Thursday, 27 June 2013

Black Rob - Life Story (2000)

As I see it, the problem with rap and hip-hop is that for a genre which stacks so much currency on keeping it real, it's often a struggle to get at the music through all those layers of hype and bullshit, although that's probably not so much to do with those involved as a consequence of it being the only music anyone was still buying for a few years back there, roughly speaking. Hype and bullshit can be harmless or even amusing with some genres - long haired men in leather jackets pulling scary faces and claiming to have once helped install a new filtration pump at Satan's very own pool - but with rap, it's frankly embarrassing. At one extreme you had Tim Westwood's monthly top ten of guzzling street thumpaz (or some such drivel) in HHC magazine as was, the one that stood out for me being his verdict on Fiesta by R.Kelly and Jadakiss: A street hustler with an R&B thug, Timothy opined helpfully, now that's gangsta! Well, if  anyone knows what's gangsta!, I guess it would be the Reverend Timothy seeing as how he was raised in the mean streets of Harlem and forced to slang weight at an early age, as opposed to being bummed flat in some English private school paid for by wealthy ecclesiastic parents who never seemed to get shout outs on his crappy show for some strange reason; too busy keeping it real I suppose.

At the other end of the scale are the spiritual Guradian readers insisting that real hip-hop sounds like something recorded by DJ Premier in 1992, and that it hangs out in vegan coffee shops and refrains from use of disrespectful sexist language because as homeopathic science has recently verified, each time a fake rapper uses the word bitch, a portion of the Amazonian rain forest is turned into McDonalds - fake rappers being those who, lacking the requisite fanbase of white middle-class recycling enthusiasts, are reduced to selling their CDs to black people and dispossessed urban crackers.

Chuck D once made some observation about rap being the black CNN, which is sort of true, and so just as picking and choosing the news that happens to support one's own political bias makes no difference to all the other stuff that's going on, people telling you what hip-hop is are more often than not full of record-breaking quotas of shit.

Black Rob would probably be automatically disqualified in certain quarters by virtue of the Puffy association. Whilst it may be true that Puffy - or Puff Daddy, or Diddy, or Do Wah Puff Diddy Daddy, or whatever the hell he's calling himself this week - is not a man of easily quantified talents, it's unfair to suggest that his one skill lies in an ability to deposit royalty checks in a bank account. Furthermore, to suggest that the success of those artists he's fostered only serves to cement their crapness isn't any more useful or meaningful than the converse notion of record sales equating to quality. He's a decent enough producer, but his skill is probably more to do with being able to spot a winner, or at least a potential winner.

Black Rob failed to set the world on fire or to repeat the success of Notorious B.I.G, but Life Story is nevertheless a great album, and one that defies the received wisdom of its producer tending to churn out formulaic jewel-encrusted landfill. The music exemplifies hip-hop during its golden age, or probably silver age, or aluminium or something - well, whatever, the 1990s seemed to be when the form really expanded beyond the limited terms defined by worthy dullards telling you what hip-hop is, blossoming into a thousand weird and wonderful variations put together just for the sheer pleasure of making tracks resembling nothing anyone had heard before. I'm still not sure if this possibly rosy view is informed by the 1990s being when I first began listening to rap, or if that's when rap first caught my attention because it had finally moved beyond all that goofy cowbell crap asking people to stick their hands in the air, and then wave them as though the action gave them very little occasion for concern. Anyway, Life Story runs the gamut - whatever a gamut may be - from tracks sounding like a sampler breaking down, to the grime-encrusted New Yorky DJ Premier influenced stuff, to Puffy's signature machine gun Liberace mash-ups, let down only by borrowings from Slick Rick's Children's Story - which I always found tremendously irritating - and some pseudo-Latino tedium that was probably a hit for Madonna during those two decades when I wasn't looking; and of course it would be nothing without Black Rob himself, a distinctive gravel voice, a compelling story teller, and a man absolutely incapable of bullshit. As with much rap, calling it gangsta is missing the point regardless of supposedly agricultural language and occasional references to firearms, or the conspicuous absence of sermonising so beloved of wholefood fans. It may seem trite - although if it does, then screw you too - but Black Rob really is just a regular guy telling stories, never pretending to be anything other than that, and telling them well without losing his sense of humour. Life Story falls short of being the greatest rap album ever recorded, but it's nevertheless pretty damn strong, and constitutes a good square meal in lyrical terms.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Rollins Band - Weight (1994)

I'm reluctant to identify Henry Rollins' spoken word as comedy, simply because the term has such unfortunate associations with the drooling crap of Russell Brand, Jimmy Carr, and the like, but much of it is nevertheless very, very funny, particularly those pot shots taken with himself as target. One of my favourite Rollins monologues proposes experimentation with the mental images summoned during masturbation for the purposes of erotic stimulation. Distrustful of his own bullshit, the absurdity of predictable fantasies involving nude women in unlikely scenarios, he describes the visualisation of a naked and muscular man covered in tattoos, alone in a bathroom jerking off before a mirror; and as he approaches the Billy Miller roundabout, he opens his eyes and woah - well, how about that!

