Tag Archive: Cannibal Ox


I think the thing that needs to be said about this great Hip-Hop album is that I’m surprised it hasn’t been reviewed by the likes of Pitchfork and The Needle Drop. In fact, there are zero search results for Yugen Blakrok on Pitchfork. This album is an underrated gem and it’s only been out for two months.

Yugen Blakrok broke through last year when she was featured on ‘Opps’ from the Blacker Panther soundtrack put together by Kendrick Lamar. However, she has been around for about a decade usually working with her go-to producer Kanif and it’s no different on this her second album. The album definitely has feel and aesthetic that recalls both 90’s Trip-Hop acts like Portishead and Underground Hip-Hop labels like Rawkus and Def Jux whose heyday was in the late 90’s through the early 00’s. The instrumentals feel close to albums like Dr. Octagon’s – “Dr. Octagonecologyst” and Cannibal Ox’s – “The Cold Vein” while Blakrok’s husky voice and angry undercurrent remind me of Sarah Jones and barely known U.K. underground MC Wildflower (she never got a record but did record a number of great guest spots including a couple with The Herbaliser that definitely worth checking out).

The lack of originality here isn’t a problem (let’s face no one is original at this point in music history) and I actually love that someone is making this kind of Afrofuturistic and atmospheric Hip-hop music. There is a great balance but punchy, dusty beats, ambient spot effects and Yugen’s voice and cosmically themed lyrics. I haven’t completely unpicked exactly what she’s discussing on each track but the Marvel and Astrology references do pop out.

If you love Hip-Hop, Trip-Hop and Sci-Fi then this is definitely an album for you. If you only like one or two of those things I still think it has a lot to offer. I really hope this album can be discovered by a lot more people because it truly deserves a wider audience.

Check out Yugen Blakrok’s music below and let me know what you think of “Anima Mysterium” in the Comments.

Kirsty’s Reviews

Release of the Month

Cosmin TRG – Gordian (50 Weapons)

A little under two years since Cosmin TRG’s wonderful debut album “Simulat” is his second, “Gordian” and this, like its predecessor, showcases Cosmin’s way of instilling his productions with moods, emotion and charm.  ‘New Structures for Loving’ starts “Gordian”. Bearing Cosmin TRG’s familiar signature of marrying a warm and delicate synth melody with a rumbling yet unobtrusive bass drum, it’s clarity and brightness sounds open and blissful while also being a confident opener. The title track is overflowing with textures; an imploding snare rattles amongst unbalanced rhythms as long stretches of fuzzy background noise add to the disruption. An off-kilter melody and counter-motif work against each other, embellishing the unsettling feel. Cosmin TRG uses these to neat effect; having elements that push and pull, taking the track down a series of wrong turns. Next are the twin standouts ‘Desire Is Sovereign’ and ‘Defeated Hearts Club’. The former recalls his debut “Simulat” as choppy hats and a propulsive techno rhythm are met with surges of a sharp, exuberant synth melody. It’s warm, dark and dense with a satisfying heads-down-and-dance quality. On the lachrymose ‘Defeated Hearts Club’ a grainy synth using melodic builds and tactile intricacies evoke a highly personal emotional moment that stays with the listener long after the album’s final notes ring out. ‘Divided By Design’ shakes the listener out of the sadness with a 4/4 warehouse techno bass drum and expansive, pretty synth chords covered in a hazy gauze. The album’s closing tracks reroute to lighter territory: the airy ‘To Touch Is To Divert’, ‘Vertigo’, which zings with energy and “Gordian” finale ‘Terminus Abrupt’ floats with skipping percussion and a silky texture.

Altogether “Gordian” is more developed and seamless with a greater distillation of Cosmin’s ideas than those heard on the diverse “Simulat”. Where some tracks on his debut were restless and buzzing with a kind of nervous energy (‘Osu Xen’, ‘Fizic’), this is calmer and settled. Fortunately, the sparkling organic sheen that elevated “Simulat” is prevalent too on “Gordian”. Practically every track is endowed with glistening melodies and energy gained from the immersive sound scapes, robust low end and moments of bliss. “Gordian” is a gorgeous listen packed with rewarding moments.

