Tag Archive: Massive Attack


This post is the first of two that mark the end of Sonic Fiction for the foreseeable future and probably forever. It wasn’t an easy decision to make but I feel that as much as I’m still as passionate about all the music reviewed on the site I have to now focus purely on my own music career and improving those skills.

Thank to everyone whose read, commented on and retweeted/favourited/followed Sonic Fiction in its three years in existence. I will still keep the Sonic Fiction Twitter account alive as my own personal account so you can still find out about new music via that account.

  1. Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels” (Fool’s Gold)

  2. Adrian Younge & Ghostface Killah – “12 Reasons to Die” (Soul Temple)

  3. Black Milk – “No Poison, No Paradise” (Fat Beats)

  4. Action Bronson & Harry Fraud – “SAAAB Stories” (self released)

  5. RJD2 – “More Is Than Isn’t” (RJ’s Electrical Connections)

  6. The Child of Lov – “The Child of Lov” (Double Six/Domino)

  7. Youngblood Brass Band – “Pax Volumi” (Tru Thoughts)

  8. G&D – “The Lighthouse” (SomeOthaShip)

  9. Deltron 3030 – “Event II” (Bulk)

  10. FKA Twigs – “EP2” (Young Turks/XL)

Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels” (Fool’s Gold)

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Having worked together on the finest hip-hop release of 2012 “R.A.P. Music” El-P and team up again for their new project Run The Jewels. The duo has talked about this being their ‘fun’ album and as much as it sounds like they had fun making it, this is a serious hip-hop album both lyrically and sonically.

The album opens with its title track which instantly sets the tone for the rest of the album with its chattering hi-hat, 808 beat and minimal deep synth bass line. In the chorus El-P introduces a great screaming organ lead and employs Dub FX and a subtle reggae rhythm plays beneath the hard hitting hip-hop surface. Mike kicks off ‘Banana Clipper’ with the great lines “I move with the elegance of an African elephant, I presented the evidence, Eloquent as a president, Evident it’s with emphasis, I deserve me a championship, But before I banana clip, I’mma chill so my man can rip”. Later he praises his partner in crime while slamming boastful producers with a wry smile – “Producer gave me a beat, Said it’s the beat of the year, I said El-P didn’t do it, So get the fuck outta here”. All this delivered over sharp horn stabs and a double time beat. ‘36” Chain’ is a great example of El-P’s skill in creating multi textured tracks with its blocky synth stabs, video game blips and heavily compressed and reverbed snare combing to stunning effect.

‘Job Well Done’ is another album highlight and another track that demonstrates El-P amazing use of texture and space. His achieves this using discordant guitar and distant vocals adding more space and texture. The drums also have a great feel, pushing and pulling the listener. There’s also great use of dueling synth melodies and vocals in the chorus. The album ends with ‘A Christmas Fucking Miracle’ which combines sleigh bells, electric piano chords and a siren synth, everything is processed to feel corroded and dirty adding to the dystopian atmosphere.

All-in-all you couldn’t ask for more from “Run The Jewels” a hard hitting and full realised hip-hop album from start to finish, only time will tell whether matches up to “R.A.P. Music”.

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

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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.

Black Milk – “No Poison, No Paradise” (Fat Beats)

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The profilic Detroit rapper/producerBlack Milk returns with his first solo album since “Album of the Year” (2010) and his second album of this year (Computer Ugly’s brilliant rough and raw “Synth or Soul” being the other album). It’s a welcome return and sees Black Milk firing on all cylinders from start to finish and in the progress making one of the best hip-hop albums of the year.

The album opens with ‘Interpret Sabotage’ featuring Mel it begins with electric piano that floats and is then interupted by static then a synth bass line and blunt hip-hop beat drop, a synth lead swiggles over the top of thin high strings and then Black Milk cuts in with his first verse. it’s urgent and frantic. Mel sings her chorus part over just the bass line and drums before the strings and synth cut back in. It’s a great opening track. Next up is the jazzy ‘Deion’s House’ which opens with a heads down beat and stabbing jazz piano and brass over the top. It features some great toms rolls and there’s more relaxed flow from Black Milk. ‘Codes & Cab Fare’ featuring Black Thought finishes off a fantastic opening run of tracks. It starts with a slow pulsing hip-hop beat, distant spoken word samples and a bell that rings out occasional, then Black Milk comes in for the first verse backed by thick dominating organ chords and creaking string samples. After more spoken word sample cut in, the second verse is taken by Black Thought, his rhymes and delivery are more aggressive as are the synth and effects that back him.

