Underground Rapper of the Week: X:144

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

As I’ve said before, Orlando (also known as Ozone), Florida, is one of the most exciting Hip-Hop scenes in America today, and X:144 is one of its forefathers. A modern-day renaissance man whose skills encompass emceeing, beat production, mixing, mastering and now even film and music video directing, X:144 has a vital, energetic sound that practically commands the listener to move. Along with his deejay, SPS, he is one of the most futuristic and forward-thinking artists working today, while still capturing the old school feel of ’70s soul and golden age ’90s Hip-Hop.

As a producer and recording engineer, X:144 has worked with some of the best of the past and present, including Kool G Rap, MF Doom, Saigon, Joell Ortiz, and his Orlando homies Solillaquists of Sound, and he is currently at work on an undisclosed project with Lauryn Hill. He is also the champion of several beat producer battles, including the first ever Scribble Jam Producer Battle in 2007. As a lyricist and emcee, he leans toward the socially and politically conscious style favored by Solilla, but with his own unique sound and delivery. His carefully enunciated but pleasantly drawled flow gives the impression of a man who is both smarter and harder than you, but with the self-confidence not to feel the need to flex either.

The debut album from X:144 & SPS, M.E., begins with a brief and profoundly silly goofing-around-in-the-studio intro track before launching into “The Call Out,” a banging, fast-paced track that showcases the versatility and intelligence of both artists. As the title suggests, it is something of a manifesto song that explores X:144’s many social concerns, as when he raps “Nigga, nigga, nigga, Mister Cracker / Stop actin’ like we got those differences, it don’t matter.” Many of his songs find him in this mode, but he is at least equally concerned with self-exploration, preferring to point fingers within rather than outward. As he says on “3 Degrees of Ventilation,” he is “very comfortable in my suit / Not wearin’ this shit because it looks cute,” and he is equally comfortable with all sorts of subject matter, as he proves on the wonderfully funky and insightful love songs “If the Shoe Fits …” and “Almost.”

The M.E. album’s closing tracks, “From Self” and “P.O.M.,” find X:144 stating his purpose to continue moving forward and evolving, as he clearly hopes all of humanity will. For his part, he has certainly continued to grow as an artist, branching out into the field of filmmaking by directing excellent, highly cinematic videos for two songs from Solilla’s No More Heroes album, “Gotham City Chase Scene” and “Marvel.” Since then he has also made a very funny and thoughtful short film, “That’s Kinda Gay,” which nicely skewers the absurdity of homophobic rhetoric, and a more serious short documentary, “Export to Egypt,” about his experience of the recent Egyptian revolution. He is currently at work on his first solo album, but until that’s finished, enjoy some more fiya from X:144 and fellow Ozone rapper Synopse.


Underground Rapper of the Week: Desdamona

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

With the exception of my full-group profile of Solillaquists of Sound a few weeks ago, women have been noticeably absent from this column, which points to a larger problem in Hip-Hop culture and society at large. No female emcee is more important to the community than the Minneapolis-based poet and emcee Desdamona, who has worked tirelessly to make Hip-Hop a better place for women. Her 365 Days of Female MCs blog helps to shed light on many unheralded contributors to the art form of rap, and her annual multimedia festival, B-Girl Be, brings together women from around the world who practice all four original elements of Hip-Hop: graffiti, breakdancing, deejaying and emceeing. She also hosts the long-running Poet’s Groove open mic, one of the very most respected and enduring shows in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

In addition to such community work and activism, Desdamona is herself a powerful emcee and spoken word artist, having won five Minnesota Music Awards for Best Spoken Word Artist in 2000, and then consecutively in 2003-2006, inclusive. She has also toured extensively, bringing her sound to audiences all over the U.S., as well as Germany and France, where she has built a very respectable following with beatboxing partner Carnage in their group Ill Chemistry. Desdamona has opened for legendary artists such as KRS-One; the late, great Guru; Saul Williams; and Wyclef Jean, among others, and is a frequent collaborator with the equally legendary Sly & Robbie, who produced her 2005 debut album, The Ledge. In addition to her strong, poetic abilities as a rapper, Desdamona is also a skilled singer, and has joined Ursus Minor in both capacities on their third album, I Will Not Take “But” for an Answer, and joining them on their subsequent tour along with The Coup‘s Boots Riley.

