It’s the end of the year and we’ll soon cross over that threshold into 2021, but what memories can we take with us of what we’ve come across the past decade? Mind you, some releases I’ve caught wind of through word of mouth and life couldn’t be better because of it. This year I revisited a few releases throughout the last decade that may or may not have received enough accolades that were deserved.
MC ZULU – ELECTRO TRACK THERAPY (Perception2020 Recordings) 2011
What is this? Where did MC Zulu come from? How is it possible I haven’t been introduced to his music before? As a life-long New Yorker and Brooklynite, yes, I’ve enjoyed the cultural diversity of the city and especially that time of year when I get to walk around the West Indies Festival and sample everyone’s food, listen to the music blaring from every angle, dancing the night way, and of course, the colorful costumes. To an extent, MC Zulu’s Electro Track Therapy reminds me of what didn’t happen in 2020 and probably won’t in 2021. But whatever, I get so much out of this release.
MC Zulu is based out of Chicago and he obviously knows what he’s doing when it comes to the multiple sub-styles of island music. “Festival Madness” has the gravitational pull I was looking for. It’s all in the name itself, the island grit, the Soca vibes riddim. The frenetic energy is intoxicating, Zulu’s vocal delivery is unmatched to any of his contemporaries here. It thumps, it bumps, it’s a musical entanglement. While it seems this song is alone in style unless we account for “Let Me Turn U On,” the rest of the album doesn’t disappoint. The opening “Call Red Alert” has a bounce that’s unmistakably MC Zulu and his baritone vocals I’m sure has the ladies’ attention. But it’s “Talk Dutty” that grabs my attention here. This one oozes of sensuality and the Zulu man here is full of sexual innuendos throughout as the beat skinks along with a bassline that doesn’t overpower the vocalist. I may have been too quick on the limit of varying riddims here because “Hyped Up” has a Soca/Calypso meshing that is unrelenting. MC Zulu also includes his own variation of Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” which he takes liberties with but it’s a good inclusion here.
I feel fortunate to have crossed paths with Electro Track Therapy. It’s a fun album and it has made me nostalgic for a Jamaican beef patty, but it has to have that coco bread. Those that know, know. This album? Everyone should get to know.
NO SURRENDER – MEDICINE BABIES (ZEROKILLED MUSIC) 2011
The New York act has apparently gone through some membership changes throughout the years but it’s No Surrender’s last release, Medicine Babies, that I’m particularly concerned about. This is the group’s second full-length release and follows up the full-length debut, White Power Black Magic which is a departure from this release. But I’m all about Medicine Babies, which features emcees Gnomad, Seraphim, and Eddie Steeples. I think everyone can appreciate the turn No Surrender took to get here in between albums.
Medicine Babies was produced by Costanza Francavilla and Seraphim and sonically, this album is mind-boggling. The album’s opening “Young World” doesn’t prepare anyone with what follows. The track is pleasant, with oddly placed guitars overlaid on top of one another as an electronic beat begins to drive the track. It moves from pleasant to hypnotic in a matter of moments. One emcee sings, while the others soon rhyme in around the beat. Sexual innuendos are made around young love in this young world. And then, things go bananas. Musically the group takes a quick ride from the suburbs to dark urban streets where all we’re surrounded by is concrete and steel. “Falling Into You (feat. Costanza)” shifts within a timbre that’s morose yet powerful, haunting but energetic, and completely captivating. Costanza sings on the hook and her inclusion couldn’t be any better. Yes, I’m in! “You’re A Star” takes a similar approach but the beat is addictively danceable as the emcees volley their words back and forth. From track to track, it only gets better. “Give It Up To Me (feat. Nikki Darling)” and her delivery is reminiscent of Bellrays singer Lisa Kekaula but she holds her own here and the emcees? Well, they kill it on this banger!
RadioClit works around “Godda Get It,” which brilliantly delivers power and soul, while TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe guests on “Silver Hall.” This one here seems to be an experiment in sound, before changing its perspective halfway through. “Heart (feat. Costanza)” is a lot to take in. It may be sparse but the music is inviting and so sensual. The group closes out the release with its rendition of Jane’s Addiction’s “Summertime Rolls.” It’s a bit different but unmistakably No Surrender.
This one, as I mentioned previously, is mind-boggling and they fit harmonica & strings within the music. This is Hip-Hop for a future generation and No Surrender seems to be waiting patiently for everyone to catch up.
CAMU TAO – KING OF HEARTS (FAT POSSUM) 2010
The late Camu Tao, known to his friends as Tero Smith, had his debut solo album King Of Hearts released posthumously 2 years after his untimely death. While that album may not be what fans expected, it probably wasn’t what critics expected either. What we don’t hear are his adept raps and flow like on other projects he’s worked on (i.e. Weathermen, S.A. Smash, Central Service), instead, we were all given rough sketches of an artist moving laterally in a different direction.
