The late 1990s and early 2000s are known to many hip-hop fans as a time during which the “Underground” reigned supreme. Driven by independent labels like Rawkus, Fondle ‘Em, and, later, Definitive Jux on the East and crews/collectives like Project Blowed, Hieroglyphics, and Living Legends on the West — not to mention internationally bootlegged radio programs like the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show and Sway and King Tech’s Wake Up Show — a multi-regional scene began to emerge, its artists proudly flying Company Flow’s banner of “Independent as Fuck.” The term “underground” became a badge of honor for many fans, and at times an unwelcome label for the artists themselves, as it boxed them into certain styles and markets.
In hindsight, what many considered a national movement may have actually been three or four smaller regional scenes, each of which occasionally cross-pollinated the others. Hence, while a seminal release like Cannibal Ox’s Cold Vein was able to achieve international acclaim, it remains essentially a New York album, and though some Freestyle Fellowship fans might’ve embraced its progressive sound, others were turned off by its industrial edge. Likewise, while some Project Blowed artists were applauded by East Coast heads for their battling chops, others were shunned for being overly laid back, spaced out, scientific, etc. In other words, just as the “underground” label put artists across the country into one large box, regional and crew affiliations built any number of smaller boxes.
Eventually, the whole misshapen structure collapsed, and for years independent artists who hadn’t already established names for themselves had an even harder time gaining any substantial ground beyond their local scenes. With the rise of the blog as a primary vehicle for promotion and discovery, artists could potentially reach more fans than ever before; however, the problem of extending exposure beyond the set boundaries of “style” — as often determined by the bloggers themselves, who chomp at the bit for the next new thing often without bothering to study up on what happened in years, let alone months, past — remained. Pigeonholing prevailed.
For some reason though, that all seemed to change in 2012. We are now in the midst of a kind of hip-hop singularity, in which subgenre distinctions are becoming as insignificant to the fans as they are to the artists themselves. Does the fact that Natural Elements alumni Ka has been co-signed by both Aesop Rock and 50 Cent confirm that on 12/12/12 an event of cosmic significance will occur, marking a shift in human consciousness as we know it? I don’t know, it seems doubtful, but regardless, Ka and artists like Lil Ugly Mane and Tree are a few independent rapper/producers, each unaffiliated with the other, who helped make 2012 a year for music fans everywhere to remember.
Lil Ugly Mane
“The world’s a fucking swamp. Everything’s mutating together anyway. I mean people want to cling on to these banners of what they think makes something what it is and to me that’s preschool shit, like I’m glad you can tell that a circle is different from a rectangle. Good job.”
– Richmond, VA rapper/producer Lil Ugly Mane in an interview with the Miskha Blog
Although he’d apparently been making music of some kind or another for several years prior, Lil Ugly Mane first caught the attention of myself and many others with his song “My Hood,” which appeared on Spaceghostpurrp’s 2011 outing Blackland Radio 66.6; however, it was his February 2012 release Mista Thug Isolation that turned my thoughts from, “Hey, who’s this guy? He’s pretty nice,” to “What the fuck was that, man!? That shit blew my head!!!” Arguably the strongest Bandcamp-exclusive release when it dropped, the album has since been made available as a 100-copy cassette release from Ormolycka, with a 300-copy double vinyl pressing from Hundebiss Records due out in December. Ironically though, the fact it was initially available only as a “Name Your Price” Bandcamp download coupled with Ugly Mane’s apparent reclusiveness — for a few months you even couldn’t find a picture of him online without doing some serious digging — added to the album’s mystique, making the buzz around it grow louder.
Then in March, a $300 16-minute free-jazz piece suite entitled “Thug Isolation” appeared on Ugly’s Bandcamp page. (Yes, seriously, it’s still there; check it out.) At the start of the following month, the aforementioned interview appeared online, shedding some light on the artist but not without adding to the audience’s growing suspicion that he is not of this planet. For example, though it was confirmed that Shawn Kemp, the artist listed as producer of all tracks on MTI, was indeed Lil Ugly Mane himself and that he too was responsible for the majority of the Raider Klan members’ pen-and-pixel album/mixtape covers, we also read everything from apocalyptic prophesying (“This is end times”) to ridiculously insightful commentary on art in the information age: “Everything is fractal geometry at this point. No matter how small the subject is it’s still gonna contain the larger sum of everything else. Everything is accessible now. It’s a choice if you don’t know about something.”
While Mista Thug Isolation can — and did — easily stand on its own without our knowing anything about the artist, the added context provided by this and later interviews somehow materializes in our minds the album’s titular character. Due to Ugly’s clarity and strangeness, we can really picture Mista Thug Isolation out there somewhere cooking up devilish plans while practicing black magic on a crack stove. It reminds me of the allure that surrounded Kool Keith after he lied to an interviewer that he’d spent some time inside of Bellevue. Suddenly that ill rapper with the weird flow from Ultramagnetic MCs became that former mental patient who now raps. Like Keith Thornton before him, Lil Ugly Mane (his real name is yet to be made public) portrays a character who is probably both brilliant and certifiable.
More recently, Ugly mentioned that while his is grounded in the regional sound of the mid-1990s Memphis rap scene, East Coast artists including the Gravediggaz and Smif-n-Wessun have had an equal if not greater influence on his songwriting. An attentive listen-through of MTI reveals just how omnipresent this hybridization of regional styles is. Early Three 6 Mafia beats were clearly inspired by RZA’s productions, but not until now has an artist so convincingly mixed these two ingredients to create an esoteric and eldritch blend. That Ugly has further separated himself through his oddball behavior — so far he has done just a few shows, one of which took place inside of a cave; and on one occasion, he publicly disavowed the internet altogether, disappearing briefly from all social media sites but not before telling fans to email him their physical addresses to sign up for his mailing list — has only made his recordings come across as all the more authentically twisted. And lest listeners get it confused and dismiss all this as crass branding gimmickry, he recently released (again, for free on Bandcamp) an epic, genre-sprawling, 11-minute track that just might be his most personal work to date.
Another rapper/producer whose 2012 output defies standard classification is Chicago native Tree. Like Ugly Mane, Tree merges the styles typically associated with different regions — in this case, classic soul sampling à la NO ID and Kanye West meets trap drums favored by Shawty Redd and Lex Luger — to form a unique yet deeply rooted sound. He’s also a talented independent artist who’s released a lot of southern-influenced music for free, but that’s basically where the similarities to Ugly Mane end. To the uninitiated, Tree could easily be mistaken for a southern rapper; however his raspy voice, drunken ad libs, and tendency toward harmonization are much more synonymous with The Peach State than The Volunteer State. And while Ugly purposely shies from the limelight, or at least keeps his visage concealed in its shadows, Tree’s marketing efforts are pretty organic and straightforward. He doesn’t seem to have a big PR firm backing him and also doesn’t do a lot of shows, but he has given numerous interviews (both on- and off-camera), released a bunch of music videos, and been covered by popular media outlets such the Chicago Reader, Spin, and even MTV, which in May ranked his March release Sunday School as one of The Five Best Mixtapes of 2012 So Far. I’ll take that a step farther and call it one of the top five releases of the entire year, regardless of format.
The genius of Tree’s Soul Trap production (as he’s dubbed it) lies in its obviousness and subtle complexities. On first listen, you think, “Of course, why hasn’t anybody thought of this before?” but it’s not that simple. Tree’s seemingly sporadic sample chops and craftily refined lyrics coalesce in a bizarre yet beautiful sonic synchronicity. These ordo ab chao moments are all the more impressive for the fact that Tree has admitted to making many of his beats with Garage Band, which though functional enough for demo purposes is not necessarily conducive to madcap experimentation. It just goes to show that the musician’s adage “it ain’t what you play, it’s how you play it” still holds up today.