‘Ghetto Demf featuring Quelle Chris combines a hollow synth riff (sounds like the Normal or Gary Numan), a hip-hop beat, great gliding synth melody takes,dub delay FX that spin across the mix and spoken word samples that can be heard in the background. ‘Sonny Jr. (Dreams) featuring Robert Glasper & Dwele is the first of two instrumental tracks that help break up the rap tracks and showcase Black Milk great musicality (not a strong suit for many current hip-hop producers). Electric piano chords are stabbed out, then stop making way for a drum and percussion break, thin strings come in and bring an electric piano melody, so far so jazzy. A horn cycles over the top of everything. Like a lot of the album so far, it has a filmic, soundtrack quite. I really liked the vocal harmonies that come in halfway through. The next two tracks were the lead single(s) from the album and are both ‘Sunday’s Best’ and ‘Monday’s Worst’ find Black Milk equalling J Dilla as a master of soul sampling hip-hop.

‘Perfected on Puritan Ave.’opens with a chiming melody, strong synth strings and distant bass drum backing Black Milk. Then he strips things down to a horn sample, vocal harmonies and his vocals before the verse part quickly kicks back in. Halfway through the track changes completely with tumbling drums, trumpet solo and chopped up vocal sample underpinned by driving bass guitar. Then the strings swell back into life moving around the listener to heady effect. ‘Parallels’ featuring Ab combines a cool minimal synth riff, bubbling arpeggio and tough, stark neck breaking drums. Ab sings soulfully over the top, then Milk drops in for his first verse. Melody reminds of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. The album closes with ‘Money Bags (Paradise)’ which with its 80’s style digital synths, hard and heavy downtempo beat and slow moving synth bass, recalls Black Milk’s previously mentioned Computer Ugly album.

All-in-all “No Poison, No Paradise” is one the most fantastic and varied hip-hop albums of the year.  “To be specific it’s psychedelic, soulful, organic, reflective, and dynamic. It sounds like the soundtrack to a sci-fi gangster flick about Halloween in the streets of Detroit. Throughout NPNP Black Milk loosely constructs a theme of how the negative qualities of his Detroit environment in many ways shaped the perspective and talent he has as it connects to life and music. It’s a spiritual, thematic, and sonic balance”. This an album that highly recommend to anyone, go get yourself a copy now!!!

Action Bronson and Harry Fraud – “SAAAB Stories” (Self Released)

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With “SAAAB Stories” Action Bronson and Harry Fraud have delivered their best release and most varied release to date. Both rapper and produce are at the top of their game and pushing each other to do greater things.

Things kick off with ‘2 Virgins’ the first of several slower and more contemplative tracks on the E.P. its slow reverse intro and strings off set by sweet picked guitar and sour distorted guitar solo flow underneath Bronson and his hype man Big Body Bes’s rhymes. ‘Triple Backflip’ picks up where ‘2 Virgins’ left off with its gliding electric piano, snapping snare and round and warm bass drum, in the second of the track these elements are joined by mood enhancing subtle strings and nice picked guitars. ‘No Time’ is a highlight with its soloing electric piano, jazzy bass guitar and head nodding bass guitar a perfect backing for Bronson’s smutty rhymes. ‘Strictly 4 My Jeeps’ is a summer banger that comes closer to matching the brilliant ‘No Time’ and also gets your head nodding and foot tapping. ‘Alligator’ demonstrates Bronson’s storytelling abilities and with its downtempo and spooky yet dirty synth recalls Fever Ray’s excellent self titled debut album. Album closer ‘Seven Series Triplets’ rounds things out nicely with its picked bass guitar and pulse quickening beat the perfect setting for verses from Bronson, Prodigy and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon.

“SAAAB Stories” sees Bronson moving away from the perception of him as a food and sex obsessed Ghostface Killah impersonator and in fact I’d have to agree with Potholes in my Blog’s assertation that on this release he sounds closer to Ghostface’s Wu Tang tag team partner Raekwon. “SAAAB Stories” is the best hip-hop release of 2013 bar Adrian Younge and Ghostface Killah’s exceptional “12 Reasons to Die”, this is an essential release!!!

RJD2 – “More Is Than Isn’t” (RJ’s Electrical Connections)

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It’s been over a decade since RJD2 released his brilliant debut album “Dead Ringer” (2002) which saw him regularly compared to DJ Shadow, with whom he shared a mastery of moody instrumental hip-hop. Since then RJD2 has tried out a number of genres including prog rocker for “Since We Last Spoke” (2004), singer songwriter on “The Third Hand” (2007) and funkateer on his lasting out “The Colossus” (2010). On his “More Is Than Isn’t” he finally cuminates all of previous ideas into one cohesive work, rather than again shifting his style.


The album opens with ‘Suite 1’ the first of three suites that are scattered across the album’s length. The track starts with waves crashing and bird song before spacious deep piano chords come in swiftly followed by a synthesizer that slips and slides all over the mix and sounds a little like a saxophone or the original bird song. Around a minute and twenty seconds a choir of voices can be heard in the distance. In the climax we briefly hear the bird song, waves and synth sax again. Next up is ‘Temperamental’ featuring Phonte Coleman of Little Brother, it begins with a heavy sharp hip-hop beat and electric piano chords played rhythmically, Coleman’s crooner’s emotive over the top. The backing vocals inimate the piano chords one miunte and thirty seconds in and then there’s some great distorted guitar comes in around two minutes in. Track three ‘Behold, Numbers’ opens with tense ascending synths/strings before a beat, reversed snare and stabs of the strings drop for a great percussive track that snaps your neck. Around a minute in the strings transform and intensify and a flowing melody that play over the percussive elements. At one minute forty seconds there’s an electric piano and slap bass break, that builds in intensity when hand percussion and flinty funk guitar riffs kick in over the top. Two minutes and fifty seconds the track becomes a snapping and cracking funk monster, with some of the original percussive elements mixed with the new slap bass, drums and funk guitar.

