforced ‘this is my life’ lyrics of the natural, expressive rapper that create a bond with a listener that often lasts the longest.

Lecrae, hailing from Houston, Texas, has won many fans with his various heart-felt ‘this is the life of an ordinary black man’ testimonial songs since his debut album in 2004. What makes him different to many of his peers is that Lecrae ultimately is a Christian youth worker/pastor/preacher who’s also a ferocious  rapper. He has the vulnerability to talk about his weaknesses and failures but also the audacity to challenge people with the claims of Jesus.

What happens when a pastor/rapper with an emphasis on mentoring youths on the responsibilities of fatherhood suddenly has the chance to talk to tens of thousands of young men and women?

What happens when a rapper who’s an outspoken Christian gains so much mainstream attention that other rappers are wary of releasing their album on the same day as his new release because the record chart stats will make them look bad?

Well, we’re only just finding out. Lecrae’s Grammy-winning album ‘Gravity’ and his free ‘Church Clothes Mixtape’ both released to much acclaim in 2012 were the tipping point in Lecrae’s career.

At times he treads on some of the same lyrical ground as his contemporaries:

He encourages black women to see their beauty, power and purpose:

He abhors America’s culture of violence:

but then he goes lyrically off-piste – his secular friends wouldn’t be caught dead on a track like this:

Lecrae’s lyrics represents a challenge to what it means to be a strong black man. Not only is rapping about  submission and humility before a Christian God essentially uncool, it will be understood by some as submission to white ideals, and speaking the words of the oppressor. Yet his worldview flies in the face of the American Dream.

Lecrae is in an unenviable position right now. His music and his lyrics are scrutinized, his every decision questioned, his newfound celebrity status condemned by those who believe he’s lost his faith and is selling out. He’s going to have to live out his countercultural values in the glare of the spotlight.

Yet it looks like Lecrae is embracing the challenge with a weird mix of sharp-tongued wit, down-to-earthness and missionary zeal.

In a 2013 interview, Lecrae was asked whether his younger self would be disappointed in the new Lecrae.

His answer: For sure, he would. “Aw man, you’re selling out. You’ve fallen off, man.” I’m sure that would be the way my old self would think about it. I would just sit my young self down and have a calm conversation articulating the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing, and try to point out some of the self-righteous areas in my young self’s life. Hopefully it would be a good conversation.

You can download ‘Church Clothes Mixtape’ and ‘Church Clothes 2’ for free.

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Elevator 24: Doom

23doomheaderMy friend Dj Dust introduced me to the rap song ‘Hey’ in 1997. The sustained organ, the brass stabs, the Scooby Doo samples and the rhyming were beguiling. Who is this? MF Doom?

I’d heard this man rap before as Zev Love X, but the material that Daniel Dumile was releasing under this new guise, a masked villain, was more volatile, funny, intricate, melancholic, rewindable and stubbornly lo-fi than anything else being made in the late 90’s.

Doom insists on breaking mainstream rap rules: Chorus? Often doesn’t bother. Quality mics and professional mic levels? Certainly not on his early recordings. Multiple verses? How ‘bout just one long verse instead? Polished production? Nope, found a sound on this ol’ cassette tape that I wanna loop.

After listening to a whole album’s worth of 2 bar loops, non-sequiturs, cartoon samples and chronically cryptic stream-of-consciousness vocals, your first thought shouldn’t be ‘That was enjoyable and invigorating’, but it is!

There is no other artist who dares the listener to cast aside slang dictionaries and wikipedia searches and just enjoy the word stew he’s serving. The diligent Doom follower discovers that he or she has by osmosis learnt a new vocabulary.

Don’t be fooled: there’s gratuitous gobbledygook but there’s also soul-searching and razor-sharp quips. Dumile’s various alter egos spin tall tales and give advice all in an effortlessly colloquial tone. In a 2009 interview Doom asserts: ‘I definitely have a lot of affection for literary work, especially Bukowski. I like the way he speaks through his characters…Speaking in character allows us to put a supernatural or otherworldly twist on things. I always write from an imaginary point of view, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t rooted in reality.’

