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: 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: 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: 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: Carnage the Executioner

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

Making rap music is often as simple as one guy behind the turntables and one guy on the mic, but Minneapolis-based musician Carnage the Executioner has simplified things a step further than most. Using various loop pedals and often more than one microphone, Carnage (also known as Terrell Woods) is known to create entire musical symphonies in his live performances, one layer at a time, usually with nothing more than his mouth. In addition to his incomparable human beatboxing skills, Carnage is also a ridiculously talented emcee, spitting unpredictable, machine gun fire flows with incredible speed and versatility. The man is a true virtuoso on the microphone, and undoubtedly one of the most deadly emcees in the Twin Cities.

Amazingly, despite his unparalleled ability to rock a stage all by himself without even the normally required presence of a deejay – not to mention his aggressive, battle-ready sound – Carnage is known at least as well for his work with other emcees and musicians. Perhaps his most famous collaborative endeavors are his works both live and on record with the late, great Twin Cities Hip-Hop hero Eyedea, who was always one of Carnage’s most vocal and respected champions. Their back and forth beat-murder on tracks like “Coaches” and “Star Destroyer” (not to mention Carnage’s posthumous tribute remix of the latter) are among the finest rap music ever to come out of Minneapolis.

More recently, Carnage has toured internationally as half of the uniquely funky duo Ill Chemistry, for which fellow Twin Cities veteran Desdamona rhymes and sings, while Carnage and his loop pedals provide the beats. Having performed together for years on stages all around the Twin Cities, the duo have now been official for quite some time, amassing a respectable following in France as well as the United States. You can also hear them rapping together on Carnage’s latest album, Worth the Wait, where they explain to you why “You Should Not Emcee.”

Over the years, Carnage the Executioner has been affiliated with numerous crews, including Hecatomb and Fill in the Breaks, and once famously battled one of Minnesota’s most revered emcees, Brother Ali. He was recently chosen as one of City Pages’ Top 10 Best Minnesota Rappers, and is widely known, loved, and still more than a little feared by up-and-coming emcees in the Land of Lakes and beyond. He is premiering a new music video, “Respect the Name,” on June 15th at the Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis, and has a brand-new album dropping in September.

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