‘Her Majesty’s Socialist Request’ kicks off with high frequency synth tweet before crushing guitar power chords and double time drums and percussion cut in, the track breaks down to an Indian sounding string figure, the dramatic guitar riff and some of the percussion elements. Great piano loop kicks in around two minutes fifteen sounds in and plays over the guitar riff and percussion. All the elements are combined to stunning effect, only four tracks and I was already bowled over by RJD2’s latest work.  ‘Bathwater’ featuring P. Blackk the first of two MC lead tracks on the album is up next. It opens with a thick slab of fuzzy wah guitar, then the raps and double time beat come in, follow by lots of cut up vocals and guitar samples flying about. Synth bass and lead synth add to the awesome analogue filth. ‘Milk Tooth’ combines analogue synth bloops, a cutting soul break, bass and guitar, huge synth brass stabs and a female vocal harmony. Later there’s also a gliding synth melody that comes in part through, it sounds like a classic Moog. The track feels like a synth based version of Adrian Younge’s sound or a more soul based version of a Gaslamp Killer horrorcore track.

‘See You Leave’ is another vocal featuring The Roots associate STS (MC) and singer Khari Mateen. Big held organ chords and tumbling drums make up the intro of this track before a soul backbeat and rhythm guitar cut in, soulful lead vocals and guitar lick that recalls the Isley Brothers play over the top. There’s some solid rap verses but the soul chorus is where its at on this track. Next up is ‘Got There, Sugar’ a two part of a track the warps from one to the other partway through. A simple warmth synth melody, electric piano chords and sax solo open up this track, jazz drums shuffling away underneath. At one minute fifty seconds the track completely transforms into a wah-wah guitar and organ lead funk monster. ‘Descended From Myth’ sounds like a forgotten gem from a Blaxploitation soundtrack combining blaring horns, pounding drums and a stabbing synth bass. There track gets more synth heavy and sci-fi in feel as its progresses. It’s great to see RJD2 and Blueprint (MC) working together for the first time since “Dead Ringer”. The track ‘It All Came to Me in a Dream’ is one of the highlights of the album too. A drum roll brings in a tremolo fuzz guitar, head nodding beat, low slung bass and filmic dialogue samples, the track breaks down to bring in Blueprint’s first rap verse. There’s a great synth solo around one minute fifty seconds in.

All-in-all “More Is Than Isn’t” is RJD2’s best album since “Dead Ringer” and while it may not provide as many knock out moments as that brilliant work it comes pretty close to equalling it. It’s both a varied and consisent album that showcases both RJD2’s skills as a producer and as a musician, this is a guy who can make a great head nodding, neck snapping beat, write a fantastic chorus and play an amazing synth solo sometimes even on the same track!! Highly recommended to all lovers of instrumental hip-hop, soulful music and music with a ton of funk!!

The Child of Lov – “The Child of Lov” (Double Six/Domino)

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The secretive artist The Child of Lov is a hip-hop producer from the Netherlands but he doesn’t make any old hip-hop and when you hear his processed vocals you’d swear he was from America’s Deep South. The album opens with the loping bass guitar, downtempo hip-hop beat and skewed soul vocals of ‘Call Me Up’ the atmospherics and vocals of which recalls “Return to Cookie Mountain” era TV on the Radio. It’s swiftly followed by ‘Heal’ with its uptempo drum break, nagging post-punk guitar riff and stabbing bass guitar. Next up is the sparse ballad ‘One Day’ that features Blur’s Damon Albarn, twisted twangy guitar melodies, rippling synth bass and a dusty hip-hop beat. ‘Living the Circle’ combines corroded synth bass and a heavy stuttering hip-hop beat with a computer game style synth melody to stunning, head nodding effect.

The second half the album sees electronic drums dominate whereas acoustic drums had pervaded in the first half. ‘Go With The Wind’ utilises a subtle electronic hip-hop drums, computer game synth bass and a weird lo-fi guitar riff that underline the uniqueness of this artists sound. ‘Fly’ is another great up tempo track with a thumping, purposeful bass drum pushing everything forward. The album closes with ‘Give It To The People’ on which there’s very little vocal processing and the track has a brighter, pop production pointing at potential development for The Child of Lov’s sound in the future. “The Child of Lov” is a great debut album that demonstrates that you don’t need to the biggest budget or sound to make something that can shine and be unique. I look forward to hearing more from The Child of Lov in the future.