Desdamona’s lyrics are thoughtful, personal and resonant with themes of identity, equality and body image, and for this reason it is often best to hear her words over sparse beats or no beat at all. For an example of her emotionally moving poetry, look no further than “Too Big for My Skin,” a poem that has since expanded into a campaign aimed at rethinking societal beauty standards and giving a voice to repressed women all over the world. However, this is not to say she can’t murder beats with the best of them, and her live performances – whether solo or with Carnage as Ill Chemistry – are electrifying, and she wisely used live instrumentation to create her 2007 album, The Source, which features Carnage, as well as remixed tracks by Sly & Robbie. Male or female, Desdamona is one of the Midwest’s most vital talents, and her continued work with Ursus Minor and Ill Chemistry, who just released their first full-length album in France, definitely deserves your attention.


Underground Rapper of the Week: Solillaquists of Sound

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

Normally this column is devoted to a single rapper that deserves your attention, but Orlando’s powerhouse group Solillaquists of Sound are so completely unified that it often feels as though the four-person collective is a single artist, albeit one capable of incredible feats no one human being could manage. Though emcees Swamburger and Alexandrah are each among the best underground rappers I could possibly profile (though Alexandrah is really more of a jazz and soul singer, who nonetheless spits rhymes with the best of them), it is their unique collaboration with poet Tonya Combs and one-man-band DiViNCi that really makes them stand out as one of the most original and vital forces in music today.

Solilla began in 2002 as a collaboration between Swamburger and producer DiViNCi, before incorporating fellow Orlando artist Combs and Alexandrah, who originally hailed from Chicago. The nascent group spent a great deal of time together in the studio, quickly recording their first full-length album, 4 Student Counsol (Running from Precedence), before ever performing together in front of an audience. 4 Student Counsol is a wonderfully warm and welcoming musical experience, full of laughter and the sort of endearing mistakes most artists would leave on the cutting room floor. Though the lyrics and production are tight, there is a loose feeling to the recording that gives the listener a feeling of being a part of the creative process itself.

This immersive feeling is very much a part of Solilla’s ethos, which is amply evident in their live show, an experience that simply can’t be reproduced. However, until you get the chance to see them live, their 2005 follow-up album, Solillaquists Live (The Truth Don’t Need Support), is a great appetizer, and their live DVD, Fam Glorious, comes even closer. Solilla’s live show is truly amazing, a galvanizing event filled with laughter, tears and joy. Unlike the average Hip-Hop show, where emcees and deejays generally stand posted and deliver sound, Solilla really make use of the whole stage, and Swamburger is often known to jump off it for an impromptu breakdancing session amidst the audience. However, more than anyone else in the crew, DiViNCi is a maniac live, playing two to four MPC drum machines in lieu of the traditional deejay’s two turntables. He often plays them with his feet or even his face, generating unparalleled enthusiasm from the crowd.

After catching the ear of kindred artist Sage Francis, Solilla signed to Anti-/Epitaph in 2006, touring with him behind their first major label release, As If We Existed, which shows an admirable maturation without sacrificing any of the emotion or vitality of their previous independent releases or their live show. Witness the way they blend Swamburger’s ferocious, rapid-fire rapping with the swelling beauty of Alexandrah’s vocals and DiViNCi’s production on tracks like “Ask Me If I Care,” or the highly thoughtful message mixed with satirical humor of tracks like “Black Guy Peace.” For a deeper look at DiViNCi’s stellar musicianship, this video documenting his creation of the synthesized “guitar” solo at the end of “Berlin” is also a must.

Solillaquists of Sound have been gaining in popularity ever since, garnering a great deal of attention for their stellar single, “Death of the Muse,” featuring J-Live, Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, and the mother of the late, great producer J Dilla, to whom the track is dedicated. With the release of their second Anti-/Epitaph release, No More Heroes, they have also branched out into the field of music videos such as “Gotham City Chase Scene” and “Marvel” while continuing to represent at live shows all over the world, and they are from slowing down. Part one of their new two-part album, 4th Wall, is now available in a limited edition.