EP REVIEW/MATT OLIVER

Illman ‘Ugly Days’
(Potent Funk) 18th February 2021

Should any global implosion occur – and right now that’s not a very big should – the mic will remain the sole property of Illaman. Of noted livewires Problem Child and Pengshui, Illaman, troubled and tightly wound before falling back, reaches a crossroads of riding out the apocalypse and wondering where it all went wrong; but where demons are treated like a pen pal and ignorance is a useful defence mechanism, he never lets on as to whether Ugly Days is catharsis, cry for help or just a shrug to deal with the matter. After all, there remain “so many questions, not many answers”.

Right-hand man Norm Oddity plugs into an electrified vista that those with the world on their mind and shoulders can take solace from, simultaneously triggering itchy souls into taking action, unblinking in the eye of the storm. For headphones and hoods under low light, “these emotions run rife when you’ve spent your whole life trying”, the breakbeats of ‘Everything Bless?’ stalking Illaman to scuttle down dark alleys. Unapologetic in its vulnerability and bruised introspection, the title track is aware that situations could slide even further, the guesting DRS providing an even more numb, dead eyed view as electronic shoots of optimism are shushed down.

On the nobility of ‘OK’, promoting a positive hook as doom takes a breather, Illaman boldly puts his backbone into it: a low-key rousing of the troops speaking up for the outsider (“make some noise for yourself fam, go celebrate your weirdness”), even if the message comes through gritted teeth. “I stay strong like ox, stay on course when you flop/cos all them little battles is what you remember at the top” is a lesson crossing the cipher into the real world, ahead of ‘Universe’ re-upping cause for cautious cheer. A lo-fi headswim with a montage of life lessons flashing before Illaman’s ears, it represents the EP causing and curing insomnia, and the orator’s substance intake both blocking the bigger picture and boosting confidence in a bleak midst.

The psychological profiling of eerie closer ‘Way Home’ is another to split itself: this time between self-help insight and unreachable scratch, Norm Oddity peers through the blinds in a sole instance of the producer perhaps losing faith while Illaman dismisses any fairytale ending. Austere and wide open, allowing for time to breathe and explore, Oddity represents the spaced out in both the extra terrestrial and mind-altering sense, offering unspoken yet meaningful encouragement that’s not without its moments of claustrophobia: take Illaman out of the equation and you have a rich half dozen of brain teasers before bedtime. The emcee’s forcefulness, conviction, anger and erudition, standing as the last man of reason out of hiding, makes him both untouchable (as both man and emcee) and as exposed as everyone else. Never proclaiming to be a saviour, it’s this everyman sharing of hopes and fears that moulds Ugly Days into a tome for all modern existence. Matt Oliver

Matt Oliver joined the Monolith Cocktail team over five years ago, contributing the leading Hip-Hop column in the UK. In recent years Matt has selected tracks for the blog’s Monthly Playlist Revue and written one-off reviews. You can see his professional practice as a dab hand at biographies and newsletters, blurbs long and short, liner notes and promotional texts, and putting words to the promotion of singles/EPs, albums/compilations, and upcoming/established artists/DJs/producers/events on his portfolio-style website

Apart from the Monolith Cocktail Matt has written features & reviews in print and online for Seven/DMC Update, Hip-Hop Connection, Breakin Point, Rime Magazine (US), Undercover Magazine, One Week to Live, IDJ, Remix (US), FACT, Clash, BigShot (US), Mrblunt.com (US), Worlddj.com, Datatransmission.co.uk.

EP Review/Words: Dominic Valvona

Verses Bang ‘The New Normal?
15th January 2021

The sartorially pop-cultured bespoke Hip-Hop and Trap artist Verses Bang should be basking in the L.A. sun and spectacle of his new life-changing home, yet the stresses and anxieties of the global pandemic have taken away some of that sheen and enthusiasm. Moving from a Southend-On-Sea “town full of hate” to a “land full of the pretentious”, the Essex-twanged rapper has done good: and deservedly so, as he informs us on the bubble-cocooned title-track of his upcoming EP, The New Normal?

Immigrating stateside and recently betrothed Bangs escapes a cycle of indifference and envy for life in a whole different bubble. Working the UK circuit with little success and luck, a shot in the city of angels beckoned: Covid-19 has put a kaboosh on matters though. Bangs inaugural address of 2021 is a pent-up frustration, enquiry and also playful conversation let loose over a crossover of Hip-Hop, Trap, Grime, even soulful R&B beats, samples and itching computerised percussion – very nicely produced I might add.