Youngblood Brass Band – “Pax Volumi” (Tru Thoughts)

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Youngblood Brass Band return with their first album in seven years and it is great to have them back. ‘Pax Volumi’ is an album that cements their reputation as a great hip-hop and jazz band that can deliver a great album as well as great live performances. Their previous effort ‘Is That A Riot?’ was the first evidence that they could keep the quality high across an album and ‘Pax Volumi’ confirms and nudges their trademark sound forward.

The album opens as Youngblood open their live sets with something huge and anthemic. The track is ’20 Questions’ and with its combination of thumping bass line , staccato snare, heavy bass drum and chattering hats. The rap flows in a start-stop flow over the top and the brass cuts in and out with the trumpet  playing staccato melodies in the verse and full section stabs in the chorus. There’s a great sax solo 2 minutes in and the track establishes the new punchier and more polished sound of the album. ‘Cite the Line’ brings back the band’s trademark military drum beat which plays under staccato saxophone, distant vocals and yearning elongated trumpets. Then the main beat and bass line kick in thumping your eardrums and backing the fast rapping, the horns ascend in the chorus to great effect.

‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ opens with mournful sounding trombone and droning trumpet, the MC enters and beatboxes a hip-hop drum pattern. The huge bassline slams in and brings with it a crisp hip-hop beat (the evidence of use of a sampler by Youngblood) and the rap verse, the brass emerges out of nowhere like a synth pad. Some of drums and the bassline sounds electronic or electronically processed. There’s a nice mellow drum less section partway through. Then the beatboxing, scratch and electronic drum re-enter with the core brass riffs. ‘The Plank Will Nod, and You Will Go’ starts with title spoken then the brass and drums thunder in before breaking down to rap and drums before the brass emerges again with snaking jazz melodies. The intro returns for an instrumental chorus. The track reminds of ‘Bone Refinery’ from the previous album. I really like the sousaphone and vocal only breakdown half through, then the brass snakes back followed by the drums to bring the chorus back in.

‘Erik Owen’ begins with sax and trombone playing long interweaving melodies over each other before Latin handclaps and staccato trumpet cuts in, a great minimal hip-hop rhythm takes over and the trumpet plays main melody. It’s a great bright upbeat track that changes up from the double time rhythms of much of the rest of the album. Towards the end of the album the band cover the Chaka Khan classic ‘Ain’t Nobody’ it  opens with a tons of percussion and deep bass drum before the trombone and trumpets play a funky riff and the sax harmonises over the top. The sousaphone plays the bass and the sax, trumpets and trombone take it in turns to play the main chorus melody. There are some great solos in the middle section of the song and a fantastic tough bass line in the outro. The album finishes with the epic eight minute closer ‘Third Half’. It begins with a lone trumpet soloing before a snare roll brings with tons of tumbling jazz drums and the other brass and sax, it all underpinned by a body movin’ sousaphone bass line. I can’t put my finger on what it is but there’s something familiar about the melody around 2 minutes 20 seconds played by the sax. The band gets into some heavy jazz soloing in the middle section with the drums pounding and rolling behind. It breaks down to sax for a second again with that familiar melody; then the drums come back in slowly building the tension. Trumpets and trombone interweave with the sax both competing and complimenting it. It’s a superb finishes to an album that makes the triumphant return of a band that have been away for far too long!!!

G&D – “The Lighthouse” (SomeOthaShip)

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The mysterious moniker G&D hides the behind it two disguised artists in Georgia Anne Muldrow (G) and Dudley Perkins (D) who’ve both been working together and individual as hip-hop artists for over two decades. However, both have found their profiles rise since 2006 (I only knew of Georgia Anne Mudrow’s existence last year due to her ‘Seeds’ album produced by Madlib). Some hip-hop heads might know Perkins from his time under the name Declaime but I imagine both of these artists are fairly new to most people.

On “The Lighthouse” their pedigree shows itself from the start, as the album kicks off with the cut up vocals samples, P-Funk synth solo and scratches of ‘Intro’. The album swiftly moves to the title track’s laidback percussion, cutting hip-hop beat and cosmic electric piano meanwhile the two vocalists float and flow over the top of a head nodding beat. ‘Fam Bam’ starts the move away from the psychedelic sound of that the artwork of the album suggests were in for. The track features a stuttering electronic hip-hop beat and reverberate claps that back Perkins mean rapping and Muldrow vocals and rapping that recall Erykah Badu and Seattle hip-hop duo Thee Satisfaction. ‘Electric’ combines a smooth bass line and sparse electronic hip-hop beat with another from Perkins with its feedbacking guitar and electronic sound it recalls Cannibal Ox. ‘Power’ brings back to P-Funk and Afro-centric lyrics from the duo, ‘No More War’ picks up where ‘Power’ leaves off with huge synth bass, a twinkling synth melody and shuffling electronic beat back Perkins and Muldrow’s duetting vocals. ‘Popstopper’ demonstrates the duo’s versatility with shuffling acoustic drums and popping funk bass backing Muldrow’s multi-layered lush vocals while a spooky synth stabs in and out of the mix. ‘Dance’ combines with guitar sound of ‘Electric’ with the popping funk bass of ‘Popstopper’ to get you on the floor! ‘Emo Funk’ and album closer ‘Majesty’ both show the duo can do slo-mo acoustic piano ballads albeit with their own unique twist. With ‘The Lighthouse’ G&D have arguably made the best underground hip-hop of year so far, check it out!!!