Here’s ‘Figaro’ from the 2004 Madvillainy album:

This Thom Yorke remix of ‘Gazzillion Ear’ certainly rivals the original from the album BORN LIKE THIS.:

Both ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ and ‘Bookhead’ showcase Doom’s incredibly infectious flow:

Rapper Mos Def aka Yasin Bey obviously a big Doom fan recites entire Doom verses in awe.

In the ancient myth the hero Perseus slew Medusa with the aid of a mirrored shield, which he used to avoid direct eye contact with the snakes-for-hair monster. Doom’s back catalogue is a skewed reflection of the absurdity, the beauty, the angst and futility of contemporary Western culture. Through Doom’s eyes we can see the monster’s movements while avoiding for at least a short time its stony stare.

Finally a tip: there is perhaps no greater preparation for a freestyle rap session than listening to ten minutes of Doom.

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Elevator 23: Pharoahe Monch

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Pharoahe Monch has high expectations of himself. As he approaches a new project he sets the bar high. There are few other rappers in the world who marry wonderfully ambitious concepts with carefully constructed delivery. Once they’ve listened to Pharoahe Monch rappers of all ages are quietly embarrassed by their own lack of creative spark. Queens-native Monch is a humbler of artists and he should be honoured for this.

His contribution to the art of hip-hop lyricism is extraordinary.  Intricacy, wit, precision, melody, tone: if you’re doing a master’s degree in rap vocals you study Pharoahe Monch.

I first encountered Monch as part of the group Organized Konfusion in 1994 and I thought, “Oh, I guess this is the standard everybody’s gonna have to judge themselves by from now on”. ‘Stress’ and ‘Stray Bullet’ are not songs you forget.

His solo albums Internal Affairs [1999], Desire [2007], and W.A.R. We Are Renegades [2011] all have an epic, cinematic quality to them addressing global issues as well as emotionally nuanced narrative explorations most notably this tragic trilogy of songs.

Here he returns to the firearms issue:

In a 2011 Village Voice interview Monch laments: “There are real issues going on — I can’t believe the art world in general is removed. I feel like, you know, obviously in the ’70s and the ’60s the artists were more in-tuned with the world and social issues, but the world is so connected to digital information now that I don’t understand how peoples’ hearts are removed from Japan and Libya. We have a nuclear reactor less than 200 miles from here. How come that’s not being talked about?” The answer: those in the celebrity rap elite are too afraid to speak truth to power and the wanna-be celebrity rapper copies their flaccid chatter. In contrast Monch is outspoken politically, socially and prophetically. Check how dynamic rebel music can be:

And yet Monch enjoys salting each project with gritty, nasty rap songs that get rooms of drunken students swearing in unison, songs that you would have to mute the moment your grandmother entered the room.

And he also writes beautiful, inspiring soulful songs that would make him your mum’s favorite rapper. See:

He can and will surprise you.

In this Believer interview he talks about his writing process and his biggest influences.

Maybe it was inevitable that Monch would be one of my 70 elevators: he’s a master of his craft AND he’s an acrid voice of dissent fighting for a fairer, blacker, more beautiful planet.

Download his song ‘Stand Your Ground’ for free here.

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Elevator 22: Open Mike Eagle

15openmikeheaderThere’s something very satisfying about buying a cd from the recording artist him or herself straight out of those 25 units cardboard boxes. A smiley Open Mike Eagle sold me his 2011 album Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes.

I was buzzing having just witnessed an evening of LA indie hip-hop collective Project Blowed performances at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard. Afterwards outside the venue a river of hip-hop artists exited laughing, congratulating each other and making plans. It looked like a true community, one in which you’re allowed to be yourself.

And thanks probably in part to Project Blowed’s license to be yourself Open Mike Eagle has had space and encouragement to develop and experiment.

Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes is his 2nd full-length release and it is very nearly a flawless album.

It is arty but it’s not pretentious. In fact it feels candid even exposed. Mike is dead smart. The title track of this record is quite profound and sad and funny and understated.

The track ‘Nightmares’ is well-executed stream-of-unconsciousness rap with wonderfully sparse phrasing and an unforgettable hook.

