El Anatsui, 'Man's Cloth,' 2002
(So over the decade on my annual reports I’ve written 35 pages of ranting and ravings, and I’ma repurpose some of that here, because I already said a lot of the shit I got to say.)
Hip hop changed and grew a lot this decade, and if anything streaming did two things: it released artists from needing to have that R&B crossover single or superstar guest feature, allowing them to do whatever the fuck they wanted. It also meant people are discovering, tasting and liking omnivorally, just vibing with what they vibe to. No more gatekeepers. No more tastemakers. No more label saying you can’t call your song ‘Camouflage Unicorns’ or ‘Salisbury Steak Sweater.’ So rap could get broader, more nuanced, more artful, more mature—and there was enough for every appetite.
Maybe we're in a short sweet spot where Spotify isn't quite yet choked at the gate by corporations making sure you hear their heavy investments. Algorithm 'curated' playlists and robot-made ambient chillout will soon enough bring us full circle to spoon-fed tastes--that is, back to radio days.
To paraphrase Harry Allen’s ‘Miuzi Weighs A Ton’ video concept, I am not interested in work that fulfills rap’s FUNCTION (move the dancefloor, sell records, fill stadiums, for strippers to twerk to, for the kids, the same old vanilla trap gangsta tales). I am interested in how it progresses as a FORM: which asks what hip-hop is, what it can do—musically, culturally, politically, personally, artistically.
The shit I like is the multi-layered, the don't-know-what-he-said book, the Genius-annotators-don't-have-the-PhDs-to-handle-these-lyrics-son. To quote a Busdriver tweet: some of the best American writing is locked in these dense rap songs that no one likes.
10 Best of the Decade
The first thing woods drops on his 2004 debut Camouflage is him reading from James Baldwin’s "Letter from a Region in My Mind:" One would never defeat one's circumstances by working and saving one's pennies; one would never, by working, acquire that many pennies, and, besides, the social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account.
In other words, shorty can't eat no book, what I told Ta-Nehesi Coates.
You know woods is my favorite working rapper, in my all-time top 10--I been TELLING you since 2008. More than that, he's my favorite living writer: more than anything else, woods is a writer, and a great one. He has a smart, sardonic, bitter and funny voice, and uses rap's power of capturing small moments of life in sharp, tight sketches. A lotta times I wonder: this is a dude who isn't in it for the money or the ego trip, why isn't he just publishing novels or poetry collections? Because, again: shorty can't eat no book, what I told Ta-Nehesi Coates? Maybe he'd be too constrained by a formal narrative, or the loss of his actual acid voice would rob the words, but tell me you wouldn't want a Library of Amerikkka edition of his complete lyrics. That hasbeen Richard Price wishes he could write this fucking well:
Life is just two quarters in the machine
But, either you got it or don't that's the thing
I was still hitting the buttons, "Game Over" on the screen
Dollar movie theater, dingy foyer, little kid, not a penny to my name
Fucking with the joystick, pretending I was really playing
Pretending I was really playing
Pretending I was really playing
But that’s an easy one. What motherfucker today was writing like this 15 years ago, let alone today:
Back in front the bodega, I’ll wager
With weed in sock, 31 Flavors, and a broke pager
Still broke many a hater
Rather laugh now and laugh later
He who last laughs probably had a razor
Got the shaft of life’s elevators like them boys out Decatur
Good fences make good neighbors
Ask ‘em on the West Bank—that extra clip can be a lifesaver
Woods is not a technical rapper—there’s no complex rhyme schemes, no punchlines. He’s a storyteller, sometimes in whole narratives and sometimes in brilliant portraits and vignettes on some No Exit From Brooklyn tip. His shit takes multiple re-listens to catch the jokes, unpack the footnotes. He’ll pack in references to Things Fall Apart, Andy Capp, Sanford & Son, Wu-Tang, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy all in the same damn song. In another, Jenny Holzer, Killah Priest and Rumsfeld quotes. Every joint is full of fragments, namechecks, history lessons, cynicism and wisdom.
One of woods’ favorite writers, Dambudzo Marechera, called his writing a kind of "literary shock treatment." His work was a process of "discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black resonance". That’s the kind of dour candy woods likes to chew on.
He brings down Rap Game Blood Meridian, Rap Game Manhattan Transfer, it’s late night news broadcasts on dead city radio. He writes with the eye of Joseph Conrad—observing his adopted land, the weaknesses and violence of colonial adventures. He goes hard like Old Testament God, pimping where the water ain’t fit for drinking. The Metrocard machine asks you one question: what do you want to do? Do you want to add value? Or add time? You can't have both.