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Thirteen years ago Deltron 3030 the hip-hop supergroup that features Del The Funkee Homosapian (MC), Kid Koala (turntablist) and Dan the Automater (producer) released their self titled début concept album and showed up a lot of the underground hip-hop acts with their combination of ambition and great tunes. Towards the end of last year rumours began to surface that Deltron 3030 had reformed and earlier this the trio confirmed it and then announced they had almost finished a sequel to their début. Now that album is here for all to hear and here’s my review.

The album opens with “Stardate” on which actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt talks of fictional trio’s return over the top of  a synthetic choir and twinkling music box melody. ‘The Return’ opens the album proper combining a synth, long-held strings and choir in from intro track give way to phat hip-hop drums, scratches and a thick layer of organ and cartoonish synth melody. Del enters rapping slow and smooth telling the story of the Earth in 3030. Deep strings cut in during a break down at 3 minutes 30 seconds in. The track changes feel  to a kind of epic spaghetti western style sound. ‘Pay The Price’ is straight in with an upbeat hip-hop beat, scratches and plinking piano and bass guitar groove. Things get cut down for the verse with Del flowing over the top. Like the huge acoustic piano chords and twinkling reverberate melody, the resonate synth is a nice subtle touch.

‘Nobody Can’ featuring Aaron Bruno of AWOL Nation combines great head nodding beat, fuzzy electric guitar and deep bass groove, that back Del’s great rhymes that are off set by soul style guitar chops and an 8-bit synth melody. The tracks reminds me of hip-hop duo N.A.S.A. who released a great similar collaborative album”The Spirit of Apollo” back in 2009. Another huge guitar riff dominates ‘Melding of the Minds’ featuring Zack De La Rocha its backed by phat hip-hop drums and a deep bass guitar with cutting scratches and killer raps from Del and Zack taking the lead. ‘Talent Supercedes’ featuring Black Rob is a cinematic funk track that features A big beat and held horns. There’s some Ennio Morricone references in the verse, with the twanging (yet funky) guitar and clanging bells. Great drum breaks and bass guitar roll, pushing everything forward and flattening anything that gets in their way. ‘Look Across The Sky’ featuring actor Mary Elizabeth Winstead opens with a filter sweep synth effect before a soul guitar rhythm, bass line and midtempo beat drops. Del raps and Winstead sings vocals harmonies on this minimal track. In the chorus Winstead takes the melodic lead before the track breaks down again to the intro synth and a soloing psychedelic guitar.

‘What Is This Loneliness’ featuring Damon Albarn and Casual starts off with a slamming head nodding beat, Del crashes in backed by discordant guitar and chiming bells. Twanging guitar and strings up the tension as we move towards the chorus. Albarn comes in singing the chorus backed by a synth, strings, drums, bass and acoustic rhythm guitar, reminds me of ‘El Manana’ by Gorillaz. Next up is ‘My Only Love’ featuring Emily Wells a stepping epic beat, vocal harmonies, big reverbed chords and slippery synth open this track before backing down to beat, slow moving bass and guitar groove and minimal bell melody for Del’s verse. The intro instruments return for the chorus with Wells singing like Martina Topley Bird over the top.

The album closer with two tracks that really contrast with each other the first ‘City Rising From The Ashes’ featuring Mike Patton begins with a phat drum break, funky bass, horns stabs and a piano riff. In the chorus the brass plays a cool melody and has an almost Latin in feel and Patton sings the backing vocals, Del sounds awesome over the top. Kid Koala weighs in with some great scratch work out towards the end of the track. The album closer ‘Do You Remember’ featuring Jamie Cullum is more reflective. The track opens with Cullum’s vocals, piano and a stringed instruments covered in vinyl crackle and pop and sounding like a 1930’s/40’s jazz crooner. Then hip-hop beat drops and Del flows over the top of Cullum’s jazz vocal melody. Features some great hip-hop stabs and soulful guitar chops.

“Event II” isn’t a huge move away from the trio début album’s sound and lyrical themes but it does feature a lot more uptempo tracks and sweeping cinematic elements. The album feels both like a throw back to 90’s breakbeat driven hip-hop but also has a throughly contemporary production job and sounds like the album that Gorillaz should make if they even make another album. This is a great hip-hop album and highly recommended for both fully fledged hip-hop heads and fans of the likes of Gorillaz and N.A.S.A.

