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.
Tree’s story is an endearing one, and you can read all about it in the article that appeared in the Chicago Reader, but you’d do just as well to listen closely to his lyrics, which might omit or embellish some factual details but carry more emotional weight than any news feature could. While critics label it “everyman rap,” or even worse “reality rap” — a classification that, if you ask me, is just as ignorantly condescending as the phrase “conscious hip-hop” — the truth of the matter is that Tree’s music is enjoyable simply because it’s at once uniquely vibrant, evocative, sophisticated, and accessible. And above all, it’s ridiculously infectious. This summer, I played Sunday School so many times my closest friends went from liking it to loving it to getting a little annoyed with it to hating it to loving it all over again.
Since then, Tree has released a bunch of loosies, plus an EP he did with producer Tony Baines called The Lit. Although it doesn’t feature any of Tree’s beats, it does provide him further opportunity to showcase his mic skills and also evinces his good ear is not limited to sample selection. Another new collaborative project called Trillin just dropped, and his first purchasable release, an iTunes album called Soul Trap, is due out soon. Whether it can live up to or exceed the high standards set by Sunday School remains to be seen. However, if Tree’s discography thus far tells us anything, it’s that he’s only getting better, both as a rapper and as a producer.
… And then there’s Ka, whose 2012 album Grief Pedigree is very much grounded in one geographic location: the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, NY. Beyond the fact that many of his lyrics directly reference growing up and living there, Ka’s gravelly delivery, economized bar structure, and minimalistic production values say something about making the best out of what little you have, something with which the area’s residents are surely accustomed. And for all the would-be Williamsburg denizens out there, it just sounds hard, like “wrong side of the tracks” hard, like an eviler, one-man version of Mobb Deep.
So, if Ka’s music isn’t representative of some kind of subgenre synthesis, then why has it captured the hearts and minds of so many and so many different types of hip-hop listeners? Many reasons come to mind, but here are a few:
01. It has the makings of a classic hip-hop album. Short and to the point, it contains 11 tracks or 10 songs and features only one guest, Hempstead, NY’s Roc Marciano. More importantly, none of the songs are skippable, and in fact the album works so well as a cohesive whole it’s pretty much impossible to single out any one song as a favorite. There are a million different ways to say this album is great, but don’t take my word for it. Just listen for yourself if you haven’t already.
02. Aesop Rock might’ve said it best, writing, “The record sounds like a guy going through old records in his room and piecing together eerie loops to zone out to. You can really hear the process in there as much as you can hear the finished product, and while I find that so much of today’s rap music is too crispy-clean for me, this record just jumped out as something much more personal. You can tell Ka made it because that’s just what he does—whether or not you ever hear it.” Word. In an era in which everyone fancies themselves a musician or artist of some kind, a fully realized and dissectible DIY project such as this is extremely relatable. The sense of authenticity to which Aesop refers is further reinforced by Ka’s mission statement/YouTube bio, in which he writes:
I’ve been rhyming for over 20 years and appreciate any hip-hop fan who respects lyrics … If you’re going to rhyme, you should have something relevant and unique to say. I decided a long time ago that I would make music for the love of it. If you can make money from art, that’s a beautiful thing. But money shouldn’t be the reason you make art. You make art because you can’t help it. I can honestly say there’s not a day that goes by that lines don’t come to me. My words are an extension of who I am, and I was never willing to compromise that for anyone.
03. A picture says a thousand words, and for this, his musical manifesto, Ka didn’t just throw his name on a photo of a street corner and call it an album cover; he assembled a collage of images representative of the album’s various themes and plot points. Likewise, he didn’t just film two or three videos, one for each “single,” and call it a day. Hell, there were no singles. He directed and released 10 videos (one for each song on the album), giving his potential fans numerous opportunities to discover his music, and providing existing fans with something to look forward to month after month as well as additional cause to revisit the album again and again.
Finally, while it might not have anything to do with why the album was so fully embraced by fans and critics alike, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Ka was active during the era mentioned at the start of this feature. Formerly a member of the college radio wunderkind Natural Elements (albeit one with a background role) and one half of the unsung duo Nightbreed, Ka has been around for a minute, and though his recent success represents a huge progression from his previous efforts, what’s more relevant to our discussion is the simple fact that he shares such a concrete link to this past era. And he’s not the only independent artist with roots in the late 1990s and early 2000s who came correct this year. For other examples, see Aesop Rock’s Skelethon, Roc Marciano’s Reloaded, and my pick for album of the year, billy woods’ History Will Absolve Me.
The thing that really made 2012 a year to remember in my eyes is that of all the year’s best independent releases, no two sound alike, and moreover, more fans are beginning to ignore stylistic divisions, which truthfully never should’ve been a factor in the first place. In reality, most die-hard hip-hop fans and music enthusiasts in general don’t really care much about regional affiliations or target demographics or any of that nonsense. Those are really just marketing tools used by A&Rs and journalists for branding purposes. If you’re like me, you grew up listening to Nirvana and The Wu-Tang Clan, Company Flow, and Project Pat, because they’re all great in their own right. And that’s all that matters: is the music uniquely good or not?
Many hip-hop purists look on modern music technology as some kind of invading force, as if iPod owners only listen to shuffled songs, rarely taking the time to appreciate an album as a whole. This holds true for some, but I think shuffling has had another effect that hasn’t been as readily acknowledged. The randomization of music libraries makes it commonplace for a heavy-metal song to be followed by a reggae tune or for an introspective street rap to be followed by a hipster-hop anthem celebrating wanton Molly popping. After a while, this becomes so unremarkable that we don’t even notice it. Therefore, even the most casual listeners have begun to ignore genre and subgenre classifications. Go into a bar and ask someone what he or she listens to. Nine times out of ten, the answer is “Everything.”
Rap producers and rappers have been listening to everything since the genre’s inception. It’s the nature of the beast. Furthermore, each of hip-hop music’s most defining years offers multiple examples of groundbreaking artistic experimentation that shattered conventions and defied expectations. I don’t know if 2012 will go down in history with 1988 and 1994 as one of the best years to be a hip-hop fan, but if the main criteria for inclusion are an annual output’s overall variety, originality, and quality, it just might.