Woods is that dude sitting on his stoop in a tank-top and Army surplus pants, sipping alternately from a Clamato and a Heineken for his hangover, reading the paper and getting pissed off about it. Spits with intelligence and aggravation, his records are like the OST for "An HBO Original Movie: Inside The Mind of the DC Sniper." Political rap has mostly been about rousing sloganeering, not usually turning its cynicism on the struggle itself. In 1989 P.E. told us to Fight The Power. woods wagers five cigarettes says the revolution won't change shit.
It’s cool he finally got props in Time fucking Magazine’s Albums of 2019 list, but you know damn well he’s also on the list of Rappers Most Likely To Be Sanctioned By Drone Strike.
As far as classic albums of the decade that will last for all time, it’s Grief Pedigree, Marcberg, and everything else. Grief is up there with Illmatic and Cold Vein of timeless, definitive rap bildungsromans. He reduces rap to its most natural elements: stripped down loops, couplets of street pain at their barest, all delivered with economy and exacting precision—entire epics, compressed. It’s elevating rap to a level of concrete abstraction--no logos, no skits, no gun sounds, no swagger, bare bones of stories--that he paints with pointed syllables. Blood, blood, blood with the pen flow. His beats are ghosts of fat beats for the man who plied his trade outside the ghost of Fat Beats, unravelled off that same damn ‘Lo sweater from ’93 to infinity.
Scorcese called the overhead shots in Taxi Driver 'sacramental perspective.' Ka does those, moving down from on high with virtuouso tracking shots through subways into elevators crazy wet with piss. I need more prayer to stay out the crosshair. He slices down to the bone until the words glisten with lapidary brilliance. He’s taken rap’s entire history of street tales and boiled it down to a rust-dark sea that fits in a 40 oz. bottle.
The level of artistry though! Pedigree was a Dubliners--a collection of linked semi-autobiographical stories about a young man, written when he was older, and can look back not only with a sense of loss and regret, but also a pervasive sense of mortality. But then—four albums that play with concepts and themes without losing their grounding in chainlink and streetlight.
The Night’s Gambit took on chess--the 6th element of hip-hop since the Wu era, but for Ka it becomes not only another mode of self-mastery, and the view of us as pawns in the game, but also a call of resistance—that the knight can champion, move sideways and attack. There's other thematics—about luck, about chance, about destiny, and the search for grace.
Dr Yen Lo is the record I return to most, as Preservation brings a richer beat palette. Using The Manchurian Candidate as a jumping off point, it’s a fever dream, a delirium. Ka alludes to indoctrination, brainwashing, cultural hypnosis, programmed violence, and state-sponsored terror, but it's a motif but not a concept. When you're raised around rage and vengeance / you can change, but in your veins remains major remnants.
Honor Killed The Samurai carried on his sword-sharp writing, an a deeper take than we usually get on hattori hanzos: Ka knows that Zen includes the tea ceremony, sword fighting and calligraphy--the art and meditation practice of writing just one letter, just one thought, after long and careful clearing of the mind, with one chance only to get it right. It's street-level frescoes carved on grains of rice.
Finally, Orpheus vs The Sirens with Animoss. Calling himself Orpheus isn't hubris: the name comes from the roots of slave, rebel, darkness, orphan. Like Roc Marci, Ka knows street rap is the crafting of epics, of legends--honor and betrayal, heroes and monsters, journeys and battles. So homie went Homeric, reached back to the Greek myths to infuse the struggles, and makes a whole album of contrast, metaphor, allusion and comparison. That golden fleece was North Face. That cyclops, a crooked cop. That weight on your shoulders? We're all Atlas out here son. He's the poet, prophet and musician who went to hell and made it back. Jinxed to be the man deciphers life riddle or get killed by the Sphinx.
The Greeks had two words for time: kronos, for quantitative time--hours, days, years--and kairos, meaning the right time. The right moment to convey the right message, with symmetry and balance--the moment to release the arrow so it'll hit the target. That's what Ka does. He knows that just because strippers know all the words to your song, it's just money on the clock. He writes for the ages.
Ghost Dog didn't die at the end of The Way of the Samurai. He lives in a Brownsville basement, waking at 3am from PTSD nightmares and digging in the crates for the dustiest loops. Another way: Illmatic never got released, Nas lost an arm, and spent 20 years refining and compressing his craft for a wintertime debut.
Of all the rituals performed at Egyptian funerals, the most important was the Opening of the Mouth. Symbolically cutting open the corpse's mouth. It enabled the dead to pass into the afterlife seeing, hearing and breathing, and able to eat to sustain the Ka--that part of the soul that distinguishes the living from the dead. Ka is the essence breathed into us at the moment of birth, and the only reliable guide through the Land of the Dead. You here in the spirit? You only brung flesh / I keep it primal 'til it's final, who wanna come test?