King Of Hearts is somewhat anthemic, revolving thoroughly around sonic landscapes cultivated within an electro-punk aesthetic. Don’t get me wrong, this is Hip-Hop in a vein of music that’s challenging the way artists like CX Kidtronik, Saul Williams, and Moor Mother disrupt the expected narrative, taking the power back. But that’s not to say Tao doesn’t know how to write and deliver clear and concise pop songs. Just listening to the title track alone, there are slight changes, not a direct verse-chorus-verse delivery but the song is an anthemic pogo-inducing number that delivers. The much more realized opener “Be A Big Girl Now,” with stinging guitars, loads of vocal harmonies, and staccato-like bass, the track throbs and reels one in. In its 33-second brevity, “Actin A Ass” had the potential to be so much more if it was fully realized. An obvious snapshot of what could have been. “Plot For A Little” is wrapped around a rhythm Camu Tao utilizes with fervor and panache, working around it like a rapper, but a vocalist that’s able to offer much more.
In the end, King Of Hearts truly had the potential to launch the artist into the spotlight without sharing it with any of his contemporaries. This is a good album with the potential for greatness. Unfortunately, we’ll never get to see how far Camu Tao could have gone.
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CESCHI – BROKEN BONE BALLADS (FAKE FOUR INC.)
One thing about Ceschi Ramos is the unequivocal loyalty his rabid fanbase shows, and there’s a reason for it, and the rapper/emcee/musician shares his respect for them as well. I think it was off of this album that I was introduced to the artist and became part of that group because Broken Bone Ballads did things that only a handful of artists have been able to do: combine indie-folk songs alongside Hip-Hop numbers that will leave people scratching their heads. Sometimes even blending the two.
Through Broken Bone Ballads I witnessed how he gets up and close with his fans as they sing along word for word, lyric for lyric. There’s a point to this and I’ll get to it. It’s the songs here that have corrupted youth and adults alike to (gasp!) think. The words aren’t mindless blabbering, they offer poignant anecdotes and Ceschi is a masterful storyteller. His acoustically driven “Say Something,” has the indie-folk side Ceschi wearing his emotions on his sleeve, wrapped around guitars, drums & wind instruments. Listening to this again leaves much to the imagination as well as gives an inside look at what was happened around this time after his release from prison, which he mentions again, quick-tongued on the drum-heavy and art-infused “Forever 33.” The underlying guitar notes that chime in are cleverly added, which I hadn’t noticed until now. But heart on sleeves is made often throughout as I note this especially on “Beyond The End” as he somberly waxes poetic through death-filled eyes. The Hip-Hop head comes out directly on “Kurzweil” which features iCON The Mic King and his brother David Ramos. The beat and bassline are hot, with magic on the keys that allows the song to take on a life of its own. Each emcee spits venom through fiery words and I’m left awestruck. But it’s “This Won’t Last Forever” that should have been the coup de grace here because it’s a song that I’ve constantly gone back to. It strikes chords, of youth, mistakes, and anger. It’s everything we need.
Broken Bone Ballads should go down in history as an album that didn’t get the proper respect it deserved. This album was produced by Factor Chandelier and was the indie answer to Guru & Premier or even Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. I may be reaching but you get my point.
HANNI EL KHATIB – HEAD IN THE DIRT (INNOVATIVE LEISURE) 2013
I have a cousin that turned me onto this artist, and I remember the moment he did so. He sent me a cryptic email that read “Check this out” with links for Hanni El Khatib a publicist has sent. I was working a shit job that I hated but I had access to social media and could do other things rather than actual work that paid me. It was for Will The Guns Come Out and this was his debut album. After watching the video for the single “Loved Ones,” yeah, I was smitten. A couple of years later he released Head In The Dirt which surpassed any of my own expectations. That same year I caught El Khatib in my town while on tour with the Black Angels. A full-fledged fan at this point.
Head In The Dirt was produced by Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and the pairing just made sense because the album is explosive in every aspect and mode. It opens with the title track, an alluring number filled with harmonies, organs, captivating rhythms, and El Khatib’s cacophonous guitar. But it leads unexpectedly to “Family,” a powerful anthem that no arena could possibly contain where guitars and drums lead the way, accentuated by that underlying organ again as El Khatib sings about love and being family no matter what. The best is when he sings the last verse, “I woke up in the gravel, with my face in the ground, had some cuts on my upper lip, swept in by the sound…” because it’s filled with handclaps in the background and it’s just different than anything else you may ever hear. But he isn’t always about pushing out loud guitars and throbbing bass & drums. He can churn out a pop song with ease. He laments on “Skinny Little Girl,” vowing to pray over her as the infectious melody rings out while on “Penny” he cherishes those found coins as guitars & piano provides the perfect backdrop. El Khatib does it all here and on the bluesy “Save Me” you can’t help but stomp along with that kick drum.
Hanni El Khatib is a favorite musician of mine, as well as others here, and never seems to do the same thing twice but Head In The Dirt is possibly one of my favorite albums of all time. There’s a plethora of music that’s inviting and gorgeous. Hell yes.
P.O.S. – WE DON’T EVEN LIVE HERE (DOOMTREE) 2012
Literally, we can pull from every angle in every album P.O.S. has delivered throughout the years, this decade or the last. Regardless of what anyone may think of P.O.S. personally, the talent he’s shown through his material has been astounding. Whether or not he releases any more material, we have We Don’t Even Live Here to comfort our Hip-Hop / Indie needs. The musicianship throughout the album, the lyrical content, the way everything is pieced together, it’s done masterfully.
Maybe I’ll just stop there but anyone that wants to listen to something more insightful can check out the more recent Chill, Dummy, Audition, or even Never Better.