Finding top of underground hip-hop

May 22, 2003, midnight | By Josh Scannell | 17 years, 8 months ago

Silver Chips rates four unknown indie hip-hop albums for creativity, content and style

WKYS getting a little boring? The songs on 99.5 not really jammin'? The number of times you hear Ludacris getting plain ludicrous? Not to worry, there is life beyond the dial, and here Silver Chips outlines four of the best hip-hop acts you may not have heard.

Blazing Arrow

Okay, to be fair, Blackalicious isn't really "underground." They're on MCA records, and guests on Blazing Arrow include Chali 2NA of the Jurassic 5 and Gil Scott-Heron. One of their songs was produced by ?uestlove of The Roots. But when an album this great comes around, it would be a tragedy not to review it.
Blazing Arrow was released over the summer. It bubbles with sexy beats that make even the whitest of white boys dream of hoppin' on hydraulics while rollin' with their homies.

The album is full of killer bass lines and hooks, and Gift of Gab's rapid-fire delivery of thoughtful songs like the standout track "Sky is Falling" makes the album irresistible.

What's even more impressive than the delivery is the humility of this frontman, who has every right to be pompous about his music. Gab rarely self-references and focuses his energy on tackling issues or taking the listener on a journey, as in "4000 Miles."

Musically, the album is brilliant, with Chief XCel and Gift of Gab covering 30 years of music, from the Parliament-like "Introduction: Bow and Fire," to the west-coast hip-hop of "Nowhere Fast." Their use of keyboard lines and brilliant horn sections send this album over the top.

All in all, Blazing Arrow is amazing. The only complaint is its length. Clocking in at 74 minutes with 17 songs, the album could be trying if you're the type of person with a short musical attention span. But every minute has something good, and the whole album feels like a non-stop hip-hop show/block party in the middle of July. If you're not dancing 30 seconds into this album, you're catatonic.

Aesop Rock
Labor Days

Aesop Rock is a smart man. You won't realize it the first time you listen to Labor Days, but that's because he's a great MC with a fantastic flow. His delivery is fast but fluid and avoids the egomaniacal tendencies of a lot of mainstream MCs. (Eminem's good, but is it possible to listen to him talking about how great he is anymore?)

Aes has also hooked up with a good producer, who deserves almost as much credit for this album's excellence as Aes himself. Blockhead has created a lush piece of music, full of minor-key progressions and interesting instrument choices, like the wood flute on the excellent and haunting "Daylight."

This album is far from the danceable sunniness of Blazing Arrow. Labor Days sounds like a gloomy New York winter, with everyone suffering through a brutal nine-to-five routine.

And that is what the album is about. Aes' mission was to create a piece of music with a message, and the message is labor. At its core, this album is about people working and living and trying to get by. Far removed from the mainstream theme of "hos in different area codes," the message comes across beautifully and only gets a little silly on the song "No Regrets."

Just as Aesop Rock is a thinking man, Labor Days is a thinking album. Sit and really listen, or you'll miss the stories that Aes has to tell. His songs are danceable, but it's clear that this isn't party music. Don't pass up the opportunity to buy this album.

All of the Above

J-Live is probably the best solo underground MC, period. He is the real deal. His albums are difficult to come by, because he's on a tiny record label (Coup D'etat Records), but if you can locate him, the rewards are well worth the effort.

A Brooklyn native and former schoolteacher, the MC is truly a genius. His lyrics are far better than anyone else's, and his anti-mainstream stance is made in a refreshing way. J-Live doesn't show his disapproval of Nelly and Ludacris by making the weirdest beats that he possibly can; he responds in words. And his words are interesting.

Check track 5, "Mcee," for a perfect example of J-Live's clever stabs at mainstream rap delivered in an amazingly fluid style. What's better is that his background as an English teacher gives him a limitless vocabulary. On top of his inventive lyrics and flawless, passionate delivery, J-Live has a great backing band. Funky guitars color strong drum and bass lines and make the album hot. Standout track "How Real It Is" sets up the show, and the rest of the album's amazing keyboard lines and interesting music choices make this a classic. Far from the pure cerebral quality of Antipop, J-Live manages to mix funky beats and fabulous words to create an amazing album.

Go find J-Live.
Go listen to J-Live.

Antipop Consortium

First things first: Antipop Consortium is weird. Keep in mind that weird doesn't mean bad. You probably have never heard hip-hop like this before, and I doubt you ever will. The group is underground to the core and on a label famous for electronica acts. With that in mind, it's not surprising that a lot of this album is made up of experimental electronic noises. Random blips and bloops are common, and there's a whole song based on a bouncing ping pong ball ("Ping Pong").

The three MCs that make up Antipop Consortium are clearly professional. Their lyrics are compelling, and the delivery is even and seems to follow the twitchiest of rhythms.

Antipop Consortium is cerebral hip-hop, the kind of thing that you would probably hear on the speakers of a really small record store in the middle of a city, where the employees are cooler than you could ever hope to be. If you're into really thinking about what you listen to, Antipop Consortium is perfect.

It is clear, though, that Antipop Consortium hate mainstream rap and have no intention of becoming very popular. If that ticks you off, stay away. Antipop is a listening experience not likely to be repeated.

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Josh Scannell. Josh Scannell is an 11th grader at Blair High School. He is a page editor on the Silver Chips staff. When not working, he enjoys listening to, reading about, watching and playing music. He also enjoys a good movie and hanging out with his friends. More »

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