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.

  

Steal This Song: The Moor, “Warm Winter”

It’s nice to see that ’60s lounge cool has yet to go out of style. Heck, if anything, it’s making a big of a comeback in the indie community. Jon Fratelli put his “Chelsea Dagger” day job on hiatus in order to make a boy/girl ’60s pop record with his wife’s best friend (they’re called Codeine Velvet Club, and they’re super cool), and let us not forget the ultimate hipster, slightly retro boy/girl duo the Bird and the Bee, whom the blogosphere keeps trumpeting, even though their tribute album to Daryl Hall and John Oates left us cold. More than cold, really. Frozen.

Enter the Moor, boldly going where, well, no one has made money in decades. This is to our immense gain, of course, not to mention some up and coming filmmaker who wants to use a Nancy Sinatra song without paying for a Nancy Sinatra song. “Warm Winter,” the leadoff track to their self-titled album, actually brings to mind a couple of bands from across the pond, with an extra jump over a fjord – Club 8 and the Acid House Kings. Those bands, like the Moor, are boy/girl duos, and all three are suckers for the mellow ’60s vibe, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Click here to download The Moor – Warm Winter

  

Steal This Song: The Wandas, “Forever and Ever”

Oh man, is this easy on the ears. Just when we’re tempted to concede that new bands just don’t know how to construct a song the way they had been built for, oh, 35 or 40 years, along come the Wandas, an east coast quartet (Boston, if you can believe it) with a serious West Coast fixation. And we don’t say ‘if you can believe that’ in a derogatory manner; in fact, we lived in Boston for a couple of years, so we speak from experience when we say that the bands that made a name for themselves there, well, don’t sound like this. The only person who comes close is Aimee Mann, and she’s been gone for so long that she hardly counts as a Bostonian anymore.

The Wandas recorded their self-titled album in Montreal, and that makes perfect sense, since their sensibilities are similar to the bands who call Montreal home. In fact, several locals (Stars, the Stills, the Dears) play on the album, and while the Wandas don’t sound exactly like any of those bands, they’re in the same ballpark. Surrender to the mellow vibe. Everything will work out, we swear.

Click here to download The Wandas – Forever and Ever

  

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