Listen to some choice cuts form “Gordian” below:

Liam’s Reviews

Disappointment of the Month

Neon Neon – “Praxis Makes Perfect” (Lex)

If you’d told me at the start of the year that Neon Neon the duo consisting of Griff Rhys (Super Furry Animals) and glitch-hop producer Boom Bip would return with an second album of high brow conceptual electro pop I wouldn’t have believed you. So when “Praxis Makes Perfect” release was announced a couple of months ago I was both surprised and excited, I’d recently revisited their excellent debut album “Stainless Style” (2008) and found it had aged very well.

The album begins with the scene setting instrumental title track which does its job brilliantly unfortunately from this point on its only the single ‘Mid Century Modern Nightmare’ that’s as impressive as that track. The album is littered with awful lyrics that fall way short of the witty tales found on “Stainless Style” or indeed anything that Rhys has written for the Super Furry Animals. The songs also feel very formulaic and similar stylistically whereas “Stainless Style” had more variety with sleazy electro hip-hop and funk pop featuring guest such as Spank Rock, Yo Majesty! And Har Mar Superstar, the nearest “Praxis Makes Perfect” comes it this is the breathy contributions of Sabrina on ‘Shopping (I Like To)’. All the electro pop elements are present and correct but don’t feel fresh as they did on “Stainless Style”. It’s a shame this album doesn’t live up to its predecessor as albums that still sound and feel great five years on are a rarity nowadays and it would have been great to have another of those from this odd couple, maybe next time?

Bonobo – “The North Borders” (Ninja Tune)

In the lead up to the release of “The North Borders” Bonobo’s fifth album, pre release tracks ‘Cirrus’ and ‘Heaven for the Sinner’ suggested that a radical change of direction may have taken place. However, when I finally heard the album in full I was able to hear that although house and garage beats are present and instruments such as the harp and bells dominate the mix. This is the same producer just refining his formula and simultaneously pushing into new sonic territory. When he’s pushing into this new territory he often reminds me of his Ninja Tune label mate Falty DL whose recent ‘Hardcourage’ album could be seen as a more overtly electronic sister album to “The North Borders”. Bonobo’s moving into four to the floor territory have mixed results while tracks such as ‘Transits’, ‘Cirrus’ and ‘Emkay’ fully engage the listener and pull of a balance between Bonobo’s organic trademark sound and this new stylist direction, tracks such as ‘Antenna’, ‘Don’t Wait’ and ‘Know You’ are bland and fill unfinished. He’s on solid ground though when it comes to hip-hop beats with the stand-outs including ‘Heaven for the Sinner’, ‘Jets’ and ‘Ten Tigers’, on these tracks Bonobo manages to incorporate new sounds and refresh his formula while playing to his strengths. So “The North Borders” isn’t a complete overhaul of Bonobo’s sound and his experiments are only partly successful but overall it is a very good album.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Mosquito” (Polydor)

Yeah Yeah Yeah’s new album get off on the wrong for me. Opener ‘Sacrilege’ tries to be an all out epic but falls short and doesn’t quite gel for me. Fortunately things improve on ‘Subway’ which utilises a sample of a New York Subway train alongside twinkling guitar,hushed vocals and is underpinned by subtle bass guitar. The band take things up a notch on the stomping alien alternative rock of the title track. On ‘Under the Earth’ they explore dub reggae for the first time with deliciously dark results!!! The band delivers the epic goods on ‘Slave’ which recalls ‘Songs of the Free’ era Gang of Four. ‘These Paths’ is another stylist departure with Karen O backed by electronic drums and synths. The track recalls Gang Gang Dance, though is more grounded and uses more conventional melodies.