FKA Twigs – “EP 2” (Young Turks/XL)

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FKA Twigs first appeared on my radar just a couple of months ago when the track ‘Water Me’ appeared on line and generated soon serious hype. It turned the hype was justified as it’s an excellent track that establishes FKA Twigs signiture sound delayed cover vocal harmonies, ethereal synths and slo-mo treated electronic beats, all topped off with her breathy sometimes whispered vocals. I found out that she had in fact self released another EP back in 2012 that had completely passed me by and had now been snapped up by Young Turks home to The xx with whom she shares “unflinching intimacy” in her music. The whole EP is produced by Arca a hotly tipped underground hip-hop who recently contributed a track to Kanye West’s “Yeezus”.

The EP opens with ‘How’s That’. It begins with a steadily moving deep synth strings sound and a hollow snare drums echoes out before Twigs vocals enter dropping in and out, there very breathy, a tambourine shaking covered in spine chilling reverb. Then a bitcrusher bass drum and click electronic percussion bash away almost overwhelming the other elements before settling for the main body of the track. The track display’s Arca’s understanding of dynamics as the track swifts from the spacious calm intro into the fuller and menacing main section. Next up is the best track on the EP ‘Papi Pacify’ it masterfully combines a deep detuned synth riff, Twigs echoing vocals at the start of this track. Then another synth starts up and brings in the stumbling glitchy beat and thin synth chords. Halfway through the tone change suddenly as a heavier dark beat and corroded synth bass line stumble into view. It sounds like a horror film soundtrack with the wrong lyrics over the top (the lyrics appear to be a love song).

The second half of the EP kicks off with the brilliant ‘Water Me’ which reminded me a little of Fever Ray. The song starts with vocal harmonies echo out before a synth drone slides underneath. A ratty distant snare comes in, eventually giving way to a beat and pitched echoing vocal harmonies, swiftly followed by Twigs enters singing her lead vocals. Some cool backing vocals come in along with a gliding synth melody around the two minute mark. Then EP concludes with ‘Ultraviolet’ which like ‘Papi Pacify’ is a song of two halves the first features Twigs sings over distant ethereal synth and slow, sparse electronic beat. Then halfway through Twigs and the synths rise up taking the song to a richer more melodic and harmonic place. The track turns into a dreamy R&B tune in slo-mo.

“EP 2” is one of the finest of EP length releases of the year so far with a throughly modern sound that brings together influences ranging from the chopped and screwed hip-hop of DJ Screw, the inimate and sparse touch songs of The xx and the taut trip-hop of Massive Attack’s “Mezzanine” (1998). Highly recommended.

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FKA_Twigs

FKA Twigs first appeared on my radar just a couple of months ago when the track ‘Water Me’ appeared on line and generated soon serious hype. It turned the hype was justified as it’s an excellent track that establishes FKA Twigs signiture sound delayed cover vocal harmonies, ethereal synths and slo-mo treated electronic beats, all topped off with her breathy sometimes whispered vocals. I found out that she had in fact self released another EP back in 2012 that had completely passed me by and had now been snapped up by Young Turks home to The xx with whom she shares “unflinching intimacy” in her music. The whole EP is produced by Arca a hotly tipped underground hip-hop who recently contributed a track to Kanye West’s “Yeezus”.

The EP opens with ‘How’s That’. It begins with a steadily moving deep synth strings sound and a hollow snare drums echoes out before Twigs vocals enter dropping in and out, there very breathy, a tambourine shaking covered in spine chilling reverb. Then a bitcrusher bass drum and click electronic percussion bash away almost overwhelming the other elements before settling for the main body of the track. The track display’s Arca’s understanding of dynamics as the track swifts from the spacious calm intro into the fuller and menacing main section. Next up is the best track on the EP ‘Papi Pacify’ it masterfully combines a deep detuned synth riff, Twigs echoing vocals at the start of this track. Then another synth starts up and brings in the stumbling glitchy beat and thin synth chords. Halfway through the tone change suddenly as a heavier dark beat and corroded synth bass line stumble into view. It sounds like a horror film soundtrack with the wrong lyrics over the top (the lyrics appear to be a love song).

The second half of the EP kicks off with the brilliant ‘Water Me’ which reminded me a little of Fever Ray. The song starts with vocal harmonies echo out before a synth drone slides underneath. A ratty distant snare comes in, eventually giving way to a beat and pitched echoing vocal harmonies, swiftly followed by Twigs enters singing her lead vocals. Some cool backing vocals come in along with a gliding synth melody around the two minute mark. Then EP concludes with ‘Ultraviolet’ which like ‘Papi Pacify’ is a song of two halves the first features Twigs sings over distant ethereal synth and slow, sparse electronic beat. Then halfway through Twigs and the synths rise up taking the song to a richer more melodic and harmonic place. The track turns into a dreamy R&B tune in slo-mo.

“EP 2” is one of the finest of EP length releases of the year so far with a throughly modern sound that brings together influences ranging from the chopped and screwed hip-hop of DJ Screw, the inimate and sparse touch songs of The xx and the taut trip-hop of Massive Attack’s “Mezzanine” (1998). Highly recommended.

