Underground Rapper of the Week: Mac Dre

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

It is far from uncommon for rappers – from Slick Rick and Flavor Flav to Andre 3000 and Lil Wayne – to create outsized, flamboyant public personae, and none have done it better than the late, great Mac Dre. For Underground Rapper of the Week’s second posthumous feature, let’s take a look at the man who could easily be called the James Brown of rap, a creator of numerous dance moves as well as an entire musical and cultural lifestyle. Though the term “hyphy,” a combination of “hyper” and “fly,” is credited to fellow Bay Area rapper Keak da Sneak, Mac Dre was perhaps its most important and revered practitioner. For those unfamiliar with this unique and eminently entertaining movement, a good place to start is the 2008 documentary Ghostride the Whip, of which Dre is the unofficial star.

Since ’84, Dre was a crazy prolific artist who strongly influenced his scene with his unique style and sound, creating dance moves like “The Bird,” “The Swabbage Patch,” “The Furly” and others described in songs like “Giggin’.” Perhaps his most influential contribution, though, was the “Thizz Face,” as seen in his live performances of songs like “Thizzle Dance.” “Thizz” is a Bay Area slang term coined by Dre for the drug MDMA, and the face is an exaggerated grimace resulting from biting into a pill. After his 1996 release from a five-year stint in prison, Dre lived for two things: his music and a lifestyle that was basically a non-stop party, which is obvious in his music. Steering clear of the violence and crime he had certainly been around in his younger days, the bulk of his lyrics focus on the good life of dancing, partying with women, and of course, his beloved thizz.

This is not earthshaking art, by any means, and Dre would be the first to admit his work wasn’t, for the most part, particularly deep. His main intention was to facilitate a wild good time, and encourage his audience to “get stupid,” by which he really seemed to mean cut loose and throw away your inhibitions. His music might seem disposable to some, but if you weren’t feeling him, you could certainly rest assured that he was always feeling himself. Though he was beloved by a huge subculture in the Bay Area and beyond, he remains an underground figure who never really crossed over to mainstream success, probably because, as he put it, he was “too hard for the radio.” Still, his legacy is continuing to be felt, as he is still shouted out by more widely known artists like Rick Ross and Drake, and his death by gunshot wound in 2004 left a gap in a vital culture. Mac Dre was and is a supremely fun rapper to listen to, and a vivid chronicler of the place he lived and loved.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Big Zach (New MC)

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

Among the pioneers and still active pillars of the Twin Cities Hip-Hop scene, one that often goes unsung is Big Zach (aka New MC) of the beloved underground crew Kanser. Though not as well-known nationally as Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Doomtree or the late, great Eyedea, Kanser is nonetheless one of the most historically important and influential groups in Minnesota, and Zach is likely second only to Eyedea as the most successful battle rapper in the state’s history. Now retired from the battle scene, Zach continues to make beautiful, thoughtful music with Kanser and his more organic “hippie-hop” group More Than Lights, as well as on his own as a solo artist.

Kanser first formed all the way back in the mid-90s, when Zach was still in high school, and though the crew began with a shifting cast of several other members, only Zach and Haitian-American rapper Unicus have remained constant from then until now. While many two emcee crews, from Outkast to Wide Eyes, function because of how closely they resemble each other vocally, Zach and Unicus complement each other’s voices in precisely the opposite way. Though they couldn’t sound much more different from one another, these is exactly what works so well about their sound, with each emcee offering his own unique perspective and experience. One of the best examples of this smooth interplay is the live favorite “Legacy” from their stellar 2008 album Future Retro Legacy, which may be their best work together.

Zach’s old side project from before More Than Lights, Traditional Methods, is also some of his best work, and having a live band behind him gives his lyrical delivery an even more organic feel. The group’s one album, Falling Forward, reflects a more political side of Zach’s lyricism, complemented by fellow emcees Sarah White and Big Shiz and backed by members of the live Hip-Hop group Heiruspecs on bass and guitar. However, Zach’s first solo album, White Jesus, remains his very best work to date. A smooth, relatable record that alternates between funny and tragic and never seems less than heartfelt, White Jesus gives the listener that rare feeling of really getting to know an artist’s life. On “Reality Rap,” Zach shows his incredible skill as a storyteller as he documents the worst year of his life: “In ’03, my summer never set in / My brother went to prison and Denny, he went to heaven.” “Sub Shop,” produced by Atmosphere’s Ant, shows a lighter side of Zach’s storytelling abilities, as he tells humorous tales of working as “the fastest sandwich maker in the world,” while “Meet the Parents” tells a slightly sweeter (but still funny) story of a past girlfriend whose parents “voted for Bush, they think Jesus was white / Probably won’t relate to his life.”

Of all the great songs on this album (and they’re all great songs), the one line that stands out the most for me is from the final song, “Emo Rap,” when he says, “Life is always up and down steadily / I just romanticize the memories.” A lot of these romanticized memories made their way into his book, Headspin, Headshots & History: Growing Up in Twin Cities Hip Hop, published late last year. A thorough, authentic document of the rise of a vital cultural movement, mixed with a strikingly honest and engaging memoir of Zach’s own life as part of that movement, this book is essential reading for Hip-Hop heads in the Twin Cities and beyond. More Than Lights releases a new album on October 5th, with a release party weekend on the 5th and 6th, so keep an eye out for Big Zach and his friends as they continue to deliver positive punchlines.

