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Album of the Week: “Gas Mask” by The Left

the left gas mask

The Left (Apollo Brown, Journalist 103, DJ Soko)
Gas Mask
MelloMusicGroup, 2010

Daniel’s Thought

The Left consists of Apollo Brown, Journalist 103 and DJ Soko. I feel compelled to lay this out on the forefront right away, because if these three names aren’t showcased, then Gas Mask and its ability to showcase collaboration will go right over your head. See, without each fundamental piece, Gas Mask fails immensely. On the beats, Apollo Brown throws down robust production that melds haunting samples with industrial backbeats. Journalist 103 compliments the beats by running parallel beside them, and DJ Soko throws in cuts that enhance the track and engage the listener. Beyond this, Gas Mask is a record that throws hip-hop survival in your face. With an ever-changing Detroit, The Left prove that they’re the “status of legends” by sticking with the environment and preaching their experiences at every turn.

“Chokehold” is an immediate example of this. It cruises sonically, with swelling horns and stretched vocal samples, and on top of this, Journalist 103 and Paradime lyrically shape the track to their liking. There’s a definitive difference between their styles, but both of them manage to stay on top of Apollo’s production with ease. The breakdown in “Chokehold” is the most impressive feature however, where the horns march accordingly until the breakbeat kicks in and the MCs grasp the mic. “Only a few can ride beside me,” Journalist 103 slings. “I rep the home of big Proof and Dilla that’s where you’ll find me.”

Apollo Brown’s distinct sampling techniques and percussion production may seem tedious at times, but that’s part of what makes Gas Mask such a cohesive record. “Caged Birds” clatters with open hi-hat smacks; “Battle Axe” expands organ synths and compounds them with drilling bass throbs that intimidate; and “Real Detroit” shows off Brown’s ability to create symphonic masterpieces.

The guests on Gas Mask are more than just respectable MCs made to fill a record; they’re imperative to its success. From Guilty Simpson to Frank West, the “extras” on this record enhance its sound and improve it beyond normal means. On “Statistics,” a song that poignantly thrashes the “stat game” of America, guest MC Invincible lays down one of the most impressive verses on the whole record. “So free your mind up, this is a reminder / The United States incarcerates more than they do in China / We only 5 percent of all the world’s pop but / It’s 25 percent of all the world’s locked up / So I wonder how to break the cycle will it ever stop? / If we see people as numbers than we make them check a box.

If Gas Mask is the best hip-hop record Detroit’s made in the last five years, then I really wouldn’t mind. At times, this record seems stressed, but when looking at the bigger picture, that’s exactly what The Left had intended. Gas Mask is the fight, the struggle, the liveliness and the celebration of Detroit, and very rarely does ANY record accomplish such a feat regarding its given city.

Gus’ Thought

Released by Mello Music Group in 2010, Gas Mask, by The Left is made up of Apollo Brown, Journalist 103 and DJ Soko. This record begins with the classic hip-hop intro track. There is the sound of static and it sounds as if a radio dial is being shifted from station to station. From there we are thrown right into the fire on the first full-length cut, “Gas Mask,” where Journalist 103 describes the state of mainstream hip-hop. Over a flawlessly crafted Apollo Brown track complete with horns and trademark kick drum and snare, Journalist 103 is off:

I had a vision when I started spittin’ / To be a part of the hip-hop conglomerate amongst the illest / But right now it’s a real sickness, an epidemic of gimmicks is being spread through your sound system / Not everybody gotta dance, sing along with it / Just lean, snap and pop back and you’ll get it.

As the album progresses, the realness of The Left continues to take shape. By the start of the third full-length song, “Binoculars,” Gas Mask emerges as an example of how the collaboration of artists can be used to create engaging content without sacrificing the message they wish to convey. In this case, The Left uses music to describe the city of Detroit, the status quo of popular music, profiling based on race and gender and how they process that experience.

From a production standpoint, Journalist 103 and a myriad of guest appearances from the likes of Guilty Simpson, Invincible, Marvwon and Hasaan Mackey flawlessly compliment the gritty, soulful style of Apollo Brown’s beats. For instance, without the forceful, slightly irregular hi-hats, steady kick drum and splattering snare hits, the song “Statistics” would not be as impactful. With the beat, Journalist 103 and Invincible are able to go to work and tell the story of a man and a woman fighting to survive while facing the disastrous effects of stereotypes based on race, gender and socio-economic status. As it is stated at the end of 103’s verse, “Either the grave or the cell’s what I’m headed for / Cause based off of the statistics I’m prepared for it.” With Invincible’s verse, she tells the story of a woman reaching out for help”

Every life has got about as much a chance of surviving the circumstances as guessin’ Joker’s coin flip / Made an appointment and she met up with the welfare / Office tried to get a bit of medaciad and healthcare / But they had jumpin through the hula hoops / To get some help is hard as tryin’ to pull a tooth / Her heart, it wasn’t bullet proof.

These lyrics would be powerful regardless of the beat. However, their meaning is amplified by Apollo Brown’s ability to craft strong beats that accentuate the story the MC is trying to tell.

