With this edition of Champion Sound we’ve decided to mix it up a little, taking a look at Ice T’s recently released hip hop doc The Art of Rap, while also rounding up some of our favourite videos of the past two months. The idea here is that while continuing our usual free mixtape recommendations at the bottom of the column, The Playlist – in lieu of a more imaginative name – is anything goes. Major label records, mixtapes, one-offs, collaborations, remixes; as long as there’s a video, they’re all welcome here.
DVD Review: The Art of Rap: Something from Nothing (dir. Ice T)
Ice T’s directorial debut, The Art of Rap, is a documentary aiming to strip hip hop of its big money glamour by returning the genre to its roots. It’s a film about the written rhyme that has moments of insight, but only occasionally manages to inspire – a disappointment, considering the wealth of rich cultural history that feels ripe for picking.
Opening with a sweeping New York establishment shot set to Dr. Dre’s ‘Next Episode’, this is mainly a story of New York and California, via a brief pit-stop in Detroit. These cities are lovingly captured through lingering street footage, feeling as much a love letter to time and place as it is to rap. Of course, these environments are so crucial to hip hop’s birth, but wider context is thin on the ground and the film’s narrow focus and structure don’t allow for potentially interesting avenues to be explored. A lengthy sequence layering a rousing Joe Budden verse over a montage of New York stills is one of the more affecting moments, but there are not enough of these neat segments to break up the format of interview after interview with rap’s grandmasters.
As engaging as they are, the likes of KRS-One and DJ Premier have almost become rent-an-experts for this kind of hip hop study, so the film’s main selling point becomes its rarer interviewees. Where The Art of Rap triumphs is through its access to the stars that we rarely get to see as human beings. With Ice T posing the questions, the interview subjects are open and relaxed, making for the kind of responses rarely seen in past documentaries of this nature. It’s fascinating to see Eminem analysing his complicated writing-style, Nas not looking bored in an interview or to hear Dre discussing his discipline in the studio. The DVD offers extended versions of these interviews, plus footage from those that didn’t make the final cut, including Too $hort, Freddie Foxx, Jim Jones and Tha Alkaholiks’ Tash.
As such, the film should make enjoyable viewing for rap fans who will inevitably find something of interest in these sincere artist profiles. However, I can’t help but feel that this intelligent, well-meaning director could have done far more with source material so obviously close to his heart.
Our first playlist feature sees the cross-coast collaboration of cult groups Tha Alkaholiks and The Beatnuts, a stunningly realised animation for Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music standout ‘Reagan’, and a Trapped in the Closet-esque clip from Tennessee’s 8Ball. To begin watching, just hit play on the embed below;
Featured mixtape: Freddie Gibbs – Baby Face Killa
Freddie Gibbs is really good at rapping; I could use this space to tell you that, but at this stage it seems almost pointless. A commanding mic presence and masterful flow are things you can almost take for granted with Gibbs, leaving this project’s success or failure hinging on its peripheral details. For the most part - I’m delighted to report - Baby Face Killa delivers.
Gangsta Gibbs applies his skills to a number of different styles this time round; adding a double-time urgency to the stoner bliss of ‘Kush Cloud’, and a steady hand to the eerie, skewed G-funk of ‘The Diet’. Already certified banger ‘Boxframe Cadillac’ gets a rework with a neat sing-song verse from Z-Ro, while the Cookin’ Soul-produced ‘Walk in With the M.O’ is easily the classiest cut here – hopefully something we can expect more of from Gibbs’ incoming Madlib collab next year.
Baby Face Killa isn’t perfect; It’s slightly too long, takes a few songs to find its groove and the likes of ‘Still Livin’ and ‘Middle of the Night’ don’t suit Gibbs particularly well – one too modern, the other too gentle. Yet Gibbs is a rare talent who doesn’t need much in order to sparkle. He’s perhaps a more flexible rapper than I imagined too, and if he can find the producers to push his talent to its limits, there are few others today who will come anywhere close. While no videos from this project have emerged as yet, the following clip for the Madlib-produced 'Shame' is well worth a look;
Gunplay – 601 and Snort
If the giant swastika tattooed on his neck wasn’t a giveaway, by now it should be obvious that Gunplay is prone to idiocy. He’s also wildly energetic and unstable. While it’s precisely these qualities which make him one of the most captivating young emcees around, sadly it’s also the reason why he’s facing a lengthy spell in prison on an armed robbery charge.