The track ‘NH2 (grins and lies)’ which splashes through some sensitive racial issues concludes with an Obama impersonator critiquing Mike. On ‘Why Pianos Break’ featuring P.O.S. we hear Mike’s signature sung rap vocals used to hypnotic effect. I, for one, am not AT ALL partial to sing-songy-raps. In fact they tend to make me wince in pain. ‘Sung rap’ is frequently twee [or cutesy], not in key, trite and/or boring. When Open Mike Eagle finds the right melody it is like Ready Brek for the soul.

Since ‘Rapper Will Die…’  Open Mike Eagle has put out an album called 4NML HSPTL via the Fake Four label and a number of E.P.s, which are available here http://openmikeeagle.bandcamp.com – ‘Middling’ on the free E.P. ‘Sir Rockabye’ is worth a listen.

Here’s brand new track ‘Qualifiers’:

Here’s a new interview with Mike and fellow art rapper Milo.

Open Mike Eagle is a rap elevator: he’s soulful and cerebral, he’s experimental enough to actually fall flat on his face musically at times, he’s self-deprecating and honest, he’s earnest and ironic. And for visionaries that want to change the world little by little, hearing Mike’s voice somehow makes you believe that you’re not crazy – you’re on the right track.

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Elevator 21: Onry Ozzborn

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Our twenty-first elevator Onry Ozzborn has written and recorded an average of 2 full-length albums per year for the last 13 years. Yes, reread that last sentence.

In the mid 90’s he was a founding member of the Seattle-based heavyweight rap collective Concentration Camp.  Rochester A.P., the most spiritually mature member of the collective renamed it Oldominion. Onry explains, “Oldominion meant the way the spirit or spiritual played a bigger role in the daily life of ancient times. We were emcees who would talk about and express feelings that you weren’t supposed to in rap—spiritual things.”

Onry is best known as one half of the dynamic rap duo Grayskul, which he formed with rapper JFK in 2004. Wait, is he actually best known as one half of the ethereal, hip-hop group Dark Time Sunshine, which he formed with producer Zavala?

He collaborates a lot. On the song ‘Secret Wars’ from Grayskul’s 2005 ‘Deadlivers’ album there are 13 guest vocalists. “There are so many of us, there are so many of us,” they chant in a don’t-mess-with-us sort of way.

He’s possibly North America’s most prolific rap collaborator. This discography doesn’t mention his many guest appearances: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onry_Ozzborn

Clearly he’s a social animal – rap music for Ozzborn is about friendship and family and interaction as well as the catharsis of sharing your passions, nightmares, hopes and hates with an audience.

He recalls his first musical partnership: ‘I was playing college baseball in Arizona and took a break, came up to Seattle to hang out with Sleep, ’cause me and Sleep grew up in New Mexico. I never went back. I quit college and everything, and focused on music.’

As a rapper he has a distinctive tone; weathered, warm, sad, determined. He has a gothic sensibility in that he creates many ‘memento mori‘ moments. There’s an obvious melancholic, even morbid streak through much of his material [which has earned him emo fans] but he is very aware that people, including his two children, are looking up to him.

“I am a father. I feel that I am a role model and I don’t want my son to be embarrassed by the music that I make. I want him to be able to listen to the music I make and appreciate it.”

His flows are versatile and emotionally nuanced. The many collaborations have forced Onry to become adept at different styles and song structures.

Here’s ‘Scarecrow’ from the Grayskul album ‘Bloody Radio’

And here’s the autobiographical ‘Missing’ from the same album.

The neck-snapping ‘The O.O.’ from his solo album ‘Hold On For Dear Life’.

‘Hosanna in the Highest’ from DarkTime Sunshine album Anx.

And how ‘bout the poppy ‘Never Cry Wolf’ featuring the enigmatic Reva DeVito?

Rappers are often judged by how ‘real’ they are. Rapping in a stark documentary fashion is still valued highly. Ozzborn’s albums however quite unapologetically switch from the real to the surreal from song to song. He’s himself in one song, an alter ego in the next, exercising his imagination here, and exorcising demons there, heart-in-mouth and heart-on-sleeve.

