Produced by BK-One and Benzilla ["Mega" co-produced by Brother Ali]
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In hip-hop music, a producer or DJ album is a curious thing if that producer is not also a rapper, or does not choose to release instrumental albums, which some, like Madlib, do. Of course, pairings develop and become synonymous with emcees, or are even considered a part of their name. Atmosphere was generally considered to be Slug, emcee, and Ant, producer, for a large chunk of their career. Brother Ali had Ant as his producer on most of his earlier releases. Eric B. & Rakim split their name credit, with Eric B. as producer even getting "top billing". Of course, it can get muddier, when you have a separate DJ (usually included as part of the group) from your producer (such as Public Enemy, with Terminator X as the former and The Bomb Squad as the latter). Atmosphere toured with Mr. Dibbs for years, and Brother Ali with BK-One. But the studio recordings were light of either, or even devoid.
BK-One was Brother Ali's touring DJ until very recently when he started a family and, as he told Ali, decided to quit the road. However, when they were out--as I saw them more than once--BK-One first dropped Set in Motion on CD, a 3-track set of constant cuts and blends with various guests and to-the-point packaging. It was a mixtape more than an album, which is why the next time he showed up, it was with this, and it had a sticker that said "debut album". Because it's credited to BK-One and fellow beat producer Benzilla, it doesn't have an automatic emcee line up, and did not choose the purely instrumental route either. As such, guests litter the album in various forms, and give the impression--at a glance, anyway--of a compilation, and a possibly messy one at that. That was a large part of why I didn't give the record too many spins after getting it.
Interspersed through the album are beats overlaid with quotes (in Portuguese) from Brazilian musicians Ivan Tiririca, Caetano Veloso, Hyldon (speaking about Tim Maia), and Tom Zé. They are treated as interludes, intros and outros, but also as independent tracks, each named for the musician in question. The album opens with a quote from Tiririca:
This helps to establish the origin and the object of BK's project: on a trip to Brazil that included record shopping (a necessity for the DJ interested in scratching or really digging out interesting sounds to make beats from--their shelves are often an amazing thing to behold, as I've seen Ant's, Benzilla's, Madlibs, and a few others), BK fell in love with the sound of Brazilian music. There was a movement he mentions in the 1960s called tropicália, which married traditional music to the avant garde, as well as non-domestic sources. He discovered the term "cultural cannibalism" for this marriage of varying sources, and named the album for it: "Cannibal radio"."It started more with DJs than with live shows with bands. Our music owes a lot to the DJs here in Brazil in terms of black music. It was after the DJs. It was the DJs who first launched soul music in Brazil."
The first emcees to appear are the givens: Brother Ali, BK's longtime partner, and Slug, of Atmosphere, who is part owner of the label on which Ali appears, and the label on which this very album appears. It's not nepotism of course--Ali and Slug have worked together many, many times throughout the releases from either of them. Ali has traded verses and even beatboxed for Slug before, while Slug has contributed verses to many of Ali's tracks over the years. "Gittit" opens with horns, which, in and of itself is not surprising--Ali, at least, has had horns behind him before (and these days, actually has live horns behind him). But the beat is not exclusively rock-based instrumentation (snare, bass, kick, guitar), as the horns make for the hooks, and there are hand-played drums worked in to. The horns and the hand drumming are a strong hint of the album's intention to work Brazilian sounds into a hip-hop album.
"Mega" is the one track that has guest production--Brother Ali assists BK-One on this one, though the raps are left to Aceyalone, Myka 9, and Abstract Rude, collectively known as Haiku D'Etat. As is often the case with rappers in the underground, these are dense, rapid raps with a good flow. The beat is a little more standard itself, but is built on a looped flute hook, as well as a vocal sample that sounds as if it's more likely to be singing either another word that sounds like "Mega" (but is probably a Portuguese one), or at least that word/prefix appearing in a Brazilian track of some kind in the way that it's pronounced and emphasized ("MAY-gah"). I'm not overly familiar with Haiku D'Etat, though they are one of the many names I see float around a lot. All three of them give great performances, ones that strongly encourage me to look further into their own material, both solo and as a group.
"Our movement was a big scandal here in Brazil. It mixed different kinds of styles which frightened and scandalized people. And we had let our hair grow! It was a typical movement of the '60s with a flavor of counter-culture and pop art."
Famous and established Raekwon (yes, from the Wu Tang Clan) is paired with I Self Devine, another Rhymesayers (RSE) artist on "The True and the Living," joining fellow RSE alumni Abstract Rude, Slug, and Brother Ali. A slightly fuzzed bassline defines another song that happily includes hand-drumming behind Raekwon hitting on territory that BK-One did not restrict but has expressed awareness of being exceptional in context--selling cocaine and pursuit of money therein. Horn hooks appear again, keeping the theme of the albums merge of Brazilian music with hip-hop alive.- Caetano Veloso
The crackle and pop (which, I have to say, is confusing on a record) of the samples used on "Here I Am" is the kind that you feel was knowing. It's a clever construction: the bassline and the melodic hook seem to be in the same signature but playing a different kind of rhythm from each other that has them seeming to crash into each other for just a moment before the bass decides to take its time anyway. Phonte, Brother Ali, and The Grouch share lyrical duties and carve out one of the most varied sets of rapstyles. There's a vocal hook that isn't a sample this time, and it is part of the braggadocio that is a hallmark of a lot of rap, but is offset by Ali's ever-present appreciation for another (name-checking Phonte more than once). Phonte was in Little Brother (one of the bigger North Carolina indie rap groups in recent years, though now, as they say, "defunct"), while The Grouch used to be in the Living Legends collective with RSE alumnus Murs, who makes an appearance later in the album.
And then we get the one instrumental track on the album: "Tema do Canibal":
The track features the horns and arrangement of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who took a heavily multi-layered, Brazilian-inflected beat of clanging, clattering rhythmic intensity from BK-One and put an amazing set of hooks and playing over it. This thing is absolutely the highlight of an album of great beats and excellent raps. It's the track that made me pick this LP up the second time I saw Brother Ali with BK-One (though a few of the guests sealed the deal when I turned it over). Even if you don't like rap, do not miss this track. There is no rapping, just rhythmic, brassy, musical brilliance.
"The influence of James Brown was to help the self-esteem of black Brazilians. Everything began with James Brown. That was the influence and we would play everything on top of that music. James Brown was an icon to Black Brazilians who had adopted soul music."- Ivan Tiririca
"Philly Boy" uses the lyrical talents of Black Thought, possibly the only emcee on the album I knew nothing of at all going in--which really just reflects my experience of rap, as he's from The Roots, to whom I've never really listened, mostly because I tend to know little or nothing about major label rap, especially from the late 1990s or 2000s. The essential beat is very to the point, but seems to focus on a very low, lazy guitar line, like that of someone casually playing with a lead over the easygoing beat. The song has an extremely relaxed feel overall, though Black Thought brings a lot of energy to his delivery--it works in a fun way to seemingly suggest the ease with which he can dismiss other emcees, as the song just sort of breezes along as he ends a his last verse with "Do it." It actually ends up a lot closer to instrumental than most of the other tracks (barring the obvious one), going on for a full minute after that, with a little accompanying guitars of Nate Collis (who now plays with Atmosphere on the same instrument), bringing a little more speed and higher pitches, as well as a much more improvisational feel to the outro.
Slug makes his only solo appearance on "Blood Drive", which has a very curious production to it: it opens with flutes, then goes to a seemingly pastoral string that turns just slightly sour, but is answered with an insistent bassline--there is almost neither end nor beginning to the loop. This is one of the less wry deliveries from Slug, giving him a chance to seem less like he's trying to smack your face into his point (sometimes because you, or the person he's rapping to at least, need that). It's one of the best deliveries I've ever heard from him, feeling way more in the "groove" than usual.
And on "A Day's Work" we get one of my favourite emcees, certainly the one for whom I evangelize most: P.O.S., he of Doomtree, about whom I've written before. He's usually paired with producers like DTR's own Lazerbeak, Cecil Otter, Paper Tiger--or perhaps himself, or MK Larada once upon a time. The more "normal" beat (driven by piano, but backed by the bass of Sean "Twinkie Jiggles" McPherson--seriously) brings out something of a shock in him. He's not been a slouch at rap, but his roots in punk often gave him an interesting approach to delivery. And, of course, he has always liked asides--from the first time I saw him in concert, at least. He throws one in here, but holy cow, that verse he spits is twisting and turning in all the best possible ways--"Making this shit my own", he says, and he's right.
For a lot of the early (primarily RSE) rap shows I went to, I'd almost always see Toki Wright there, acting primarily as hype man for the headlining acts. He got to open a few shows later, and he got a record released at a point that made me feel like he had to work way harder for it than anyone else--which was weird, as he was never lacking in talent at all. And "Face It" emphasizes how strange it was that it seemed to take some time before he could release a record. He puts in his own vocal hook into a beat that already has a nice pinched guitar hook, and has a relaxed tone to his rap, about his comfort and ease, and, yes, pride in being black. I'd like to think this could click even with people who get really defensive about black pride, as there's no sense of superiority, just comfort--and encouragement for everyone to have the same attitude.
There's a kind of sound to fuzzy, crackley samples that appears a lot, regardless of the kind of music it appears in (there's a distinct example in alt/indie rock band Eels, actually). It uses a loop that ends with a light pop at the very end, one that signifies the end and beginning of the loop simultaneously. It's often given just enough space after the musical sample itself that you know it's deliberately included, even making for part of the beat. Here it's a quiet acoustic sample that goes from muttering itself to talking to listeners, but gets no further--it immediately cycles backward. Strings and other instruments back the one exception to the rapping tracks that compost the majority of the album: singer-songwriter Aby Wolf is double-tracked (and more, a few times) and sings beautifully for a very relaxed song called "Love Like That". She actually works with Dessa (of Doomtree) on occasion, too.
"The first landmark soul album in Brazil was the first LP of Tim Maia. In his style of playing, I could hear Harlem materializing. I heard black American music. Tim lived five years in the United States and he wasn't just listening. He lived the life of a black American Musician."--Hyldon
Another rapper I know from opening, Blueprint appeared between P.O.S. and Atmosphere at the first rap show I ever attended. Not an enviable position, really--following what was becoming my new favourite, and then preceding the one I came to see in the first place. He gets to rap "Blue Balls", which is more metaphorical than the next track--it's about musical "blue balls", with the constant pressure to finish a new album plaguing him from all sides. It's a great performance, and a fun conceit to rap about a kind of inability to finalize a rap album--a theme Ali actually hit on a few years later. He also gets the backing of Erick Anderson, who plays keys for Atmosphere and gives a lot more power to his backing, and makes it sound almost like a church song for Blueprint to preach his desire to be left to his work from.
Murs for President shirts tend to litter RSE shows. He raps with Slug as part of a group named Felt, which has been backed by a different producer for each of three albums (one was actually The Grouch, which is why I knew him already). His track is "Eighteen to Twenty-One", and if you're getting a worrisome vibe here, you're not alone. Murs is shameless in explaining why he looks for women in that age range--it's an aversion to settling down, and a disinterest in anything but having sex. An interesting guitar loop is the basis for it, with some interesting pinched and muted sounds built into it. BK has mentioned that he knew this would cause some trouble for some people, but rather than endorsing (or even tacitly accepting) the track, he has said it was just part of a refusal to direct or control the lyrical directions of the rappers who performed (citing Raekwon's drug selling rap and the varying uses of the "n-word" by more than one emcee). If you can deal with the subject matter, this is a great performance--you can hear Murs shrugging, and hear him saying, "Wait, wait, hold on, let me explain, though..."
Having appeared earlier with Raekwon, I Self Devine gets a chance to perform alone on "Call to Arms", and does so admirably. There's a brief instrumental introduction, which he raps in a distorted fashion over for about a minute, before the song even gets to start and his vocals come back clearly. The beat itself also comes into a much clearer quality, based around a female vocal sample that doesn't appear to form any full words (but then, I don't know Portuguese!). McPherson gets to throw in some more bass, and there's a great hi-hat usage toward the end, before it turns to McPherson's bassline and the handclaps of BK-One, I Self Devine, Benzilla, and King Karnov.
Rounding out the appearances of Brother Ali and pairing him with Scarface of the Geto Boys (who comes from Houston, TX apparently, which is kind of weird and cool for a rapper). A rolling, Latin beat stands behind "American Nightmare" and the brief choral vocal from Ali. It seems from Ali's opinion, BK's and that of many, Scarface is commercially neglected but unbelievably skilled emcee. This song is not exactly going to dissuade anyone from that notion, and it's very possible it will sway many toward it. Wow.
"I could have made popular but sophisticated music, as I had studied music for 6 years. I could have added a more sophisticated touch to samba. But I had taken another stand, an apocalyptic one, and made something more radical. I was crazy, but I was right."--Tom Zé
I've sort of given the fact away, but I tend to expect it beforehand anyway: getting to sit down with this album left it a heck of a lot more cohesive than I had ever guessed. The leaps in styles from emcee to emcee seemed like a risky proposition to me (much like the confused and uninformed claims that all of any genre or voice sound the same, that claim does not hold true for rap at all), but turned out perfectly reasonable. If treated as emcee-focused, it feels like a solid and varied but unified beat that just allows for numerous spotlights on emcees. But, of course, it's actually a producer's album: BK-One is putting hip-hop into Brazil, or Brazil into hip-hop, not because it hasn't been done, but because he loves both and wants to bring them together. And so he does. There's a great admiration for the styles and sounds of Brazil, but not stripped away and raps forced over them, nor broken down into the unrecognizable and reconfigured as expected hip-hop beats.
There's actually a great "track-by-track" rundown of the album by BK-One himself, over at this link, via the blog Potholes in My Blog.
I don't have any illusions--I know most people I know with no time for rap in specific or hip-hop in general are going to give this much time. I know there's not much I can do to sway those minds--though I sometimes have success by simply choosing the right rapper or rap group for a person's taste. I write this, however, in the hopes that a person here or there might see something in this that they wouldn't have otherwise, that they might at least take away from it "Tema Do Canibal", which I maintain should appeal to most anyone.
You can actually pick up an EP of just that song, if you like from Amazon in digital form, or even on vinyl. Rhymesayers also sells it directly, as well as the full album.
Next Up: Blakroc - Blakroc