C’mon son. It’s Marcberg.
*deep sigh* OK then. Let me break it down like this.
It’s not that Marcberg set the stage for the entire decade’s East Coast rap, it’s how he did that. Musically, Marcberg is a cohesive set of perfect, ice-bright beats—like all the best albums, it’s one entire, unique sound. Lyrically and musically, he took hip hop’s formative elements—funk, pimpin’, ballin’, fly shit, gangstaism, braggadocio, violence—and cut them paper-thin like the prison garlic scene in Goodfellas. Then he built a body of work using these small, sharp shards, carving with that essence, so every line could be an end-to-end burner or carved on a tombstone (yours, not his).
It's Japanese calligraphy, each track a single character that says "Across 110th Street," painted with a musk-ox hair brush in blood (yours, not his) on Fendi mulberry paper while he's wearing a tangerine silk kimono and a bad bitch rubs his shoulders and makes him rare jasmine tea. It's velvet draped on concrete. It's a hand-tooled Mexican leather holster for a gold-plated .45 with mother-of-pearl inlaid handles. It's Marcberg Aurelius' Meditations on Pimpstaism. It’s that time Raekwon starred in the kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan—it’s g shit stylized, it’s reduced to its very ritual aspects.
There's an intense simplicity, a harmony and focus that charges every joint—and the complete and total authority of his delivery. Go back to 2004’s Strength & Honor—he’s rushing himself a bit, riding on mediocre beats, writing whole lines. It’s on Marcberg when he gets that superego and tiger claw, move-like-water flow. There's this thing he does where he switches up his rhyme scheme mid-verse, where he rolls syllables around like dice. The chopped-up string of nearly unrelated bars, each cut finely. I'm in the Sahara with Arabs too arrogant for Donna Karan.
Comparisons with those he's influenced are pointless and spurious: you can't compare a goldfish to Moby Dick. He simply runs the fucking game, and we're living in the Marcazoic Era where every new MC is carbon-dated against his 2001-monolith shadow.
Marcberg is the stone-cold, all-time classic—there will never be another, that’s some Louvre shit. I probably liked Volumes I-IX of the loosies and guest shots a bit more than most of the followup albums--when he hops on someone else's beat, he picks a great one--but 2018’s KAOS with Muggs is a tie for second. 2019’s Marcielago is a perfection, a distillation, of a decade's work. It's got his signature blend of smooth and ruthless, of threats and indulgence...it's got the funk and the thousand yard stare. It's got brunch and cars and what his bitch is like today.
Forget it, Jake. It’s Marcberg.
Curly Castro said Elucid’s music is like a séance. This is true: he’s the gypsy and the ghost, the medium and the message, the Ouija and the Weegee.
Across the decade, Elucid created a sprawling Oort Cloud of cold rocks, breaking fast where the angels laugh: on his own, with Concrete Sound System (S&M washing machine porn) with A.M. Breakups as Cult Favorite (temple sermons somewhere between Manson and Stokely Carmichael), with Dumhi (no snakes allowed, with those Romare Bearden beats), with milo as Nostrum Grocers (a jazz cookout, free association masters in a cipher behind the cellar door), and with woods as the mighty, mighty Armand Hammer (where Statler & Waldorf meet Chomsky & Fanon).
There's cacophony, doom, prophecy, world-weariness, irony and resistance…but there’s also grace and peace here, shelter in the pervading menace of 2K Amerikkka. Knowledge of all the Babylon A.D. tricks that RZA taught him in the vampire bar. He's the cat who can sneak you past the checkpoints, but a hero ain't nothing but a chopped cheese. Chuck D wrote his messages billboard-and-protest-sign ready; Elucid twists 'em up cryptic, slips them into fortune cookies made of sandpaper and dark syrup. His own beats are cooked up from formaldehyde, dirty pigeon wings and ultraviolet light. It's fractured blues and St. Augustine visions. Sipping on Flint water in ruined tabernacles. Catch him breaking fast where the angels laugh.
From that rat-a-tat-tat of drums and piano that opens 2009’s Of Light, I was hooked on what Palaceer and his galactic funk warriors were doing. Battle of the Planets with a Prince soundtrack. Black Panther by way of the '80s Flash Gordon. Flow my beats, the timecop said. Rammellzee is the equation. These are exactly the records we should have in a future we didn’t get, that we should’ve expected two decades after Reachin’ but didn’t. It's like wearing intergalactic plushpluvial Dapper Dan underpants. It tastes like purple. But it still has street weight, still has depth, still transcendent.