Underground Rapper of the Week: K’naan

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

K’naan is much more successful and well-known than most of the underground rappers profiled in this column, but still, in this writer’s opinion, not nearly successful and well-known enough. Based on the definition of “underground” stated above, therefore, K’naan definitely fits the bill. In a perfect world, this guy would be Top 40, while cats like Waka Flocka Flame would be completely unknown.

Born in Somalia, K’naan spent his pre-teen years surviving the Somali Civil War and other hardships in Mogadishu, one of the most dangerous and violent places on earth. When he was 13, his family fled the war-torn region and joined relatives in New York City, before moving to Canada, where K’naan learned English, partly by listening to Hip-Hop records. His birth name, Keinan, means “traveler” in the Somali language, and his life and music reflect that. His breakthrough album, 2005′s The Dusty Foot Philosopher, is a beautiful mix of varied influences, as well as K’naan’s own original style and voice. The album blends world music rhythms with hardcore, conscious Hip-Hop for a sound that works equally well in the dance club or in the headphones, whether you want to move your ass to it or carefully dissect its sharp, thoughtful lyricism.

Tracks like “Soobax” and “In the Beginning” showcase this versatility, with a rhythm that makes it almost impossible not to move coupled with lyrics that make you think, while other songs like “What’s Hardcore?” and the album’s title track bring that raw, conscious Hip-Hop lyricism right to your front door. On “What’s Hardcore?” he sums up his experience growing up in Mogadishu with lines like “Life is cheap here, but wisdom is free,” and “If I rhymed about home and got descriptive / I’d make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit.” Despite avoiding gangsta rap cliches in favor of empirical realism, K’naan is not above some good old-fashioned battle rhymes, as evidenced on “The Dusty Foot Philosopher,” where he spits lines like “My mind is like your life, straight up, ’cause it’s made up” and “I’m not gonna sit here and whine like crushed grapes / My mind leaves you speechless like duct tape.”

K’naan’s follow-up album, 2009′s Troubadour, helped to bring his music to a wider audience with guest spots from high-profile artists like Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Mos Def and Chali 2Na, as well as the legendary Chubb Rock on “ABCs,” one of the album’s best songs. This album has a more polished, mainstream-friendly sound without sacrificing the traditional rhythms and conscious, philosophical lyricism that made K’naan great on his earlier works. With his latest EP, More Beautiful Than Silence, featuring guest spots from Nas and Nelly Furtado, K’naan continues to blow up, and few rappers alive deserve it more than he does. If you’ve been sleeping on K’naan, take a minute to listen to this immensely talented and hard-working artist.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Spy MC

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

I can personally attest that Spy MC is one of the hardest working underground rappers in the game right now. A San Antonio, Texas, native who started rapping at the age of twelve and came up as a drum & bass MC in the Texas rave scene of the early 21st century, Spy moved to the Twin Cities of Minnesota in 2006. Along with his deejay brother and two producers also hailing from San Antonio. Together they formed the group SF Wrecks, which then morphed into the huge super-group Death Ray Scientific (DRS), with members of Wide Eyes, Matching Wits, Dialogue Elevaters and other underground Minneapolis rappers, deejays and producers.

Along with his own formidable work on the mic, Spy has always been a tireless promoter of not only himself (as most rappers are), but also of other artists he considers worthy. He has proven this time and time again in various ways, such as the open mic series “Switch,” run by DRS at Minneapolis’ legendary Dinkytowner Cafe. Largely organized by Spy, Switch gave many up-and-coming Twin Cities artists their first real sets, opening for more established headlining acts like Kanser, Carnage and even the late, great Eyedea and his group Face Candy. Spy continues to help build the Twin Cities’ underground Hip-Hop community through its otherwise largely stagnant battle rap scene. Having brought GrindTimeNow to Minnesota in June of 2009, he is now the Promotional Coordinator and co-host of The Loud Mouth League, which keeps GrindTimeNow’s tradition of a capella battle rapping alive.

With so much organization and promotion on his plate, it’s amazing that Spy manages to put out his own music, let alone music as dope as the work he has done with fellow DRS alumni Sean Anonymous and Shelltoe as Bottom Feeders, and his upcoming solo EP, Unfinished Business. Produced by MoonDoctoR and debuting online by the end of the summer, Unfinished Business is the kind of self-assured but still hungry solo debut you would expect from someone who got in the game at the age of twelve and hasn’t slowed down since. As he says on the Juice-featuring grind anthem, “Twenty Four Seven,” Spy is “planning domination / Verbally, locally, most certainly globally / Heard of me? Know me? Show-murdering dope emcee.” Bottom Feeders homie Sean Anonymous and Chicago’s Phillip Morris also pop up on “Room and Space,” which finds Sean and Spy seemingly competing for the fastest, freshest flow on the second and third verses. I’ll leave it to you to decide who wins that one, but rest assured that Spy MC does what he does, and likely always will.

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