ALBUM REVIEW/MATT OLIVER

Guillotine Crowns ‘Hills to Die On’
(Uncommon Records)

Do not read between the lines: these crowns haven’t been made to sit comfortably atop underground sovereigns. Hills To Die On is an uprising as well as an upholding of 80s-made disaster, predicting a New York-Chicago futurism that’s actually right under your fingernails, dirt and all. In orators Uncommon Nasa, whose clipped bravado, capable of coiling ad infinitum until he’s constricting your windpipe, and Short Fuze, no less strident but a case of always having to watch the quieter ones in times of distraction, Guillotine Crowns fuck up the b-boy stance and the front rows they’re liable to jump into. Dystopia may be the easy catch-all term to apply to this album of margin-ignoring hip-hop, and these are no gilded garlands on display; but when added to its deeply rooted survivalist spirit, just being without ever seeking hero status, Hills To Die On becomes music to spray skyscrapers by.

As with the Monolith Cocktail-approved, 2019 Uncommon Nasa project City As School with Kount Fif, indie/leftfield hip-hop titans Company Flow and Cannibal Ox, both of whom are referenced in rhyme, are where yardstick parallels are drawn and which give the album a weird throwback status caught in forward thinking-retro fantasy-modern living crossfire. Throw this back to times of Anticon/Def Jux etc (in which Nasa earned his stripes) and you’re hopeful for the scene all over again, thrilled by the likes of ‘Horseman Armour’ and ‘Scope of the Guillotine’ spewing out abstract angles hiding as straight lines and taking no shortcuts in unseating speakers.  

The duo recognise the need to mobilise, but also the parameters of the friends/enemies axis. Whereas the resistance of ‘They Can’t Kill Us All’ is comparable to an all-for-one zombie outbreak, ‘The Product’ has Guillotine Crowns accepting the Sword of Damocles as both potential sealer of fate and a means of going for self amongst online/media minefields. Dense, dry and pretty unforgiving without being indecipherable, GC embark on “around-the-clock stakeouts to reset history” with enough ear catching references – Pelle Pelle sweatshirts, shouts to EPMD, Wu-Tang, DOOM and “Flava Flav with the 12Gauge” – to ease furrowed brows. The pertinence of their streams of consciousness will eventually emerge like a word balloon, forced into your eyeballs as a revision of the Clockwork Orange syllabus.

“My life is fast forward, while yours is a series of pauses” says the crushing headswim of ‘Rebel Crowns’, proposing the question of “do you want to be right, or do you want to be correct?” that through the wrong mic would just be look at me-level pretentious. And like any hip-hop act, underground or mainstream, the pair know the worth of a good hook that punters can take as gospel or make a tattoo of, acknowledging rap’s saviour-like status on the come up and pledging allegiance to the grind. The two leaders are joined on the mic by a bunch of street corner-dwelling savages slash town criers – Jyroscope, Duke01, Gajah, Tracy Jones, Skech185 a sometimes improbable cross-section of survivors and reinforcements to reroute the tide.

The sound of everyday anarchy is dominated by drum machines bullying backdrops like they’re about to cause the 80s music scene to splinter. Guitar chords are crowbarred if not sawn off, and holographic, peace-seeking synths become something more gothic and sinister, analogous to arcade machines becoming sentient. The programming of effects and percussion make tracks itch, irritating your inner ear. ‘Art Dealers’ sounds like ‘Brooklyn Zoo’ in a backpack. The scarily beautiful ‘Generosity’, with its damning hook sample, sounds jettisoned in space, while providing rhymes for the ages that measure the distance of returning to reality.

The dissonant ‘Bare Hands’ projects a robot uprising with the metropolis as its playground, whose hook of “I will destroy you with my bare hands…my power is limitless, you can’t come close to stopping me” both boosts and belies its Gotham-like setting, with ‘Hills’ providing a triumphant, comic book-coloured sci-fi fanfare and a chorus to leap headlong into for anyone needing a new manifesto. Rarely does the Hills… have time to check its pulse across 46 minutes; ‘Tape Deck’ tries to act dreamy, but can’t get no sleep. The industrial grind of ‘City Breathing’ is made for tank-as-low rider, and ‘Killer’, with Short Fuze calculating villainously, reaches the apex of the album’s claustrophobia living in a police state.

