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Elevator 31: Michael Stork

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Michael Stork is arguably one of the most sophisticated, versatile and imaginative rappers to have ever grabbed a mic and he’s been my favourite rapper for years.

I’ve been anticipating writing that sentence since I started 70elevators. Yes, he’s one of my best friends. Yes, I was in a rap group with him. Yes, I’m the godfather to his daughter. But his inclusion in 70elevators is not favouritism, but rather an inevitability.

On the night I met Michael at a hip-hop night called Substance in 1998 he played the melody of Jeru’s ‘Come Clean’ by blowing across the top of a collection of whisky bottles, which had different water levels in each. This was not your average rapper or emcee.

In his university days it was clear he had an uncontainable imagination, an untamed musicality, great stage presence, an arsenal of killer flows and an unusual level of dedication to his craft. On his 5-verse epic ‘Trophies’ [about the difference in quality of life between a lioness in the wild and in captivity], verses 1 & 4 have identical syllabic patterns. The biggest hint of this is when, in both verses, in exactly the same spot there are twinned sound effects: in the former an electric fence zapping, in the latter a lioness licking.

We released two albums together as part of the rap group Michaelis Constant labelled in a Big Issue review as ‘the UK’s most unusual hip-hop team’. Mike’s verses make up many of the highlights of those two albums, ‘Foreign Correspondence’ [1999] and ‘Gondwanaland’ [2002]. Sometimes as we wrote or recited lyrics to each other he’d give me this look which said, ‘I’m just getting started – You have no idea what I’m actually capable of.’

Indeed, I had no idea he would go on to create a large series of refined-by-fire paintings, teach himself the squeeze box, the guitar and how to sing, write a hefty sci-fi novel, become an actor and a science teacher or front an indie rock band.

I asked him to name his lyrical influences. Mike responds: ‘For me it started with Goodie Mob, Del the Funky Homosapien, the Roots then moved on to David Bowie, Nick Cave and the Decemberists.’ That mile-a-minute, acrobatic, funk-tinged rap foundation is evident even when he’s messing with dubby rock, industrial, trancey electronic music, soul, folk or spoken word.

His newest release ‘The Crux’ (which you can buy here) is the perfect storm of sounds and ideas. Michael teamed up with London-based producer/guitarist/songwriter Ebenezer (the founder of Minor Artists Records). Whether electronic and acoustic these finely balanced songs grow and mutate with every listen; what initially sounds like misty pastoral ambience might on a second listen reveal itself to be the smoke-stained morning after the apocalypse.

‘The Crux’ is blind-siding beauty. Amongst Ebenezer’s dexterous synths, palpitating electronic beats and guitar scribbles, Michael Stork’s lyrics pour out with an unmistakable brightness and gravitas. When I heard the demo version of ‘Rapman Canchop’ I thought, ‘The landscape of hip-hop lyricism has just been expanded.’

Thematically Mike is unafraid to tackle innocence and guilt, the everyman and the deviant, science and folklore, spirit and flesh, the Renaissance and the drizzle-defying British BBQ, all with a delight in language and outlaw charm. ‘The Crux’ has a narrative though and it’s wise to listen to it all the way through as an EP.

‘The Abyss’ drags us into a hungry ocean of emotional and spiritual conundrums. He says: “My concepts chop and change, but rap is hard to hide in. It shows our true colours.”

There’s an unquenchable belief in Michael Stork’s eyes. He believes that we humans, fuelled by God’s Spirit, can be a force for good in the universe, that through our lives, through our words and melodies, through joviality and wonder and through whole-hearted stubborn affection we can destroy monsters and redeem empires.

Mike concludes: “Soul-aching hope for true love within time; that would be how I sum up my art.”

And here’s that incredible ‘Trophies’ track from 1999

Listen further and buy MStork material here: http://michaelstork.bandcamp.com/album/the-crux-ep

Like him and keep up to date with his latest capers here: https://www.facebook.com/mST0RK

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Elevator 13: Juice Aleem

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You know you are in the presence of true experimentalists, when in your post-gig analysis you tell the performers their songs were ‘impenetrable’ and they wear the term like a badge of honour. The event: Dedbeat Weekender 2002, the group: Gamma.

Juice Aleem, rapper with Gamma, The Infesticons and New Flesh, is a wanderer. You might spy him in Paris or South London. Is that him wandering around the dusty outskirts of hip-hop plotting a coup with bass-heavy bandits and Moorish mystics or growling out maxims from hip-hop’s epicentre? Is that a tusken raider or a shogun assassin?

Birmingham-bred Juice was the very first vocalist on the Big Dada label in 1997, has toured the globe with Coldcut and has appeared on records with various electronic luminaries for the last 15 years. A genuine MC, Juice has the ability to charm a crowd with a quick quip, whip ’em into a frenzy with a call-and-response hook or blindside ‘em with a double-time freestyle [by the way I define freestyle as ACTUAL on-the-spot improvised vocals].

Much of Juice’s material remains underexplored like ‘Understanding’ [2002] with New Flesh and ‘Permanament’ [2000] with Gamma. NME reviewer Angus Batey called the latter ‘an intense, if bewildering, experience’ and unsurprisingly misspelt the album title.

One reason why listeners are bewildered is the odd mixture of the strange beats, the dead-pan humour, the history lessons, wild flights of fancy, enciphered slang and the landmines of rage hidden throughout the various releases. But this is what happens when sonic art collides with Afrofuturism, something that Juice whole-heartedly embraces and explores.

The afrofuturist, as well as challenging the imagination, tends to bring up all kinds of inconvenient truths. Like Sun Ra and Rammellzee, Juice zig-zags between playfulness and indignation, cosmic visions and profane realities. Unfortunately the afrofuturist rapper is frequently marginalized as an irrelevant space-shit-talker.

But Afrofuturism itself calls into question what is and what isn’t relevant. In essence it transports us back to an ancient time and civilization and from that standpoint boldly shows us an alternative now and an alternative future. To do so requires alternative vocabulary too.

While admitting his own vices and foibles, Juice Aleem attempts to battering ram his way through the zombie-esque consumer culture white noise and punch a hole in our doors of perception. Can there be a future where innovation and justice are prized and Africa is a vibrant, healthy continent?

In 2009 Juice released his debut album ‘Jerusalaam Come’. It’s packed with sci-fi sirens, stern verbal battle drills, nasty thoughts, wit and whimsy, martial arts and humanities. Our family hosted the premiere crew screening of the ‘Rock My Hologram’ video in our lounge:

The vocals for ‘Jerusalaam Come’ were recorded in the house right next door and me and my daughter, who was 3 at the time, visited a recording session and added some shouting to the chorus on this track:

He is just about to unleash a new record via the forward-thinking hip-hop label Spinning Compass. Expect a thorough lambasting of the current world order, unothodox party music and a reinterpretation of the term ‘existential dread’.

Here’s the first single [produced by Roots Manuva] from the forthcoming album ‘Voodu StarChild’:

Here’s Juice’s Spinning Compass page.

The MoorKaBa LightBikes/AnuMal release is available via Itunes USA and UK

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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

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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 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