Abra – “Roses”

Awful Records is, without a doubt, one of my favorite finds this year. The prolific Atlanta-based collective, which counts somewhere near a dozen heads among its ranks, has been steadily gaining momentum since sometime in 2014. And with good reason: they manage to somehow produce consistently quality rap music while maintaining their independence both creatively and financially within the Mecca of over-produced carbon-copy radio rap.

This can be at least partially chalked up to their idiosyncratic DIY approach to production, which finds obvious influence from broad palette of sounds spanning well beyond the reaches of pop music. But their real quirk comes from their cadre of oddball MCs—Father, iLoveMakonnen, Ethereal, OG Maco and Key! and the rest — who spit off-the-wall raps and hooks that are refreshingly absent of drugs and violence.

As an R&B singer and the cohort’s only female, Abra is something of an outlier within a crew of outliers—an exception to an exception. And her debut, Roses, released this summer, is accordingly unique, and likely one of 2015’s best releases.

As with the rest of the Awful clique, production is sparse and understated. The sound of modern Atlanta-style rap clearly informs the it but so do more exotic sounds like British drum & bass and Darkwave synthpop (in fact she has styled herself as “Dutchess of Darkwave”). There’s a density, an emotional weight perhaps, to this record that belies the simplicity of its structure.

The emotional heft is not from the lyrics, which trod well-worn themes in R&B—love and heart break etc.—but from the sonic character of her voice, and how well the plaintive piano melodies, scattershot 808 snares, gurgling synthesizers and cavernous basslines accompany it. It’s a cohesive artistic statement from someone whom we should be hearing much more from in the future.

Check out the rest of album here:

Here’s a non-album track featuring Awful Records boss Father

Knxledge

There are a lot of guys that try to make this kind of music. Legions of MPC (er-Fruity Loops)-wielding crate diggers trying to find that perfect obscure soul sample to flip into a beat. And everyone inevitably evokes J Dilla or Madlib when describing this sort of endeavor. Press releases want you to know this is like a Jay Dee track, or that is Madlib-inspired. Music writers are probably even worse with the lazy comparisons. And the producers themselves? Well most would probably welcome being called the next Dilla or the next Beat Konductor.

So, at a certain point, one just get kind of desensitized to it all. I used to be really into “beats,” but it all got so eff-ing predictable—just a copy of a copy of a copy of someone raiding J Dilla‘s vinyl collection.

Enter the Knxledge.

Pronounced Knowledge (the ex is actually an oh), this guy has been on the scene for a while now, but this year he’s really blowing up with a slew of high profile production credits (including Kendrick Lamar’s opus To Pimp a Butterfly) and an absurdly dope long-player called Hud Dreams released via Stones Throw Records.

He’s got a ton of stuff out—srsly, a metric shit-ton of stuff—but let’s just talk about that album. It’s laid out like a mixtape with the beats (usually under 2 minutes) running into each other. There aren’t a lot of crazy production tricks or studio gimmicks here, just a really good ear for sampling and a (obviously) deep crate digger with an intuitive flare for rhythm. These tracks sound effortless, sloppy even, but in the right way if you get me? They’re busting at the seems with the DNA of obscure soul, doo wop and jazz, all chopped into swaggering boom-bap that recalls the golden days of yore.

One final point to consider, because I am going to place this in it’s rightful lineage: How many of knock off Dillas can say they signed to Stones Throw, the label that actually put out all that seminal Dilla and Madlib? Exactly.

But, why take my word for it, give it a listen yourself:

Here’s a sick video of him jamming some beats live in the basement:

And here’s the first single from the man’s R&B project titled Nx Worries.

Also, dude is putting up new beats on his Soundcloud like daily, check it out:

Open Mike Eagle – “A Special Episode Of” EP

Los Angeles-based Mike Eagle, who raps as Open Mike Eagle, has been in the game for a minute, paying dues as a battle MC, and establishing himself with legendary open-mic workshop-turned-record-label Project Blowed. The Chicago transplant also has ties with Mush Records, and L.A.’s Hellfyre Club crew.

His cadence is measured and his delivery, spirited, and lyrically, he strikes just the right balance of clever and ridiculous. He also manages to do so without becoming irritating like so many other nerdy rappers who try to be “clever” and “funny.”

