Rap/hip hop is particularly unique, in the respect that it tends to be one of the only forms of music, or art-forms in general, that involves the very figures that represent it openly insulting and discrediting it on a regular basis; even going so far as to question its relevancy. It’s an inherent trait for something which has roots tied to the Dozens; a competitive game of one-upsmanship based around two people flinging clever, yet disparaging, remarks back and forth at each other. And that’s the dynamic; the one holding the mic is the “greatest of all time,” while everyone else is complete trash — especially, in the context of a battle, in which case they are also the enemy. From my first exposure with the scene as a youth in the 80s, and well before that, there have always been accusations of “sucka emcees” and boasting about one’s own personal skills surpassing all others. And when it wasn’t all about yourself, it was still about the dominance of your crew. Back in 1986, when KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions released “South Bronx” as an attack/response to the MC Shan and Marley Marl track, “Queensbridge,” –a situation known as the infamous “Bridge Wars“–they were not only dissing Shan, or even the Juice Crew, of which he was a member, but the entire neighborhood that he was representing and came from.
Rap can be a boastful art, but it’s still an art in its purest form and, when someone displays a remarkable level of skill, it can be hard for an audience, or even a challenger, to deny that they are indeed bringing something of quality to the table. But there’s a duality to the craft, as there is with all things, and destroying someone on the mic is still a motivator–whether it motivates the victim to throw in the towel, once and for all, finding a new hobby, goal, dream, and/or profession to pursue, or it motivates them to actually step up their game and push twice as hard, is dependent on the resolve of that individual. The important thing to keep in perspective is that most of the elements that could be interpreted as “negative,” still stemmed from a positive place and with a positive goal; to sharpen ones skills and push the art form further –it’s not as if BDP didn’t have any legitimate respect for the Juice Crew. Even when there was a genuine lack of respect between individuals, however, they still respected the craft above all else, and your ability to prove yourself through your skill set and your contribution to that craft is what you were judged on and what mattered. Tearing fools down was a method of quality control for the whole movement and a way for it to remain as a movement, rather than stalling out. Now, if these principals have completely been sucked out of hip hop altogether, or it’s simply become less prominent is debatable, and the answer differs based on who you ask. One thing that is much more difficult to deny, however, is that there are actually some particularly fresh, young, and hungry figures emerging out the Flatbush area of Broolyn, right now, that are keeping those ideals alive (or reviving them), by focusing primarily on –of all things– lyrical ability, content, and quality song craft. Surprisingly enough, a good portion of them are still only teenagers.
Brooklyn emcee, Joey Bada$$ (real name Jo-Vaughn Scott) is easily the most prominent figure in the Flatbush-based collective, Progressive Era (aka Pro. Era), which has been making some major waves throughout the hip hop underground over the last year or so. At only 18 years of age (his birthday was at the end of January), Joey wasn’t even born until the very tail end of, what is widely considered to be, “the golden age of hip hop,” if not just after it. While the rest of the 1990s can lay claim to some undeniably classic releases–solo efforts from the Wu Tang camp, “underground” material from Rawkus Records, Kool Keith‘s first handful of LPs, evil/grimy street shit from places like Memphis and Sacramento, etc.– it was also a period of time that saw producers for songstresses like Mariah Carey laying the foundation for the designated rap interlude in every fucking mainstream R&B/Pop track from then on, welcomed in the detestable Natty-Ice-drenched genre of Rap-Rock, breathed a second-life into Will Smith‘s music career, and gave way to Puff Daddy dancing around in iridescent suits–not to mention the mainstream media reporting on it every time that clown put out a press release that he was be making a slight variation on his ridiculous moniker. Profitability was skyrocketing, but cultural integrity was on a steep decline. This basically means that Scott‘s entire life-span has taken place throughout a time period where there has been a very active discussion around if/when the genre would ever recover and revert back to what many of us identify with as a more respectable time and the pinnacle of the movement, when having a unique style and approach was not only encouraged, but a necessity.
Rap is like a bad relationship, where critics have been pointlessly whining about the way things used to be, because they are tired of defending something that they love more for what it once was and the potential that it once demonstrated than for reality of what it has materialized into. [Chris Rock did an entire segment about it in his Never Scared special]. So, for nearly 2 decades, the discussions have continued about if there would be, and who might be, the new savior(s) of the genre to finally make a large enough impact to set it back on course for good. It’s not that there haven’t been any solid artists to emerge within that time frame, because there have, but every year the speculations and pseudo-prophecies continue like clockwork—“This guy is gonna revolutionize the industry! He’s the new golden boy! Enough of this Hollywood bullshit!” and so on. Of course, relying on some fictional hip hop messiah to suddenly manifest from the shadows and become the savior for an entire culture is the last resort for the desperate and disillusioned. That being said, if there’s been one single artist convincing enough to bring lyricism, craftsmanship, and credibility back to the game in the last decade, Joey Bada$$, most certainly, could be the one to do it. Sure, it’s a really lofty responsibility to put on the shoulders of a high school kid and his friends, but after witnessing them live during their recent Beast Coastal Tour, I’m convinced more than ever that these guys are not only up for the challenge, but welcome it.