Though a decade in a career of travails, Bangs sounds fresher, leaner and hungrier than ever on this seven-track showcase. That addictive personality with all its anxieties is still strongly referenced throughout: made even worse by the uncertainty and stress of avoiding the new coronavirus plague. The New Normal? is a statement not only of intent, but both a lyrically lightened and serious attempt to convey the eccentricities and daily grind of life under a pandemic.  

Dispensing references at a fair old rate from both home and the L.A. diorama of hierarchal row-competing, courtside Hollywood stars and major wrestling icons (Brian Pillman Jnr. making a cameo on the EP’s cheerleading ‘Still Pillman Skit’), Bangs contrasts the doldrums of a wet-weekend in Essex to rubbing shoulders (at a distance of course) with Jack Nicholson and Ice Cube. Never taking himself too seriously, fame is mere smoke, and social media a vacuous hole: “I don’t really Tweet, I just follow my dreams.” Nicholson’s role in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is used as an outro sample on the questioning ‘Courtside Jack’ prowler: a track that lays out the rapper’s move to California; a gutsy move from stagnation and constant negativity it turns out. A life of uncertainty to: “Am I too old for Hip-Hop?”, “Am I too old for Snapchat? Too old for TikTok?”

At times he also conveys the frightening omnipresence of Covid-19 (on the EP’s most Hip-Hop of Hip-Hop tracks, ‘Covid 44’“Call me Tina Quarantina”), and at other times aims a salvo at the hypocrites whilst counting his own luck (‘Jackpot’). However, it’s almost a case of marauder sleaze on the dirty team-up ‘Injured Pirates’, which features Kettering rapscallion foil Tommy Dockerz (of Dirty Dockerz infamy). The pair originally had a dust-up on the ‘Slick Flair’ track, which gets a mention on this Goonies-heavy referenced flick. Tommy lets rip with chicken licking, titty-bar infection-ridden glee and indignation.

Great lines and bars permeate this fresh and pepped take on the perils of making it in a pandemic-striven society; with Bangs expanding his playfulness, yet ready to drop in some heavy serious stresses. As Bangs advises, “stay hydrated”, and keep that sanitizer near as it doesn’t look like things will be returning back to normal (if they ever truly will) anytime soon. Our Essex lad turn L.A. hopeful has just laid down one of his finest statements of intent, and despite everything, things look pretty positive for this long-overdue breakthrough. (Dominic Valvona)

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

Playlist/Writings: Dominic Valvona

It’s taken a number of months to filter through to the fans and general public, but the Fantastic Four nemesis inspired indomitable Hip-Hop pioneer MF DOOM, nee Daniel Dumile, passed away at the age of 49 on October 31st 2020. Though hardly a disguise, the metal-faced maverick of underground Hip-Hop kept up a cool, mysterious persona throughout a thirty-year career.

Perhaps one of the most influential game-changers in the genre and beyond, DOOM will be sorely missed as an independent producer, rapper and mentor. Difficult to pin down, and keep up with, DOOM’s various masked turns (MF DOOM, DOOM, Viktor Vaughn, Zev Love X) churned out a prolific catalogue of quality inventive and playful meta-reference releases; starting out as Zev Love X in the Long Island (“but we call it strong”) ‘Kausing Much Damage’ trio on the cusps of the 1990s. Abbreviated to KMD, they released one of the best debuts of the entire era, the now classic, Mr. Hood. Tragedy struck with the loss of his brother and fellow KMD founder, Subroc – who died in a freeway-crossing incident in 1993. Further more the trio’s label Elektra shelved an admittedly controversial, baiting follow-up album: Black Bastards. All of which led to five years in the wilderness for DOOM, before reinvention and the donning of the mask that would stay with him for the rest of his music career. Re-energised and determined to plough his own furrow, DOOM began a solo and collaborative pathway, working with a who’s who of underground talent, including Madlib and Danger Mouse. From the Monsta Island Czars all-stars team-up to his work with a new breed of rap stars, such as Bishop Nehru, DOOM leaves behind one of the greatest legacies in Hip-Hop: though his influence, creativeness, wordplay, pop culture, visuals and artwork reaches far beyond rap music.

Having followed DOOM since the very beginning, I’m personally saddened to see him gone. But in the spirit of celebrating that vast cannon of work I’ve selected a curated pathway through the DOOM cosmology. I’ve also included an essay-style deconstruction I wrote many years ago on KMD’s debut album, Mr. Hood – which you can find below the playlist link.

KMD ‘Mr. Hood’: A Deconstruction

From the shores of Long Island, hauling out of New York’s surrounding areas: K.M.D – an abbreviation that is either referred to as ‘Kausing much damage’ or ‘A positive kause in a much damaged society’, take your pick – were part of the second Native Tongues wave; alongside the likes of Brand Nubian and The Black Sheep.

Originally formed whilst still in collage, the Dumile brothers, better known as Zev Love X and Subroc, along with their sparing partner Rodan – also known as Jade 1 – started rapping together during the late 80s.

Rodan soon slipped off the radar, preferring to finish his education, rather then pursue the dream. His replacement was the gemstone moniker Onyx.

The trio soon caught a break with a guest slot on the 3rd Bass LP ‘The Cactus’ in 1989. Dante Ross, the A & R man and member of The Stimulated Dummies Hip Hop production squad, was impressed enough with their innovative skills and delivery to sign them up to the Elektra label the following year, after the Bass’s M.C Search recommended them.

Zev Love X was of course the early birth of that metal-faced maverick and crusader MF Doom, an alter-ego he later adopted, born out of the tragic loss in 1993, of his brother, Subroc – he was killed in a tragic freeway crossing incident – and at the embittered rage he felt after being sucked into the music industry and then un-ceremoniously spat out.

On ‘Mr.Hood’ you can already hear his undercurrent of cynicism and contempt, articulated in a flam-filled throaty delivery; like an apprentice you can hear him finding his feet.

The debut album caused minor ripples, with its adopted use of racist sound bites, miss-directed use of English learning instructional records from a bygone era, appropriation of much loved kids TV puppets and antagonizing Malcolm X speeches.

K.M.D cleverly assembled a collage of inflammatory and discriminate language, which ran alongside satirist and humorous skits – much in the style of De La Soul and The Leaders of the New School – to create a highly ambitious commentary on their own backyard.

There is a central theme running throughout, with the Mr.Hood character of the title popping up in many memorable sketches and miss-quoted exchanges. His contributions are lifted from an old English language course from the 50s, which throws up all kinds of unpleasant, and quite frankly racist, dialogue – well it comes out that way when manipulated as it is.

Our protagonist’s colloquial tones open up the album, as he goes on a wrecky to the local downtown Long Island jewellery shop (misspelt intentionally on the album I assume) where he bumps into Zev Love X, as he attempts to wrangle with the proprietor over an over-priced watch.

He appears on near enough every other track; with his oddly misconstrued and out of kilter with the modern times queries and insults, which draw sharp breaths of disbelief from the trio, or deride ridicule from the local cast of characters, as he meets them on the street corner or at the barbershop. Also making a surprisingly eye-opening appearance is Sesame Street favourites, Bert and Ernie, who amusingly turn up on the tracks, ‘Who Me? (with an answer from Dr.Bert)’, to look for “little sambo”, and on ‘Humrush”, where they nasality hum along with the group.

Musically the beats are of an R’n’B and soulful nature, with samples crafted from the Isley Brothers – their ‘I Turned You On’ track is sampled on ‘Who Me?’ – Shirly Ellis – her ‘The Nitty Gritty’ is used on ‘Nitty Gritty’ – O C Smith – ‘You Can See Forever’ and ‘The Sounds Of Goodbye’ used on ‘Peachfuzz’ – and The Hassles – ‘4’o’Clock In The Mom’hour Of The Wolf’ is used on ‘Subroc’s Mission.

There’s even a re-appropriated use and borrowing of both De La Souls ‘Potholes In My Lawn’, on the tune ‘Hard Wit No Hoe’, and A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Push It Along’ on ‘Nitty Gritty’.

All these beats are sophisticatedly layered and used quite subtly as a backdrop – you will notice that they are always lower in the mix, and seldom overawe the vocals – and is made-up of 808 drums, Jim Reed-esque organs, tightly packed thumping drum beats, taut wielding guitars, Stax rich bass lines and harmonica.

Any scratching is kept to a bare minimum, with the turntables skills arriving via the acute cutting, mixing and editing of samples and speech; mostly executed by Subroc.

The lyrics are dished out amongst the trio, with each member usually taking it in turns to step to the mic or guest in a solo spot, though Zev does tend to get a larger share then his partners.

A heavily laid-down mix of pro-Muslim rhetoric and protest goes up against the often-whimsical episodes and comical storytelling. Inspired by the teachings of Clarence Smith (known as Clarence 13X), and his splinter group the Five-Percent Nation – an offshoot from the Nation Of Islam – many of the lyrics encapsulate the beliefs and metaphors of this Harlem born sect.

On the opening track ‘Mr.Hood at Piocalles Jewelry Shop/Crackpot’, Zev articulately jams in the syllables, unravelling a kindergarten tale of following the wrong path in life:

“I first met Crackpot in like Head Starts,

And then I knew he wasn’t too head smart cuz as I scribbled in art,

He insisted on standing in the sandbox to collect unknown amounts

of pebbles and stones to throw rocks!’

By the end of the song, Zev bemoans to Mr.Hood about the negative allusions made about his race, and at the depressingly predictable decisions certain black males take: reminding them of their heritage and lack of ambition he almost exasperates:

“We built this place man,

We’re the Gods of the Universe,

Kings and Queens of the planet!”

On the highlight track ‘Who Me?’ Zev rides on the derogatory comments and ethnographical implanted stereotypes of the black race:

“Pigment, is this a defect in birth?

Or more an example of the richness on Earth?

Lips and eyes dominant traits of our race,

Does not take up 95% of one’s face.”

Sibling Subroc, has a more skipping and bouncy terminology to compensate against Zev’s; his own jam ‘Subroc’s Mission’ follows along a loose narrative of street slang and obscure references, whilst the birthstone kid, Onyx, unleashes his torrent of humorous one-liners and staccato stuttering tongue-twisters, over the soul shaking R’n’B horn blasting ‘Boogie Man’:

“Now check it, don’t miss this,

Lick them while I diss this sarcastic bastard,

Of which I’ve been mastered”.

They’re joined by fellow Afrocentric compatriots, Brand Nubians, on the super-rap wordplay riffing chorus-line of ‘Nitty Gritty’. The Nub’s own grandly entitled Grand Puba Maxwell, gives the K.M.D boys a run for their money on the lyrical wordplay:

“God cipher divine as I build on the incline,

Quick to help another, cause I know I’m a get mine.

Build-powers think they’re hard, but they’re killin’ their own kind,

Emphatically no, divine evil got him in his mind”.

Each of the two crews members line-up to show off their dexterity, which revolves around quotes, passages and the teachings of both the Nation of Islam and the offshoot 5-Percenters, name-checking the grand design of their creator, the Pyramids and oppression.

The rest of the album often throws up some unsettling mentions of “white devils” and other uneasy rhetoric, with a heavy use of Malcolm X’s speeches – his famous “he’s a wolf, and you’re a sheep” quote appears on the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ track – from his Nation of Islam days; though it must be pointed out that he eventually publicly left the group, breaking away to form his own splinter group which had a far mellower attitude to the white folk – as long as they were Muslim, of course. But this often cited prose is always counter-acted with the satirical use of cartoon characters and humorous anecdotes.

Mr.Hood’ holds up extremely well, proving to be one the more accomplished albums from the period. Those conceptual themes, so essential to many of the Native Tongues collective, shows exceptional moments of creativity and talent.

Unfortunately their follow-up, no messing, album ‘Black Bastards’, didn’t sit well with the label, held-back and consigned to the vaults for nearly a decade. Both its content and provocative imagery – the cover sports a rubber-lipped characterture of a poor unfortunate black fellow with a noose around its neck, waiting in anticipation for someone to fill the blanks in a fatal game of Hangman. An ultimatum of sorts was made, ditch the cover or else! Of course this never happened and the album was never put out until a later reissue package under another label finally made it to the public – I was lucky to get a rather rough bootleg tape version of 5-tracks, but waited until the noughties to finally get my hands on a proper copy.

‘Black Bastards’ omitted much of the more comical interaction and playfulness, replacing the colourful samples catalogue with a more layered backing, and adding a more heavily laden set of lyrics to counter the whimsical postulations of the debut.

The birthstone kid had of course already jumped ship, leaving the brothers alone to deliver the much-anticipated second LP. Subroc took on all the production duties and assemblage of samples and beats; creating so much material that his brother used some of these sessions on his later MF Doom recordings – including most notably ‘Hoe Cakes’ from the seminal cuisine obsessed ‘Mmm Food’ album.

Tragically as I’ve already mentioned, Subroc was killed whilst crossing a freeway in 1993, putting the albums release into further turmoil, though the controversy over the artwork had already put a kibosh on it ever making the stores.

With the album shelved, resigned to cover dust in the vaults, Zev Love X began his wilderness years. It would be 5 more years until he was re-born as the vengeful MF Doom.

Dominic Valvona

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

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