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White Noise: Alternative Hip-Hop Playlist

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Alternative Hip-Hop Playlist

Today I'm handing over the playlist to my friend Matthew, who has put together an introduction and analysis of the best of alternative Hip Hop. Enjoy!


Since the dawning of Hip Hop in the late 80s/early 90s, there has been an alternative scene, comprised of rappers and producers who have rejected rap’s most prominent stereotypes – from cheesy soul/pop samples to lyrics about gun toting and diamond encrusted hub caps. The first of these innovators were A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and The Pharcyde, who sample widely from jazz, funk, rock and even folk, while lyrically focusing on themes such as Afrocentricity. But as Gangsta Rap began to achieve mainstream dominance, the alternative Hip Hop scene went into decline. However, it saw a resurgence in the late 90s and 2000s, with labels like Def Jux, Rawkus, Rhymesayers and Anticon signing talented artists determined to fight the mainstream and do something different. This has meant not only a shift towards diverse sampling (from cartoons to sci-fi soundtracks) and rough-edged production, but also new flows that play with the beat instead of sitting on it, bizarre wordplay and cerebral lyrical content. In the words of Outkast’s Andre 3000: “Enough about bitches & switches & hoes & clothes & weed, let's talk about time travelin', rhyme javelin, somethin' mind unravelin, get down!”

In this article, I present ten of my favourite alternative Hip Hop tracks from ten different artists, in an attempt to provide an introduction to the landscape of the alternative Hip Hop scene of this period.

Company Flow – 8 Steps to Perfection

Company Flow are seen in many ways as defining the alternative scene – their album Funcrusher Plus, released in 1997 on the independent label Rawkus, is considered a cornerstone of east coast Hip Hop and helped to spark off the alternative movement. On “8 Steps to Perfection”, El-P’s production is spacey and clearly sci-fi influenced, giving the track a cerebral feel. Over this, he and Bigg Jus deliver a cutting indictment of the mainstream (“MCs couldn’t hang if they was lynched by the grand-dragon”).

Lyrical Highlight: “If you murder up in the ghetto, you murder in a temple”.

El-P – Deep Space 9mm

You have never heard anything like this before. On this track, El-P (producer for Cannibal Ox and Company Flow – all Def Jux artists) layers so many different sounds and samples that at first it is a completely overwhelming, rough-edged barrage. Truck horns, heavy industrial roars, oriental twanging and a rapid, chopped up beat accompanied by frenetic cymbals make for an impenetrable wall of noise that steadily escalates almost to breaking point. Through this, El-P delivers cryptic, stream of consciousness lyrics of anarchy and disillusionment with a chaotic and oppressive society, with intricate rhyming that regularly breaks down into fractured, nonsensical sentences, seemingly without structure. El-P is far from an easy listen at the best of times, but this track, though well worth the effort, is a hard one to crack.

Lyrical Highlight: “Who wanna hold hands with this sicko malnutritionist soaked in news speak? Dissolved into the syncopated fragments of vinyl splashed on loose leaf”

Cannibal Ox – Iron Galaxy

EL-P’s production here is as icy and unforgiving as outer space, providing a perfect backdrop to the gritty, bleak lyrics of Vast Aire and Vordul Mega. The song is captured in the opening sample from the 1983 film The Big Chill – “It’s a cold world out there, sometimes I think I’m getting a little frosty myself”. While the bitter realities of inner-city life are a common topic in Hip Hop, Cannibal Ox transform New York (the “rotten apple”) into a hellish, barren planet and present it in a highly original light.

Lyrical Highlight: “What you figure? That chalky outline on the ground is a father figure? So he steps into the next stencil, that’s a hustler, infested with money and diamond clusters”

Aesop Rock – Save Yourself

Aesop Rock was at the forefront of the early 2000s alternative Hip Hop movement, and has worked with artists such as Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire, Atmosphere’s Slug and Doseone of Deep Puddle Dynamics. On the album Labour Days, his rapping is slow and deliberate, sometimes inserting bars of rapid, staccato rhyming to create a highly irregular flow that sounds almost strangled, giving it an erratic, idiosyncratic quality. Playing with the rhythms and sounds within words, he stretches, emphasises and manipulates different syllables (“ssspitting like a dragon, with a ssssimilar demeanour”), making his delivery one of the most textured and recognisable in Hip Hop. He also displays a vast and unusual vocabulary for a rapper, conjuring up abstract and surreal images (“working shifts opposite the asbestos brain furnace” or “Welcome to the kamikaze bottle-rocket cockpit”). And as Nitsuh Abebe wrote in his review of Labour Days, “Aesop Rock says more astoundingly intelligent things per minute than the entire combined rosters of a lot of other labels”. “Save Yourself” is a perfect demonstration of all these traits, set against eerie, floating production carried by a playful, 'east-Mediterranean' guitar sample.