The band returns to the sound of their debut album with the punk trash of ‘Area 52’ before collaborating with UFO hunting rapper Kool Keith on the epic alternative rock of ‘Buried Alive’. Keith delivers a fantastically smooth verse as his Dr. Octagon character. ‘Always’ finds a middle ground between ‘Slave’ and ‘These Paths’ with added cascading synth melodies. The album finishes with two slow building tracks ‘Despair’ and ‘Wedding Song’ which round the album out nicely, bring it to a satisfying close. All-in-all Yeah Yeah Yeah’s have delivered exactly they promised an album that both goes back to basics and provides an escape from the bad situations in life.

Cannibal Ox – “Gotham” (Iron Galaxy)

Back in 2001 Cannibal Ox worked with producer El-P on what would become a classic underground hip-hop album in “The Cold Vein”. Last year the MC duo announced they were working together for the time in over ten years and that they’d release an album in 2013. This single is the first new material from Cannibal Ox and its seem like that duo and new producer Bill Comiq are attempting to recapture the tense, dark atmospherics of “The Cold Vein”, while Comiq is no copyist the three tracks on the single strongly recall that album.

The single opens with dark lo-fi stabbing instrumentation and a male spoken word piece about darkness, these elements are quickly replaced by a beat and high pitched horror string stabs with MC’s Vast Aire and Vordul Mega painting a bleak picture on top of it all. ‘Gases in Hell (Inhale)’ continues along a similar sonic theme but with a section that features a plinking vibraphone and humorous references to the comedy show “30 Rock” helping relieve the tension. The single goes out on a high with ‘Psalm 82’ with its heavy click, clacking beat and shifting vocal samples making it the highlight of the a very strong single and whets the appetite for the album proper.

Tokimonsta – “Half Shadows” (Ultra)

“Half Shadows” sees a stylistic departure for Tokimonsta who recently signed with Ultra Records a big player in the U.S. dance music scene. Whereas previous Tokimonsta releases were full of glitches, stutters and other destructive audio and MIDI editing techniques on “Half Shadows” she puts melody and harmony front and centre and simplifies her beats.

“Half Shadows” is an interesting title for the album and very reflective of the light and shade utilised throughout the album. This wasn’t something that was present on previous Tokimonsta releases but now she delivers both dark tracks like the dystopian sci-fi ‘The Force’ featuring Kool Keith and the downbeat atmospherics of ‘Green’ featuring Andreya Triana and light, poppy tracks such as ‘Foolish’ and ‘Clean Slate both lead by the melodic vocals of female vocalist Gavin Turek. Tokimonsta even throws a third style with the last four tracks on the album on which all slow in tempo and change in mood in addition to ‘Green’ we get the ghostly pad and voices and distant hip-hop beat of ‘Soul to Seoul’, the reversed piano tricks of ‘Waiting for the Break of Dawn’ and closer ‘Moon Rise’ featuring Jesse Boykins III which is the most organic track on the album hinting at where Tokimonsta will go next and finishing off the album in a fine style.

The Haxan Cloak – “Excavation” (Tri Angle)

The long awaited second album by The Haxan Cloak arrives on the back of months of hype. “Excavation” has a significantly more electronic sound compared with the self titled debut album. In fact for the first six tracks, acoustic instruments are notable by their absence.

The album opens with ‘Consumed’ with its low bass drone, quivering female vocals and thumping bass drum setting up the rest of the album nicely. The heavy atmosphere continues on the two part title track. Part one places the listener in a darkened room with electric lights flickering disturbingly overhead. There’s no constant rhythm as you’re pushed and pulled and harassed by the sparse beat and prickly synth, all underpinned by an ominous drone. Part two is equally ominous but replaces the space of part one with a huge marauding beat that storms its way through the heart of the tune accompanied by what sounds like a heavy breathing monster. Your nerves will jangle as cymbals appear as if from nowhere. ‘Miste’ goes down the minimal route and utilises chopped up samples to refresh the established sound of the album. The biggest change though is yet to come.

