Elevator 19: Kool A.D.


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:

Maybe not. Maybe it’s here:


Elevator 8: Aesop Rock


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.