Underground Rapper of the Week: Gift of Gab

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

Few underground rappers are more innovative and influential than California’s Gift of Gab, best known as the emcee half of the great Hip-Hop duo Blackalicious, complemented by DJ Chief Xcel. Gab is well-known by heads everywhere for his amazing verbal dexterity and immediately recognizable style, as well as his uncommon intelligence and careful enunciation on the mic. “Alphabet Aerobics,” from Blackalicious’ 1999 A2G EP, is a perfect example of his showy, technical side, as he flips a continuous stream of lyrics that only speeds up and gets more complex as he cycles through the entire alphabet, devoting approximately two bars to each letter.

However, Gab is not just a gimmicky, smarter-than-thou rapper’s rapper. What really sets him apart is his insightful, positive and elevating lyrical content, as heard on songs like “Shallow Days,” from Blackalicious’ 1999 debut full-length, Nia, where he laments the superficiality of consciousness in Hip-Hop culture: “The word ‘peace’ is just an expression / Used to say ‘bye’ when it’s time to jet and / Them red, black and green medallions / Was all just part of a trend, I guess / Hardly ever see them around brothers’ necks no more.” Tracks like this and the storytelling anthem, “Deception,” on which he chants the mantra, “Don’t let money change you,” show Gab to be relentlessly positive and forward-thinking, though he is quick to remind listeners he is not judging anyone for how they might be forced to live. As he says on “My Pen and Pad,” from Blackalicious’ 2005 album, The Craft, he is “never an anti-gangster – the ghetto is still in the mind.”

As great as A2G, Nia and The Craft are, Blackalicious’ indisputable masterpiece is 2002′s Blazing Arrow, a truly epic collection that feels like a culmination of everything the Xcel and Gab had done up to that point. It also features stellar work from a variety of other artists affiliated with Blackalicious and the Quannum Projects, including Nikki Giovanni, Gil Scott-Heron, DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, Saul Williams, Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, and Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, among others. My introduction to the wonders of Blackalicious began with the apocalyptic “Sky Is Falling,” on which Gab paints a dark picture of a world in which “juveniles is losing trials, catching a bid of murder one / And mothers is drinking and drugging, hoeing, searching for their sons.” Blazing Arrow is full of gems like that song, as is Blackalicious’ entire catalogue.

Since The Craft, Gift of Gab has been pursuing a solo career, releasing three albums in the past eight years, beginning with 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up in 2004. His 2009 follow-up, Escape 2 Mars, features the excellent song, “Dreamin,” featuring Del the Funky Homosapien and Brother Ali, and his latest, The Next Logical Progression, was released earlier this year. Whether blowing your mind with his technical prowess, making you think about the troubles of the world, or just bringing a smile to your face, Gift of Gab is all about making listeners feel something.

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: Madd Illz

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

Orlando’s Madd Illz is the definition of a beast – an insanely ferocious emcee who spits intricate but accessible, rapid-fire, multisyllabic rhymes that absolutely demand you press rewind over and over again. He could undoubtedly hold his own up against cats like Twista and Tech N9ne for the title of fastest rapper alive, and he boasts an extremely versatile flow with an impeccably crisp, clean cadence and perfect rhythmic timing. He’s also one of the kindest, most supportive rappers the global Hip-Hop community has to offer.

Illz was born to do this; in fact, his birth name, Matt Hills, practically is his stage name. He’s also the living embodiment of the idea that battle rapping, however mean-spirited, is really about building community, not just tearing another emcee down. For evidence of this, look no further than GrindTimeNow, the world’s largest Hip-Hop battle league, which he created and owns. With divisions ranging from Orlando to Chicago, Atlanta, New York, California and more, GrindTime challenges emcees to bring their best, most intricate and cleverly constructed punchlines to the table. Written verses are openly accepted and expected, but the best GrindTime rappers stay on their toes with sharp freestyles as well, flipping their opponents’ punchlines back at them. Though few of them are nationally famous, one of GrindTime’s best battlers, Dizaster, recently beat the legendary Canibus in an instantly infamous battle, and battle rap phenom Jin has also participated in the league.

Speaking of freestyle rap, Madd Illz is one of the sharpest you’ll ever see at it, and he’s often at his best when allowed free reign to riff on any topic that comes to mind, rather than being tied down to the focus of a battle. The speed of his delivery isn’t weakened by the lack of pre-written material, either, as he displays a remarkably extensive rhyming vocabulary and enviable endurance for long-form flows. I’ve seen him go off for several minutes straight multiple times in any given show without repeating concepts or rhymes, and always ending his extemporaneous verses strongly, rather than just trailing off when he runs out of ideas, as so many freestyles end.

In addition to freestyle and battle rap, however, Madd Illz is also an excellent songwriter, with diverse topics ranging from the personal (“If I Get Famous”) to the political (“Be A Patriot,” “Sick of the Lies,” “Katrina”) to his love of the art form itself (“Music”), as well as songs simply showcasing how sick he is as a rapper (“His Name’s ILLZ,” “Put on By the Spit”). His sharp, autobiographical anthem, “Underground Hip-Hop” could also serve as a statement of purpose not only for this column, but for any up-and-coming emcee, as well as veterans who may have lost their way. Fierce, uncompromising and wise, Madd Illz is at least as deserving of mainstream success as any underground rapper out there, but he would never sell out his vision to get it.

Related Posts