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Album of the Week: “Twelve Reasons To Die: The Brown Tape” by Apollo Brown and Ghostface Killah

GFKThe-Brown-Tape

Apollo Brown and Ghostface Killah
Twelve Reasons To Die: The Brown Tape
Soul Temple Music, 2013

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The Best Hip-Hop Albums/Mixtapes of 2013 (So Far)

Kool+Herc+Fertile+Crescent

By: Daniel Hodgman

We have now reached the halfway point of 2013, and like any other critic obsessed with rankings and arbitrary lists, I’ve decided to share some of my favorite hip-hop albums and mixtapes of the year (so far). Admittedly, I didn’t think 2013 would provide as well as it has, but with a plethora of diverse works and records already out and six more months of music to add, this is going to be a good year for hip-hop. It already has been.

So without further ado, here are my favorite hip-hop albums/mixtapes of 2013 so far.

DFD- Old Boy Jon

Let me just say that Duke Westlake nailed the production on this mixtape. To be completely honest, I’m not a big fan of glossy and clean-cut production like this, but Westlake completely works with Dumbfoundead’s style. Although DFD finds himself searching for content throughout this album, it’s his ability to turn this album into a visual party that makes this worth the listen.

Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge- Twelve Reasons to Die

I’ll say it right now: I think Ghostface Killah is the most consistent Wu-Tang member when it comes to solo work. With the exception of the mediocre Ghostdini, all of Ghost’s work profiles the best while bringing in something new and unique. I can gladly say that Twelve Reasons to Die follows suit. Here Adrian Younge takes control of the production and layer cakes this record with a cleverly crafted sandbox of haunting sound that gives the sword-wielding and fist bashing lyrics a deeper meaning. I would argue that this record would be better if it was cut shorter, but there’s no denying how sweet it is to listen to such chemistry.

Homeboy Sandman- Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent EP

Homeboy Sandman is an MC from New York City and is signed with Stones Throw Records, a West Coast production company. Not that this really matters or anything, but if you follow Stones Throw (think Madlib, Guilty Simpson, J Dilla), then you know their unique underground hip-hop sound. With Kool Herc, you’re basically getting another Stones Throw, Adult Swim-esque record, but it carries itself well without this label. “Dag, Philly Too” sounds like a smarter Das Racist cut, “Lonely People” mirrors Quasimoto and crafts its own shape, and “Men Are Mortal” rattles your head lyrically, but in a good way (“I been the infamous since drinking infant milk / Whomever want to cause an incident I be like “It’s a deal” / I’m not interested in spending an instant with the infidels / Can tell I used to read Fidel and rock Big L”).

Joey Bada$$- Summer Knights

I’ve always been impressed with Joey Bada$$ because of his seemingly effortless flow, his respect of 90s hip-hop and the mere fact that he’s only 18 years old. After his 1999 mixtape hit the interwebs last year, I knew we had something special. Now that his second solo mixtape, Summer Knights, is out, I now realize Joey Bada$$ may be the second-coming of something. See, I can’t quite equate him to someone comparable, but maybe that’s why he’s so appealing. He is quite literally a new-age rapper with a 90s Golden Age mind. With that being said, he’s so much more than that. His flow is confident and smart, and yet he still carries his youth with him—which is probably why fans of all eras of hip-hop find this kid mystifying. On Summer Knights, Bada weaves stories of youth (“Trap Door”) with lessons to live by (“Word Is Bond”) while flooding the speakers with crisp cadence and guest appearances by Alchemist, Smoke DZA, DJ Premier and more.

Kid Tsunami- The Chase

Australian producer Kid Tsunami is one for nostalgia on The Chase. His beats sway easily, leaving a lot to the MC on the track, but don’t confuse this with simplicity. On “What It Was”, the construction of the song consists of a tumbling bass and Gang Starr-like horns, and although guest J-Live is the center, it’s too hard for him to conceal the contents of Tsunami’s beat. Elsewhere, KRS-One runs on “These Are the Facts”, a swift track that could accompany a car chase scene, and “Ar Toxic” a lounge-like song with guitar twangs and Kool Keith’s recognizable bars.