Rollins' great strength is an absolute intolerance of bullshit in any form, including his own, and his music and lyrics reflect this; even the name, because it is a band and he's the front man. This is raw, honest, painful music, not some guy pulling faces and trying to convince you he's really a human-killing cyborg from the year 3000, or pretending it's still 1966, or who seriously expects you to believe his lyrics were dictated from beyond the grave by Aleister Crowley. Rollins sings about emotional truth with absolute directness, cutting straight to the core of his subject. I don't always agree with everything he says, but Lord - it's refreshing to hear stories of this kind forced to give account of themselves without the usual laboured metaphors or affected poetry which never sounds quite so poetic as the author imagines it to be. As ever, Rollins gets the job done like he's stripping down an assault rifle, efficient, ruthlessly honest, and free of fatty tissue. The music too is a perfect match, tight, grinding blues rock so heavy you could use it to dig out tree stumps. Some might perceive a lack of finesse in this seemingly workmanlike approach, but it's simply a misunderstanding: there are few artists quite this unburdened with bullshit, and some people find this misleading.

Weight is possibly one of the most powerful rock albums ever recorded, and it's so busy just doing its job blowing your speakers and kicking your arse, it doesn't even seem to realise how good it sounds.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

WC & the Maad Circle - Curb Servin' (1995)

Okay let's try again, and hope that this time I can cope with writing about that there hip-hop without turning into Tim Westwood and having to spend the next five years pretending it was someone else who wrote all that ludicrous crap about trunk bangers and keepin' it real; and if you have no idea what I'm talking about, then let's not rock the boat by asking all sorts of stupid questions.

WC, as certain comedians might note, is a rapper apparently named after a toilet, but let's face it, not one of them is going to note it to his face. William Calhoun, as he was named by his parents, rose to minor fame with the Maad Circle - Maad standing for Minority Alliance of Anti-Discrimination because it was the 1990s - although Coolio of the same outfit is probably better remembered due to Gangsta's Paradise being such a hit. WC later joined Ice Cube's Westside Connection with whom he recorded Bow Down - arguably one of the most entertainingly angry records ever made - and has since squirted out a string of solo albums that really should have earned more recognition; and Curb Servin' was one of the early ones.

I somehow failed to pick this up when I spotted it in a shop in Camberwell many years ago, possibly because it was on vinyl and although I love vinyl, I prefer my rap on CD as it sounds better on the move for some reason. So far as I understand it, this has always been something of a concern for those involved with west-coast rap and hip-hop, which tends to be produced so as to sound more menacing when played in your car, as opposed to on your porch with all your pals stood around freezing their nadgers off and drinking hot cocoa.

Some people get it right, and some get it wrong in assuming that something which sounds so simple must be pretty easy to make. WC seems to be fairly close to unique in rap terms in so much as he's mostly been getting it right since day one, with scarcely a weak track to his name let alone an album. Of course, I've no idea how much the lad is himself responsible for the music which underscores his wordy fulminations, at least not beyond possessing the good sense to have everything produced by DJ Crazy Toones; but then a career this consistent probably doesn't just happen by accident.

WC may not be the greatest rapper of all time, but fuck it, he's probably so close as to make no difference, and it would be difficult to mistake his singy-songy tongue twisting acrobatics for anyone else. The beats too are the perfect compliment for these stories, resembling a more threatening Kool & the Gang, somehow bursting with flared joy whilst breaking into your home to steal your TV - like being beaten up by a really happy guy, if you're prepared to accept that as something worth listening to, which I can assure you it is.

Farting bass that's as funky as you'll need in this lifetime, that leisurely west-coast Roger Troutman snare that sounds like a fat man sitting down suddenly on his car keys, and some real storytelling of the sort you probably don't want to hear but which will nevertheless do you good - I don't yet understand why they haven't made this guy president.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Mutant Beatniks - Abstract (2012)

Mutant Beatniks is the most recent banner beneath which one finds the labouring form of Shaun Robert, he whom men once knew as factor X, cassette stalwart and provider of strange and unusual sounds for nearly three decades. Abstract continues his work at the far edge of recognised terms for art accessed by means of one's ears which, to some, may resemble an hour or so of random electronic farts or, in at least one case, the soundtrack to the animated Curly & Straight films that used to feature on Rainbow - the children's TV show rather than the workmanlike rock band.

Aside from the puzzling harmonica swing of Unit, this isn't music, the cynic might suggest, a point to which I will return in a moment. If not music, then Abstract is certainly sound, and seemingly acoustic sound warped and abstracted from its origins, electronically twisted into new forms. There really isn't much in the way of notes or tones, but then Abstract isn't even what you would call ambient music. It's too disjointed to be considered restful or to sit comfortably in any environment other than the conceptual space of the listener's skull. Rather, this is sound stripped of context and pressed up against the side of the glass, presented for consideration on it own merits. There's not much point bringing expectations to this table - not even musically liberal expectations of the kind one might associate with artists like Nurse With Wound, for Abstract works purely on it's own terms, and the greatest benefit is to be had from simply accepting the fact.

This may all sound somewhat arbitrary - a variation on finding oneself lost in the contemplation of fire extinguishers or door handles as you leave the art gallery - but I'd suggest there is little left to random chance here on the grounds that the juxtaposition of clipped voices, gated electrical noise, and whatever else has gone into the mix works too well, suggesting choices made during the process of assembly. Because Abstract serves as such a wonderful demonstration of art being as much what one chooses to exclude as anything, I'd say that unfortunately for traditionalists, the strange alien landscapes you will hear on this disc actually are music, and that it takes serious talent to build something so engrossing from such unfamiliar elements.

Available from Pharmafabrik