This change begins on ‘The Mirror Reflecting (Part Two)’ when a ghostly synth melody emerges from the darkness hinting that light and hope are just around the corner. ‘Dieu’ brings the listener into the light and reintroduces the violin, an instrument that had dominated The Haxan Cloak’s debut album. Album finale ‘The Drop’ begins full of light that recalls a classic piece of film credits music but partway through its epic thirteen running time it returns to the darkness. A sparse synth drone dominates the remainder of the track.

Overall The Haxan Cloak has delivered a very good second album that expands his sonic palette and suggests a lighter future sound. My only criticism of “Excavation” is that with the exception of ‘The Mirror Reflecting (Part Two)’ the dark and light elements are segregated. It would interesting to see if The Haxan Cloak is able to combine these more in the future like his peers Raime.

Owiny Sigoma Band – “Power Punch” (Brownswood)

“Power Punch” is the second album by Owiny Sigoma Band who feature two Kenyan members and five English members including drummer Tom Skinner who released a great solo album as Hello Skinny last year. The band recorded this album in London and early suggestions were that this meant the English members influence dominates. However, I find that for the most part the Kenyan and English/European influences are given equal billing. In fact, the album opens with a melody played on the Nyatiti a traditional Kenyan stringed instrument.

The Nyatiti is quickly joined by chanting, chimes and a spacious synth on the opener ‘Nagalo Ni Piny Odoy’. However, these disparate elements don’t really start gelling until track four ‘Lucas Malone’. Though ‘Lucas Malone’ finds the perfect balance musically the English lyrics leave a lot to be desired, there psychedelic drippy-ness partly undermining the potent musical blend. Next up ‘Magret Aloor’ throws Dub bass and delay effects into the mix with stunning results. ‘Harpoon Land’ with its Nyidounge drum pattern and guitar melody matched with a funky drum break and deep bass it sounds like an undiscovered Afrobeat gem. ‘Owiny Techno’ is another unexpected delight the Nyiduonde drum playing off a techno beat and watery lead synth. The track comes across like a futuristic take on the Congotronics sound of Konono No.1 but slower and more laidback.

The last three tracks on the album turn into a funky tour de force. Starting with the offbeat rhythms and Nyatiti riffs of ‘Yukimwi’ via the upbeat acoustic drums, grooving bass and great guitar riff of ‘All Together’ and concluding with the rhythmical Nyatiti riffs, rolling Afrobeat drums, bass and guitar of  closer ‘Johnny Ra Ra’. These three tracks best illustrate why the album is called “Power Punch”. Overall Owiny Sigoma Band have produced an album that gets better with every play and promises to provide some great live shows.

Release of the Month

Adrian Younge and Ghostface Killah – “12 Reasons to Die” (Soul Temple)

12_reasons_1

With his new album alongside up and coming producer and multi instrumentalist Adrian Younge, Ghostface Killah comes pretty close to scaling the heights of his 90’s prime producing and album that never dips in quality across its 12 tracks. Like many Wu Tang Clan related releases there’s a storyline that runs through the album, this time the main character is Ghostface himself playing the role of a “vengeful soul hunting the 12 most powerful crime lords in the World.”

