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Elevator 29: Andre 3000

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Andre Benjamin aka Andre 3000 is hard to ignore. It’s very likely you’ve already heard this rap master as part of the hip hop duo Outkast, but is there more behind the flair and panache of Southern rap’s most convivial voice?

After the perfect drum fill 24 seconds into Outkast’s debut single ‘Player’s Ball’ Andre was unleashed on the world and he’s been charming listeners ever since. Break down the lyrics to that song and you’re confronted with a slang fest describing Christmas in the ghettos of Atlanta, Georgia. From the start Outkast and their crew the Dungeon Family broke the mold.

When they wrote their first album Andre and Big Boi were teenagers. ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’ is a coming of age album, awkward and weed-fueled, full of cars, contradicting desires and sharp-witted straight-talk. The lush live musical backdrop perfectly complimented Andre’s Southern drawl. The content was insightful yet immature.

Outkast’s follow up album ‘ATLiens’ really made people sit up and take notice. It’s one of the most brilliant follow-up albums in hip-hop history. Andre was on fire. Every verse he recorded had a witty punch line or pithy proverb or both. His rhyme schemes were graceful and acrobatic.

The wide spectrum of colours that ‘ATLiens’, ‘Aquemini’ and ‘Stankonia’ conjure up is arguably unique. Ranging from Day-Glo yellow to deep umber every listen becomes this disheveling journey to a dusty street corner to the planet Venus to a crude chat-up line in a nightclub to a warzone to a family BBQ to that leaky house in the ‘Ms. Jackson’ music video and back again. As the NME’s Derek Bardowell points out Outkast “hit that rare balance of creative eccentricity and mass appeal”.

Andre’s verse starts around 1.40:

Andre has been involved in writing songs with obvious mass appeal. In iTunes’ first year in existence, Outkast’s single ‘Hey Ya’ was the most downloaded song. ‘Roses’ is another poppy ear-worm – once it’s in your head it’s difficult to shake. But who could have predicted how much acclaim Outkast would receive for  ‘B.O.B.’, their turn-of-the-century anthem: a charging rhino of bass and zeitgeist bad news?

Andre’s career is built on contrast: reality and mysticism, cheery 3 minute pop songs and lengthy rap tirades, vulgarity and vulnerability, silk scarves and combat boots, exhibitionism and shyness, social commentary and syrupy sweet ballads, apparent misogyny and philogyny, youthfulness and memento mori. There’s a whole essay to be written about Andre’s impact on perceptions of African-American beauty, sexuality and sensuality, but not here.

This autobiographical track traces his on-going transformation:

Andre is a showman, a sweet talker, a whimsical lyricist with a conscience, a romantic, a storyteller, a street philosopher, a gentlemen rebel and an ice-cold realist. It’s this irresistible combination that has made his work stand out. For many people Andre is a flamboyant Prince-esque pop singer. But for many 20 and 30-somethings worldwide regardless of their background there’s solace and inspiration in the rap verses of the man with the convivial voice.

Recently Andre’s been involved in other art-forms: acting and fashion designing and he’s in no hurry to record a solo record. It would be difficult to predict what he’ll do next. You can see him play Jimi Hendrix in a new biopic.

In a 2012 Vibe interview he said: “I write lyrics every day…sometimes they turn into raps, they turn into melodic songs, or they just turn into song titles. But I haven’t said ‘Okay, I’m putting this album out right now.’ I’m not at that place. I just have to find something that I’m super excited about and right now I’m just chasing that feeling, man.” 

He does regularly guests on others rap songs, so I’m sure soon someone will ask me with wide-eyed anticipation: ‘Hey, did you hear that new Andre verse?!?

Here’s a solid interview with Andre from 2005.

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Elevator 27: Chuck D

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‘Fight the Power’ is arguably the most iconic and important rap song ever made. Public Enemy is arguably the most iconic and important rap group of all time. Right in the centre of the action is rapper Chuck D, a man who has eloquently opened the minds of numerous generations to the true state of the world and our ability to be agents of change. His contribution to rap is immeasurable.

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of playing ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ to primary school classes, explaining to them the various elements that make Chuck D’s group so unique and giving them Public Enemy illustrations to colour in.

At times while listening to Public Enemy I start to weep. It happened again today. The sonic hurricane, the audacity of the lyrics, the mockery and fury in Chuck’s booming delivery, his belief that change can happen and the sheer ridiculousness that many of the grave injustices Public Enemy have been pointing out for the last 30 years have still never been addressed by those responsible.

Public Enemy isn’t just a clever name. The powers that be have set their media blood hounds on them throughout the years in an attempt to silence the group. They’ve also been an annoyance to other rappers who Chuck D claims have sold their souls away or are paying inadequate respect to their musical forefathers.

