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Elevator 33: Anton Serra

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Here are four definitions of the term cipher or cypher:

  1. A code often created by an encryption algorithm
  2. A secret language
  3. A zero
  4. A circle made by a group of hip-hop performers especially rappers, in which each member is given time to rap, beatbox, break, etc.

The density of slang within a lot of North American rap for years served a strong, poignant purpose. It excluded most people. It included just a few. This encrypted conversation was for and by poor mainly young African-Americans.

It was made up of generations of regional slang terms and cultural references layered on top of each other, making the cyphers different in each area. Now thanks to online slang dictionaries the code has been broken. This secret language is no longer a secret. Something that was special and exclusive has been dissected and fed to white pop stars for cultural appropriation. However in many other parts of the world, rap has retained its protective slang barrier where the overworked and underprivileged can speak freely to each other.

Anton Serra is part of Lyon hip-hop collective L’Animalerie. His lyrics are strewn with ‘argot’ slang; something Victor Hugo called ‘the language of misery’ in his 1862 book Les Miserables.

‘We can hardly recognize it,’ Hugo exclaims. ‘Is it really the French tongue, the great human tongue?…The words are uncouth, and marked by an indescribably fantastic beastliness.’

Anton Serra’s words are uncouth AND brilliant and dexterous. His intense, wide-eyed delivery is absolutely captivating. I think his vocal inflections and phrasing are amongst the punchiest and most beguiling in rap music history, despite me understanding only a fraction of the poetry.

In the early 90s Anton wrote on the walls of Lyon, before moving from graffiti to rap lyrics. His four solo releases are: Frandjos, Antoster Lapwasserra, Sales Gones and his 2010 Bootleg

I love Serra’s confidence and wit. To me, he’s the most accomplished rapper within L’Animalerie by a country mile. In the various music videos featuring the whole crew though he doesn’t showboat. He seems content to play his part and enjoy the fraternal energy.

On this song ‘The Lions Are Solitary’, which Serra shares with Lucio Bukowski, he talks about his past failures, adversaries made out of plaster, his wolf-like eyebrows and questioning himself on who the real pillars in his life are.

This example of Serra’s awesome delivery features the lines: ‘Even my psychiatrist had a hard time following me – He thinks he knows everything, but doesn’t know his own future’

Here he starts his verse: ‘I go Piano Piano and this without Herbie Hancock – You’re listening but missing an ear like Van Gogh – You won’t find a booty-call in Bangkok’

‘Zairo’ is an ode to his graf friends and his city

This acoustic version of ‘Love Kills’ retains all of its melancholic bite

Here he contemplates old age, hoping to spend time with family and friends but fearing incontinence and arthritis and Scrabble games alone:

I get the feeling that Serra and his L’Animalerie team don’t care what’s going on in Paris or Marseille or New York for that matter. They have carved out their own niche and speak in their own cipher. We as outsiders have the opportunity to look in on a master in the craft of rap, despite most of Serra’s lingo going over most of our heads.

Only those who fully immerse themselves in argot, who fully enter this special cypher, get to experience the full impact of our 33rd Elevator and that’s the way it should be.

Thanks to Nathan Kellum for helping me dig into the lyrics
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Read This First: An Introduction

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Where does hip-hop music truly live and thrive? On which continents? In which languages?

Since the music industry spotlight is still mainly aimed at the most shallow, narcissistic and destructive manifestations of the rap genre, I felt I had to play my part in drawing attention to rappers who are elevating the art form.

Of course I could have written one single blog post with a list of 70 rappers with copious links and videos, but I wanted 70elevators to be a celebration of one brilliant lyricist at a time. I never reveal everything I like about a particular artist. I’d rather introduce [or reintroduce] you to the rapper and let you forge your own relationship with the music.

I think we’re living in a new golden age of hip-hop music right now. Look past the pop-rap buffoonery. There’s a world of mesmerizing, brutally honest, sharp-witted, prophetic and activating rap songs out there. Let’s enjoy AND share these songs!

If you enjoy the blog, why not subscribe to it by hitting the FOLLOW button at the top of the sidebar over here >>> and please comment about the elevators that stand out to you. Which rapper do you really connect with?

Take your time. Don’t speed through the blog entries. Some raps are incredibly well crafted and deserve to breathe a little.

I’m inviting you to a fine rhyme tasting session.