I met Onry back in 1998 when Oldominion [the 9 members of the 26 strong crew who made up the tour were spell-binding] were playing in Indianapolis and he was particularly gracious and grateful when I said I liked their live performance and that I had bought a couple of their cds. More than most rappers I’ve met, Onry communicates gratitude with sincerity and humility.

Grayskul are releasing a new 17-track album called ‘Zenith’ this week. As a taster check out the ever so mean ‘Come On’.

Themes include school shootings, hollow social media existence, fatherhood, and the false allure of the club. https://www.circleintosquare.com/item/zenith

Onry Ozzborn – Rap Elevator 21 – spiritual, convivial, versatile, gothic, prolific explorer of the conscious and subconscious.

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Elevator 20: Shad

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One thing that makes you sit up, shut up and take notice as a rap listener is when a rapper speaks uncomfortable truths about the world or him or herself. That steely-eyed, crude honesty is what draws so many people to hip-hop. We connect because we’ve been yearning for someone to say what’s being said. We think, ‘Wow, I’m not courageous enough to say this, but I’m so glad that somebody is’.

Another thing that makes us take notice is when a rapper clearly enjoys rapping. I remember Haych of M.S.I & Asylum giddily bouncing around the room as he unveiled a fresh verse. My friend Sensei C has a look of sheer glee in his eyes as he tongue-twists his way through a cadence-shifting rap song.

Kenyan-born, Ontario-raised rapper Shad exhibits both qualities. He tackles tough truths and he undoubtedly loves what he does, both the lyric writing and the reciting. You can see it written all over his face.

Exhibit One: his new single ‘Stylin’:

I discovered Shad in 2010 when I saw the ‘Yaa I Get It [Remix]’ video.  I was impressed not just by his confidence but also his sweating in the underground bunker shots – he was keeping that little crowd hyped. I thought, ‘Woh, this man is willing to put in work’.

He is an extremely well rounded emcee. His flows are stunning. The track ‘Brother (Watching) ’ [from his 2007 album ‘The Old Prince’] has one multi-syllable rhyme scheme running right through both verses and not one time does the rhyme feel shoehorned in. It’s a perfect marriage of aural form, function and heavyweight subject matter.

‘Keep Shining’ is a heart-felt ode to womankind. He highlights women’s strengths, vulnerabilities, beauty, courage and how much better the world would be if women really got to show their full potential.

Yet as well as maneuvering through the more serious lyrical terrain Shad enjoys poking fun at himself.

As Pitchfork rightly points out Shad is ‘spiritual without being preachy, righteous without being self-righteous, and human without sounding mundane.’

Shad has recently put out this choose-your-price e.p. : http://shadk.bandcamp.com/album/the-spring-up

His new album, Flying Colours, will be released in October. Here’s his site.

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Elevator 19: Kool A.D.

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Let me briefly introduce my 70 elevators guest writer. He’s Tom Grant aka Sensei C, a rap lyricist, musician and freestyle specialist. Here are his thoughts on our nineteeth rap elevator:

Many rappers present a somewhat idealized version of themselves in their music, others take a more dynamic and open approach. The Bay Area’s Kool A.D. aka Victor Vasquez most certainly sits in the latter category. With lyrics, which juxtapose nonsense poetry, self-deprecating abstract humour, obscure cultural references and socio political critique you would be hard pressed to describe Kool as stylistically narrow.

Content can be hard hitting or trivial, cutting or light hearted; and that is what makes it so engaging. The listener has a sense of seeing a multi faceted, 3D personality emblazoned on the track and the execution is sufficiently crafted in its subtlety and idiosyncrasy as to conjure something as vivid and deep as it is colloquial. When Kool refers to himself as “rap James Joyce” you may argue he is not so far off the mark.

A recurring theme through Kool A.D.’s music is society’s systemic prejudices and the complexity of personal identity and the range of ways people are perceived. His own family background is a mixture of Afro Cuban and Italian heritage and you can recognize his predisposition to challenging stereotypes. Kool A.D. was one of the two vocalists in the now defunct rap group Das Racist. In the hilarious tracks ‘Shorty Said’ and ‘Puerto Rican Cousins’ Kool and Heems make reference to white America using “Puerto Rican” as a catch all phrase for non-whites of ambiguous background.