Killer Mike & El-P- Run the Jewels 

If R.A.P. Music hadn’t been released the same year as good kid, m.A.A.d city, it would have been “album of the year.” That’s because Killer Mike and El-P constructed a package so unique and revealing that it almost threw us all a curve. Their 2013 project is different stylistically, but just as rewarding. Run the Jewels is a harsh listen, and might even be a turnoff for those not familiar with El-P’s production (especially his work with Company Flow), however it’s harsh for all the right reasons. El-P mixes each song with choppy blips, buzzing, choppy guitars, cymbal smacking and dark and heavy synths that stab and smother. What’s most notable about Run the Jewels is that El-P retains his rapping skills and compliments Killer Mike in every way. Since R.A.P. Music didn’t grab “album of the year” in 2012, I have no problem with Run the Jewels capturing 2013.

Sadistik- Flowers For My Father

If you can get past the initial skepticism behind this project (the quirky flow at times, the album art), Flowers For My Father will truly move you. The title and subject matter of the record are telling, which, for the most part, covers the death of Sadistik’s father and the depression that ensued from the event. But sleeping beneath this cover is an MC with content that is as crippling on the ears as it is on the brain. This isn’t a bad thing either; this is an album chocked with emotion and sincerity. Flowers For My Father is built off of crumbling facades: the death of his father, holding onto hope, loss and the death of Minnesota legend Eyedea. On “Micheal”, Sadistik puts everything on the table: “With you Mike I wish that I could hug you again / It’s getting harder to pretend and I can’t undo what’s been / Thank for being someone I could come to, a friend / I hope I make you proud, I love you, the end.”

Statik Selektah- Extended Play

Not only does every track on Extended Play standout with Statik Selektah’s timeless East Coast boom-bap production, but every track also features emcees of all eras coming in and showing off. There are 38 guests in total ranging from Action Bronson and Black Thought to Prodigy and Smif-n-Wessun, and while at times this record has a mixtape-like feel with disheveled content and parity, there’s no denying Stat’s ability to construct a solid record from top to bottom. The variation within the album is there too. On “Game Break”, an airy track with skinny piano chords, backing synth coos and a SWV sample, Lecrae, Posdnuos and Termanology talk about the game making them better men (“Get something man, cultivate a creation / Don’t blame it on your lack of education”). Comparatively, “Pinky Ring” sees Prodigy spitting over a funk-driven track with eerie background squeaks and loose percussion swells. See, Extended Play might not be as cohesive as other albums, but it successfully melds different sounds and eras into one of the most listenable records of the year.

Styles P- Float

Styles P has always been one of the most respected MCs out of New York City because of his strict attention to detail and consistency. With Float, P continues to tread along this blueprint while at the same time throwing in some curveball experimental sound; “Hater Love” sounds like a thrashing epic from a mafia movie, “Red Eye” hops like a dark-disco beat that could fit in the Roll Bounce soundtrack and “Shoot You Down” plays like any other big city anthem with light horns, soaring vocal samples and sample interludes within the contents of the track. Lyrically, P is dominating in every aspect. On the eerie “Manson Murder,” he puts it all on the table: “Basically, hit you with the hard nigga recipe / Fuck you! If you ain’t with me, you’re next to me / I ain’t one for the small talk / Goes to get it in it like Nucky on Boardwalk.”

Ugly Heroes- Ugly Heroes

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.

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Hip-Hop and Comic Books: The Undeniable Connection

LeslievilleSuperheroMural

By: Daniel Hodgman

Connections

The relationship between hip-hop and comic books has always been an ever-present facet when talking about the driving forces behind hip-hop culture as a whole. It isn’t that this connection is a dominating topic like political consciousness in certain songs or the radical prowess of certain artists, but it’s prevalent everywhere in hip-hop. In fact, comic books are spread all throughout hip-hop that it can be considered a sub-culture stemming from the main branch. From Daniel Dumile’s MF DOOM moniker, which derives directly from the villain in Marvel’s Fantastic Four, to graffiti street artists covering walls with comic legends, hip-hop and comic books have formed a flirtatious relationship that continually binds two ever-growing cultures.