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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 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:

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Elevator 4: Ty

Yes! Our 1st UK elevator!

Some lyricists elevate the art of rap through tongue-twisting flights of fancy coaxing us to expand our imaginations, others elevate through plainspoken observations, pithy diatribes and candid anecdotes. Ty aka Ben Chijioke has spent the last decade diligently making clear-minded, soulful, snap-your-neck hip-hop music.

He’s willing to point out not only the injustices and turmoil of 21st century life in general, but his own heartaches, gripes and struggles knowing full well that vulnerability, sincerity and social concern are perceived by some hip-hoppers as weak and uncool.

I think Ty can’t help but be honest and he couldn’t care less about machismo. While other rappers chameleon their way through their career Ty just spits it how he sees it. Accordingly in conversation he’s dialectic. He’s friendly, but he’s not automatically agreeable. You know he’s a good listener because at times he will disagree with you very specifically. How refreshing.

It’s this at times awkward honesty mixed with his playful gruffness, which makes Ty such a distinctive voice in UK and global hip-hop. Add his warmth and wit and you have some classic rap songs.

‘Closer’, released in 2006, is the Ty album that I’ve spent proper time with. It’s such a solid, well-produced and heartfelt record. For me this is the perfect soundtrack to everyday life: sitting on the train, cleaning out the garage or folding laundry.

But there’s one more thing that makes this Londoner a true elevator: he speaks hope, much needed, painfully rare hope. And honestly, it’s more fun to party in an atmosphere of hope than of zombie-like hedonism.

I implore you to listen to these songs on proper speakers or quality headphones – they are meant to be heard AND felt.
His latest release ‘Like You Never’ is the first single from the upcoming ‘A Kick Snare & An Idea’ EP on the Tru Thoughts label. If you want to know what Ty’s about, these lyrics are a good place to start.

More hope, more determination and one of the slinkiest beats ever recorded:

‘We Don’t Care’ from his album ‘Upwards’ (2005)

‘Don’t Cry’ from ‘Special Kind of Fool’ (2010) – just close your eyes and listen to this one – the video is a bit of a distraction

His Tru Thoughts label page

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Elevator 3: Fleur Earth

I discovered Fleur Earth via the killer track ‘Stein Im Brett’ on hip-hop producer Suff Daddy’s mainly instrumental album ‘Suff Sells’. Something about her tone of voice grabbed me, so I looked for more material and found gems. Since living in Germany as a teenager, German hip-hop has been one of the ways I’ve stayed connected with the language and I love hearing the various dialects.

Fleur was born in the DDR [East Germany] and raised in the Congo, before moving to Köln as a teenager. She is one of those rare artists who’s both a great singer AND rapper and frequently mixes the two effortlessly. Witty, ethereal, intimate, experimental and cryptic Fleur plays with her listeners. During this lengthy interview she says that as she manifests your emotions through poetry, ‘you could either rationalize grammatically or write it out the way it’s in your head’. She chooses the latter, ‘so my lyrics are hard for some to understand at first, because they haven’t yet explored the outer boundaries’.

Her other stage name is Forsch. Should ‘Forsch’ be translated as ‘outspoken/brisk’ or as ‘research’? I don’t know. Both translations work. In this interview she points out: ‘There’s always an inherent curiosity in humans and when you earnestly pursue that curiosity you quickly start to address the question, ‘What’s my purpose here on earth?’

Her release with producer Quo Vadis ‘Forsch und Facette’ is a departure from her more accessible soulful records. It is hypnotic and quietly ferocious. Fleur Earth is one of the most compelling poet/singer/rappers I’ve yet come across in the German language.

This track ‘Ballade Der Wege’ is superb on every level. And woh, the flow.

‘What is it about her that is so magical?’ – from the chorus on this track ‘Magisch’.

You can listen to her ‘Kurzschluss’ [meaning Short Circuit] album here: http://www.fleurearth.com/music/kurzschluss-lp/

April 2020 Update
You can read up on Fleur Earth’s discography on her site.

Listen to her 2019 ‘Mega Herz’ album here and watch a video for the summery ‘Kristallklarer Kick’ below. Fleur, it would appear, is doing less rapping and more singing these days, but hey, perhaps that’s where the vibes are taking her.