Beyond this Kool’s lyrics and videos are peppered with juxtaposed images and seemingly unlikely partners. In an age where artists heavyhandedly throw together vague abstractions Kool inhabits a cleverly stylised reality. Whether referring to “the Jewish Eddie Murphy in your barber shop” or “half black Bill Clinton” or depicting beautiful women commanding authority whilst toting AK-47s Kool’s work is constantly flouting the narrow categories of modern culture.

However, much more than being a stylistic oddity, Kool A.D. is also a uniquely gifted MC with a skillful and versatile flow, razor sharp rhyme schemes and evocative wordplay. In spite of what many would call an understated, monotone delivery he is capable of capturing a variety of moods to compliment pretty much any type of beat conceivable whether it be trappy, dusty, avant garde or auto tuned.

In spite of presenting himself against such an array of backdrops what is striking about Kool A.D. is the consistency of the character presented which always comes across as naturalistic and at ease with itself. There’s an effortless spontaneity, which creates the feeling of a verse being an everyday conversation, with Victor sat in the room nonchalantly chatting to the listener, pausing occasionally to let out his signature chuckle which can be heard throughout his discography.

Kool elevates the art form of rap by being relaxed enough to explore the dynamic nature of communication, not just what is presented but what is alluded to within the delivery and content through a real sense of character. His throaty, barely audible voice at the beginning of “Money Ball” is perfectly emblematic of this, capturing the casual tone of conversation as though it were being delivered from across the dinner table, drink in hand. This off-handed starter makes the song’s second verse all the more poignant as Kool dissects modern social dichotomies and double standards with lines like “Schools demand overachievers, abandon the beliefs of the families and leave em stranded/ and bland soliloquies of snitches who would call their fam Philistines, n***a please!”.

This is conscious rap without the one sided, disconnected preaching that plagues other artists. When he tells us “my jeans are probably made up in the Phillipines/By a little kid who would kill to live as ill as me/ or some s**t, man I’m dumb, I don’t read enough” he is not simply reporting on the contradictions of modern life, he is embodying them and placing himself within the problem.

You might say the unreliable author is the one actually keeping it real.

Tom Grant

Maybe the best place to start your Kool A.D. odyssey is here:

http://koolad.bandcamp.com/track/tv-eye-prod-amaze-88

Maybe not. Maybe it’s here:

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Elevator 18: Ana Tijoux

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Ana Tijoux has a global voice. She raps in Spanish and French. When asked what her first language is, she responds: ‘My parents used to speak to me in Spanish and I used to answer everything in French. I think I’ve got both languages in my head.’

She was born in Lille, France to Chilean parents living in political exile during the Pinochet dictatorship. The family moved back to Chile when Ana was 14. The hip-hop culture she embraced in France proved to be truly global and provided continuity in her new life in South America. Soon she was rapping as part of popular hip-hop group Makiza.

Her solo albums ‘Kaos’ released in 2007 and the Grammy nominated ‘1977’ in 2009 paved the way for her most accomplished full-length release ‘La Bala’. It’s this album, which translates as ‘The Bullet’, I want to point you towards. It is a fiery, mature, diverse piece of work.

Shock is a protest song. “Poison: your monologues,” Tijoux raps. “Your black and white speeches, you don’t see that we aren’t alone, millions from pole to pole!”

In the song ‘No Sacar La Voz’ she speaks: ‘Walk upright and breathe, fearlessly speak out’

Then there’s this absolute bruiser of a track ‘Las Cosas por su Nombre’, Tijoux’s blunt response to the Chilean Minister of Culture’s criticism of some of her Twitter content.

One fan at a gig in Oakland, California pointed out: “She’s the essence of hip-hop, She’s speaking truths, she’s speaking revolution.”

