Underground Rapper of the Week: X:144

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

As I’ve said before, Orlando (also known as Ozone), Florida, is one of the most exciting Hip-Hop scenes in America today, and X:144 is one of its forefathers. A modern-day renaissance man whose skills encompass emceeing, beat production, mixing, mastering and now even film and music video directing, X:144 has a vital, energetic sound that practically commands the listener to move. Along with his deejay, SPS, he is one of the most futuristic and forward-thinking artists working today, while still capturing the old school feel of ’70s soul and golden age ’90s Hip-Hop.

As a producer and recording engineer, X:144 has worked with some of the best of the past and present, including Kool G Rap, MF Doom, Saigon, Joell Ortiz, and his Orlando homies Solillaquists of Sound, and he is currently at work on an undisclosed project with Lauryn Hill. He is also the champion of several beat producer battles, including the first ever Scribble Jam Producer Battle in 2007. As a lyricist and emcee, he leans toward the socially and politically conscious style favored by Solilla, but with his own unique sound and delivery. His carefully enunciated but pleasantly drawled flow gives the impression of a man who is both smarter and harder than you, but with the self-confidence not to feel the need to flex either.

The debut album from X:144 & SPS, M.E., begins with a brief and profoundly silly goofing-around-in-the-studio intro track before launching into “The Call Out,” a banging, fast-paced track that showcases the versatility and intelligence of both artists. As the title suggests, it is something of a manifesto song that explores X:144’s many social concerns, as when he raps “Nigga, nigga, nigga, Mister Cracker / Stop actin’ like we got those differences, it don’t matter.” Many of his songs find him in this mode, but he is at least equally concerned with self-exploration, preferring to point fingers within rather than outward. As he says on “3 Degrees of Ventilation,” he is “very comfortable in my suit / Not wearin’ this shit because it looks cute,” and he is equally comfortable with all sorts of subject matter, as he proves on the wonderfully funky and insightful love songs “If the Shoe Fits …” and “Almost.”

The M.E. album’s closing tracks, “From Self” and “P.O.M.,” find X:144 stating his purpose to continue moving forward and evolving, as he clearly hopes all of humanity will. For his part, he has certainly continued to grow as an artist, branching out into the field of filmmaking by directing excellent, highly cinematic videos for two songs from Solilla’s No More Heroes album, “Gotham City Chase Scene” and “Marvel.” Since then he has also made a very funny and thoughtful short film, “That’s Kinda Gay,” which nicely skewers the absurdity of homophobic rhetoric, and a more serious short documentary, “Export to Egypt,” about his experience of the recent Egyptian revolution. He is currently at work on his first solo album, but until that’s finished, enjoy some more fiya from X:144 and fellow Ozone rapper Synopse.


How to Customize a Guitar for Your Needs

Free image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When a person is fist learning to play the guitar they are usually content to use the instrument as it was originally manufactured. Eventually, however, the desire to customize the guitar to suit one’s musical and personal styles occurs. The musician with an unlimited budget can take their guitar to a professional shop and have it revamped. However there are several modifications that can be done by the owner:

The String’s the Thing

The easiest way to customize is to change out the strings. Because strings are made of several different materials and come in a variety of gauges, the tone of a guitar can be altered with different types. Classical guitars, which used to use catgut, now typically have nylon strings. Acoustic guitar strings are made of bronze or brass with different base metals. The type of metal influences the sound. Electric guitar strings must contain at least some steel due to the need for magnetism in generating sound.

The gauge of the strings influences the ease of playing and the tonality of the instrument. Lighter gauge strings are a good choice for jazz musicians. They are also an excellent choice for beginners, since they are easier to play. Electric guitar strings can also have different types of wrappings that influence their tone.

Pickup and Party

Another way to change up and add power to the guitar’s sound is to change out the pickups. Depending on brand of guitar and the type of pickup, a fuller brighter sound can be obtained. Adding a pickup can amplify the sound and add clear tones that aren’t harsh. Adding chrome pickups creates the tight tones that perfectly compliment rock or rockabilly music.

There are manufacturers who specialize in replicating the sound of vintage guitars to recreate the roots sounds of the early days of modern rock and blues.

Scalloped Frets

A more radical way to alter the guitar is to scallop the neck. Scalloping removes the wood between the frets so that a light touch is all that’s needed to create a big sound. A scalloped neck also allows easy bending for the blues and metal rock player.

Scalloping the neck can be time consuming and requires some tools. It’s important to take care not to damage the frets when filing out the wood between them. This can be done by hand with a round file. There is a great deal of sanding and buffing involved to create a smooth trough between the frets. Power tools simplify the various steps in the process.

Changing out the head or the whole neck can alter both the appearance and sound of the instrument. There are other cosmetic modifications that can be done to personalize the guitar’s look. Cosmetic changes like adding a new pick guard, painting or adding decals will change the look without changing the sound. Although many changes are easily done at home, for more complex alterations, local guitar teachers or music store personnel can provide references.