The album opens with ‘Beware of the Stare’ which immediate sets up the story and the tone of the album full of piano chords, a female choir, low slung funk bass guitar and a head nodding beat. ‘Rise of the Black Suits’ follows a similar formula adding chilling organ chords and an electric piano riff. ‘I Declare War’ is the most cinematic track so far with its operatic female vocals, spoken word outro and sweeping strings. The pace picks up on ‘Blood On The Cobblestones’ with it fast break beat, organ and horn stabs and great fuzz bass. ‘The Center Of Attraction’ changes things up again with it sparse electric piano chords and beat and back and forth strings. The next big moment on the album is ‘The Rise Of the Ghostface Killah’ with its cut-up female vocals and a spoken word male voice then a delay tail brings in the break beat and gliding electric guitar chords that slide around under Ghostface’s cool flow. ‘Revenge Is Sweet’ is a song of two halves beginning with sparse break beat and bass guitar before high pitched female choir cut in to tell more of the album’s story, strings come in and a male vocal duels with the female vocals. Then guitar chords float in  and then rap section of the track begins with Masta Killa getting busy on the mic. Wu Tang posse cut ‘Murder Spree’ and The Sure Shot’ (Parts One & Two) pick up where ‘Blood On The Cobblestones’ left off and the album finishes with ‘12 Reasons To Die’ which immortalises Ghostface in death to the sound of emotive piano, wind like sweeping synth, sparse bass guitar, mournful strings and an epic outro. With “12 Reasons to Die” Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge have set the bar extremely high for other hip-hop releases in 2013 and Younge has proved that it’s not just RZA whose the perfect foil for Wu Tang Clan MCs.

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Ultramagnetic MC’s – “Critical Beatdown” (Next Plateau, 1988)

This month’s Classics Critiqued choice is a sometimes overlooked cult classic hip-hop album by one of the genre’s most ground breaking and off the wall groups. In this article I will explore Ultramagnetic MCs’ originals, the making of “Critical Beatdown”, investigate ideas commonly discussed around the album, its lyrical content, production techniques and the context in which the album was released. I’ll also discuss the legacy “Critical Beatdown” has left.

Ultramagnetic MCs were formed in 1984 by the MC Kool Keith (aka Keith Thornton), Ced Gee (aka Cedric Miller) – MC/Producer, Moe Luv (aka Maurice Smith) – DJ/Producer and TR Love (aka Trevor Randolph) – MC while they were members of the New York City Breakers and People’s Choice break dance crews. After misfiring with their first single “To Give You Love” (1986) Ultramagnetic MCs released their first groundbreaking 12” the minimalist “Ego Trippin”. It featured the first use of the “Synthetic Substition” drum break by Melvin Bliss (later sampled by the likes of Naughty By Nature, Redman and Gang Starr and becoming a hip-hop staple) and some simple but devastatingly effective synth stabs. Amazingly the next 12” was even more innovative “Funky/Mentally Mad” showcased the two key talents of Ultramagnetic MC’s. “Funky” highlighted Ced Gee’s production skills. Based around a Joe Cocker piano sample (released almost ten years before Dr.Dre took the same sample and turned it into a bona fide hit in “California Love” by Tupac) it was a revolution in underground hip-hop. Meanwhile “Mentally Mad” showcased Kool Keith’s incredible freestyle abstract rapping style that dealt with everything from space exploration to sex. These 12” singles received critical acclaim and much support from New York’s biggest hip-hop DJs, setting up Ultramagnetic MCs as hip-hop next big act.

While he was working on the debut album that would become “Critical Beatdown”, producer Ced Gee worked on another nascent hip-hop act Boogie Down Productions’ debut album “Criminal Minded” (1987) which showcased a harsh minimalist brand of hip-hop not unlike that of Ultramagnetic MCs. “Critical Beatdown” wasn’t released until the following year, 1988, and this explains in part why it’s often overshadowed by classic albums by Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Jungle Brothers and Slick Rick, as well as competing with other sterling efforts from EPMD and Stetasonic. In short 1988 was water shed moment for hip-hop. Augus Batey (who wrote the sleeve notes for the 2004 reissue of “Critical Beatdown”) put it another way in a recent article on Ultramagnetic MCs second album “Funk Your Head Up” (1992) “Their 1988 masterpiece, Critical Beatdown, wasn’t the all-conquering hero history tends to have turned it into: crafting their inspirational unique style over a series of 12″ singles, Ultra would have achieved the impact their music merited had the paperwork permitted the LP to come out a year earlier. Throw it in the mix next to the three acknowledged foundational classics of New York hip hop’s early Golden Age – the 1987 debuts by Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions – and we’d today be talking about hip hop’s four horsemen, not the music’s holy trinity. “Critical Beatdown” is not only every bit as good as those records, a case can easily be made that it’s better than each and every one of them. It was hailed as a great album, but by ’88, it was just another one among many.”