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.

Classics Critiqued – May 2012 – Tricky – “Maxinquaye” (Island Records, 1995)

This month’s selection for Classics Critiqued comes from an artist who often divides opinion and has admitted that since the release of the seminal “Maxinquaye” he has tried to “kill all that Maxinquaye bullshit”. In this article I will explore not only the album’s sound, but also the main points of discourse surrounding it. Including its perception as “a coffee-table album”, the switching of gender roles employed on the album, the music’s dissonance and of course whether it deserves its classic status.

The story of “Maxinquaye” starts many years beforehand in 1990 when Tricky was working with Bristol trip-hop innovators Massive Attack under the name Tricky Kid. He featured on their début single ‘Daydreaming’, the first time anyone heard of a half whispered, half rapped vocal style. Tricky would contribute to a majority of the tracks on Massive Attack’s landmark début album “Blue Lines” (1991) and the follow-up “Protection” (1994) before “Maxinquaye” would see the light of day. Tricky had offered his debut single “Aftermath” to Massive Attack for inclusion on “Blue Lines” but the trio weren’t interested in “its hollowed-out hip-hop blues”. ‘Aftermath’ lay untouched for two years before Tricky’s cousin encouraged him to get his own record deal, this came surprisingly quickly with Island Records signing Tricky in 1994 after gaining their attention through a self released white label of ‘Aftermath’. Suddenly Tricky had an album to produce and no knowledge or skills to make it with, as ‘Aftermath’ had been produced by Mark Stewart (ex-The Pop Group singer & On-U Sound alumni).

Island hired Mark Saunders as a sound engineer for the album’s recording sessions which began in Tricky’s home studio in a time when this mostly unheard of. In a 2007 interview, Saunders describes the unorthodox approach that Tricky took to creating “Maxinquaye”, “We basically made a record out of different bits; the spare parts of other people’s records… every track was built around a bit of somebody else’s track, or a combination of quite a few, and so the traditional method of starting by programming drums didn’t apply”. The floor would be littered with records which Tricky would pick up and hand to Saunders for sampling and the tracks would be a result of the disparate elements being pitched down and edited until they made some sort of musical sense or Tricky was happy with the track.

It was also unclear early on what contribution Tricky’s ex-girlfriend and vocalist Martina Topley-Bird would be making to the record as she’d become a central part of it. Saunders recalls that Tricky was no more orthodox with his use of Topley-Bird “She would come into the studio, murmur, ‘Hi,’ and he would hand her the lyrics that he’d just scribbled out and say, ‘Go and sing it’.” There was no preparation and no notation, Topley-Bird came up with her “hair standing up on the back of your neck” melodies on the spot”. The next stage was the addition of parts by musicians James Stevenson (guitar), Pete Briquette (bass) and techno-rock band FTV who featured on ‘Black Steel’, a cover of Public Enemy’s ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’. Saunders also contributed guitar parts and edited keyboards that Tricky improvised into the tracks.

When the album came out in February 1995 with very little radio play it shot to No.2 on the album chart and was hugely critically acclaimed, garnering rave reviews and featuring in many end of year polls on both sides of the Atlantic. Tricky had commercially and critically arrived but he hadn’t wanted to and wasn’t interested in fame and success, as he stated in a recent interview with The Guardian, “I thought I’d be an underground artist, I had no idea it was going to do that and I was not ready for it.” In his opinion success ruined “Maxinquaye” and turned it into “a coffee-table album”, which has annoyed him since. It some ways it’s easy to understand why the album has fallen victim to this as on the surface it’s a smooth, smoky and jazzy album that lopes along at a crawl for most of its duration, the perfect soundtrack for the dinner party set. However, it’s what’s under that surface that gives the album its vital edge, the spiky guitar riffs, reverse effects, lo-fi sample and paranoid vibe that critics loved at the time and at present. This is why Tricky despairs, his vision wasn’t to create a companion piece to “Blues Lines” but to make the other side of its smooth, seductive coin. He wanted to step out of their shadow.

One of most interesting facets of “Maxinquaye” is the switching of gender roles that runs through the album and is especially pronounced on ‘Black Steel’ when Martina Topley-Bird sings “I’m a black man”. Tricky wanted her to sing on the majority of the songs as he saw his lyrics as “my mum speaking through me; a lot of my lyrics are written from a woman’s point of view”. Most of the tracks have a soft and supple sound that’s very feminine for music written by a man and for what’s essentially a hip-hop record. This makes a unique proposition even today.

So now for the biggest question is “Maxinquaye” a classic album? The answer is yes and no. There are many things to admire in this ambitious and singular album: its sonic adventurousness to its lyrical challenges of sex and gender roles. However, 17 years on from its original release the album feels to me to be an album to admire and analyse not one you instantly feel an emotional connection to or recognise as an out-and-out classic. On the other hand how many people were able to get their head around “OK Computer” the first time they played it? With that in mind please let me know your thoughts on “Maxinquaye” in the comments below or via our Twitter.

