If this column had an official remit it would be to act as a filter, condensing the overwhelming world of hip hop mixtapes down into a useful bi-monthly guide. While there will seemingly never be a shortage of free rap music to talk about in this space, it sometimes feels like a shame not to cover the wealth of material being released by more traditional means. You remember, the kind of music exchanged for money? In shops? You’ll have to take my word for it.
In 2012 there’s been a spate of this stuff and, as it’s June, I thought that was tenuous enough an excuse to put together a playlist of some of the best bits of the year so far. Some selections you’ll find have been covered here already, such as previously featured artists Killer Mike and Big K.R.I.T., who finally released their albums in May and June respectively. You’ll also find new cuts from returning indie-rap vets (Aesop Rock, I Self Devine, El-P), fully blown major label stars (Nas, Rick Ross) and there’s some fresher blood thrown in for good measure (Starlito, Ab Soul, Homeboy Sandman).
Another reason for doing a playlist feature this time around is to allow for a bumper issue of mixtapes, as we've really been spoiled in the past couple of months. Whatever it is that floats your proverbial hip hop boat – be it country rap bangers, vintage east coast, ‘cloud rap’, or M-m-m-maybach music – there should be some wind for your sails here. So hit play on the playlist and see below for the usual round-up of the best in hip hop tapes.
Featured Mixtape: Joey Bada$$ - 1999 / Download
I think it’s worth addressing from the start that as rap aliases go, Joey Bada$$ could use a bit of work. While admittedly the two dollar symbols serve as something of a saving grace, I’ll understand if you give this write-up a quick glance, turn your nose up dismissively, and click your way back to the forums to comment on what a crock of shit this column is. We’ve all been there, but don’t go, because as some tired idiom reminds us, you shouldn’t judge a book by its front cover.
As noted in the last Champion Sound column, Joey forced himself onto ‘ones to watch’ lists back in February with the Capital Steez assisted ‘Survival Tactics’; a song that serves as a welcome kick up the backside to the countless east-coast revivalists dining out on Brooklyn’s past glories. Although Joey Bada$$ is mining very similar territory to those guys, he manages to sound like a product of his region without ramming that fact clumsily down our throats. His flow is as natural as they come, and at just 17 years old, he’s at the age where he just sounds excited to be making and recording rap music.
Four months on from ‘Survival Tactics’ and it has been joined by 14 other songs on 1999; Joey’s debut mixtape, and showcase for the array of other talents which make up his group, Pro-Era. Drawing from several eras of east coast heritage, he’s equally happy coasting over Illmatic indebted loops or trying his hand at more playful linguistic work-outs. DOOM is clearly another reference point for Joey, who he not only borrows a couple of beats from but also begins to mirror stylistically at times (‘Pennyroyal’, particularly). Closing the tape is ‘Suspect’, a Pro Era cipher of sorts that feels very much like the group’s own take on Odd Future’s ‘Oldie’ that closed OF Tape Vol. 2. A simple, low-riding beat sets the tone, while nine separate artists take their turn to share Joey’s spotlight. If Pro Era keeps up this kind of form, it won’t be long before they’re each given a light to shine in.
Nacho Picasso x Blue Sky Black Death – Exalted / Download
Despite neglecting the opportunity to spell his name Nacho Pica$$0, this Seattle rapper is becoming a regular feature in this column. Exalted is his third collaborative album with production duo Blue Sky Black Death in the space of just eight months, and honestly I don’t think there’s a dud moment between them. That’s quite an accomplishment really, especially in an era of hip hop where quantity is increasingly being favoured over quality.
This hit rate can mostly be attributed to a fairly standardized formula that they’ve developed and perfected. BSBD’s combination of soupy synths and precise hat-snare combinations make a perfect mate for Nacho’s continuous stream of knockout punchlines; so the logic is ‘why change that formula’? Even Nacho’s flow is remarkably consistent, pretty much rapping to the same pentameter for the duration of all three albums, but somehow you barely notice. It helps that the beats would work perfectly well without vocals, but with a rapper this magnetic BSBD’s collaboration with Nacho Picasso just makes sense. Long may it continue.
Haleek Maul – Oxyconteen / Download
There’s a fantastic article in this month’s Wire magazine by Andrew ‘Noz’ Nosnitsky, which argues that current ‘buzz’ trends in blogging culture are having a damaging effect on hip hop artistry. In the piece, he writes: “In their rush [to find the next big thing], they tend to reward a strong narrative over historically valued musical pursuits like hit records or good records or great records.” Essentially, rap music is becoming more and more like X-factor, and rather than seek out and nurture the best talent, there’s a tendency towards following the most interesting stories.
It’s with some caution, then, that I present Haleek Maul, who you may know, or will soon know as the recently turned 16 year old rapper from Barbados. But the things that make Oxyconteen great have nothing to do with his age or nationality, it’s quite simply a very strong, coherent debut release. Haleek Maul exists in a murky corner of the hip hop spectrum, where dark, reverb-laden beats are met with ominous, sometimes visceral lyricism. Standout track ‘Gully’ hits particularly hard, as he grapples with his identity over a scuttling Supreme Cuts production, rapping: “Judas, Jesus, Peter cannot save me, girl just give me head / I am not a person, I’m just verses stuck inside your head.” Although only brief at seven songs, Oxyconteen is an encouraging first release which gets weirder and more brilliant with each listen.