Underground Rapper of the Week: Eyedea

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

In general, the purpose of this column is to bring attention to living artists you might not have heard before, but the influence of Michael “Eyedea” Larsen on the underground rap community is simply too large not to explore here. When he died on October 16, 2010, less than a month shy of his 29th birthday, a huge and vitally important part of the Minnesota music scene was lost. Ask any young underground rapper in the Twin Cities, and they’re sure to testify that Eyedea was a major part of their decision to get into the game. His victories battling at Scribble Jam in 1999 and the Blaze Battle New York in 2000 basically put Minnesota’s Hip-Hop scene on the map, and his legacy can still be felt in the scene today.

I first encountered Eyedea as a teenager, in a high school talent show where he was breakdancing, and subsequently freestyling in the courtyard of Highland Park Senior High School in St. Paul. When he began releasing music in my senior year (he was two years ahead of me), I instantly became a fan when I heard lines like “I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, don’t drink alcohol / Don’t carry I.D., don’t go to the mall” and “I like Jimi Hendrix more than any rap shit / My favorite movie’s Dr. Strangelove – that’s a classic” from the song “Weird Side” off his 2001 concept album The Many Faces of Oliver Hart (or: How Eye One the Write Too Think). Here was a rapper I could really identify with, a self-proclaimed weirdo who didn’t fit into any of the expected boxes and, because of his strange and unique approach, was suddenly the most exciting thing happening in local music at the time.

Eyedea and his partner DJ Abilities created something new with their first two albums, 2001’s First Born and 2004’s E&A, making Hip-Hop songs that showed a respect and love for the tradition from which they came, while exploring new territory and concepts on fascinating tracks like “Birth of a Fish” and the crowd favorite “Big Shots.” Eyedea’s distinctive flow and extraordinary storytelling ability proved he was more than just a battle rapper, and he was one of the few rappers able to make songs that could bring you to tears (like the devastating “Bottle Dreams”) or reaffirm your faith in life (like the beautiful, heartfelt “Here for You”).

Don’t get it twisted – Eyedea was probably the best battle rapper in the world in his time, and his freestyle ability was practically unparalleled. It’s just that he was never content to stand still and do the same thing, which is why he continued to experiment and grow with new projects like his rock group Carbon Carousel and his freestyle/jazz group Face Candy. His final album with Abilities, By the Throat, showed the influence of this experimentation, and the result is a heavy, abrasive, and simultaneously beautiful album that more than lives up to its name. Eyedea’s ferocious unwillingness to be just another part of the status quo can be felt throughout the album, especially on tracks like the sonic assault “Junk,” where he warns the listener “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m ready to jump.” At the same time, though, he never seemed to stop loving life, despite all its frustrations and disappointments; as he says in his guest spot on Kristoff Krane‘s song, “Best Friends,” one of his last recorded releases: “Whether five, twenty-five or eighty / As long I’m alive, I’m in love and forever changing.”


Awkward Rap

This classic spoof video from College Humor is hilarious.


Underground Rapper of the Week: Rheteric Ramirez

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

There are few emcees alive grimier and more underground than Los Angeles’ Rheteric Ramirez. One of the most respected battle rappers in GrindTimeNow, Rheteric spits creative punchlines in battles and fluent, rugged flows on gutter tracks like “Dear Diary,” a single from his upcoming, as yet untitled LP from Hellfyre Club Records, on which he breaks down his deadly battle abilities: “I hit the head on the nail, they laughin’ loud as hell / Things I say about you, wouldn’t say about yourself / This is your brain on Rheteric and I’m scramblin’ the yolk / You’ll always be on the outside of my inside joke / Dear diary, got me feelin’ I’m in the wrong genre / ‘Cause my lyrics aren’t somethin’ they’d introduce to their mama.”

Too true. Rheteric’s lyrics and subject matter are far from family-friendly, and he has no patience for soft, suburbanite hipsters and poseurs, as is evident in these lines: “You’re a productive member of society and a name-dropping social retard / With a members-only jacket and a designer flannel green scarf.” A lot of Rhet’s lyrical content involves his frustration with this gentrification of his beloved L.A., which he makes a point to warn y’all is not for everyone, but he also digs deep into his past and present feelings on tracks like “The Loneliest One” and “Tender Loving (Nothing),” and unleashes a blistering, all-encompassing rage on tracks like “Reverse Engineering.”

On the other hand, in his battles Rheteric often has a playful, humorous approach that incorporates strange, unexpected concepts like his Stephen Hawking-channeling verse in the second round of his hilarious battle against Tiger Ty, which also includes ridiculous punchlines like “You’re what happens when you do too much nitrous oxide / You’re what happens when you punch yourself when you’re cross-eyed,” and “You’re what morning breath looks like.” He is an uncompromising artist capable of jokes, vicious battle raps and pure poetry, like this gem from the second verse of “Skyscraper Cemetery”: “God named this city after angels, but did not reveal their names / To protect the identity of the demons who run this city into the grave.” In other words, Rheteric Ramirez is hard to pigeonhole, and y’all should probably give him some money while he’s young enough to enjoy it.


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