The music silver surfs the tip of the quantum wave between confounding, demanding and deeply funky. It's totally discordant yet addictively compelling--seeking, chasing, laying back in the swirl. It creates its own world and trades in backpacks for Octavia Butler paperbacks. Like in The Terminator, it came across time to love you.
By a hair I’d say 2011’s Black Up takes the prize, but Lese Majesty, double LP Quazarz and totally slept on side project Knife Knights (Did it not show up in your goddamn Spotify algorithm? I bet it didn't show up in your fucking algorithm.) go Afrofuturist Space Disco Praxis Metastasis in the best way. I'm always looking for the future. I'm always looking for what the streets of the future will sound like. This is it. This isn't music for now.
A lot of what defines a rapper is persona, and Mach’s is his cool, removed aura of mystery—the bandana and fisherman hat as iconic and obscuring as DOOM’s. If DOOM is the supervillain from ‘60s FF, Mach is the Haitian Shadow—who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Dumpmeister knows. It’s also his total remove and almost disdain for the listeners—his shit is hard to find, at best collated on his Soundcloud—what he’s most bitter about is anyone’s guess. There’s no official bio. Search Wikipedia and you get ‘Did you mean Mack Holly?’ But that aura, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scattershot output, and level of craft gripped those who know.
It’s easy to forget he dropped the excellent F.Y.I. in 2013 (and was sampling Burroughs and Marilyn Monroe on random mixtapes) before blowing minds with his still-unbeaten 2017 H.B.O. Across 2018-19 he became practically the host of the Soul Assassins joints, closing out this year exec producing/featuring on Your Old Droog’s best album to date, Jewelry. He has dropped so much shit though, and not all of it hits me right on the beats, but his Selected Works is pretty unparalleled.
Mach has a crisp, shot-pellet cadence and never-ending flow, with Jenga-stacked lyrics on lyrics on lyrics that never unravel, and a good ear for lofi beats to ride on. He clips out lines one after another, with the precision and skilled relentlessness of John Wick popping head shots. His compressed density stacks like quantum microchips rather than loops from here to there in the more associative freewheels of other MCs; there's no variation in voice or tone, just a GZA-level science.
At this point worship at the Temple of Mach is getting a bit ridiculously fervent, but at least the $1,000 albums are discounted down to uh…$150. Be interesting to see if he stays out there in the shadows, dipping out to bless us, or comes out with some definitive masterpiece a bit longer than his Muggs EPs.
Griselda is a franchise, has been since 2015, and its members are not only highly conscious of that, it's part of their plan. You don't tune in to the new episode for anything but Conway doing his Buffalo Marlon Brando Godfather growling, Gunn's gritty Joker-style reboot of Frank Gorshin's Riddler, and Benny's...butchering. Plus Alc and Daringer beats with so much hiss and crackle it seems like part of the drums. I don't expect artistic expression or risks or variation, just good reliable gangsta shit on some Chris Paltrow and Snoop in the SUV regretting their violent life choices.
Maybe they’re spread a bit thin—like Mach, they’re Selected Works not Collected Works contenders. Until 2019’s WWCD there’s not really been a definitive classic--no 36 Griseldas, just more and more Really? Still With The Hitler Thing? Maybe that's just how we roll now, but you can only imagine what this crew coulda done with a RZA plan of staggered, tight releases. What we get is extensive world building--and it's a cold, brutal world.
When it works it’s golden ice grill, pure essence of street rap. Conway's regretful warrior with the thousand-mile stare, Gunn's Jimmy Jump devil-trickster, and Daringer's static crackle, haunted Cadillac beats--they've created their own sound. Out of all the Marci Begats, these cats cemented a new wave of East Coast gangsta shit better than all the others.
Aka Ruby Yacht aka Scallops Hotel aka Boyle and Piles aka Nostrum Grocers aka RAP Ferreira, the Rap Teju Cole, the Fried Rice Nietzsche, the PhD-Nice. There were a lot of dudes this decade who did low-key rapping over lush off-kilter beats, but none who wore their big hearts and big brains on their sleeves as well as milo.
There’s a syllabus level of references and name-checking ranging from Kierkegaard to X-Clan to Mamet to Mobb Deep, an intense love of wordplay, humor and quotables. The meandering, the laidback-on-the-futon flow creates an intimacy but also hides the level of work that’s gone in—not a throwaway line in sight. There was a point mid-decade when he could have settled into a comfortable groove of campus touring, Moleskine-rap, Portlandia guest star, Rap Game Trader Joe’s Wasabi Peas. But he didn’t. He pushed himself forward between so the flies don’t come and who told you to think?!!?!?!?!, asking more questions than he can answer and creating another journal for the bibliography. The lyrics are still well-compressed and laced with references to Camus and the Hagakure and the Voynich Manuscript and Tekken and stuff like that. But there's also a barely-suppressed anger and reconsideration of milo's place in rap and Amerikkka in general.
He's still doing his own thing like no one else's thing. Splitting the difference between the Golden Rectangle and 3/5ths of a man and Schopenhauer's maxim that we forfeit 3/4s of ourselves to be like other people. He's still running the math.
Open Mike Eagle
Basehead’s 1992 Play With Toys was a revolutionary and instantly forgotten about hip hop record with unique funk/blues beats and rapping halfway between singing and rapping, wry and dry, about being depressed, relationships, being an idiot, and being Black in Amerikkka, totally subverting everything about hip hop. Basehead did two more records and then hung it up.
18 years later, Open Mike Eagle stepped on the scene with Unapologetic Art Rap doing something so similar (e.g. ‘Pissy Transmission’) I was really surprised when he told me he’d never heard of Basehead. He pressed ahead with an incredible string of smart, funny, playful and honest records—on top of podcasting, wrestling, housing people at Connect 4, and snagging his own comedy show.
As his popularity has grown, he hasn’t compromised one bit—hasn’t played the clown, hasn’t dumbed it down, has kept breaking down the financial crisis while also celebrating school picture day while also crafting a bittersweet elegy to a housing project. His work is Invisible Man by way of Paul Beatty by way of The Jungle by way of Sorry To Bother You. He’s whittled his wit to a sharp point to poke us with and continues to build a unique, excellent brick body of daydreaming work.
The journey of the Tigger of Rap from 2010's Detroit State of Mind 4 and The Hybrid--the triumphal jump from his earlier mixtapes—across the ‘10s was really something to watch. The progression to Black & Brown to the mix of introspection/entertainment on XXX and OLD, to the wild experiment of Atrocity Exhibition unfortunately ended with the massive faceplant of uknowwhatimsayin. But he kept killing it, kept putting more of his raw self out there, kept experimenting. Did Tina Turner have some kinda prancing, devilish, shabby court jester in Beyond Thunderdome? I forget. She shoulda.
For half the decade he hands down snatched the crown. The waterfall hair and jumble-of-chiclets teeth goes with his intense, nervous slanging. He's the Constant Consonant Eater. Revanchist of the Gangster Duck Flow. Amazing storyteller--'Gremlins,' 'Grown Up,' 'Scrap or Die'. He can do the party-out-of-control of 'Smokin & Drinkin' as well as the deeply heartfelt 'Thank God' to the tortured emotion of '30.' Brown takes the overboard getting-high-and-eating-pussy of Ol' Dirty but combines it with a paranoid sense of mortality, and gives us flashes that his crazed behaviour emerges from the ruins of Detroit, still waiting for Robocop's redemption.
Soul Assassins, Vol. 3 :: The Series
Those that know, know that 1997's Soul Assassins, Chapter 1 is one of the greatest compilations of all time, with Muggs at the height of his production and a grip of that era's greats bringing some real fire. There was a Chapter 2, and in the early ‘00s begat the Muggs x series, including the ill Muggs x GZA Grandmasters. But these were just pilots for the past two years of output—starting with Dia Del Asesinato and following up with x Marci, Crimeapple, Eto, Mach, Meyhem Lauren and Fahim.
There's that thing where movie franchises have a couple good ones at the beginning, then they reboot the whole thing and shitcan all the crappy sequels, like Halloween and hopefully Terminator. Actually Terminator Halloween is a pretty good description of what Muggs came back with. The dubstep record, the last bad Cypress Hill records--let's say they never happened. Muggs came back with some of his strongest, heaviest, ponderous and slamming beats across all these—dark cathedrals, rave-beside-the-Ganges-at-midnight, armies of dead homies on the march. He brought out the best in some of today’s newest talents, elevated them to a higher level while high. I'm up for another season, greenlight that shit.
Ratking :: So It Goes / 700 Fill
El-P once said: “Illmatic is one of the last great rap records attached directly to the lineage of the history of rap culture in our city. It was inhabited by the spirits of a just passed era and a radiant, moody and raw signifier of the next one.”
So It Goes was that too, exactly twenty years later—shifting up the eras. It’d been a long time since I heard a record that took me back to eating purple mescaline at the NYC Halloween parade. It's anthemic, it's Beat Street meets Kids, it's an episode of Welcome Back Kotter where Special Guest Star Rammellzee on some Kazoo shit time-jumps them to make it rain bitcoins in that Blade Runner club with the robot stripper with the robot snake. It's The Basketball Diaries via Jamel Shabazz Tik Toks. It's smoking hash on an autumn afternoon and watching Herculoids with a girl you can't quite figure out. It's one of those records that distills and jumps off.
Their music pulses with the pure vibrancy of youth, and they build a bridge from hip-hop's solidly NY past to its global future...you could poplock on cardboard to 700 Fill's 'Steep Tech' and 'Makeitwork' would rock the Wild Style bandshell or a Panther Moderns oculus rave. It's not a revival or a resurrection. It's new blood, flowing. They brought back the classic triumvirate of main/secondary rapper + DJ, an atomic structure cutting across eras via Run-DMC, Cypress Hill and Company Flow.
Wiki’s solo career has been been up and down. Lil Me was a pretty great record on some bodega coffee and late night stoop confessions shit. He decompressed his lyrics from the Naked Lunch-level street abstraction for a much more heartfelt, personal paean on No Mountains in Manhattan, and his 2k Meth & Red record with Your Old Droog, What Happened To Fire, was some hardbody microphone joyful noise, two youngbloods flexing their muscles. (2019's Oofie was hit or miss for me.) I appreciate the kid is trying to explore, grow and mature as an artist, but nothing since then has reached the shimmering transcendence of Ratking-proper, the fractured concrete-and-fiber-optics verbal playgrounds.
10 Most Overlooked of the Decade
SHIRT's got that big heart, that hunger, that love for the game, the world. His joints are diamonds as big as the Ritz. Baldessari's 'Pure Beauty' is text on canvas; SHIRT's text is written on pure energy. He's taken Baldessari's 'TERMS MOST USEFUL IN DESCRIBING CREATIVE WORKS OF ART' and infused his music with--all of them. Do-rag in the MOMA--it's his time.
SHIRT brings a sandpaper flow and hunger for the mic that's compelling--it's raw ambition, it's ego triumphant ripping through the speakers. Then there's the art. He throws up his dot-Mickey in Brownsville. He quotes Brion Gysin: 'Writing is 50 years behind painting.' Gysin meant collage and abstraction. Burroughs flipped that in 1959 with cut-ups. But music was 20 years behind writing until '79 when Herc stepped on the scene. SHIRT does the first silent rap performance during lunch at the Seagram building, and then he calls it ‘The Hardest Verse You Ever Heard.’
But SHIRT doesn't actually rhyme hardly about art; there's the odd reference to Guggenheim grants or 'Top of the Whitney.' He raps pretty much about...rap shit. Polo robes and fly whips, Timbs and herb. It's all good.
I'll wait for 'the modern art rapper,' who drops bars like 'Coke so white, Robert Ryman' or 'Box in hand like my name was Cornell' or 'Dick hard as a Richard Serra / bitch reconsidered her perception of public space' and finally lets me know what rhymes with Kandinsky. SHIRT is not that rapper. Maybe he will be. Maybe we don't need that rapper though. SHIRT's too real to get pretentious, too much doing his own thing.
Thing is, when he did drop "THEORY"--spitting Kenneth Goldsmith--it doesn't quite work as well as, say "NY TAP WATER." It's interesting, but it's not engaging, aesthetically crafted, honest, raw or heartfelt--all of which are exactly what I love about SHIRT's shit. It's got heart.
On the flipside, he's bringing in the yacht-level swagger of Koons and the gangsta threats of Dada. He knows about art as repurposing, art as re-appropriation, art as statement--what the fuck you think rap music is? Jenny Holzer is just Chuck D on postcards and Richard Prince is just Puffy on Wooster Street.
Look peoples, SHIRT is too hungry to fizz out. He really raps the fuck out of rapping. Pay attention and get with him before you gotta pay Sotheby's prices. This king was raised to go for the crown. He's standing on top of the Whitney watching for the blimp that says BE FEARFUL OF MEDIOCRITY. Get with the kid. I think it's time, I think it's time.
Yikes The Zero
An amazingly accomplished lyricist and producer, Philly’s Yikes really came into his own on 2016’s The Animal Box. There’s a sinister cartoon mood, a kinda Earl Steampunk vibe. Ever watch a junkie’s head so so slowly dip down as they slide into paradise, then snap up back to the razor-strewn concrete jungle they have to navigate? This is that.
Doctor Molotov’s Gallery of Portals alternates his whispery butter-mumble rhymes with instrumental joints which are sometimes like Herb Alpert high on lean on the deck of the Pequod and sometimes Godspeed Whoops You! Dropped The Boston Philharmonic Down The Stairs In 4x Slow Motion. This year’s An Echo Storm Howling is like Shabazz Shitty Studio Rental. There's a Melle Mel x Moor Mother thing happening, there's a Doors thing going on, there's an afropunk anime thing going on, there's a broken fairy tale thing going on.
Are these concept albums? Not really. It’s an art. They have allusions, facets, considerations, intimations. He brings afrofuturist Tom Waits joints from collapsed galaxies, Sudafed overdose comas when there’s some disturbing stop-motion kids’ film on (like that one where Santa is a huge Russian who beats the fuck out of people). What I like about Yikes is how he changes it up from eerie pulsar drone to lysergic circus to the straight-up, rapping-their-entire-asses-off posse cut of ‘Razor Opera.’ Like I said, it's an art.
I was psyched to see this cat get some love on the Call Out Culture podcast, because Skipp is a mad talent almost everyone slept on. He put out an incredible trilogy this decade--women revolution tennis shoes and Sophomore Slump with producer Mr. Nick, and then Miles Garvey in 2014. It's halfway between Outkast and Paris; soulful and heartfelt but angry and defiant too.
Political rap can be polemic, didactic, oversimplistic and reductive; more than anything, it can be all rage and no soul, all political and no personal. Skipp Coon overstands and overcomes all that. He's a prophet of rage, sure, with coals in the belly but also an ox-sized heart. It's a father's anger, not a collegiate rebellion, closer to late The Coup LPs than early P.E. Rebellion Assemble! I wish he'd bring us some more.
Nickelus F :: STUCK
This dude's been around a while, with some quality shit in the back catalog to dive into, but I didn't get into him before what I still is his best, 2018's STUCK.
It's on some crusty, heartfelt, spit-out-the-side-your-mouth, sipping cough syrup in the parking lot, one sweatpant leg rolled up, Parliaments tucked in the top of the tube sock. It's growly South, it's scrub brush and dirt weed, cracked pavements and yo open the window, that AC ain't working. There's something really wonky and weird about it I love, what the fuck kinda drugs they got down there fam? It comes from a place where you're sweaty and tired and the Devil is trying to hustle you into a new phone plan. It's a deep dive into personal struggle but with a fuck it, let's get down too, let's tag up on the moon.
The Diabolical Doctor Strange & Friends aka Guerilla Godz
Across the self-titled LP, The Friday Night Philosopher, Unmask The Phantom these mysterious cats brought some peerless throwback shit to '97 by way of ’87 by way of DOOM by way of 2087 (AD and BC). Alternating between old school Tims/bean pies/street raps and early Jedi Mind-type interludes with the spooky beats (really, really excellent beats) and sci fi/UFO/Atlantis/MK Ultra samples, it's proudly un-2010s in a really unique way. It’s exactly the dusty, echoing sound of the inside of my head in the mid-'90s when I used to chase the dragon and listen to Red Alert.
Couple things I never can understand. First, why do rappers have such unbelievably shitty, cheesy bad taste in rock music? It's the 94th Element of Hip Hop or something. Premier will sample the soundtrack from a 1924 silent movie, Puffy will sample 'Carmina Burana,' but when it comes to anything with guitars we get...'Walk This Way?' And the Judgement. Night. Soundtrack. All that cratedigging, you cats never once picked up a Minor Threat record? Bambaataa made a record with Johnny Rotten and nobody ever sampled the Sex Pistols? My Make-A-Wish Foundation was always that that one time Chuck D ad libbed on a Sonic Youth joint had become a whole collabo LP. A lot of people listened to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and thought, I should start a band. I thought, somebody should rap over this.
This is the other thing I don't understand: why don't dälek get their props? I mean, this decade everyone got ridiculously amped about Death Grips and I was all, this is just Shouty Dälek. Maybe it's the umlaut? You cats like your clpping and all that and you still don't ride for dälek? And kids who're into My Bloody Valentine wanna hear them sing about...whatever it is they're singing about, sexy girls with dirty feet and cigarette breath?--not the broken-glass-everywhere-people-pissing-on-the-station rhymes, I guess.
Catch. The fuck. Up.
From 1998's Negro Necro Nekros on, dälek took the multi-layered density of the Bomb Squad and swapped out James Brown samples for Einstürzende Neubauten. They kept Chuck D's political intensity and lyrical density but broke it like bottles and pushed it into a Liam-Neeson-right-before-he-fucks-your-shit-up growl. All the angry noise of Jedi Mind Tricks but without the WWE theatrics, and all the orbital uplift of Daydream Nation--God in the whirlwind, beauty in the car crash.
dälek were mainlining in the cold vein three years before oxes went cannibal. Their three records this decade—Asphalt for Eden, Endangered Philosophies and Respect to the Authors--still merks the murk and stretch long gobs of hellfire drone, still on the strength, filthy tongues speaking abandoned language.
The Difference Machine
Across the decade from 2013’s The Psychedelic Sounds Of The Difference Machine through to 2017’s remix record, Triangle Schemes, this Atlanta collective has brought a huge, funky live sound with on-point cosmic, literate and political rhymes. It's like if Zach de la Rocha had been more into Fishbone, Bad Brains, Parliament and Heavy Mental than Anthrax and Minor Threat…or if he'd cofounded Shabazz Palaces. Joints like 'Bruce Willises' got more props and stunts than lemonade, and the remix of 'Another Tomorrow' takes an already psychedelic joint out to Nibiru's orbit. (If I hadda pick one of their records, it'd be hands down 4th Side of the Eternal Triangle.)
My faith in the Priest is resolute and unquestionable, but since Heavy Mental he's rarely able to find the beats to rock upon which to found that church. On Planet of the Gods, he brought down Godz Wrath to provide the right 70mm backdrop of flutes and chants and samples--finally befitting his epic of Mac 10s, sandals, eagles, pyramids, flying saucers, wise elders, Biblical computers, convicts, evil ancient scientists, galactic thrones and chakra points, and that's just the intro track. 2013’s Psychic World of Walter Reed similarly comes through.
2017 saw the crazy headspin drop with 4th Disciple of Don’t Sit on the Speakers--Priest plus Wu guests like Ghost and Rae flip and flow over heavy old, old school beats--1980s beats, block rocking, power-from-the-streetlight beats. It's some time travel shit of the Wu 10 years early, when they would've been Prince Rakeem & The Ninjafied Nine or some shit. What could you not fucking love about this?!
B Dolan :: Fallen House Sunken City
Dolan's second record from back in 2010 comes mad strong, with mad muscularity--the late great Alias gave him a post-Jux boom bap of beats to ride on and he gets bloody. It's informed by his slam poet start in its particular way of creating allusions rather than punchlines, but definitely painting within the frame of rap. I mean he CROWNED BIGGIE SMALLS THE KING OF ATLANTIS. Like Jus' Machines, no one was trying to hear this level of noise and resistance to power in those pre-Trump days, whereas now we're firmly ticking off the Reptilian Agenda.
Bigg Jus :: Machines That Make Civilization Fun
First decade of the ‘00s saw El-P make his grip of classic solos, do his Jux and produce Can Ox, while Jus put out some great records (plus Nephilim Modulation), and Len do a few joints. Second decade, we got C4C and the massive blow up of fratronica of Run The Jewels, just this one record from Jus and Len doing…whatever Len does now.
I wish this record got 10% the love C4C did. The intensity, density, dire predictions, fire predilections…cats are ready for this now in a way they weren’t prepared in 2012. Worth a revisit if you slept.
Best Instrumentalists of the Decade
3:33: That brooding, quantum pulse shit from the edge of consciousness, but with good drums. Nobody knows who they are — complete ghosts lurking out there. But between 2009 and 2015 they put out eight records of the highest order, before disappearing back into the dark. They seem to be unavailable now, which is fucking criminal.
A.M. Breakups: Probably the best kept secret in underground hip hop beatmaking, carrying the torch on from El-P before his right turn into stadium rap. Don't sleep on WE ARE NOT FOR THEM or Cult Favorite either.
DDay One:Taking on the dusty analog sound of old jazz records, weaving together jazz’ ability to move you and also mourn, DDay One doesn’t just move the soul but the body too. DDay lays down recognizable hip-hop loops, African layers, ambient noise…but I would say through it all runs an obvious primary influence of be-bop jazz, on which he’s both building and commenting.
Gone Beyond & Mumbles :: Notes From The Underground: Legendary beatmaker Mumbles (A Book of Human Language) and Gone Beyond took hundreds of classical recordings of composers who lived under Stalin and created this incredible record. Their drumwork is complex and multilayered and they've taken the art of sampling to a new height, painting in winter watercolors with this bleak Soviet pallette.
PSY/OPSogist: From 2007 to 2014 this cat made some of the most unique, intriguing instrumental music I've ever heard. We semi-collaboed on 2013's ZAR/DOZogist tape but a few years ago he hung it up. The back catalog is worth a deep dive.
odd nosdam: Anticon OG nosdam's work goes back 20 years, but across the '10s he kept the squelch squelching across a grip of joints and re-releases.
Tenshun: San Diego's illest noisemaker finally made his original glitch-hop available digitally this decade, and while it'd be great to have his '00s catalog out there, he kept on making some extremely interesting experiments.