Clams Casino – Instrumentals 2 / Download
Friendzone – Collection 1 / Download
SKYWLKER – Impressions 2011 / Download
Grouping these three beat tapes together arguably doesn’t do justice to any of them, but it’s not entirely out of convenience that they share a space here. Each of these artists played a significant part in shaping what hip hop sounded like in 2011, and those sounds have been collected and stripped down so they can be enjoyed in their raw form. Clams Casino has perhaps made the biggest strides as a solo artist in his own right, and his beats for the likes of A$ap Rocky and Lil B sound just as vital here as they did with vocals. In the case of a couple of beats he did for Mac Millar, too, it’s only now the vocals have been removed entirely that they can be enjoyed at all.
Friendzone might not have got quite the plaudits that Clams did last year, but the duo’s productions were no less omnipresent last year. For my money, Friendzone make the prettiest beats around at the moment; all xylophones and piano samples, but with a snare that bites hard and keeps the hip hop framing obvious. SKYWLKR is best known as the guy behind Danny Brown’s sound post-Fool’s Gold, and familiar productions such as ‘Lie4’, ‘Bruiser’ and ‘Blunt after Blunt’ are joined here by other grime-tinged treats, but also beats that move in a rather different direction. The likes of ‘OFTLOA’ for Bruiser Brigade’s Chavis Chandler, for example, is almost straight-forward boom bap, yet somehow retains SKYWKR’s individual stamp. In fact, that idiosyncrasy is a quality shared by each of these beat-tapes, and indeed all of the best hip hop production.
SL Jones x DJ Burn One – Paraphernalia / Download
From three great emerging beatmakers to another one; the prospect of an entirely DJ Burn One produced project is always an exciting one. Burn One has a knack for making delightfully rich, southern rap beats, in a way that few others (Big K.R.IT. springs to mind) can, channeling Pimp C at his best. Following exceptional tapes in the past with Starlito and iNDEED, this time around it’s Grind Time’s SL Jones who completes the collaboration, offering adequate filler over that soul-soaked live instrumentation. It really is Burn One who makes this tape so essential though, even managing the impossible and making an acoustic guitar-led hip hop beat (‘Per Say’) that I not only tolerate, but fucking love. Not even the most incompetent of rappers, and SL Jones is certainly not that, could get in the way of me and Burn One’s bumping, country ear candy.
Killa Kyleon & Mouse – Welcome To The Fish Fry / Download
Keeping things southern for a moment, this collaboration between Killa Kyleon & Mouse might just be the party hip hop release of the year. Whereas Burn One’s beats take squealing guitars and heavy bass grooves as a basis for moody live instrumentals, Mouse’s beats are all brightly covered synths and cheap drums. Killa Kyleon has never sounded more at home than he does here, acting as the driving force behind the tape as the higher-pitched Mouse works well as a balance. Lyrically it’s all pretty much women, weed, and fried chicken, and while there are plenty of ridiculous couplets to be enjoyed, in fairness this is a release that could get by whatever they chose to rap about. If I wasn’t trying purposefully never to use the word swag in this column, I’d probably say this mixtape had exactly that. By the Kentucky Fried chicken bucketload.
Grandmilly – Blvck Magic / Download
Yung Simmie - XXL Freshman Of 1993 'Underground Tape' / Download
While the 4AD-signed SpaceGhostPurrp continues his rise to the top of the current blog rap pile, the rest of his Raider Klan group have also been keeping themselves busy. As well as massive, standout tracks from Amber London and ETHELWULF, these two tapes from Grandmilly and Yung Simmie continue to prove there is more to the Klan than its flagship artist. In fact, as rappers I’d easily take both of these guys over SpaceGhostPurrp, with Grandmilly’s mostly self-produced mixtape Black Magic being particularly impressive. Both of these tapes are built from the usual mix of lo-fi, hip hop funk, but Grandmilly also sounds great over more traditional, dusty east coast beats. The Recycled Sounds-produced title track is perhaps the best example of this, which is almost impossible to believe isn’t some lost Brand Nubian track from the early 90s.
Meek Mill – Dreamchasers 2 / Download
The last tape I can remember being as hotly anticipated on the internet as Meek Mill’s Dreamchasers 2, was probably that of his boss (read: bawse), Rick Ross’ Rich Forever. That’s a testament to Maybach Music’s dominance over mainstream rap at the moment, but also of Meek Mill’s grind over the last few years to get where he is today. As a rapper I like Meek Mill a lot, more than Ross maybe, but to this point he hasn’t quite had an album or mixtape release that I can fully get behind. Despite being very good in places, unfortunately Dreamchasers 2 also doesn’t quite live up to its potential. Meek’s style is explosive and he’s at his best when simply bulldozing his way through a track, while that’s mostly the case here, unfortunately there’s also tracks such as the brooding, piano-led ‘Use to Be’ which is an instant-skipper. What’s more encouraging for Meek is the Drake-assisted (or should that be hampered?) ‘Amen’, rapping over an almost Yeezy-like production it’s the closest we’ve seen him come to successful pop crossover. A few more like this, alongside the usual MMG heat and Meek Mill will have a hell of a debut album on his hands.
Kyle also posts about rap music on Twitter, and can be found here.