Hip-Hop Scanner: That New Old School Sound

When the indie hip-hop scene went into steep decline a few years ago – a phenomenon highlighted in 2010 by the collapse of figurehead label Definitive Jux (home to founder El-P and Aesop Rock) and the closing of influential vinyl retailer Fat Beats – the common assumption was that it was dying a natural death. Rappers began to pursue mainstream blog fame over underground anonymity, and it was easy to imagine that Drake, Wiz Khalifa, J. Cole, Yelawolf and other graduates of the “new school” would have been indie backpackers in an earlier time. Meanwhile, veterans like the Quannum crew (Lyrics Born, Blackalicious and Lateef the Truthspeaker) and L.A. emcee Busdriver made complex sounds that exploded preconceptions of indie rap culture, and its well-known (and often derided) premiums on true-school authenticity and anti-corporate diatribes.

"Part Time Suckas" Blu

"Great Expectations" J-Live

"Not Here Anymore" Phonte

The problem with this hasty burial is that musical genres don’t fade away anymore. If you’ve ever been to a Dixieland jazz festival, then you know that no matter how exhausted a sound, someone will continue to play it. What may appear to be tired clichés to a disinterested critic is actually fertile creative territory for an artist and his faithful audience. And so indie rap lives on, whether it’s through stalwart troopers like J-Live and Phonte Coleman or younger voices like Blu.

J-Live recently released S.P.T.A. (Said Person of That Ability), the latest album in a discography stretching back to the mid-’90s. Once the object of major labels’ fancy, thanks to classic underground tracks like “Braggin’ Writes” and “Hush the Crowd,” the onetime New York schoolteacher has a sound built on humorous, Cosby-like morality tales, sample-based production and everyman realness amidst an industry of egomaniacs. On “Great Expectations,” he tweaks “that brand new rapper with instant mass appeal… Acting like the rest is already history/ But the release date remains a mystery.” Then he adds, “Ain’t you heard to watch out for the quiet ones? They be the last ones standing when the riot’s done.”

Like J-Live, Phonte Coleman uses indie rap as a comfort zone. Thanks to The Foreign Exchange, his increasingly successful project with Dutch producer Nicolay, and the breakup of pioneering Southern underground group Little Brother, he has remade himself into a neo-soul vocalist, and seemed like one of those aforementioned experimenters who left indie rap behind. But on his solo debut, Charity Begins at Home, he returns to rhyming over the kind of soul loops once heard on Little Brother’s albums, and even reunites with former LB producer 9th Wonder. (Oddly, LB’s Big Pooh doesn’t make an appearance.) On “Not Here Anymore,” Phonte vows to stay true to himself while 9th Wonder loops a sample from Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore.” “I don’t need the limelight/ That’s young nigga sh*t,” raps Phonte.

Blu, who’s in his mid-20s, is younger than either J-Live or Phonte, but he’s already internalized the idioms of the indie rap scene. The L.A. rapper-producer has embarked on a crazily perverse path since winning a Warner Bros. Records deal in 2009, evading his audience’s expectations for a sequel to the 2007 indie rap gem Below the Heavens with a series of eccentric lo-fi recordings. He only adds a few of his vocals to Open, instead turning it into a showcase for several relative unknowns rhyming over his productions. On “Part Time Suckas,” Chop takes the lead, reusing the hook from a 1988 Boogie Down Productions track, and claiming that most of the rappers on the radio are sucka MCs. Meanwhile, Chicago rapper Fresh Daily opts for a different perspective, namely his own freshness: “I’m making moves with the grooves/ The kids are glued to the screen.”

For “Part Time Suckas,” Blu makes a dusty beat that sounds like two scratchy records spun back and forth. It’s not the most original idea – others from Prince Paul to Madlib have built careers around the same techniques – but it still sounds great. And that’s the essence of indie rap: It’s proudly throwback music that sticks to your ribs or, as Phonte says on “Not Here Anymore,” “leafy greens, two veggies, a protein and a starch.” -- Mosi Reeves

"Part Time Suckas" Blu

"Great Expectations" J-Live

"Not Here Anymore" Phonte


William said...

As a fan of the indie/underground hip-hop scene, I feel like you have forgotten a few names. Mainly ones like The Grouch, Brother Ali, Atmosphere and Moka Only to name a few. While I am a huge fan of J-Live and Phonte (especially during his time with LB), there are many more names to be added to this list. Just food for thought.

Pablo.station said...

I get my daily Hiphop fill from indie artist. I understand that all music has its place and that's cool but if I had to live on a steady diet of braggadocious Mainstream Hiphop music I would likely starve.

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