Underground Rapper of the Week: Das Racist

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

When rap music and other aspects of Hip-Hop culture originated in the 1970s, they were wrongly seen by many as a passing fad that wouldn’t last long. Now that Hip-Hop has infiltrated all of popular culture and become perhaps the most important musical and cultural movement since rock and roll, it is fitting that it has moved into its postmodern stage, and no one epitomizes this idea better than the New York duo (or trio, if you count their hype man, Dapwell) known as Das Racist. Emcees Heems and Kool A.D. named their crew after a brief but memorable moment in the brilliant sketch comedy series Wonder Showzen, just one of the staggering multitude of pop culture references that fill their lyrics. As Heems explains it, “I think being minorities at a liberal arts college and that type of environment had an impact on both the way we view race and our sense of humor, which people often use as a tool to deal with race. I always felt like Wonder Showzen was a television show that captured that type of thing perfectly.”

This balance between humor and genuine anger at racism and other social ills fills DR’s music as well, competing with jokes, allusions and references for space in their absurdly dense lyrics over club beats that allow the casual listener to just bob their heads and dance, in case they’re not inclined to decipher what DR means when they describe someone as “hard to read like Finnegan’s Wake” (in an insanely catchy song called “Coochie Dip City,” no less). The irreverence of their wordplay and the fact that they first gained notice for the almost sublimely ridiculous single, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” has led some to dismiss DR as joke rap, but this is an unfair label because they are actually extremely skilled emcees with an obviously deep knowledge and love of Hip-Hop. Heems sums their approach up quite well on “Don Dada,” from their first mixtape, Shut Up, Dude: “Is it parody, comedy, novelty or scholarly? A little bit of column A, a little bit of column B.”

With their follow-up mixtape, Sit Down, Man, Das Racist continued to gain respect as true lyricists, moving further away from both the “joke rap” label and the often equally irksome “conscious” one. However, this is not to say they don’t clearly embrace the power of humor, without sliding down the slippery slope of making actual novelty music. As Heems says in one of the most brilliant and hilarious interviews of all time, “All I wanted to do was make some jokes – mostly about race, though not necessarily consciously – over dance music that would serve to undermine it so Talib Kweli fans wouldn’t like it.” With their two mixtapes and the full-length debut album, Relax, Das Racist is proving to be no joke, even if their live show is a little bit like House Party 2.

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.”

Underground Rapper of the Week: Rugged N Raw

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

After writing this column for two months now, it’s about time I finally got around to profiling an artist from the city where I now live, the city where Hip-Hop originated, the city that never sleeps and should never be slept on: New York City. No underground NYC rapper is more deserving than Rugged N Raw, whose name says it all. RNR is an amazingly versatile and accessible emcee and producer whose music exemplifies the gritty edge of his native city, while also retaining a surprising wittiness and sense of humor. His sound punches you in the face, then cracks a joke or two and makes you feel welcome while you’re still reeling.

RNR’s first full-length album, Another Level, set the tone for the hard-hitting but simultaneously laid-back music he’s been making ever since. As he says on that album’s “Let the Ugly Out,” “[I'm] more chill than the average dude you know / But when my music’s dope, I get stupid, though.” He also gets crazy smart; witness the creativity of his “Advice Column,” in which he humorously breaks life down on an urban Dear Abby tip. Another Level also features “Kick You Down,” a banging track with frequent collaborator Hasan Salaam, a New Jersey emcee with whom RNR formed the wonderfully named group Mohammad Dangerfield (Mo Danger for short). Together, the duo released the free download EP $FREE.99 and subsequent self-titled full-length album, which features the excellent party jam “The BBQ Joint” alongside hard-hitting tracks like “Unredeemed” and the Immortal Technique collaboration “Break of a Star,” produced by the excellent New Hampshire producer Remot.

RNR’s second full-length, Truth Serum, continues to showcase his inimitable skill and relatability. Check out the recession rap anthem “Broke and Proud,” featuring Hasan Salaam, in which he outlines his cheap date and vacation plans: “There’s not a lot I can make possible / Only cheap ideas in the arsenal / I take a chick to the museum / Looks nice and admission fee’s optional / When stress starts to weigh down heavy / Vacation is necessary / What do I do? I pack my bags / Weekend cruise on the Staten Island Ferry.” For those of you who don’t live in New York – yes, the S.I. Ferry is free. Be on the lookout for Rugged N Raw’s new album, Anomaly Book 1, dropping September 4th. Homeboy is the ultimate.

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.

Seen Your Video: White Rabbits, “Percussion Gun”

Ladies and gentlemen, the line for Single of the Year starts here.

I’m frankly shocked that these guys are from New York. American bands, particularly young ones, don’t write songs like this anymore, and they certainly don’t use arrangements like this. I had these guys pegged for a UK act all the way, with the Adam & the Ants-style percussion, hand claps and old-fashioned piano. Maybe the arrangement was producer Britt Daniel’s idea, who knows. His band Spoon isn’t exactly playing the American game, either. No matter who’s responsible for putting it together, it’s damn good, and had me racing for the band’s MySpace page. How about that, the other tunes are good, too. Time to hit up the publicist for a review copy. (The band’s album, It’s Frightening, comes out May 19.)

So the tune is definitely a keeper. Now about about the video? Tastefully simple, a rarity these days. The camera spins around – and sometimes above – a circular display of white lights that surrounds the band. That’s it. I bet they shot it in an afternoon, then hit the pub, while the director popped a couple Dramamines and went to bed. Nicely done, lads.

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