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Elevator 14: Dave

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Dave from De La Soul is in my opinion is one of the greatest voices in the history of rap music. De La Soul formed in Long Island, New York in 1987. Their very first demo song ‘Plug Tunin’ is one of the highlights of 1980’s rap music. For a while De La Soul were unignorable.

Dave is a team player, so much so that you rarely hear about him without hearing about Pos, the other rapper in De La Soul. These emcees share verses and frequently back up each other’s lyrics and ideas. Unlike Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav or Andre and Big Boi of Outkast, the De La Soul vocalists are on the same wavelength. So what does Dave have that’s distinctive?

Dave’s vocal delivery exudes the melancholy and soulfulness of the rhythm and blues tradition – he doesn’t flaunt or draw attention to it. It’s just there.

His voice has both authority and a colloquial warmth, but listen closely and you’ll hear a deep anger brewing. The anger does at times spill out like in the classic ‘Stakes is High’. Dave’s verse starts in the laundrette:

Dave less frequently opts for the uppercut punchline than Pos and therein lies his power: restraint, understatement, wicked satire. His verses are like an unbroken stare that makes you second-guess yourself.

My journey with hip-hop music began properly listening to Doug E Fresh and Whodini but it was De La Soul’s startlingly creative album 3 Feet High and Rising and its follow-up De La Soul is Dead that spoke to me in a way that was life changing.

The tragic narrative of Millie Pulled A Pistol on Santa blew my mind, as did the up-tempo defiance of Say No Go. De La Soul managed to conjure up the image of Much Ado about Nothing set in a Burger King and exhibited satirical wit and sincerity in equal measures. These albums made me believe that rappers could be limitlessly creative, playful and dead serious. Dave is all three.

De la Soul will release a new album this year. Here’s their new single ‘Get Away’: Dave’s verse starts 1 min. 40 sec. in with ‘And some’ll believe that they’re leaders…’

Trying People

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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.