And that’s a striking aspect of Tijoux’s delivery. She’s a speaker not a shouter, a rapper not a ranter, a singer not a show-off. The voices of dissident that are actually heard and feared are not the hysterical ones but rather the ones that speak truth clearly, confidently and consistently. Ana Tijoux is a wordsmith, a versatile vocalist, a protestor, a mum and an international rap elevator.

‘La Bala’s closer ‘Volver’ is so beautiful and mellow I couldn’t resist adding it to this post, despite it featuring no rap whatsoever.

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Elevator 17: P.O.S

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Big label rappers get flabby. Their lyrics become inane, if they weren’t already. Their live performances are flashy but many lack basic emcee skills, relying on the audience’s familiarity with their recorded material. Unsurprisingly many lose that dynamic do-or-die work ethic.

Here’s someone to remind us all that there’s another class of rap vocalist. His name is Stefon Alexander, better known as P.O.S. He is one of hardest working rappers in the world right now, and oh yeah, he’s in desperate need of a kidney transplant. Over the last few years he’s performed entire tours while enduring significant physical pain every day.

Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Stefon is a part of numerous bands including the magnificent Doomtree. Last year at a Doomtree show here in Birmingham I bought P.O.S’s album ‘Never Better’ and got to meet the man himself. The title track of this 2009 album has got a repeated phrase, which is a genuinely inspiring mantra: ‘Every never is now’.

Despite the fact that many P.O.S tracks exist in dark and difficult territory, he is a self-proclaimed optimist.

‘F**k Your Stuff’ is a playful anti-consumerist anthem and features on his 4th solo album ‘We Don’t Even Live Here’ released in 2012. As well as being a blunt indictment of capitalism and celebrity rap, ‘F**k Your Stuff’ is a great example of the instrumentation that makes Stefon’s music compelling. His fusing of various genres simply works.

‘Bumper’ is the album opener. It’s yet another song, which made me realize that while other rappers look really out of their depth when surrounded by live instruments Stefon looks at home and in control.

Whether he’s reworking De La Soul’s ‘I Am, I Be’ or roaring out lyrics as part of punk band ‘Wharf Rats’ or dodging percussive missile attacks, P.O.S’s determination, sense of humour and steely optimism shine through.

He tells more of his story in this interview.

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Elevator 16: Lyrics Born

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My first experience of Lyrics Born was a gig in Cincinnati. He and fellow vocalist Lateef opened up their set with a song in which they rapped completely different verses simultaneously. It was, as you can imagine, confusing. In the recording of this signature song the opening verses are panned, one in your left ear, the other in your right making it somewhat more approachable. As I listened I realized that the verses aren’t completely different. There’s a single word both Lyrics Born and Lateef utter together. I was overawed when I discovered this. This is deep, rich rap, which you can’t and aren’t meant to absorb on your first listen.

Born in Tokyo, raised in Berkeley, California, Lyrics Born is a master of conversation as well as a master of ceremony. He can howl out an old school party chant or quietly share his heart with you over a cup of coffee. Many rappers don’t ever consider speaking to rather than shouting at their listener.

The man can sing too and he integrates melody brilliantly into his rap flow. Listen to ‘Bad Dreams’ for proof. However his deep affection for funk and 80’s R’n’B means that he frequently moonlights as a soul-pop-funk crooner. I doubt I’ll ever fully digest the syrupy sounds of songs like this, but it’s a BIG part of Lyrics Born’s musical life and he doesn’t seem to care about scoring cool points.

The two things I admire most about Lyrics Born are :

Firstly he’s been involved in the making of not one but several of what I believe are the greatest rap songs of all time. For example ‘Balcony Beach’. It is completely immersive, disarming, encouraging and continues to be a source of inspiration for me.

The song ‘Storm Warning’ is a flawless expression of narrative rap; the music, the rhythms and the alliteration working in onomatopoeiaic harmony to mesmerising effect.

Secondly the way he and Lateef interweave their lyrics is a rare thing. Latyrx, as they are known together as, are probably the pinnacle of rap collaboration. The way they build off each other towards the crescendo of ‘The Last Trumpet’ is spell-binding.

Here are some other Lyrics Born / Latyrx heavy hitters:

Bad Dreams

Hardship Enterprise