Hills To Die On is classic anti-socialism in the shock-of-the-new, ghettoblaster on full blast sense, though suffering the establishment, rather than just being anti-establishment, seems to be the Guillotine mindstate. All hail the Crown rulers setting standards from home to the Terrordome.

ALBUM REVIEW/Matt Oliver

Lyrics Born ‘Mobile Homies Season 1’

(Mobile Home Recordings)

Despite the title sounding something like a caravanning show found on Channel 5, Mobile Homies from Bay Area veteran Lyrics Born makes the most of lockdown restrictions as a collaborative collection fleshing out LB’s purpose-made podcast of the same name. Much more than just a make-do stopgap, it salutes the long established Lyrics Born mantra of performance being all about entertainment and extravaganza. No variant will hold him back, manoeuvring the live show experience as a soul/R&B spectacular where you can imagine a stage filled with backing singers and musicians, spotlights and catwalks, and the promise of good, clean fun or your money back; all the while looking more and more the sharp suited fly guy to rank him alongside the likes of Bruno Mars, Andre3000 and Anderson .Paak.  

Born has long held one of the most serious flows in the game, cultivating singsong flamboyance (“my shows are like a party for a bachelorette”) as a people’s champ with unquestionable underground-educated skills and a voice once sold as “like sandpaper dipped in maple syrup”. Here, his lowness (for want of a better description) into the mic is less a Chali 2na-style baritone (the stiffer delivery on ‘Misfits’ aside), but a rat-a-tat amplified whisper, an almost monotone, always chill, malleable flow from the deepest vocal chord that allows him to be cyborg-like, possessed by playing games with syllables. Contrarily, it also enables the persona of a dead-eyed charmer sans ego or sleaze, his silver-tongued devilry akin to the Fonz clicking his fingers. 

Amongst the lovey-dovey expressions where heartthrob-served butter wouldn’t melt – back and forthing with himself on the Netflix & Chill-ready ‘Everyday Love’ with Prince Paul providing perky foreplay on production; cutting in on the super polished, Con Brio-lead performances of ‘Sundown’ and ‘Mistakes’ causing ‘Hey Ya’! levels of hysteria, possibly involving underwear removal – is the seething racism exposé of ‘Anti’. A tensely humid, low rider ball of high pressure agitation, brought to the fore from behind the pandemic smokescreen and pierced by Cutso’s wheezing siren infuriating like a fly out of swatting reach, it packs a chorus that intelligently dares you to holler back from the front row. Crucially in the face of such provocation, LB’s flow, taking his cue from Dr Dre’s ‘The Watcher’, is masterful in never losing its cool, its points further rammed home by Shing02, Bohan Phoenix and Dilated PeoplesRakaa on the remix. 

In terms of routine it’s almost like LB asking for the house lights to be turned on and the band to hold fire, with the final track remix providing the encore so you definitely won’t forget the message; the savagery of this uncensored PSA under a blood red spotlight a showstopper without stopping the show dead. While not quite a case of the show must go on, ‘This Song’s Delicious’ with Sitcom Dad and Dan the Automator arrives from the Paul Barman school of jaunty verbosity doing chucklesome show-n-prove, developed from Netflix band Hello Peril from the film Always Be My Maybe. ‘Desperada’ takes the feeling of sand between your toes into the club, and ‘My City’, displaying wistful hometown pride with enough matriarchal room for interpretation, poignantly features his late Soulsides comrade and Blackalicious lifer Gift of Gab.

Enter another pertinent state-of-the-world address, this one packed with Instagram filters fiending for those thumbs ups. Over a nifty first generation grime production that Ghetts, Kano or Taz would have rinsed, ‘Enough About Me’ gets trending to the tune of crowds showing pixellated appreciation while literally keeping the action at arm’s length. Guests The Grouch and Eligh attempt to differentiate between projected and actual reality; LB does the opposite, going into overdrive like a big bucks hype machine (“I don’t want privacy, I want all y’all to see/selfie-selfie-selfie, I’m my own paparazzi”)and knowing the only way to avoid fading into obscurity is to dive in twice as hard.

While the zoom call intermissions with his collaborators quickly become skippable, the sound is so rich and accomplished (as standard), with impressive divergence, that even if the album wasn’t completely conceived over Microsoft Teams, it’s a great demonstration of how Lyrics Born can play second fiddle before stealing the show, and solidifying his claim as a great entertainer still remaining underrated.

 

PLAYLIST SPECIAL

An encapsulation of the last month, the Monolith Cocktail team (Dominic Valvona, Matt Oliver, Brian ‘Bordello’ Shea and Graham Domain) chose some of the choicest and favourite tracks from February. It may have been the shortest of months, yet we’ve probably put together our largest playlist in ages: all good signs that despite everything, from Covid to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, artists, bands everywhere are continuing to create.

65 tracks, over 4 hours of music, February’s edition can be found below:

That exhaustive track list in full:::

Animal Collective ‘Walker’
Modern Nature ‘Performance’
Gabrielle Ornate ‘Spirit Of The Times’
The Conspiracy ‘Red Bird’
Cubbiebear/Seez Mics ‘All Friended Up’
Dubbledge/Chemo ‘Itchy Itchy’
Dirty Dike ‘Bucket Kicker’
Future Kult ‘Beasts With No Name’
Lunch Money Life ‘Jimmy J Sunset’
Ben Corrigan/Hannah Peel ‘Unbox’
Uncommon Nasa ‘Epiphany’
War Women Of Kosovo ‘War Is Very Hard’
Ben Corrigan/Douglas Dare ‘Ministry 101’
Sven Helbig ‘Repetition (Ft. Surachai)’
Ayver ‘Reconciliacion Con La Vida’
Lucidvox ‘Swarm’
Provincials ‘Planetary Stand-Off’
Wovenhand ‘Acacia’
Aesop Rock ‘Kodokushi (Blockhead Remix)’
Junglepussy ‘Critiqua’
Tanya Morgan/Brickbeats ‘No Tricks (Chris Crack) Remix’
Buckwild ‘Savage Mons (Ft. Daniel Son, Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon & Eto) Remix’
Che Noir ‘Praises’
Koma Saxo w/Sofia Jernberg ‘Croydon Koma’
Medicine Singers/Yontan Gat/Jamie Branch ‘Sanctuary’
Black Josh/Milkavelli/Lee Scott ‘Die To This’
Funky DL ‘I Can Never Tell (Ft. Stee Moglie)’
Mopes ‘Home Is Like A Tough Leather Jacket’
ANY Given TWOSDAY ‘Hot Sauce (Ft. Sum)’
Split Prophets/Res One/Bil Next/Upfront Mc/0079 ‘Bet Fred’
Nelson Dialect/Mr. Slipz/Vitamin G/Verbz ‘Oxford Scholars’
Immi Larusso/Morriarchi ‘Inland’
Homeboy Sandman ‘Keep That Same Energy’
Wax Tailor/Mick Jenkins ‘No More Magical’
Ilmiliekki Quartet ‘Sgr A*’
Your Old Droog/The God Fahim ‘War Of Millionz’
Ramson Badbonez/Jehst ‘Alpha’
Ghosts Of Torrez ‘The Wailing’
Pom Poko ‘Time’
Daisy Glaze ‘Statues Of Villians’
Orange Crate Art ‘Wendy Underway’
Seigo Aoyama ‘Overture/Loop’
Duncan Park ‘Rivers Are A Place Of Power’
Drug Couple ‘Linda’s Tripp’
Ebi Soda/Yazz Ahmed ‘Chandler’
Brian Bordello ‘Yes, I Am The New Nick Drake’
Psychedelic Porn Crumpets ‘Bubblegum Infinity’
Steve Gunn ‘Protection (Ft. Mdou Moctar)’
Jane Inc. ‘Contortionists’
Black Flower ‘Morning in The Jungle (Ft. Meskerem Mees)’
Jo Schornikow ‘Visions’
The Goa Express ‘Everybody In The UK’
Pintandwefall ‘Aihai’
Thomas Dollbaum ‘God’s Country’
Crystal Eyes ‘Don’t Turn Around’
Glue ‘Red Pants’
Super Hit ‘New Day’
Legless Trials ‘Junior Sales Club Of America’
Monoscopes ‘The Edge Of The Day’
Alabaster DePlume ‘Don’t Forget You’re Precious’
Orlando Weeks ‘High Kicking’
Carl Schilde ‘The Master Tape’
Bank Myna ‘Los Ojos de un Cielo sin Luz’
Park Jiha ‘Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans’
Simon McCorry ‘Interstices’



ALBUM REVIEW/MATT OLIVER

Our resident hip-hop lexicon and expert Matt Oliver is back with a new review. Matt’s been busy with his own music pr business of late, but been selecting choice cuts form the hip-hop scene for the Monolith Cocktail’s monthly playlists. We’re glad to have him back on writing duties with this review of the recent UK rap duo of Dubbledge and Forest DLG.

Dubbledge & Forest DLG ‘Ten Toes Down’
(Potent Funk) 10th February 2022

By definition Ten Toes Down means to totally commit to something, and Watford emcee Dubbledge has always shown devotion to the home cause, an energiser helping mangle the angles of hip-hop as part of LDZ and Problem Child and showing off all his resplendent showmanship as ‘The Richest Man In Babylon’. Quite how Ten Toes Down became a lost album is a mystery; one assumes the standard suspect of industry foul play was at work to deny Dubbledge another chance to blow your house down, though a couple of dust-offs within a compact package suggest a reconfiguration of his geezer-ish cunning done as a wink and a smile and living by the seat of his pants. His is the sort of flow that stores cheekfuls of rhymes akin to an iconic trumpet player, gargling them about the place and working every last facial muscle before leaving the front row festooned in comedic phlegm and flavour.  

It’s this force of personality, providing the sort of unsubtle putdowns still worthy of an opponent’s applause, which loves nothing more than the spotlight being turned on full whack, but knowing the prove must always back the show. The closing track ‘Your Mum’ is ready to take the mick, but Dubbledge and his stretchy syllables get away with it by including some parental value not to be taken for granted: the man has layers. On what it takes to be a ‘Soopa Gangsta’, Dubbledge put his spin on Big Pun’s most famous lines about Italian culture, and pulls another fast one by being more knowledge of self than guns and furs stereotypes.  

‘Taking Libs’ continues his studies into the male-female occupancy of Venus and Mars (“I buy you fish and chips, you should be happy”) – the persona can have the flippancy of a 70s sitcom and pique a PC interest, but that’s entertainment. The album’s centrepiece, the diary of extortion that forms ‘Itchy Itchy’ (previously ‘The Phil Mitchell Crackhead Song’), looks like being the album’s weightiest material; except it’s delivered so that heavy addiction comes off as cheeky chappy tomfoolery, including giving crackheads a shout out on the outro. While you’re not exactly rooting for him as he ducks and dives to fund his habit, it’s more comic strip than public service confessional – and we’re alright with that.  

Dubbledge doing damage (“I ain’t trying to be something that I’m not” is verification, if needed, straight out the gate), bears many technicalities: it’s all in the timing of pauses, the theatrical fade aways mid-conversation, the accentuation of pay-off lines on every fourth/eighth/sixteenth bar (including the ‘aw yeaaaaah’s that pepper ‘Chess’, an Amen-break wrecking ball re-sourced from 2011’s Chase & Status/Tinie Tempah collaboration ‘Hitz’), and the pointing of the mic crowd-wards for feedback, before he runs down to your funny bone. Obviously, bravado by the bucketload helps as well: the posse cut with Kyza, Micall Parknsun and TBear, the Englishmen of the belly dancing ‘Mad Dogs’ bumrushing crews out through the fire exit, is a classic case of in-for-a-penny impudence. For all the posturing putting a finger to lips, who wouldn’t be moved by it’s to-the-window, to-the-wall hook of ‘we’re the bollocks!”  

All this weight has the right backer: Forest DLG, the newest alias of producer’s producer Chemo/Telemachus, loads up ten moments of loudness spanning rip-n-run club bangers, neck grabs heading into the red, heavy synth power (‘Tear Dem Apart’ – again the title tells nothing like the whole story), and the title track re-enacting a Lock Stock car chase. On ‘Lend a N A Pencil’, Dubbledge peacocks “while I’m standing on a tightrope, one toe balancing/in between the forces of good and evil like Anakin”, while FDLG adjusts a bass frequency back and forth like a bored studio nerd. It’s only on ‘Awkward’, cartwheeling between folk, psychedelia and Big Brovaz’ ‘Nu Flow’, when the producer has a bash at putting on a night on the tiles for his muse to caper across. As much as it’s the album’s sore thumb, it perfectly frames D’s soul-bearing performance. 

Never reduced to anything cartoonish despite circling some slapstick bum notes and hormones ruling head, Dubbledge puts on a proper show. Ten years or so on hold hasn’t deadened the impact of Ten Toes Down, and though there are perhaps few surprises given his work in the intervening years, those experiencing his spectacle for the first time have a cult hero to give a big hand to.   

ALBUM REVIEW/Dominic Valvona

Jamael Dean ‘Primordial Waters’
(Stones Throw)  29th October 2021

Anything but indulgent, the much acclaimed American jazz and hip-hop prodigy, Jamael Dean, dreams big with a most ambitious new twenty-track album of tribune and social-political clout. Nothing less than raising the spirits of Black-America, Dean weaves together both a respectful acknowledgement of his Yoruba roots and a street view celestial hip-hop/jazz symphony tribute to L.A.’s Leimart Park – a predominantly Black neighbourhood that’s said to be on the ‘frontline of gentrification’, known for its Black business owned community hubs like Eso Won Books, the Sika Art Gallery, Ride On bike shop and World Stage.

Not so clear cut, nor divided, the Primordial Waters flow between jazz, soul, hip-hop and the classical; the vocals, a mix of diaphanous contoured, lush, lulled and more worked female voices and Dean’s own Freestyle Fellowship mixed with Tanya Morgan and Odd Future poetic, aggrieved observational and conscious raps.

Referencing various deities, spirits from the Yoruba peoples ‘primordial’ creation myth, much of the material splashes around in tumultuous waters as Dean’s collaborative foils, Sharada Shashidas and Mekala Session, use their voices like melodious instruments. At their most intense those vocals, which flow between ancestral dialects, lyrics and sounds, evoke a wailing Linda Sharrock, and just beautifully transcendent when untethered and free. All the while that electric piano spot, dashes and lays down baubles of brightened notes, whilst the drums splash around and offer shimmers and waves of choppy, galloping swells. Beyond-this-realm atmospherics build up a dreamy yet earthy soundtrack of Yoruba mythology.

The Yoruba’s roots began in what are now Nigeria, Benin and Togo, spreading out to all corners of the continent and overseas as a result of both conquest and enslavement. Their deities, traditions are both paid homage to throughout this mini opus. As a musical legacy this civilisation, which spawned the Oyo Kingdom and Benin Empire, is immensely rich and influential. And so across this story of creation there’s hint’s of that influence as well as touches of Sun-Ra, Bobby Hutcherson, Alice Coltrane (Dean’s own ‘Galaxy In Leimert’ is inspired, influenced by Alice Coltrane’s harp-piano spiritualist ‘Galaxy Around Olodumore’), Clive Zanda, Nate Morgan (especially ‘Mrafu’), Nduduzo Makhathini, Mango Santamaria and Pharaoh Sanders.

This grand sweeping cosmology (well, the last third of it anyway) takes a turn towards hip-hop, with Dean rapping over, in some cases, his own jazzier tracks. Like in the style of the late J. Dilla, even Madlib, these groundings are often chopped up, looped, slowed down and reconfigured: The shadowy but celestial mirage ‘Abyss’ reminded me a little of cLOUDEAD. It’s a congruous but expansive turn that takes on a whole different mood, rhythm and cadence; becoming more like a rap album then a wholly jazz orientated one: And for that it works well.

The Primordial Waters have been stirred up to create a grand scheme of spiritual, ancestral inspiration. Multi-layered with titles that in themselves encourage further study – naming a pantheon of African gods -, this is a wonderfully executed work of free-flowing picturesque and more turbulent beauty. If I believed in those fatuous scoring systems used by so many rival sites, this would be a nine of out ten: awarded not just for effect but effort too.

ALBUM REVIEW/DOMINIC VALVONA

Uncommon Nasa  ‘Only Child’
(Uncommon Records)  6th August 2021

Encompassing the local and surrounding areas of the city he’s never left, the leftfield candid hip-hop artist Uncommon Nasa takes a poignant look back at his roots on his sixth studio album, Only Child. For a rap artist known for their open delivery, this latest soliloquy and sagacious lyrical roll is possibly the most personal yet.

Now into his early forties (the release date is actually the day after Nasa’s 43rd birthday) and as the slurred and slowed down sample on the album track ‘Your Hands will Turn To Rust’ remarks, “I’m the kind of a guy who is now in that ageing late thirty, early forty bracket in which suddenly there is a tremendous bittersweet poignant feeling about wanting to go back to another time…” And so it is the same for Nasa: dispensing wisdom, the short tales of those who made an impact on his life, and the growing pains, memories of those formative years on both Long Island and Staten Island (where he still lives).

The album title describes Nasa’s unique perspective, growing up without siblings; spending a lot of time alone but developing a rich, cerebral imagination, lyrical skills and an eclectic taste in music. Now decades on, and with his long time partner the open-minded reflective rapper runs, meanders and drops lines about all the connections and ‘what ifs?’ About the tropes that so many of us in a similar age bracket (that’s me: the only child) either agonize over or ponder. With no children of his own (again, that’s also me), the lineage stops when Nasa leaves this mortal coil (God forbid!). Although the musical legacy and his view of the world will live on: “If I die, just see it as I did”.

Nasa flies solo on this album: and all the better for it. So many hip-hop artists fill their work with umpteen cameos – the bread and butter of so many emcees, hoping to appeal to a multiple of fans. Only Child is however produced by the Baltimore ‘beat-placer’ Messiah Musik , who’s lent his trade to Mach-Hommy’s ‘Pray For Haiti’ and cuts by Billy Woods and Quelle Chris. Messiah has worked with Nasa before of course, on the 2014 release, New York Telephone. He now provides a highly atmospheric, often psychedelic, moody and mysterious cosmic soundscape on this brilliant epiphany.  Against Nasa’s intelligent trains of consciousness that production proves a congruous fit; subtle, minimal at times, with the most evocative of leftfield jazzy-prog touches. The elemental particle opener, ‘Quark Strangeness In The Hour Of Chaos’, for instance has that echo-y atmosphere of harmonic pining jazzy-prog looseness (bordering on Pink Floyd), as Nasa’s strung-out and just as loose inner thoughts drip and starkly limber up. It actually reminded me a little of Sex And Violence era BDP, with its almost foreboding unveiling of thoughts from a dark tech dystopia.

Already picked up by Monolith Cocktail collaborator Matt Oliver (who also included Nasa’s Kount Fif produced 2019 album, City As School, in our choice albums list) for our monthly revue playlist, precursor single ‘U86’ features some reworked Southeast Asian or Japanese soundtrack; the Oriental bed for a track about tuning into the localized TV station of the title, which offered a window into a whole world of music for a young Nasa, including Tears For Fears. Not shy in conveying his feelings, Nasa raps, “Tears For Fears, I cried when I heard that song, I don’t know why I listened to it for so long.” By the time we reach the Run The Jewels mirage title-track the production has changed to embrace a lunar Peruvian panpipe! Later on, the theme music from some 70s detective or thriller series, accompanied by crunched turning over drum breaks, wraps itself around another album single, ‘Brooklyn Soup’: a psychogeography like walk in the boroughs.

That eclectic ear for a sample, break continues with ‘Vincent Crane’; a discovery that Nasa implores as, “just one example of things you should, might know.” The fateful travails of the bi-polar Crane, who spent most of his life in and out of clinics after suffering a mental breakdown during his first tour of the USA with the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown in 1968, permeated an evocative songbook, which decades later left an indelible mark upon Nasa. Before a tragic overdose in 1989, Crane would collaborate with Brown on a “deep cut” album and set up Atomic Rooster with a pre supergroup ELP Carl Palmer. I think Nasa uses a short piano break from Atomic’s Made In England LP (the introduction before ‘Breathless’) as he waxes lyrical about not only Crane but the common trajectory of all music genres in general over time: “Turns out that if you give a genre a few decades, the same roads are sought.”

Only Child is a mature, often bittersweet, review of a life lived and the characters that made it what it was and is; from Nasa’s parents to the uncompromising figure of ‘Metal Mike’). Nasa goes deep; entangled in a multitude of slipstreamed thoughts and mixed feelings; observations and reflections on the realties of middle age in a society that doesn’t ever want to comprehend their own deaths, let alone grow old. Certain memories pop up and prove relevant in this process, from his mother’s repeated echoing warnings (“If you touch that fence, your hand’s will turn to rust”) to the more innocuous details of his Brooklyn diorama.  

It’s not just age that prays on the mind, but the unprecedented times in which we all find ourselves; sixteen months on after the initial Covid lockdowns and fear prevailed miasma of a virus determining how we live. This proves a good as any time to take stock and reflect; something Nasa does with dexterous skill and a cerebral half spoken winding brilliance (close in tone and brilliance to Aesop Rock). Nasa’s just claimed a top spot on the hip-hop pyramid with one of the best albums in 2021.

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.

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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