Listen to “Maxinquaye” here.

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.

The Pop Group – ‘Y’ (1979, Radar Records)

This month’s selected Classics Critiqued  is a post-punk masterpiece that has bemused and divided critics and music fans alike for over 30 years. The Pop Group a four piece from Bristol consisted of Mark Stewart (vocals), John Waddington (guitar), Garth Sager (guitar/occasional saxophone), Simon Underwood (bass) and Bruce Smith (drums), what their line-up lacked in originality was made-up by the melting pot of influences they utilised. An (almost) completely untutored musical collective (Waddington the only trained musician) they burst onto the music scene and made the cover of the NME before they’d ever released a single. Yet the best was still to come as the band cooked up their début album with British dub producer Dennis Bovell.

‘Y’ was released at a time when punk music had become repetitive and had failed to achieve its goals, bands such as Public Image Limited, Wire and Gang of Four were emerging and attempting to explore new paths. The question on everyone’s lips was ‘Where Next?’ The Pop Group answered emphatically ‘everything!’ and unleashed a sound that took on free jazz, dub, reggae, funk and 60’s beat poetry. This monstrous maelström heralded a new era of music outer limits and ‘Y’ served as a prime example of how far the term ‘music’ could be stretched within becoming tuneless. As Bruce Smith told the NME, September 30 1978, “we want people to question as much as possible. All the rules, conceptions, everything…. It’s a question of setting yourself free and not worrying about inhibitions and people saying you can or can’t do that.”

With all these elements flying around the mix The Pop Group needed a steady hand to guide them through recording ‘Y’, someone who understand the band’s hybrid sound and could translate their chaotic live sound into a cohesive and more palatable one on record. Dennis Bovell an experienced British dub producer who also love rock music and had a good grasp of jazz was the man given this job. Bovell recalls the band “were loose and they needed to tighten up. In their own right they’re all great musicians… The thing that was not together about The Pop Group was the guitars. And then Mark Stewart would drift across the frame of the thing. And being near to a seven-footer, and having that kind of voice tone that commanded, ‘You will listen to me’… those were the elements that made it very interesting and made me want to do The Pop Group.” Despite this enviable task the album is incredible well produced harnessing the band explosive grooves and allowing the ‘free’ elements space to roam but not meander. The dub influence is employed throughout but sparingly with the use of space and reverbs, delays and a deep throbbing bass sound the key examples. Bovell even went as far as describing “Simon Underwood and Bruce Smith, they were the Sly and Robbie of the post-punk period – tight”.

The band didn’t only question what was permissible musically but also lyrically, Stewart didn’t believe in “the compartmentalization of experience that places ‘politics’ here and ‘poetry’ over there.” The band cited Rimbaud, Burroughs, and Blake, as much they did King Tubby, Funkadelic and Neu! This poetry was matched with Stewart trademark howl and provocative political subject matter; they were “questioning everything, challenging everything, right down to the core of personal relationships and the relations between the audience and the band.” Stewart described “Thief of Fire as being about “idea of grabbing at something really far away. Finding out about things you thought you weren’t meant to find out about or allowed to find out about, prohibited knowledge. It’s the Prometheus legend, but I twisted it to be about going into the unknown areas. I remember people saying stuff like ‘To be alive is not enough; I want to live. So it was against all the constrictions.” The lack of constrictions applied to the clashing political ideals the band adopted and discussed from “Wilhelm Reich’s libidinal liberation, Antonin Artuad’s threatre of cruelty, Situationism’s revolt against boredom” all this collided and was added to their fiery “Dionysian protest music”. The band viewed themselves as the next in a long line of “politically engaged avant-garde artists” including the Dadaists, the Surrealists through “to 1960’s movements such as Fluxus and Situationism who saw radical art and political revolution as inseparable.”

Such is the uniqueness of The Pop Group’s fusion of disparate genres that there aren’t any bands/artists that could be said to have been directly influenced by the band. In fact, whenever a new band emerges who take on post-punk influences they roll out the same familiar names Gang of Four, Talking Heads, Public Image Limited and Joy Division, The Pop Group never seem to get a look in. However, they have indirectly influenced and had a hand in the creation of the Bristol trip-hop sound. Stewart lived with and mentored Tricky helping him create his first demos and début album ‘Maximquaye’ and was friends with Daddy G of Massive Attack (he is mentioned in the sleeve notes of ‘Blue Lines’ and worked “behind the scenes on “Heligoland”). Another band who Stewart is friends with in Asian Dub Foundation who’ve fused drun’n’bass, dub, hip-hop, Indian music and rock for 20 years and could be seen to carrying the torch that The Pop Group lit with ‘Y’. More recently Italian dance duo Crooker’s remixed the band’s 1979 single ‘We Are Prostitutes’ to much praise from Stewart. This and the rapturous response to the band reformation last year, show this is a band that are still very relevant and may yet produce another incredible statement. Watch this space.

Spotify playlist:

The Pop Group – Y

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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