Beyond all the music and in-song references, hip-hop and comics actually tread the same water dynamically in other realms. The first thing that comes to mind is that both were cultural rejects in the early days. Comic book culture didn’t see its Golden Age until the late 1930s, despite its existence since the late 1800s. And when urban movements that were considered “hip-hop” in the 1970s formulated, they were strictly underground, not seeing mainstream success until the late 80s. To add, these two cultures both started out in New York City2.

Another connection that shouldn’t be discarded is that hip-hop and comic books both value the physical setting. Hip-hop as a movement and as a culture has always been rooted with location, hometowns and respects for the given city an artist has grown up in. No matter what city or country an MC or group is from, these artists take every opportunity to rep the area code they were brought up in. To an extent, it’s almost an unwritten rule, like giving credit where credit is due. Whether it’s Atmosphere’s “Say Shhh,” an ode to Minneapolis, or Redman’s Newark celebrating “Brick City Mashin,” artists from all over the hip-hop world keep the physical setting close to their heart.

The world of comics revolves around the same motif. No matter what the story, the characters or the content, setting in comic books plays as big of a role as the story; Superman is to Metropolis as Batman is to Gotham as Spider-Man is to New York City as Thor is to Asgard and so on. What’s even more interesting—despite some exceptions—is that most hip-hop and comic book settings are based in an urban setting. Maybe one of the instrumental factors leading to the hip-hop comic book connection is this very fact. Since these two cultures are so relatable with each other, it’s no wonder that comic books are so prominent in hip-hop.

It’s an odd relationship, but when citizens of Gotham point to the sky and say, “there goes Batman,” it’s to the same extent as the people of New York City pointing to their televisions and shouting, “there’s Run-D.M.C. getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!” It’s a sense of pride the community has for these figures that really connects these two worlds. As much as a superhero or MC takes pride in their city, there is no doubt that the city takes just as much pride in that certain individual or group.

Spread Throughout the Field

Aside from the connections, comic books have consistently been a part of the hip-hop world physically. From De La Soul to Madvillain, artists from all over the culture continually rep comic books on selected cuts and separate projects.

One of the first examples of comic book culture making an appearance in hip-hop was with De La Soul’s 1991 epic De La Soul Is Dead. When the record was originally released, it was accompanied by De La Soul Is Dead #1, a comic that told the story of the trio and their music saving listeners from Vanilla Ice.

More recently, Felt3 released a comic with their second studio album A Tribute to Lisa Bonet. Jim Mahfood, a well-known comic book creator4 and fan of hip-hop, illustrated the book. The comic itself is a visual interpretation of the album, and Mahfood takes the lyrics from the album and inserts them into the books dialogue.

With all of this, hip-hop artists don’t just release comic books with records. Sentences: The Life of MF GRIMM, illustrated by Ronald Wimberly, is an interesting graphic novel that covers GRIMM’s life through ink and paneling. It’s a serious take on everything the MC went through, from being shot and becoming paralyzed, to his drug conviction and life sentence.

Cell Block Z (2009) is a comic book that was written by Ghostface Killah5 that dives into the world of Cole Dennis, a boxer that is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. From there, the story sees Cole try to figure out and solve the situation he is burdened with. Cell Block Z is actually the second Wu-related graphic novel; Method Man released a self-titled book in 2008.

A Timeless Venture

The relationship between hip-hop and comic books is a timeless venture between two cultures that are continually growing and evolving. As these two cultures continue to spread and spring branches into various vectors, its undeniable that the connection they share will never diminish. From the specific characteristic nature they both possess to the comic book references being made by hip-hop artists, the only foreseeable change is that more MCs and comic book creators will join forces.

If You Like Hip-Hop and Comics, You Might Like…

MF GRIMM- “Scars & Memories” video set to his graphic novel Sentences: The Life of MF GRIMM

Madvillain- “All Caps” music video 

Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge’s “Twelve Reasons to Die” 


2 Hip-hop itself is an enduring form of struggle that has been around for centuries, but the pillars and actual branches (spread of music, art and dance) only started to surface in the 1970s.

3 Felt is the duo and fusion of hip-hop legends Slug (Atmosphere) and MURS.

4 Mahfood has done work on Marvel’s Spectacular Spider-Man, Ultimate Marvel Team-Up and Kevin Smith’s Clerks comics.

5 Chris Walker, Shauna Garr and Marlon Chapman are also authors of Cell Block Z.

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