When the album did arrive it showcased not only Ced Gee’s excellent sample choices and Kool Keith’s lunatic lyrical style but also Gee’s skills with the Emu SP-1200 sampler and his undeniably brilliant flow. Ced Gee was the first hip-hop producer that chopped up the breaks and instrumental samples instead of simply looping them, which soon became the norm for hip-hop producers the world over. The technique preceded the first sampladelic masterpieces “Paul’s Boutique” by the Beastie Boys and De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising” which would be released a year after “Critical Beatdown”. In fact, Posdnous of De La Soul admitted Ultramagnetic MCs’ influence in the 2004 reissue notes – “I think the only people that we looked to for a blueprint when we were making “3 Feet High & Rising” were the Ultramagnetic MCs. They were very different as well, how they rhymed, but they still had more harder-edged beats than what we were presenting.” Another innovation on the album was the proto-drum ‘n’ bass breaks of ‘Ain’t It Good to You’, a track that felt like it was tearing the very fabric of the samples apart as it hurtled towards its conclusion. Other highlights on the album include the organ driven ‘Ease Back’, turntablism anticipating ‘Moe Luv’s Theme’, the fantastically funky ‘Give the Drummer Some’, the tough hardcore ‘Break North’ and the ‘Louie Louie’ sampling ‘Travelling at the Speed of Thought’.

While Ced Gee and Moe Luv provided the ground breaking music it was Kool Keith who was the centre of attention when it came to the lyrical content of “Critical Beatdown”. Though he would later give himself over completely to lyrics about varied subjects such as sex or space exploration he still had one foot in the reality of the street on “Critical Beatdown”, which meant he was taken more seriously by critics and fans. However, the group chose not to focus on the negative things that were happening around them instead going with whatever “sounded good”. Keith’s style was freestyle both in the way he wrote and the way he delivered his mind-boggling rhymes.

“Critical Beatdown” would become instantly influential with Posdnous of De La Soul and Chuck D of Public Enemy praising their unique sound, lyrical content and flows would influence the creation of the former’s “3 Feet High and Rising” (1989) and the latter’s “It’ll Take A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” (1988). The influence and innovation of Ultramagnetic MCs and “Critical Beatdown” can be heard in a huge amount of underground hip-hop and gangsta rap artists, everyone from Main Source to Cannibal Ox and many, many more.

Let me know what you think of “Critical Beatdown” in the comments or via our Twitter.

Listen to “Critical Beatdown” here.

Liam

In November 2009 I read ‘When Will Hip-Hop Hurry Up And Die?’ as part of the Notes on the Noughties blog series for The Guardian written by Simon Reynolds. Reynolds began by discussing a piece by New York Times journalist Sasha Frere-Jones that suggested 2009 was the year that hip-hop finally died. He continued Frere-Jones’ proposal with adding that between 2005 and 2010 hip-hop had stagnated, lost its grip on the charts and even its biggest stars and producers admitted they were “bored” with a now “corny” genre. In the article and on his Blissblog Reynolds opened the subject up to question whether genres actually do die and concluded that hip-hop isn’t dead, just out of touch with the zeitgeist and a weakened commercial force.

Then in December I watched the ‘UK B-Boy Championships: World Finals’ on Channel 4. I was astonished at the moves and routines on display and how it had developed since its birth in late seventies, New York. After the programme finished an idea occurred to me. Maybe hip-hop music was stagnant but the other elements were flourishing away from the media spotlight.

In this piece I will briefly discuss the current state of hip-hop before exploring in more detail the other areas of hip-hop culture: break dancing, graffiti, outsider art and turntablism.