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Elevator 2: Propaganda

I first came across the music of L.A. rapper Jason Petty aka Propaganda in 2004. I saw his CD and realized he was a member of the rap crew Tunnelrats, who were all sharp-witted, spiritually earnest and lyrically acrobatic. And sure enough Propaganda displayed all those qualities.

The best California rappers have the ability to draw you in with the warmth of their humor and slang and then blindside you with tragic tales, uncomfortable imagery or challenging ideas. Yes, Propaganda has it too.

His ‘Excellent’ album and his subsequent records are not easy listening. They’re BBQs and barbed wire, they’re theology and cultural criticism, they’re activism and fatherhood. His versatility is a wonderful thing, but ultimately it’s his prophetic edge that makes him such a vital figure in contemporary culture.

He brings up uncomfortable truths about America’s ugly history. He dares his rap contemporaries to lose the whole world and gain back their souls. He candidly shares his own brokenness and his fierce allegiance to Jesus and his Upside Down Kingdom. His words point us towards revolution, repentance, forgiveness and joy.

Here he introduces himself and his ‘Excellent’ album:

and here’s the title track:

I’m very grateful for Propaganda. Through him the Divine has spoken to my spirit. May God bless his socks off.

Here’s ‘Redefined Cutter’, an emotive autobiographical rap attack – beautiful stuff:

‘Crimson Cord’ gives us a good sense of his depth, his theology and his willful musical left-fieldness:

April 2020 Update
These last 7 years have been busy ones for Propaganda. As well as a many collaborations including ‘I Am Becoming’, a photojournalistic poetry book with Oakland-raised Kristopher Squints and The Red Couch, a hard-hitting, super honest podcast with his wife Dr. Alma Zaragoza-Petty, he’s released three more albums:
Crimson Cord (2014)
Crooked (2017)
Nothing But A Word (2019) (with Derek Minor)

As an activist he continues to speak out on numerous hot button issues including culture appropriation and the toxic nature of colourblindness.

Check these songs:

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Elevator 1: Homeboy Sandman

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First of all, welcome! Welcome rap fans, rap veterans, rap doubters, rap visionaries, rap beginners, rap genre toe-dippers. 70 Elevators has arrived.

Meet Homeboy Sandman, the first of the 70 Elevators.

He’s a New York vocalist, who sticks out like a sore thumb. His first recordings were released in 2007 and by the following year he was receiving accolades all over the place. He clearly struck a chord. But what makes him distinctive? On one level, he simply has a love for language, which is almost giddy. He attacks the listener with astounding assonance, he spins sentences, and delivers whole verses in a sing-song duotone drawl as if he got carried away on a stream of consciousness and forgot that he was recording a song.

Some of his raps seem to be structured specifically to overwhelm the listener lyrically, but it’s clear from his live performances that Homeboy Sandman genuinely wants to connect with people and engage their minds and spirits. He isn’t afraid to be aggressive, tender-hearted or nerdy. I love ‘The Carpenter’. I think it’s worth opening up this video and watching it in HD.

In an interview with aweh.tv he was asked whether there was a running theme throughout his music. Homeboy responded: ‘Honesty, integrity, bravery, courage, defiance, and faith are a few themes that I think weave their way throughout all my work.’ He is unabashed about seeing a new breed of hip-hop practitioners impacting culture positively in direct opposition to mainstream rap.

This is classic hypnotic Homeboy Sandman

In a short interview I asked him if he was introducing someone to hip-hop music what would be the one album he would get them to listen to? He said: ‘Do You Want More??!?!! by The Roots’. In fact on his wonderfully candid track ‘Not Really’ he speaks with almost childlike hero worship of the rapper Black Thought of The Roots.

He’s a passionate prose writer too.

Here’s his site: www.homeboysandman.com An ol’ Groovement interview

April 2020 Update
Since I wrote this post Homeboy Sandman has released more astonishing records including these albums:
Hallways (2014)
Kindness for Weakness (2016)
Veins (2017)
Humble Pi (2018) (with Edan)
Dusty (2019)

and these EPs:
All That I Hold Dear (2013)
White Sands (2014)
Lice (2015) (with Aesop Rock)
Lice Two: Still Buggin’ (2016) (with Aesop Rock)
Lice Three: Triple Fat Lice (2017) (with Aesop Rock)

There’s so many newer songs I could point you to, but these are fire: