Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Doomtree - No Kings (2011)

Doomtree Records ■ DTR033

Released November 22, 2011

Produced by Cecil Otter, Dessa, Lazerbeak, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S., Paper Tiger, Sims
Engineered by Joe Mabbott
Mastered by Bruce Templeton
Beats by Cecil Otter (A1-B1, B3, C1, D1-D3), Lazerbeak (A1-A3, B2, C2
-D3), P.O.S. (A1, A2, D1, D3), Paper Tiger (D3)


Side One:Side Two:

  1. No Way
    Sims, Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S.
  2. Bolt Cutter
    P.O.S., Sims, Dessa, Mike Mictlan
  3. Bangarang
    P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, Sims

  1. Beacon
    Dessa, P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Sims
  2. Punch-Out
    Mike Mictlan, Sims
  3. Little Mercy
    Cecil Otter, Dessa
Side Three:Side Four:

  1. The Grand Experiment
    Dessa, Sims, P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan
  2. String Theory
    Dessa, Sims, Cecil Otter
  3. Team the Best Team
    P.O.S., Sims, Cecil Otter, Dessa, Mike Mictlan

  1. Gimme the Go
    Cecil Otter, Sims
  2. Own Yours
    P.O.S., Sims, Mike Mictlan, Cecil Otter
  3. Fresh New Trash
    Sims, Cecil Otter, P.O.S., Dessa, Mike Mictlan
Maybe it's just the Dessa show I was at two weeks ago, but I feel like I've relayed the story of how I found Doomtree enough times already--I was asked at that show by just about everyone, including associates and one of the opening acts. There's no stranger experience for me than going to those shows. I don't know why it is, exactly, but I end up with people asking me how long I've known them, or when I left Minneapolis, or how on earth, if neither of those is true (there's nothing true in either--I've never even been to Minnesota in general, and the friends I have there have only lived there since I discovered Doomtree, basically). I'd chalk it all up to the general positivity they all exude in person, the down-to-earth appreciation and gratitude they express openly and consistently to seemingly everyone, but then you would think everyone would get asked those questions, or no one would ask them at all.


I don't really know what it is. I've got "hooks" if you will--I mention one in the blog entry I linked to above, regarding the pre-order of Dessa's book, Spiral Bound. My experience with getting everything I had at the time (...almost...) signed, too, helped to cement my visibility with them--though, still, out of all the possible people, some guy a thousand miles away in a town that has no visible importance? I have no idea. It tends to reflect back and instill me with a sense of awe--how on earth do they find a fan so important? Indeed, I have done nothing terribly important, so this must not be a unique experience--how do they find that kind of energy and compassion for so many strangers? To say nothing of the kind of experience I had talking to Dessa specifically both at the crew show two years ago, and at the show two weeks ago. At the first, she took the time to do a favour for a fan who couldn't make it through me, and at the second, the story I told her about that fan left her hugging me like a friend--after recognizing me before I said a word after the show.

Of course, it would be something purely indicative of her character were it not for the kinds of interactions I've had with others--Sims practically encouraging me to monopolize his time at that crew show, Stef "milking" my elbow out of nowhere, Cecil telling me about the symbol you can hopefully see on the front of that record sleeve, Mike's quiet and humble (!--if you've heard him rap, or seen him perform, this might sound odd) appreciation of my fandom, Beak's appreciation of my rather heavy ordering tendencies, Paper Tiger's shock at my possession of his False Hopes EP...and, most recently, Doomtree associate Ander Other talking to me passionately about his good friend Mike (see above) and how real his devotion to rapping is--something I found myself nodding over, as that is unquestionably clear in how he does things.

It's hard for me to talk about almost any music, because I know I tend to ramble on, which can counteract my intended goal of drawing in new listeners, even for the most famous of artists. It's harder still with a group of artists who've shaped a lot of my listening for the last seven years, a group that isn't struggling in the sense that many others are, but that is afloat on the waters of their fans and nothing else. It's a solid fanbase, but they aren't Macklemore or anything, as indie rappers go (you'll find P.O.S.'s records at major retailers because they are co-released by the much larger Rhymesayers label). They work hard, they tour hard, and yet, they seem to still burble just under the surface, frustratingly. I know a lot of people don't like rap, or think they don't like rap (as I say every time I write about the stuff), or what have you, but this is a group of people whose passion (forgive me, I don't think I'll be able to avoid riding that word pretty hard here) is unmistakable and naked, and whose music is interesting, literate, thoughtful, and polished to show both a shine and the jagged bits in equal and appropriate measures. Unquestionably, they are the first rappers I'll suggest to anyone upon finding they "don't like rap". I may tentatively push other names first that might have some more immediate recognition, but they are the main thrust, bar none.

Prior to this album's release in 2011, there were 2 "crew albums" that appeared--one, the 12th False Hope record, a sort of "demonstration" recording prior to a full-fledged one, had tracks I felt the need to mention the last time I wrote about them. The other was the self-titled release in 2008, a record that they've since noted was more about trying to balance everyone's appearances and assembling separate tracks, where this one they deliberately set out to write a true crew record, from scratch, to display the group's talents as a group. It feels to me--however right or wrong--like the penultimate track on Sims' Lights Out Paris, "No Homeowners" was the first real display on record of their sound as a whole. Indeed, it appears in an alternate form on the aforementioned 12th False Hopes, subtitled "Renter's Rebate" and includes a verse from each of them, as well as marking the first song-length "devotional" to the group.

"No Way" kicks the album off with a chugging muted guitar chord (doubtless the "additional guitar" contributed by Dave Brockschmidt), that acts as predictive prelude to something more meaty, but full enough in itself to give weight to even the introductory moments and their wandering shadows of words. The drums of the beat kick in and thump and thud to a greater expanse as Cecil's hook begins to fade in: "We got cracks in our armor/Got cracks in the ceiling/and this axe that we're weilding will react when we're feeling that/Crack/Attack/Attack and we're on you like a Mack truck Your Honor/We are that fucking filthy." Sims launches straight from that into his verse, which is in keeping with his solo subject matter and style, with hints of dissatisfaction with the way society works now, a nod to a famed song twisted and lightly tinged with a mix of flippant honesty and sarcasm ("You're so vain/You probably think it's about you/Well it is and it ain't/And it ain't, but it is..."), as well as a nudge to his recent album, which centers on the same topics. Mictlan follows with the tongue-twisting tattered thoughts that have become his preference, alliterating and rhyming incessantly in a stream-of-consciousness-like flow that touch on ideas that crop up in DTR records intermittently ("Light the rag on your cocktail"--how on earth he and Stef manage to find clever ways to reference Molotov cocktails so often is beyond me), as well as the growing theme of the group's prowess at their collective chosen profession. Stef (P.O.S.) follows with hints of the solo album he'd follow this one with, We Don't Even Live Here, which circles his mentally defined in-place anarchism¹ and further establishes that Doomtree rises on their skill and talent, not posturing or contrivance.

The energetic drumming introduction to "Bolt Cutter" leaves no hint as to the sudden drop to the slow, ponderous bassline that Stef's hook brings with it ("My girl gave me a bolt cutter/We love to break in/And claim all the spaces they forgot they had taken/And all this is ours it's gonna be what we make it/If only the stars were close enough we would paint them..."). It's a deep groove that is set aside for a moment when Sims starts his verse, defined in tone by the first lines: "They said couldn't have that/Square in the eye right back and said yeah, yeah/We gonna take it anyway, that's that"), which brings a stretched squiggle of the bassline that acts as a tremendous underscore to his words. A light keyboard-type interview intercedes and eases the whole track, before Dessa's ever-melodic voice floats her words in over it, "You know, I've seen a little glory/And your trinket isn't it/Save your voice I know the story/Man abandons sinking ship/I heard you did your dissertation on the rise and fall of man/Said the golden era's over, but we'll rise and fall again," picking up Sims' lines and then smashing the delicacy of her part of the beat with the final angry, despairing lines: "This ain't Kansas/If you said your prayers/now put em down if you got answers/This place it takes the faith of a mantis." And it's the perfect introduction for the hardened edges of the beat that Mictlan brings with him: "The strongest links in a chain are the first to get cut/Together til weall fade/Keep the blade in the gut/They kept us in a cage too long/To fake they care about us." Stef carries the song off with more indicators that this subject was on his mind and fighting to come out on his own next album, "We play like birds prey/Anyplace warm stay/Love it/We own our space/Roam home/Any place aimed go."

It's strange to think a word most of us know best as originating in the movie Hook somehow inspired two nearly contemporaneous songs, but "Bangarang" proves that it happened². It's a nice encapsulation of some of the Doomtree attitude to find the empowering call from that movie turned into a call to arms (so to speak) for Doomtree themselves (overpowering, then, the call that was "Doomtree/Time to let it be known/From the bottom of the bottle to the top of the throne" in "No Homeowners"). Mike's hook is not just a hook for the song, but for the group--"Doomtree Bangarang/All these rappers sound the same/Beats?/Sound the same/Raps?/Sound the same/Wings/Fan the flames/Teeth/With the fangs/Ten years in our lane/Doomtree Bangarang". Tying in to their logo--a set of teeth that indeed has wings, previously immortalized in "Traveling Dunk Tank" on that 12th False Hopes--there it is again!--with the lines "I'm tying to free up them wings/Trying to bear some teeth", which was, of course, the title of my last writing on the group. Stef leads the charge, as he, Cecil, and Sims draw out the source of the album in the group's core and need to express and unify, dabbled with their historical familial sensibilities, hard work and competition. Sims makes this explicit: "Buy I got ya'll when I see y'all/And I keep ya'll when the beat stops/I built more than a rap career/I got my family here." And then he makes a simultaneously-fulfilled prophecy: "But some folks wanna jump up/With a sharp tongue and their fronts up/Like we got here by dumb luck/But they just wanna become us/That's up when you come up/I move like a dump truck/Too long on the road and I earn what I hold/If you want it let me know I can burn your flow like--whew." (If you did not know by the end of that line that he could burn your flow, you weren't listening).

One of the other tracks to receive the video treatment (yeah go check those links above--all of them can be found on the DVD about the making of the album and surrounding tour, as well as the group as a whole, Team the Best Team. They show a bit of a show I was at, actually), "Beacon" is flush with the sound of a Cecil beat (indeed, it is one), a fuzzed out and light melody flattens until a rushing snare-heavy beat slides in below it all and Dessa launches into the first verse, the beat shifting when Stef enters with his own, the song pushing forward incessantly, bouncing on the beat and given its sway by the words of each emcee, an up and down patter from Dessa, and a swing from Stef, and then Cecil's hook calms it all--"I know, I know/I know wake up, wake up/But I don't go there, go there/She knows the way home". He follows it with a verse, though, which is perhaps the most distilled appearance he makes on the album, so purely Cecil as he takes the hook and drags it with him--"You know your way home? You gonna be all right?"--and then drops the song's title into place, though the running thought is of antagonistic relationship, brought home with the appropriate re-focus on self that Sims closes it out with.

The burst and fade of an explosion brings us "Punch Out", lulling us momentarily into a false sense of security, the haunting loop of "Beacon"'s closing return to its opening, distress signal-like beat still echoing around. But then the drums roll in--and roll, and roll, then thunder down with the blinding mass of sounds that mark Mike Mictlan's mastery of sound, a track that swaggers with the same feel that Mictlan and then Sims bring to it. Mictlan calls it all out without any need to lower his voice or release his emphasis, but Sims turns it around to something more laid back, yet completely in keeping with what Mike established. It's just under two minutes and by far the shortest track on the album, and seems just right for that--they can punch you out in no time flat when it comes to rapping, and the two of them do it alone.

"Little Mercy" gives us one of the best emcee pairings the group can offer when they are reduced to any two: Cecil and Dessa. Guest vocalist Channy Casselle brings the sound of a loop extracted from something riding the line of gospel and soul at its most bittersweet, though it's not a found recording, of course. Cecil's hook is lengthy but brilliant: "Now the candle's in the window and it's open/We watch the flames duke it out with every gust/No, it must just burn to the bottom of the wick/It's the bottom of the fifth and that shit is still burning". It's another of his solo beats, and you can tell, that high-end heavy approach to drums in the beat, and the semi-scarred, sinewy melodic approach over it. Dessa's on her more snarling and aggressive side, giving a kick to the more subdued vocalization Cecil favours, which seems to inspire his ending verse, which she joins him for in a unified run through of those last lines. Except for the last few, where her voice drops away, highlighting the tone of his words ("We're so thirsty...") and making them that much more desperate.

The intro to "The Grand Experiment" (one of the tracks heavily previewed before the album's release, if memory serves) sounding for all the world like a triumphant moment in a Tron-era game (in the best sense possible) before the chattering beat and similarly analogue-like synthetic melodies tell us Cecil's hiding in the background again. Dessa casts off her verse like it's nothing (when it is the opposite), while Stef's hook is one of the moments his experiences in music outside rap shine through, with sung lines that don't sound like you might expect a sung rap hook to sound. Sims keeps that head-bobbing rhythm to his verse that is like an engine chugging at full power, while Cecil drops his acidic salesman's pitch--a snake oil salesman, that is ("But wait it comes with a warranty for a week and that's respectable/It's cheap and it's ethical...well, it's ethical...well, it's magical really.") Mictlan carries the track's thoughts of the underhanded and endemic problems of modern man that everyone has rapped about to their conclusion, the contradictory strains of desire to change and recognizing seemingly inevitable collapse unconcerned with their conflict.

"String Theory" is built on a Lazerbeak beat in the old style--the kind we'd hear on Hand Over Fist, or the solo works of P.O.S. and Sims. Sims and Dessa (another great pairing, it must be said, as "The Wren" is immaculate) lay out a more cerebral explanation for the kind of self-confidence and raised Doomtree fists the album throws up regularly, and moves at an easier pace for it. Hearing them trade lines at the last verse is worth it alone.

The horns Lazerbeak builds the beat to "Team the Best Team" on sound as if we've reached the final, triumphant track of the album--but we aren't there yet. There's a flutter to the horns that hides behind the more audible portion, occasionally receiving its own spotlight, and tied together with a rolling bass line. Sims, Stef, Cecil, Dessa and Mike rap like they are a Rocky at the top of the steps--not putting their confidence in the face of detractors, or raising fists and voices in victory, just assessing achievements in retrospect--hands on hips and nodding with the slightest of smiles, knowing where they are and how they got there, and where that is to them, whatever it is or isn't to anyone else.

The light pummel of the beat in "Gimme the Go" may or may not be Stef's responsibility, but it at least echoes the kind of beats that would appear in his solo work, be they his, Beak's or Cecil's (the other two being those who share responsibility with him for this beat). Cecil and Sims are like gunfighters as they spit here, confident killers, at ease and utterly in control, yet chomping at the bit to prove their skill. The beat is big, but stutters, sputters and rattles as if cowed by the words on top of it.

There's a vocal sample in "Own Yours" that has a light touch to it, and it's allowed to exist almost in isolation for the introduction. A few light snare rolls announce the onset of Stef's words and the clap and clatter of the beat's hardest points. His verse as well as Sims', Cecil's and Mike's all hold to the thought of struggles not yet over, be they related to their career choice, life, society or anything else--the specifics aren't important, only the willingness to trudge on through it. Beak's hook (reminiscent of his solo foray, Legend Recognize Legend) lays this out clearly: "And the roof caved in and the porch lights froze/And the woods lay thin and the torch light grows/You may find yourself in a corpse-like pose as you go/And the tombs spread out and the birch still grows/And the fumes head south and the earth will slow/You may find yourself on a search for gold as you go"--it may have been horrific, and it will be again, but there's something to see, and things continue to go on. The beat doubles its tempo under Mike's flurry of words, and then seems to fade, but returns at a slow warp to carry Cecil through to its end: "But the long and short is.../We got no shortage/We got our pain on payroll/Paint on the canvas with the face of an angel". These struggles are fuel.

After "No Homeowners" it comes as no surprise that the group can pull out a monster closer. Everyone who makes beats contributes to this last one, "Fresh New Trash", but it's not a mess of those varied styles, it's cohesive and brilliant: horns and bass with hints of drum announce it with the feeling of momentary finality tinged with a subtext of relaxation. Sims takes the first verse, and with it comes a stutter of drums, and the loss of the horns, for a suddenly empty space that his voice fills, that half-sung little hook he sticks in brilliant and perfect for the subdued tone of his words ("Hey, all right, okay..."). There's even a little organ for him, but the horns come in with dropped low end to bring in Cecil, whose last words over the re-introduced horns and stuttering drums are the perfect lead into Stef's hook: "Let it go/Let it roll on past/Don't hold back/Understand it's over before you know..." the beat changes entirely when Stef's verse starts, all descending bass and a punkier tone. Horns come back for Dessa's proud words ("I've been boom/I've been bust/I rep Doom/Til I'm dust"), but it's Mictlan's verse that brings the whole thing home, buys it a nice dinner, tucks it in and takes care of it for the rest of its life. You can hear the absolute passion and reality when Mike says: "This isn't indie rap/This is 10 years/stress and tears/sweat and fears/Acceptance from our friends and peers/And everythign that's brought us here/It's written on my face/You can see it when I close my eyes/and sing a Dessa Darling line/the realest thing I never wrote/Quote me anytime/"It's win, lose or tie"/Still Doomtree til I die/even after death and dirt/let em know who said it first/and put it on your favourite shirt:/Rap Won't Save You/Sell 'em absolution with a verse." We hear that hook again and the album fades, but that brilliant track keeps echoing. There's no question the sincerity here, nor is their any reason to question closing with those lines.

There's a reason the inner sleeve of my copy of this record is signed like mad. 
There's something amazing about tracks like "Fresh New Trash" and "Prizefight" (from the Beak/Mictlan Hand Over Fist project) and "No Homeowners" and "Crew" (from Dessa's Badly Broken Code) that is not easy to express. There's something absolute and real, something that doesn't fade when you actually interact with any of them as people, or see them perform, there's something real and serious here, unpretentious and uninterested in fame, per se, yet thoroughly interested in gaining ground and territory. They remain their own label, with family and friends operating the logistics they don't operate themselves--and they fund their new records with the proceeds from the previous ones.

This record is like a clarion call, or at least it should be--perhaps it isn't and couldn't be for them, but it is that to me. It's cause to bring others to this music, which is brilliant and real and wonderful and has something for most everyone--even if you don't like rap, a goodly chunk of Dessa's material can edge more into other realms. Of course, that's a frustration--I sometimes find folks insistent on pretending there is some wheat to separate from chaff in the group. Those songs make clear, even if not in the performances (which, honestly, should seal the deal) in their emotion that no such thing exists.

There are clever touches and callbacks and moments where their interplay in a song or an album is clear, when Sims and Dessa both casually reference 'the golden era' in the same sense, but in different ways, in "Bolt Cutter"--or the way that Stef would follow up on that idea in We Don't Even Live Here with "Fire in the Hole/Arrow to the Action" and the line "Bolt cutter in the trunk/Bolt Thrower in the tape deck". It's a direct reference to the British death metal/grindcore band for sure, but it's probably not so much a reference to the track he was just involved in--just a continuation of those ideas, and you can see the way they all came together from their past solo works and unified for this album, then spread back out away from it for more solo work, building on what they did together.

If you simply cannot stand rap, check out the lyrics on their bandcamp. Just read them, instead. You won't get the full effect (at least, I certainly can't ever read things like lyrics--or poetry--and get the full effect), but you might at least appreciate the way they all have with words, and the distinct styles that manage to come together so cleanly here.

In any case, I recommend this record about as strongly as I can, and there's not much more I know how to say than that.

¹It goes like this: "This world's gotta whole lotta locked doors/We decided not to live here anymore"--in other words, running into the socially-defined limitations on people, Stef decided to not live in that "world" anymore, and instead run on his own rules, within and beside society such as it is. Basically. That's a starting point, anyway.

²The other was Skrillex's, of course. More people know that one because he's more famous. There was a stupid argument on YouTube (is there any other kind?) regarding it being "stolen" which I stupidly participated in, until we'd both dipped back so far that it really proved that it was ludicrous to think they were related. Which was what I thought anyway--not that the claim of theft from Skrillex was actually an inverted truth. Weird coincidence, but coincidence.
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