What’s frustrating about Gunplay’s incarceration is that he leaves us with few notable recordings to hold on to. A handful of show-stealing guest spots and his career-making verse on MMG’s ‘Power Circle’ aside, his most significant releases are this year’s Bogota Rich and now 601 and Snort. Like its predecessor, 601 and Snort is a half-hour adrenaline rush consisting of Gunplay freestyles over big, recognisable tracks. Dre’s ‘Deep Cover’ and Raekwon’s ‘Criminology’ get the makeover treatment here to varying degrees of success, but it’s the remorseful, god-fearing ‘Bible on the Dash’ which proves to be the highlight; all the more poignant in light of recent events. If only Gunplay can sort himself out in time to produce many more moments like this.
Young Dro – Ralph Lauren Reefa
If you have ever questioned the role of a mixtape DJ, then Young Dro’s new DJ Burn One-hosted project - Ralph Lauren Reefa - is a textbook answer. For the last six years Dro had been a rudderless talent lost in mixtape obscurity, displaying moments of brilliance that only his dedicated followers will have bothered to hear. Nobody who has listened to 2006’s Best Thang Smokin’ will doubt his ability to mix it with Atlanta’s best drawlers, but rarely since then has he shown the real Dro.
Enter DJ Burn One, a producer whose heart pumps blood to a Pimp C beat. He contributes just two of ten beats here, but his fingerprints are all over the selections that give Dro his best chance to shine in years. And shine he does; The weeded ‘On Set’ is a drawn-out 5-minute masterclass; Dro finds the pocket and flourishes on ‘Laid Back’, while the DJ Plugg-produced ‘Check Me Out’ is an exercise in plain showing off. A couple of questionable songs towards the end keep this from being a true knockout, but, thanks to Burn One, Dro once again sounds like a rapper to be excited about.
100s – Ice Cold Perm
Considering the recent trend of golden age east coast nostalgia, it’s about time somebody offered a history lesson in California’s past glories. Berkeley’s 100s is not a complete throwback, but right down to its Doggfather-styled artwork his debut record is stacked with west coast references. Produced in full by sometime Main Attrakionz collaborator Joe Wax, Ice Cold Perm puts the Green Ova duo’s misty aesthetic into hi-fi with a bouncier, more urgent energy. As a lyricist, 100s may be an acquired taste, straddling a fine line between gangsta rap indulgence and nasty sex line raps that could leave you in need of a cold shower. If that doesn’t put you off, though, this is an unexpectedly polished debut from this Death Row-indebted 19 year-old.
Deniro Farrar & Shady Blaze – Kill or be Killed
If you were to feed the year’s blog-popular rap trends through an aggregator, there’s every chance the spewed out results would read something like the tracklist to Kill or be Killed. You’d be forgiven for feeling sceptical about this collaborative project between Deniro Farrar and Shady Blaze, only given the interconnected nature of underground rap music in 2012, it’s not all that surprising to find so many exciting prospects all in one place.
Beats are provided by the likes of Keyboard Kid, Ryan Hemsworth, Friendzone and Tree; Producers who’s textured productions can add weight to even the flimsiest of emcees. There’s no such issue here, though, as Farrar’s tough, sturdy rhymes provide a solid base for which to enjoy Blaze’s bullet-quick tempo. Shady has added a variation of flows to his repertoire too, and his growing composure on the mic adds gravitas to his verses.
Pepperboy – Post Traumatic Stress
It’s one of the great benefits of the digital age that a guy like Pepperboy can enjoy even a modicum of success, having spent 10 years releasing records to a small, local crowd. Now in his mid 30s, what label would invest in a troubled unknown from Little Rock, Arkansas with no obvious marketability? Yet it costs almost nothing to click on a youtube link, to share that link, or to download this record, and with the right endorsements (Lil B, Mishka, Noz) an audience can appear out of thin air.
Pepperboy is an unusual character with a story to tell; a father, ex-gangbanger and reformed dope-dealer who spent 30 months in prison on drugs and gun charges. His early music was coloured by these dark experiences, but on recent records Pepperboy’s perspective has shifted to that of the wise elder statesman offering advice learned the hard way. The title track here, ‘Post Traumatic Stress’, flips a classic lyrical idea as Pepperboy describes cruising the streets in fear of being pulled over, only he’s an innocent man who on spotting flashing lights “turns the music down in a respectful manner”. The strutting bass of “Wanna Be Free” sets the tone for an ode to life on the outside, while ‘Felon’ looks back on the day that he was sent down with an expression of genuine anguish and helplessness. Pepperboy’s songs are full of hope, of course, but the reason they’re so compelling is because he’s a man who knows how it feels to lose it.