This is true of the entire album, making it an engaging and educational listen. The best part of this record is that it never gets boring. For me there is always something new that I didn’t catch the first time around. Besides that, the subject matter within the album is important to think about and attempt to change in our everyday lives. If you’re looking to hear some fire, think about something from a different perspective and suffer from whiplash from nodding to the beat that Gas Mask is for you.

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Album of the Week: Ugly Heroes Self-Titled Debut

UGLY_HEROES_COVER_1500x1500-1Web_Front

Ugly Heroes
Ugly Heroes
Mellow Music Group

Daniel’s Thought

One of the gripping realities about life is that it’s cruel and unfair no matter what kind of character life’s thundering blow is hammering on. For the blue-collar everyday man living paycheck to paycheck and facing the constant realities of life, Ugly Heroes deserve to be the representatives. On their debut self-titled album, Red Pill and Verbal Kent waste no time laying down a verbal guide to life’s cyclical nature through their eyes, while Apollo Brown provides luminous beats forged from masterful sampling and bombarding percussion tones. The real catch of Ugly Heroes is the cohesion that Brown provides to Red and Verbal’s bars, and as their inflexible lines of life hit, Brown’s vivid craft supplements this perfectly to create an album that is both enduring and influential.

Red Pill and Verbal Kent are straightforward from the very opening cut to the fading outro of “Push,” and by putting everything on the table they’ve provided a contextual album that neither feels like a gimmick or glossy with tricky wordplay. The plodding rhythm of “Long Drive Home” discusses insecurities, anxiety and overall stress while “Desperate” features the two MCs detailing the harsh realities of their hometowns and compounding circumstance (“Shattering that tax bracket you sick of us” / “Bills piling up so I don’t see you smiling much”). Elsewhere, Ugly Heroes track the idea of people living paycheck to paycheck until the end of their days (“Graves”), the importance of holding onto relationships and friendships in dwindling conditions (“Hold On”) and the notion that if you don’t live in the present and appreciate some of the smaller things then everything will burden you (“Just Relax”).

From an outsider’s standpoint, Ugly Heroes is a concept album that covers everything from class structure to human emotion, but once you delve into the record it becomes apparent that it’s an anthem for hip-hop as a whole. Though most of the record is negative and downtrodden in content, songs like “Just Relax” and “Push” gives Ugly Heroes a light of confidence that only strengthens it as a whole. Red Pill and Verbal Kent are sincere and bold throughout, and Apollo Brown’s lush sample-heavy production provides the two MCs a beat to march to. Even with all of the hype surrounding this project, Ugly Heroes exceeded expectations in almost every category.

Gus’ Thought 

After listening to Ugly Heroes (via Mello Music Group), it is clear that this album could not have been released at a better time. With production from Apollo Brown and profound rhymes from Red Pill and Verbal Kent, the three of these underrated hip-hop artists use the art as a means of storytelling and addressing the real plight of the everyman and the blue collar worker; the ugly hero. This is the person who lives paycheck to paycheck, trying to make ends meet; this is the person whose social class renders them a victim of the “War on Drugs,” the prison-industrial complex, low-income jobs and gentrification.

This is why Ugly Heroes is such an insightful album. Red Pill and Verbal Kent are using their lyrics to speak on their everyday experiences. For example, both MCs touch on substance abuse, poverty and class struggle. This is especially clear in songs such as “Desperate,” “Graves,” “God’s Day Off” and “Hero’s Theme.” In “Desperate,” Apollo Brown utilizes forebodingly soulful samples as Red Pill posits, “While these motherfuckers pop bottles / I’m takin pop bottles back into the store so I can get some Top Ramen / What the fuck they know about that rock bottom.” And in “Graves” Red Pill raps about working a low paying job, “Between the hard drinking / And the smoking, start thinking/ ‘Bout the folks who gotta do this to they graves / You can’t afford to walk up off the job / Cause you gotta get your money and your money is your god.”  With songs such as these, they articulate the lives of people that are swept under the rug.

While Red Pill and Verbal Kent are from Detroit and Chicago respectively, their words reach to people beyond these two cities. With their words, Kent and Pill are able to take the audience to an extremely reflective place. Their words however, would have less significance without the brilliance of Apollo Brown. Originally from Grand Rapids, Apollo Brown is able to push the listener into a thoughtful disposition before the words even begin. Using numerous horn, piano and R&B samples he is able to create an atmosphere of contemplation with his slow and deliberate beats that always hit hard and perfectly accompany the MC(s) he is working alongside.

With hard-hitting, honest lyricism and purposeful beat-making, Ugly Heroes takes us to a place far beyond the intense, sensational news found on T.V., the Internet and social media. Instead, they take us to the street corners, parking lots and homes where good people wake up everyday trying to survive and stay above water. On Ugly Heroes, Apollo Brown, Red Pill and Verbal Kent create a tone of reflection that allows us to question popular culture, consider our values and think about what a Hero even is.

Stay tuned next week for a Bonus Cut exclusive interview with Red Pill! 

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