BEAST COASTAL TOUR
Joey Bada$$ & Pro. Era
The Seattle stop for Joey and his crew fell only four dates deep into their month-long Beast Coastal tour, which would eventually end with a sold-out show at New York‘s Gramercy Theatre on 4-20 (they’ve been rather open about their affinity for smoking chronic herbs). I arrived at Neumos early and there was already a line down the block to get in, so I just posted up in the adjacent MOE bar and waited for my plus 1 to arrive. The crowd outside was as thick as I’ve ever seen at the venue; it was sold-out. Helping it sell out easily was the fact that it was an all-ages event. It needed to be an all-ages event, since the headliners weren’t even old enough to drink. In fact, from my understanding, Joey is one of the senior members of the Pro. Era crew, which claims a total of 24 members in their ranks. Aside from just rappers/lyricists, that number reflects an array of contributors, from producers to photographers, designers, a singer, and so on –they even have a 17 year old visual director in their camp named Dee Frosted. The girth of this collective, along with the various skill sets and general talent/capabilities possessed within it, is what has afforded them the ability to get as far as they have, while remaining independent, up until this point.
While the tour flyer may read “Joey Bada$$ and Pro. Era,” for obvious promotional reasons —the Gramercy marquee didn’t even mention the crew, at all, just Joey— one gets the impression that the up-and-coming rap superstar would have felt even more comfortable if he wasn’t billed separate from and above his own crew. He is anything but delusional about the value that they retain as a unit and is very aware of what the rest of the crew brings to the table. As his star continues to rise, he’s pulling his cohorts up and along with him. Joey came through Seattle last year with a limited crew and even did a European tour with fellow fellow Era members CJ Fly and Kirk Knight, but the Beast Coastal tour marks the first time that they were really able bring a substantial portion of the collective along with them on tour, so this was definitely a major moment in their evolution and history. Generating even further enthusiasm for the tour was a pair of openers beyond the immediate Pro Era family that are making some really impressive moves in their own right.
By the time my homie Jon Banta and I made our way through the line and into the venue, the Flatbush duo known as The Underachievers were already in the middle of their set. I was aware of these guys, but not incredibly versed on their material. Then again, it’s not as if they have a ton of it –emcee, Issa Dash, wasn’t even rapping a couple of years ago. The first time that I discovered them was through their video for the track “Herb Shuttles” [below], a hazy spaced-out joint (double-pun intended) about smoking weed and the mental state that it puts them in to create. Weed raps aren’t anything new and neither is the mind expansion angle that these kids are working (more so on their other tracks), but there’s something about how their whole style came together that felt incredibly refreshing, right off the bat. That video shows these cats wearing tie-dyes and there’s definitely a metaphysical spin to it –it’s surprising that there isn’t a bunch of sacred geometry in the background– but there’s also more stark, gritty imagery, with malt liquor and a gang of fools puffing smoke at a sweaty, tightly packed house party, leaning in, pogoing, and mobbing toward and crowding around the camera. Among those featured are cohorts Meechy Darko and Zombie Juice of Flatbush Zombies, who would be taking the stage next. Both of these crews are incredibly tight, long-time friends and have become notorious for eating psychedelics, along with their heavy herb habit–definitely not the norm for the hip hop world.
“Herb Shuttles” was actually The Underachievers 3rd video, after “So Devlish” and the “The Gold Soul Theory,” and, by the time it was released, Los Angeles super-producer (and grandnephew of John and Alice Coltrane), Flying Lotus was already making moves to sign them to his highly respected and forward-thinking Brainfeeder label, which has primarily just dealt with electronic and instrumental releases. Those first two tracks saw the Brooklyn emcees focusing on the topic of elevating their minds, with “So Devlish” bringing a slightly doomier feel to the table and “Gold Soul” adopting a more Bay Area underground, Del and Hiero Imperium delivery to the flow. “Herb Shuttles” is still my favorite of the three and I feel that it really showcases their strengths as a unit. They are a really solid duo in the vein of predecessors like Smif-n-Wessun (aka Cocoa Brovaz), or even Outkast, in the respect that their styles compliment each other remarkably well. “Herb Shuttles” displays UA mixing up the tempo of their cadences (even stalling it out to murky DJ Screw territory before kicking back into rapid fire barrages) and attacking the beat with an aggression that allows them to avoid falling into that preachy, milquetoast, and all around cheesy territory that characterizes the majority of the “conscious” rap scene for me, and has always been it’s downfall, in my opinion. If Dash and AK have something to say, they tend to be a bit more direct with it and drill it into the listeners skull, rather than passively and vaguely suggesting a general concept of understanding, in lieu of committing to any real content, in an attempt to remain neutral enough that people will just support them based on the idea that they an alternative to “that violent rap music.” To me, that shit is like Christain rock and Diet Coke; a watered down, “safe” version of something with no heart. It’s a construction paper valentine with no soul. UA just brings more authentic passion to the scene, by actually demonstrating it, rather than simply talking about it. As they moved around the stage at Neumos that night, that passion was evident, and the manner in which they alternated their verses and bounced off of one another, reflected a tight partnership that amplified those elements.
