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: 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.

  

Underground Rapper of the Week: Prof

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

Undoubtedly one of the most consistently entertaining underground rappers out right now, Southside Minneapolis’ Prof is a powerhouse of energy and skill wrapped up in an intentionally goofy exterior. Recently named one of City Pages’ Top 20 Best Minnesota Rappers, Prof has been on his grind in the Twin Cities for over a decade, and is now beginning to see some serious national exposure through his collaborations with the Alabama emcee Yelawolf and the Atlanta production duo Beat Chefs, who produced the stellar “Cold Outside” from Raekwon‘s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt. II, as well as fellow hometown heroes like Atmosphere and Brother Ali. Though his lyrics, stage presence and videos are mostly hilarious, Prof’s skill as an emcee is no joke, and his ability to engage an audience is extraordinary.

Prof released his first full-length with his rapping partner Rahzwell, the self-titled Prof & Rahzwell, in 2006, before breaking out with his Beat Chefs-produced solo debut, Project Gampo, in 2007. Like so many great emcees before him, Prof has invented a new slang term, “Gampo,” and it fits his hard-partying aesthetic perfectly. The hit single from that album, “Rocketman,” showcases his rapid-fire lyricism and playful swagger, as when he raps, “I keep ill, I eat skills / I climb mountains, I need thrills / Keep a couple dollar bills under my collar / So when I pop, know that I don’t mean pills.” Another standout track from that album is the hangover anthem “I Dry Heave,” which features great storytelling like these bars in which he describes barely getting to work and throwing up once more on the way in: “Rode on my niece’s handlebars all the way to work / My drunk ass might have been her training wheels, sure / And pull the trigger in the bushes before I walk in / My sweet niece left me gum in my pocket.”

Prof has stayed busy ever since, releasing two mixtapes under the title Kaiser von Powderhorn in 2008 and 2010, with a third on the way this summer. He also released the free album Recession Music, with fellow Minnesota rapper St. Paul Slim, in 2009; part of the ad campaign for that album, which includes the excellent “Horses in the Ghetto,” included old-fashioned “Wanted” posters of Prof and Slim illegally hung around the Twin Cities. This is a prime example of what sets Prof apart from a lot of other rappers: he has a unique way of making himself known, including some of the funniest promotional videos you’ll likely ever see. He also has a strong singing voice, which lends itself well to monster hooks such as the hilarious “Need Your Love” and “Animal,” as well as the straight-up blues jam “Whiskey.” Prof’s latest full-length, King Gampo, is available for free download now from Stophouse Music Group, so click that link and get Gampo!

  

Underground Rapper of the Week: Phillip Morris

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

Chicago-based international emcee Phillip Morris is in a league of his own in so many ways. He celebrates his nerdiness on tracks like “Must Be a Nerd” and “Get Your Nerd On,” but he is not to be pegged as “nerdcore” by any means, and he goes harder than most gangsta rappers on tracks like “Words Are Gunshots” and “True Calligraphy.” He’s an undeniably charming ladies man who actively cautions women to stay away from himself and any other performers on tracks like “Trouble is My Middle Name,” while acknowledging that “I got no swag, so I understand that it must be the words.” He is an unapologetically party-oriented rapper who is also a well-informed activist – see “Pass Me a Light” for the former and “Revolution Knows No Compromise” for the latter.

By the way, that “international emcee” moniker is no joke. Morris has played all over the United States, as well as various parts of Spain and the Dominican Republic. In addition, his excellent 2010 album, The Truth Campaign, was entirely produced by French beatsmith Tha Truth Tella. Morris has shared stages with the likes of Dead Prez, Souls of Mischief, Kool Keith, Devin the Dude and Guante, among many others. He has also performed and led workshops at a number of schools in the U.S., from Columbia College on down to Ella Flagg Young Elementary School, where he presumably focused on his less raunchy verses. This activity points to his efforts to bring his unique style to everyone from inveterate Hip-Hop-heads to folks who normally don’t even like rap. As Morris himself says of rap, “I’m further than that, creatin’ snuff music with the way I’m murderin’ tracks.”

As innovative and complex as Morris’ rhymes are, perhaps the best way to experience his work is a live performance, where he blends his consummate rapping skill with a wildly expressive and idiosyncratic stage show. He is often known to engage the crowd directly, which may or may not include crowd-surfing while wearing a kilt, which he did at a recent show with Minneapolis-based “Hippie-Hop” collective Wookiefoot. His next live show is in Holyoke, Massachusetts, which he informs me is where volleyball was invented, and he has a new album in the works with Minneapolis-based Hip-Hop crew Wide Eyes (Morris has almost as big a fan base in Minneapolis s he does in his hometown of Chicago). In the meantime, I highly recommend picking up any or all of his four albums, especially The Truth Campaign and his latest full-length, Lady Liberty is Wasted, which is available on a sliding scale from free to whatever you want to contribute.

  

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