Deep Puddle Dynamics – June 26th, 1998

This track is off one of the most avant-guard Hip Hop albums to date – The Taste of Rain…Why Kneel? (soon to be reviewed by White Noise). The rapping alternates on almost every other line between Slug, Doseone and Alias, creating a patchwork of seemingly disjointed ideas and concepts. This is set against a mournfully sweeping string sample and heavy percussion. The topic of the song? : the meaning of life.

Tyler, the Creator – Yonkers

Tyler, the Creator comes as close to clinically insane as is possible for the leader/producer/rapper of a Hip Hop collective whose originality has taken the industry by storm – although he did decide to name it “Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All” (OFWGKTA). With instrumentals that sound like a piece of broken machinery that nobody has turned off yet and a relentlessly minimal beat, the production is utterly unique, and could only be accompanied by lyrics that, delivered in his ludicrously bass voice, leap madly between descriptions of brutal acts of random violence and recreational activities such as: “I slipped myself some pink xanies, and danced around the house in all-over print panties”. I also highly recommend you watch the video for this track, directed by Tyler himself.

Pharoahe Monch – Hell

On the track Hell, Pharoahe Monch utilises a linguistic style surprisingly under-used in Hip-Hop – alliteration. And he uses it to great effect, repeating an ‘f’ sound to create a flow that is rapid and aggressive (“My phonetics alone force feeble MCs into defence on the fly”). He does not keep this up for the whole track, but slides it smoothly into a complex internal rhyming that keep up the frenetic pace of his delivery. The production is sinister, with a steady rattling noise interspersed with blips of base. The hellish feel of the track fits well with his bestial snarl, and lyrics referencing incest, holocaust and death – and a chanted chorus of “This is, Hell! This is, Hell!”.

Lyrical Highlight: “Your whole rooms full of angels, All in your ear tryin’ to tell you which God you should pray to, You pray to Jesus, but he don’t wanna save you, Cuz you unfaithful, so he gives you to Azazel”

MF Doom – Deep Fried Frenz

From the self-produced album MM…Food (in which food is a running theme and each track name is a pun on some foodstuff or other, eg. Rap Snitch Knishes), Deep Fried Frenz is a cynical dismissal of people who claim to be your friends, and is lyrically fantastic. All are portrayed as back-stabbers, users, losers and cheaters, wanting nothing more than money. In contrast to this, and adding hugely to his ironic tone, the music is upbeat and cheery, with the shouted chorus sample being “Ones we can depend on…Friends!”. However, he expands this general misanthropy to make an implicit statement about his experiences of crime culture in the ghetto, where “jealousy is the number one killer among black folk”, asking “what happened to the loyalty? Honour amongst crooks, trust amongst royalty”.

Lyrical Highlight: “Some come in the form of co-dependents; a lot of times only end up bein’ co-defendants, Ten bucks say they tell for a lower sentence, And leave you up under the jail, beggin’ for a penance”

Atmosphere - Godlovesugly

Rapping over a stripped down piano loop, Slug (one half of Atmosphere) depicts the shunned outcast figure that is his persona using an impressive array of metaphor and imagery. His content is far more narratively straight forward than a lot of other alternative Hip-Hop, but in losing the fragmented quality of alternative rap he gains clarity and a medium in which to deliver his highly emotive brand of storytelling.

Lyrical highlight: “Discretion is the name of my cement-feathered bird, and if you didn’t hear it, then fuck whatever’s heard, I think you’ve got the sickness I suggest you get it cured”

Madvillain – Accordion

This track is perhaps one of the most minimal off Madvillainy, an album that samples primarily from 60s cartoons, but is all the more striking for it. A simple accordion loop (sampled from experimental California producer Daedelus, also soon to be reviewed in this blog) and wood-block beat gives it a slow, mournful pace, and provides Doom with all the structure he needs to rap in his earthy delivery that sounds as if he is just talking and somehow staying in time. This is not an easy piece of production to rap over, but Doom pulls it off to perfection.

Lyrical Highlight: “Livin’ off borrowed time the clock ticks faster, that’d be the hour they knock the slick blaster – Dick Dastardly and Muttley with the sick laughter”

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