The floor was packed and it was difficult to maneuver through the crowd –because of this, almost all of my photos of them came out like shit. The first thing that I noticed was that, despite the mob, the energy was surprisingly solid. Usually, an all-ages show is a pain in the ass, because there’s a bunch of young kids standing around confused about their own identities, creating a general vibe of discomfort. There’s an awkward energy. For the most part, this show wasn’t like that. In retrospect, I had to consider that it might be the older dickish veteran types (an alternate option that you have to fill a lot of crowds out with) mingling with the youth and exuding a false superiority that creates such uncomfortable dynamics at a lot of those shows. The youth seemed to have the numbers in this scenario and they were fucking amped.
Then again, I saw a Childish Gambino show with an equally youthful crowd in the exact same venue a couple of years ago, and the whole scene was terrible. What was the major difference, then? The answer is that Childish Gambino music is incredibly weak, so his rabid fanbase is corny as fuck, as well. Donald Glover is an adequate standup, a better actor, and an incredibly solid television writer, but his rap career is a novelty at best. One minute he was spitting self-deprecating verses, lyrics about how he’s not really hard, or simply rhymes about just being himself and accepting his suburbanite roots –he’s borderline comedy rap, punchline-based and cracking on the idea of thug and money rappers. Then, the next thing I knew, he flipped it and was spitting verses about getting hos and money with an aggressively cocky and serious delivery. Technically, his cadence was on point, but he wasn’t original, it was just practiced. There’s nothing special about him; he’s trying to present some sort of swagger and, by trying to be “tough” or “cool,” he was coming across a little bodybuilder Joe Pisc0po, or all black gear-era Ben Stiller, which no one wants to see. Since he was just parroting characteristics of people that he respected over the years, there were similarities to them, but it was as if he was playing the role of “popular rapper ” in a high school play. [We ran into Glover later that night at a hipster pizza joint while he was in a drunken stupor, and tried to battle him. He mumbled nonsense, stumbled backward into the front glass door of the restaurant/bar, and his “crew” dragged him out… but that’s another story.] That show was disappointing and was just further evidence, as I saw it, that this was the direction that the youth was heading, as far as hip hop was concerned; a homogenized Hollywood pop-rap sound for kids that identify with wanting to be rappers for the same reason that they want to be actors (for the fame not the craft), in a world where Jaden Smith gets to be the Karate Kid, because of his dad’s connections, Juliette Lewis gets to play rockstar, and someone like Donald Glover was becoming the chosen alternative: a guy who at least has technical skill, albeit cookie-cutter, but without any real style or substance. Is this the type of shit that the kids are actually going for? Is this considered bringing lyricism to the game? It was a disheartening possibility, at best.
And that’s what set this Beast Coast show apart from the beginning: passion and credibility. Whereas someone like Glover never truly exposes himself, embracing either a false vulnerability through jokes, or armoring himself with a contrived swagger/persona, UA managed to retain their presence and strength by dumping it all out on the stage. It can be a subtle difference to read, but a vital one that not only went on to define the entire night, but has already soundly reflected the ideals supporting the entire Beast Coast movement [Beast Coast is the extended collective, incorporating all 3 camps on the tour’s bill]. Rather than stand on stage as a spectacle to be admired, the energy was circular and much more tangible than that. The Underachievers definitely put on a performance, but they did so by sending waves of energy into the crowd, which was enthusiastically returned. It’s kind of fascinatingly absurd when you consider that it has become common practice for so many modern day emcees to give off the impression that they’re doing the crowd a service by even showing up to their own concerts, standing on stage demanding an, often undeserved, audience reaction before they will even agree to continue. “Ya’ll need to scream louder, or I’m bouncin’ the fuck outta this piece!” Scream for what? Put on a fucking show already. The energy goes in one direction and it’s the wrong one. Openers often bring more enthusiasm, especially in Seattle, but their chops just never seem to be up to par. Tonight was showcasing the best of both worlds, solid opening acts with both a genuine appreciation for the crowd and the skills to actually deliver. It’s a rarity, but it’s something that should be mandatory.
The term MC has been tossed around loosely for years, but this event honestly felt more like a “ceremony” than a lot of rap shows, with the performers actually controlling the energy and engaging the crowd. And more than just three separate disconnected sets with lulls in between, this energy was sustained throughout the night and passed from one act to the next like a glowing baton. Beyond their appreciation for the audience, regardless of their position in the lineup, there was a respect for each other as artists, and, as UA was about to leave the stage to make way for their pals Flatbush Zombies to do their thing, Issa Dash made sure to let everyone know his true feelings about the headliner, Joey Bada$$: he considers him to be the best rapper alive… period.
(covering Flatbush Zombies)