Though not entirely moribund, hip-hop music is in a bad way. At the commercial end and in the underground there is a lack of anything inventive and, worse, little that demonstrates the traits of an enduring classic. At the beginning of the noughties commercial hip-hop was enjoying a flush period of creation and innovation. Across the US and UK new strains and variations of the music were showing a way forward beyond the traditional samples and breaks formula. US producers including Timbaland and The Neptunes were exploring new ways of programming and manipulating beats and rhythmic measures using computer technology. Crunk and Dr. Dre produced superstars that ruled the charts and critics took on Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne as their new darlings. Though the US underground struggled to keep up due to its purism, it still produced artists and albums of note. In particular the Stone’s Throw and Def Jux labels were responsible for pioneering records by Madlib, Cannibal Ox, EL-P and Jay Dilla yet the majority of underground artists hesitating to embrace some daring records neutralised the scene. Meanwhile in the UK, artists such as Roots Manuva, Dizzee Rascal, Phi Life Cypher and producers like Lewis Parker were establishing their own brand of hip-hop and its sub-genre grime. The innovations in England were more restrained. Parker’s melancholic sound, Roots Manuva’s absorption of a wide range of influences encompassing dub, dancehall and club-orientated music led to him consistently evolving his sound throughout his career. These trendsetters, however, found increasing numbers of pale imitators riding on their coat tails, leading to a lack of faith in the scene and a realisation that the repetition hindered wider commercial success so some redeveloped their sound and image in order to achieve.  Former grime MCs Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder are among these artists and Sway is now featuring on and producing tracks for American R&B stars like Akon.

So while hip-hop music seems to be stagnating, the other areas of hip-hop culture have evolved and are thriving. In the last ten years graffiti and its relative outsider art have moved into the media spotlight thanks to the work of Banksy, Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja (Massive Attack and The Wild Bunch), Jamie Hewlett, the Faile collective and many more. The former of these art forms developed from its origins on the New York streets in the ‘70s as a way for artists to express themselves and which group they were a member of into a style that has not only entered mainstream consciousness but has commented on socio-political and international issues and ideas before traditional media. Examples of this is the brilliant satire of Zevs and Blu, the hard hitting War Paint exhibition by 3D, which informed UNKLE’s ‘War Stories’ album artwork and the original Throw Up and Wildstyle lettering has evolved into stencilling (popularised by Banksy), Stickers or Slaps, Pieces, Blockbuster and Heaven. Though it has yet to be accepted by many in the art world as ‘true art’, graffiti is being included in art galleries and becoming a wider acknowledged form of artistic expression. Even York, where I live, young people are commissioned to create works with the help of a graffiti artist. While it is hidden well out of the city centre, it’s a step in the right direction for such a tourist-oriented place and outside art.

Like graffiti, break dancing or ‘b-boying’ has also enjoyed increased media and cultural exposure in the last ten years. This has included new TV series in the form of ‘Break’, a 2006 S. Korean drama about a break dancing competition and ‘Over The Rainbow’ which centred on characters who b-boy together. Documentaries ‘The Freshest Kids: A History of B-boy (2002) recorded the evolution of b-boying and ‘Plant B-Boy’ (2007) followed competing crews as they travelled the globe. There was also the ‘B-Boy’ videogame,  the comic book ‘Hip-Hop’ that launched breaking in S. Korea in 1997, a novel called ‘Kid B’ by former b-boy Linden Dalecki and in 2005, a Volkswagen Golf GTi advert featured a CG Gene Kelly break dancing to a new breakbeat version of ‘Singing in the Rain’ by Mint Royale. A b-boy even won the woeful Britain’s Got Talent in 2008, getting the opportunity to perform to royalty and helping seal b-boying’s place as a new media force.

