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Elevator 12: Ka

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Ka might not want me to make a big fuss about him, so how ‘bout just a little blog post? This Brownsville veteran emcee is self aware, lyrically raw and, for a rapper, unusually modest.

Ka claims: “I already know my songs are not for everyone. They’re not for the radio, the club or the masses.”

About his previous crew Natural Elements he says: “I felt like I was bringing them down. They were more lyrical than me; they were flipping a lot of fly shit. I went to start my own group Nightbreed. I got a little better. I think Kev was better than me, I still tell him that today.”

His flow is beautiful, every word placed with care. Nate Patrin of Pitchfork labels Ka’s delivery as “quietly straightforward; not an easy way to get a fickle listener’s attention.”

So, yes, Ka’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but his music is growing on me.

I think Ka is an elevator because he paints with care, creating albums with themes that permeate the tracks like a thick smog. Pain, regret, dread and as vivid a street tale spitter as anyone out there.

In this Out Da Box TV interview he says: “In the 80’s I was a teenage…Crack cocaine just exploded in the neighborhood. Some people think they was winning cause they was hustlin’ but it f**ked the whole hood up. I saw the death of the crack wars. We lost a lot. If I had a seed [offspring], I know I wouldn’t want my seed to experience shit like that. I feel like I’m hundred and something years old.”

Clearly he’s content with how his 2012 album ‘Grief Pedigree’ turned out:

Listen to the street knowledge observations of ‘Cold Facts’:

The bleak ‘Summer’:

And ‘Up Against Goliath’:

Here’s his Grief Pedigree album video playlist – He made a video for each track.

The highlights of his 2008 ‘Iron Works’ album are the melancholy ‘Sunday To Sunday’, the deadly storytelling and soundscape of ‘Iron Work’ and ‘Children’.

The refrain in ‘Children’ is a simple profound observation:

It’s the children that bring balance in the hood

So let’s not make them age faster than they should

Another pithy interview: Question in the Form of an Answer: Ka

Grab a cold drink and hang out for a few minutes with a soft-spoken street scholar. Lean in and just listen.

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Elevator 10: K Flay

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K. Flay aka Kristine Flaherty is skilled. She is a musician, a singer, a hip-hop producer and a rapper.

During her freshman year at Stanford University as a dare Kristine wrote a pop-rap parody, which she enjoyed enough to start taking hip-hop lyricism and beat-making seriously. Almost 9 years later we are better off because it. She has clearly honed her writing, her delivery, her production to the point where every lyric she conjures up sounds ridiculously natural. K. Flay was made to rap.

Her cover of the Zombies ‘Time of the Season’ sounds unforced and soulful. I’m wary of musical hybrids and I tend to avoid indie-rock-electro-rap cocktails, figuring that the flavours will clash or will be sickly sweet. Yet Kristine has written and recorded some perfect songs, which feature the angst, playfulness and sarcastic cultural critique of indie-rock, the foul-mouthed ferocity and know thy self-analysis of rap music with melodic, hynoptic choruses and hooks to kill for.

Her ‘Eyes Shut’ EP is particularly strong. Check ‘Sunburn’.

And ‘We Hate Everyone’ melds tongue-in-cheek loathing with real emotional wounds that have yet to heal.

‘Less Than Zero’ has got that overcast intensity that makes me think Kristine should collaborate with hip-hop left-fielders like Dark Time Sunshine or the Anticon chaps. They would be well matched.

Here she talks to New York Music News about head-banging.

K Flay’s various recordings together form an emotionally dense, joy-meets-sorrow, confidence-meets-self-doubt, drunken-fratparty-meets-geek, lunatic-lover-of-language explosion. She elevates rap by bringing a long-overdue worldview and woman-next-door perspective in the form of winsome, bittersweet, uncensored and intelligent rap songs.

Sandra Oh’s character in the 1998 end-of-the-world movie ‘Last Night’ tells the man she’s just met: ‘You’d better hurry up. Tell me something to make me love you.’

Kristine isn’t trying to emotionally manipulate us to make us love her. But she clearly connects with her fans both in her cathartic performances and her disarming video blogs. I will certainly be following her future projects. Anticipating the various rites of passage a North American woman in her late 20s – early 30s goes through what kind of music will K Flay be making in ten years time? And how will she deal with the crazy curve-balls life will throw at her? I, for one, am dead curious to find out. I’m gonna start by listening to her new bruiser of a mixtape/album: West Ghost. Visit her site and download it here.

By the way, I realize that this post is riddled with hyphens. I’ll try to make sure it never happens again.

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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.

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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: