Lots of rappers spit about the spoils of their stardom”Bentleys, diamonds, Louis Vuitton luggage. Not many, and maybe none, have taken all that money they’ve made through record sales and donated it to charity. Except, that is, New York rapper and activist Awkword. His album, World View, featured contributions from artists in 20 countries and benefited Guns 4 Cameras, a nonprofit dedicated to ending street violence. And though his mission is serious, Awkword’s got a quicksilver wit that permeates most of his tracks. On the buoyant, reggae-influenced Stay Spittin’, Stay Flowin’ he takes listeners through the chambers of the heart, from the vena cava to the aorta. Then, on Colors, he turns his attention to the color wheel, rapping My blood is red, but I stay blue like Barack over a Motown loop. Only on Requiem do you get a sense of Awkword’s intensity. I’m here to lift you up / I can also take you down. Stay on his good side; it’s a pretty inspiring place to be.
Instrumental hip hop”rappers rhyming over beats recorded by real instruments as opposed to synthesized ones”has always occupied a strange slot in the musical landscape. For some, the organic percussion and other natural sounds come across as anemic versions of the usual blaring bass and skull rattling beats. For others, this diluted sound created by traditional musicianship actually better represents the raw talent and musical versatility often smothered by the digital ornamentation in the Top 40 game. Regardless of your stance, know that T.I.M.E. Moves Infinitely, this week’s featured Hip Hop Habit group, perform this genre at its best, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t give them a chance.
Another act from the greater DMV’s surging hip hop scene, the two emcees of T.I.M.E. (Taking In Music Eternally) have been at it since childhood. Richmond, VA local Niko began writing at the age of six and eventually reached the immense output of one song a day thanks to the suggestion and encouragement of his mother. His cousin Reggie, a Washington, DC native, first dabbled in music by playing the clarinet and alto saxophone in middle school. This interest developed into a love of production, and Reggie has been making beats under the alias of Volume ever since. As you may have guessed already, their respective paths eventually intertwined in college to form T.I.M.E.
Their chemistry can be felt in confidence cruising jams like Jimmy Rockafella Melvin, a track punctuated by punchy piano chords and straightforward beat. Yet as uninteresting as that may sound, Volume knows what he’s doing. The chords are jazz-like in the sense that they are dissonant and unpredictable, and more instruments enter throughout, creating a layering effect. To accentuate this oddly appealing beat, Niko, announces his charisma and welcomes listeners to the T.I.M.E atmosphere with phrases like Yo give me that vibe/ I’m keeping the spirit alive/ You gonna feel me thrive inside/ As soon as I’ve opened your eyes/ You’ve opened your mind/ And now you are no longer blind. He, like everyone else, is just trying to make it, and encourages listeners to do the same in the chorus line If you make it/ You know you make it/ Hands up to the sky.
Sleep Seekers offers an opposing message. Wherein the aforementioned track inspired go getters to affirm life to the fullest, this track chronicles Niko trying to diagnose the reason for his seemingly perpetual exhaustion. One would assume that this is the natural response to copious amounts of energy: the hangover after the party. But there’s more to it than that, most notably a young emcee just searching for answers. Lines like Feelin’ more tired than Obama in his third week and It’s unhealthy my body’s been runnin’ for days/ Operatin’ off red bull and fish fillets relay the obvious, but their counterparts, such asJust wonderin’ if something is gonna wake me up again/ I‘m just guessin’ that I’m on a whole new route/ Trying to get in where I fit in/ And fit in where I stand out provoke enough thought to keep audiences wondering how and why the flame was extinguished throughout the song. This lyrical content is set against a lush musical backdrop consisting of horns, strings and guitar, all of which combine to come as close to rap’s version of a lullaby as possible.
They’ve made campus radio appearances, and even have a show lined up at the world famous 9:30 club in DC set for this coming Sunday. If you’re into the band, download their tracks for free off bandcamp and let us know what you think about these hip hop cousins in the comments below!
Taming your jealousy of another person’s success becomes a lot easier when you keep in mind that everyone’s just trying to make it. Same goes for the world of musicians. The collection of artists here on OurStage consists of minnows and sharks with careers both static and mobile, perhaps the latter of which is best exemplified in female emcee IB. To be fair, this girl is connected. Like really, really well connected. From her familial ties to the Knowles family (yes, that would be the family of Beyoncé Knowles) to the star-studded guest spots in her OurStage catalog (Wale makes an appearance), it appears on paper that she’s off to the races. In reality that hasn’t happened yet, but if her fantastic output remains consistent, it will soon.
Hailing from Houston’s storied third ward, IB literally grew up in the shadow of Destiny’s Child. Wanting so much to emulate Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle, IB and her friends started up their own girl pop group and took it as far as they could before realizing they were too young and just weren’t ready for the big time. Whether she regrets skipping out on what could have been is irrelevant, but her rhymes prove that if nothing else, she did a lot of learning in her second lease on adolescence, evidence of which can be found in her fantastic raps.
Dear Daisy steps foot in the door with a soggy sax/brass interplay and guitar riff that sounds inherited from boastfully Kentuckian rappers Cunninlynguists. The mood is dismal from the start, as IB uses the mild instrumental tones as a landscape on which paint her sorry past: Did you grow up with one brother/ no mother/ junkie daddy/ are you happy/ that’s me/ cause if so that explains exactly/ why I’m an easy target so you just attack me. The justified venting continues throughout Dear Daisy, IB leaving no sour character in her past unpunished. From ex-lovers to slighting haters, the stories IB tells down memory lane make the fact that she’s made it to where she is today even more impressive, and gives legitimacy to the meaning behind her moniker, Incredibly Brave.
That down-in-the-dumps mentality is nowhere to be found in Ain’t No Stoppin’ Me Now, despite the open verse profiling a maybe/maybe not so fictional drug arrest. If Dear Daisy was a slow-paced drive through rotten nostalgia, Ain’t No Stoppin’ Me Now puts the pedal to the metal as IB uses an extended car metaphor to describe just how commanding her momentum has become. Within my city they hatin’/ bypassin’ me like I’m fakin’/ there’s way too many takin’ my ideas and runnin’/ but my headlights are bright/ I can see them comin’/ I don’t slam on my breaks/ I smash on the gas a bit harder. Instrumentally, this tune carries same melancholic atmosphere but the chord changes resolve to a resolution tinted with hope, a resolution cemented in Chris Styles’ empowering chorus soliloquy: I’m gon’ show the world and everybody who ever hated/ you can’t change it/ I’ve done made it/ ain’t no stopping me now.
As long as she doesn’t get cold feet about the biz, there’s little that can go wrong from here on out. Having earned invaluable connections and experience from a management stint with Matthew Knowles Music World Entertainment and opened for blockbuster names the likes of Wale and Drake, it won’t be long before this battered underdog climbs out of the pits and sings for all the world to hear.
The life of a music journalist often walks a fine line between the excitement of a baited chase for great new musicians and the mental drain that occurs when that wild hunt returns stillborn results. When that seesaw teeters towards the latter, it takes a rare gem of an artist to resuscitate any sense of invigoration back into a writer. J is that kind of artist. From her scant profile and its two obscuring images, little on the surface tells that this petite southern wordsmith is an adept poet. But, one listen will leave you finding faith for a generation of urban artists and begging for more.
J manages to tell the world who she is without ever inserting a concrete autobiographical factoid in what is arguably her best song, the pondering My Story. The dense lyrics in this track, if nothing else, teach us that J is an observer”an astute observer at that”who’s realized she’s cut from a different cloth. Her poetic background steps forth in this piece around the halfway point, where her immaculately consistent rapping rhythm morphs into unbridled spoken word, wisdom overwhelming with each and every line”from shunning materialistic nonsense intime moves fast/ so hold on to the things you really want to last/ because after all your Js fitted and true religions pass/ you’re gonna want something you can hold on to to questioning the meaning of this thing we call life in I’m wonderin’ if some of us have to lose/ life just don’t seem fair sometimes and I know it don’t have to be/ and I ain’t even writin’ this cause I want you to be sad for me. If J’s content paints her as a youth trying to make sense of everything around her, then the beat is sonic cultivation to match. The curtains open with a puffing woodwind ensemble that blends into a cool lavender beat more fit for an R&B song than a hip hop beat, but it works, especially as autotuned vocals find that common ground. As layered voices tenderly suggest taking life in stride over a sweeping piano and whistling synth run, any question as to whether the aforementioned rhetorical questions are tinted with anxiety can be put to rest. She’s just trying to tell her story.
The innocent questioning depicted in My Story is swallowed in the sheer blackness of This Life, a haunting story profiling two teens falling in love with the streets and losing their lives because of it. As a panicked angelic voice conjuring images of urgent prayers swirls above the blizzard of fatal content, it seems as though the memories of My Story were only smoke and mirrors and that J believes this is real life/ no camera no actors. Simply put, the track is irreversibly opaque, from murderous gang violence to a colorful portrayal of lethal crack addiction that would be camouflage in James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Dire, hopeless and chronicling depressingly anonymous subjects, This Life is everything you could ever ask for in a dramatic narrative detailing ghetto tragedies. Now more than ever, the clever connections J makes and splices into her gripping storytelling come across as insight belonging to a mystic four times her age, most notable in lines like predestined lessons of a young boy in love with the streets/ wouldn’t let the block rest so they put him under sheets and there’s no turning back now/ just gotta react now/ fendin’ like a slave/ the addiction got a chain on her/ the streets took her put their name on her/ stake their claim on her that leave a lasting impression long after heard.
Taking life in stride becomes difficult when the life lead resembles that in This Life, but no one ever said it would be easy, especially not J. For all her talent, this young rapping dame has been polite enough to lyrically profile her progress to the top humbly” acknowledging that if she fails, at least she can say she tried. But, rest assured, the day she achieves her dream of “rockin’ mics in front of sold out crowds,” she promises to scream from the top so do yourself a favor and keep your ears on. It shouldn’t be too long.
I’ve always been perplexed as to why foreign accents never seem to shine through in song. From acts dating back to the British Invasion like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin to modern ensembles like The Noisettes and Florence and the Machine, English voices have always sounded thickly American. Such is not the case when the artist comes from the land down under, as does this week’s featured Hip Hop Habit rapper Lee Emcee. Born to the metropolis of Brisbane in 1989, Lee Emcee (aka Jeames Williams) has spent his 21 years on this earth using his innate musical talent to experiment with a wide range of instruments, compete in freestyle competitions and write raps both diffident and devotional”all in that fantastic Aussie accent.
The vulnerable You Mean So Much is about just what you would think; Lee paying respects to a lady. The twist appears about a quarter of the way in, where Lee follows love song suit by acknowledging the mistakes both members in the relationship have made, but then surprisingly tells of how he appreciates his partner more for them. In a rare display of humility in a genre infested with unapologetic alpha males, the meek emcee hangs his heartbreak out to dry I’m a man I’m not afraid to tell you how I feel and explains his reasons for staying: choices you and I make can be wrong/ but together in arms we belong. This rocky romance narrative travels on top of a contemplative landscape, where Lee’s musical background is put on full display in an elegant symphony of orchestral sounds replete with a crooning oboe, lush piano and full string accompaniment. Together the content and its sonic counterpart create a cozy nesting mood, poised to inspire listeners to achieve the benefits of togetherness.
Williams’ passionate saga journeys on in Music Makes the World Go Round, another song sporting content not drifting far from its title, this time laying it on the line for his art form of choice. This track’s introduction is unique in the sense that it slowly seeps in through echoing keyboard vamps that revolve around your head with a great use of panning, each of which seem to grow to an overwhelming point until the familiar bass & drum beat drops. Emotion in this track is tame, and the jazz influenced beat stays chilled throughout compared to the aforementioned audible bleeding heart, but that doesn’t prevent Lee from instilling in his listeners how important he perceives music to be. Though the consequences he lists of music’s potential absence are overdone and thus only mildly threatening (without the sound/ we’ll cause a riot underground and without music in my life then my soul would detach), there’s always something to be said for an artist sticking up for what they love, especially when it’s done with such loaded optimism: music will carry on like the human race.
After receiving some hard earned awards at battle competitions in Australia (he took 3rd at Megiddo Street Battles in 2009), Lee has decided to keep riding the wave and has plans to release an EP and mixtape some time soon. With concurrent projects underway across three continents, his offbeat brand of hip hop, trademarked by honesty and alluring sun burnt accent are destined to bubble up to the surface some time soon. Keep him on your radar and let us know how you feel about the puzzle that is Lee Emcee in the comments!
To get to Danya and the Fail, you have to go by way of Animate Objects, a venerated hip hop group from Chicago. That band began on the campus of the University of Illinois back in 2003 and expanded their presence in the Midwest scene beat by beat with their positive, organic hip-hopology. A side project of Animate Objects, Danya and the Fail features AO founding members Steven Dobias (guitar) and Prashant Vallury (bass) along with former drummer Danya Thompson. Minimalist beats and soothing riffs permeate their debut mixtape, aptly titled The Shit. That’s not to say that Danya and the Fail are too mellow to come correct. Midnight Blue is a dark and menacing invective against the wannabes who never move weight but they claim that they hustling. Lyrical provocateurs, MCs spit rhymes that name-check anyone from Shakespeare to Tupac to Hurley from Lost, and have you smirking while you dance. In Phoenix, shuddering strains and moody keys set the stage for Danya and the Fail’s introduction as contenders for Chicago’s hip hop crown: I’m blessed to be a king in this game of chess / I can only hope that y’alls impressed. Mission accomplished.