Before watching the B-Boy Championships I admit I wasn’t aware of b-boying’s evolution and hadn’t expected the transformation in techniques and professionalism. I have been to hip-hop club nights and seen people break dancing in a ‘cipher’, where one or two b-boys compete in the centre of a group, and while enjoyable it didn’t signify the athletic displays I witnessed in the programme. Individuals and crews demonstrated an incredible range of routines and skills and the competition also represented the international spread of this cultural component. B-boying is huge in Japan and S. Korea and I was surprised by the Dutch, Ukrainian and Russian teams’ entries. It illustrated a thriving sub-culture and the ideas expressed about hip-hop’s apparent death were underlined by the lack of any contemporary hip-hop backing the performances.

To lesser degree, as its last great period was in the ‘90s, turntablism has continued to develop throughout the noughties. It has become a wider accepted form of musical expression and the turntable is acknowledged in some quarters as a musical instrument. Brand-sponsored tours and the transition of turntablist to acclaimed producer experienced by several artists demonstrate a mainstream acceptance and documentaries such as ‘Scratch’ that document the sub-genre’s past and present and the release of ‘DJ Hero’ in collaboration with the likes of DJ Shadow, DJ Q-Bert and others are further proof of this. Another major development is the increasingly popular audio-visual turntablist who, like the internationally adored DJ Yoda and Coldcut, manipulates and scratches musical and visual elements.

Although hip-hop music is in stasis, it or any other genre cannot be pronounced dead. There are still signs of life and creativity yet I do concede that statement albums and charismatic performers are few and far between. Kanye West’s actions have been criticised (and rightly so) but there is no doubt he is one of the few rappers/producers who truly continues to espouse the hip-hop spirit. A restlessly challenging and prolific creator, his persona and sound evolve with each new release whilst still undeniably Kanye. Since ‘The College Drop-Out’ he has rarely dropped a beat and in the last 18 months alone produced the brilliant if difficult ‘808 and Heartbreaks’ and presented Jay-Z with a fully sequenced version of ‘The Blueprint Vol.3’, which was a more varied affair that showcased a new dark pop/hip-hop sound and in ‘Run This Town’ produced a stone cold classic. Furthermore West has already nearly finished creating his next record that it will surely signal another change and controversy.

The question is: what now for hip-hop music? Where does it go and who will take it into a new era? There are some possible contenders. One is LA’s Flying Lotus who has great credentials. He is signed to Warp Records, a label with a 20 year history of innovation and his collective and own label, Brainfeeder, allows him access to a range of artists and their skills. However, despite the hype around the releases I have yet to hear anything that compares to his live performances but this may be an artistic choice. Another candidate is fellow Warp signing, Glasgow’s Hudson Mohawke. Like Flying Lotus he is part of a collective, LuckyMe, and he and Flying Lotus have both been categorised into the wonky style, a sub-genre of hip-hop that incorporates unstable time signatures and sits between hip-hop and dubstep. The difference with Mohawke is that he is venturing into production for other artists and has no problem adapting his ideas for mainstream music. This may mean that the old adage of ‘today’s underground is tomorrow’s overground’ could become true for hip-hop for the first time since crunk and grime temporarily took off in the early noughties and that the other elements of hip-hop culture can only continue to find new ways to innovate and new avenues in which to endeavour. With graffiti founding its own art spaces like the Lazarides Gallery and finding its way, legally and otherwise, into traditional art galleries, people’s exposure to and understanding of this phenomenon will only improve. Alongside this, progressive theatre companies are using b-boy performances, which expand audience awareness and participation. Despite being perceived as a niche activity pursued by an elite of geeks, turntabilism has become the most high profile. It has moved into people’s living rooms and with the release of DJ Hero will engage with an entire new audience. There is a very positive outlook for these sub-cultures and I can’t wait to see the progress they make.

If you have your own suggestions feel free to discuss them in the comments section.

Spotify playlist (HHTP link, then Spotify link):

Hip-Hop Culture Blog

Hip-Hop Culture Blog

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