‘New Whirl Odor’, ‘There’s a Poison Goin’ On’, ‘Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age’, ‘The Evil Empire of Everything’:  album titles that paint a bleak picture. The strange thing is that despite Chuck being a prophet of doom, he’s approachable, warm and humble. In 2011 after performing a 25-song set at the Institute in Birmingham, I witnessed Chuck’s post-gig activities. This 51-year-old had the time and an astounding reservoir of energy to meet people [fans and others artists], to engage in proper conversations, to encourage and simply listen.

Chuck D’s manner, his lyrics and his cadence are that of a sports coach. He’s putting you through a body-breaking exercise, but he’s there with you, looking you in the eyes, cheering you on. He’s a leader, the kind of leader that is quick to point out others abilities and contributions.

Chuck D is a sage and a 5th columnist, black, proud, crystal-clear, unflinching, honourable, humble, deeply creative, a strategist, a revolutionary voice: in short AmeriKKKa’s real worst nightmare.

It seems impossible to turn earnest messages and discordant, pounding, screaming music into party anthems, but Public Enemy have made it happen over and over again. Because of the sheer magnitude of the PE sound, it was essential to have a primary vocalist whose voice cut through the racket. Chuck at times steamrolls over the beat, with idiosyncratic pauses and cadences more akin to beat poets or preachers.

Are you a long time rap music fan? Try to imagine hip-hop without Public Enemy. Try to imagine hip-hop without Chuck D’s baritone sermons. Imagine hip-hop without the outbursts of the world’s most charismatic jester/hypeman Flavor Flav. What a horrible vision that is!

In a world of easily snappable sapling rappers, Chuck D is a towering Sequoia redwood: steady, unshakeable and inspiring.

More killer tracks: Shut ‘Em Down and Air Hoodlum.

Here’s recent Chuck D interviews with Tavis Smiley and Arsenio Hall

PE’s induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame [some profound moments in this 21 minute clip]

Tune into Chuck’s weekly radio show here: www.rapstation.com/BEATSandPLACESTheSOUNDofHistory

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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 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 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 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

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Elevator 15: DoseOne

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Back in 1997 I made predictions about Adam ‘DoseOne’ Drucker’s rap career. I was dead wrong and I’m happy I was wrong. I told my brother and various other hip-hop heads, ‘Wow, this Dose-1 has to be one of the best rappers in the world; it’s just a pity so few people are ever gonna hear him.’

I love his demeanour, his imagery, his multiple complex flows, his voice, his ready-to-pounceness, his unabashedly theatrical delivery.

I guess I thought that other people just wouldn’t dig him. There is no one quite like DoseOne. My wife calls him ‘The Worm’. This is what he sounded like in the late 90’s.

I first met him a few hours before he freestyle-battled Enimem at Scribble Jam 1997. We planned to hang out during the months I lived in Cincinnati but it didn’t work out. I still have a tape of him freestyling on a radio show called ‘B-boys Underground’ from around that time. His intensity clearly made an impression on a number of like-minded left-fielders. He co-founded Anticon, moved to Northern California, worked his ass off, toured extensively and sure enough, he’s made many colourful, ambitious, experimental and dynamic records since. I was wrong. Other people do dig ‘im.

Here’s his man-being-chased-by-a-? collaboration with Slug

This is the doused-in-angst, perfectly delivered ‘Soft Atlas’

I love his work with Jel as the group Themselves.

How ’bout Good People Check or Oversleeping?

To call his shows [especially with his band Subtle, which is really a deluxe version of Themselves] engaging would be an understatement. Dose’s stage presence is immense. He beguiles the audience by cracking surreal jokes, by pulling plastic forks out of a painted skull and by whispering in individual audience members’ ears. He dares you to mock him. He might not have the same exact motives as comedian Andy Kaufmann, but he clearly wants the audience to be impacted by the show, by the interaction, by his carnivorous poetry filtered through growls and roars, by Jel’s nifty finger work on the MPC, by the spectacle even if it means being heckled and misunderstood.

By the way Subtle are the best hip-hop band I have ever seen: tight, epic, surreal, melodic, ethereal and funny.

Amazing in the studio too:

In this interview with close friend and collaborator Yoni Wolf, Dose talks about his early musical journey and his childhood.

Dose will treat you, the listener, like his sparring partner, his local corner store owner, his ex-partner, his best friend, his therapist, his art teacher, his rap battle nemesis, his muse, his fellow wanderer. Listening to a DoseOne record is like stumbling through The Wood between the Worlds in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew dotted with mystery pools, some leading to worlds of hope, beauty and innocence, others to sloughs of existential doubt, nightmares and ‘deathiness’. Dose One is undoubtedly a disorientator and an elevator.

Here’s his artist page on Anticon.

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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