For the proof, just check out this little gem of an EP he recently dropped this  on his Bandcamp page, it’s got guest spots from milo and MC Paul Barman, plus there’s production from Exile and Gold Panda.

milo

My first exposure to Rory Fereira, who raps as milo, came back in 2012,  when i stumbled across a bootleg mixtape of his verses over instrumentals from LA-based Anticon affiliate and DECIBELity fave Baths– aptly titled, Milo Takes Baths.

Fereira, who got his start rapping in a Wisconsin hip-hop outfit called Nom de Rap, is a college drop out, a reformed philosophy major, whose interest in the cannon of western thought permeates his post-modernist lyrics, to mingle with navel gazing observations, references to Internet culture, bad puns and other absurdities.

This distinct concoction of lyrical subject matter, combined with a somewhat monotone droll and a penchant for esoteric beats that click and pop rather than boom and bap, place him squarely in the tradition of the leftfield art hip-hop pushed by Anticon.

Feirra’s music offers us a fresh angle on the wordy nerd rap trope; he’s probably the only MC you will ever here quote the famous last line of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus “Where of one cannot speak, there of one must be silent” and then rhyme it with “but I yawned and I burped and I passed gas loudly.”

It certainly doesn’t hurt his case that his choice of production is superb. All of these tracks are abstract and heady but without over doing it i.e. crossing into avant masturbatory electronic noodling, rather they form a perfect vehicle for Fereira’s stream of conscious monologues.

His latest record A Toothpaste Suburb, released this fall on Hellfyer Club is one my picks for 2014.  A few guests pop up along the way such as fellow label mate Busdriver and Das Racist alum Kool AD, but it’s Fereira ideosyncratic affect that really carries this record.

 

 

Check out the rest here.

Here’s some of his older work which is definitely worth a listen.

And here is the the aforementioned Baths “tape”.

Salva – “Peacemaker”

Paul Salva isn’t new to the game so to speak. He’s clocked time living in Chicago, Miami and the Bay Area among other places, and paid his dues early in the world of turntableism, soaking up the influences of his various locals— be it Miami bass, techno or IDM. In  2011, he hooked up with the Friends of Friends crew to release his debut Complex Housing as well as a pair of subsequent  EPs.

With his most recent project Peacemaker, the (currently) LA-based producer has assembled an impressive array MCs, some of the games hottest up-and-comers. And while managing to get Young Thug, Freddie Gibbs and ASAP Ferg on the same track is impressive, it’s Salva‘s beats that will stay with you afterward—simply put: these tracks hit harder than fuck!

Download the whole thing for free here.

 

Run the Jewels 2

The sequel to last summer’s collaboration between underground hip-hop pioneer and Definitive Jux impresario El-P and Organized Noise/Dungeon Family-affiliated Atlanta rapper Killer Mike is essentially more of the same—and those familiar with the first installment will recognize this as absolutely a good thing.

A more fully formed incarnation of the concept, RTJ2 is a proper album to RTJ’s mixtape.

The beats bang at least as hard as the first time around, and there are some pretty interesting guest spots including (from seemingly out of nowhere) former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha and Three 6 Mafia’s Gangsta Boo, who turns in probably most over-the-top verse on an album characterized by its over-the-top-ness.

Of course it’s Mike and El who are the main attraction; the two MCs—each at the top of his game—trade dexterous, multi-syllabic verses, feeding off each others considerable intensity in a synergistic game of one-up-man-ship, and demonstrating, in the process, that they’re two of the best doing it right now.

You can download the whole thing in exchange for an email address over at the Run the Jewels website, or if you’re the kind of person who pays for your music grab the physical release (a la carte or as part of plethora of bonus package options) here.

Adrian Younge

A Composer, arranger, producer, multi-instrumentalist, law professor, film scorer, studio owner, record store and salon/barber shop proprietor, DJ, label head and avid collector of rare vinyl, certainly no one could accuse Adrian Younge of being one dimensional (or leading a boring life).

Over the past few years the LA-based renaissance man’s esteem in the hip-hop world has risen meteorically, due in no small part to his unique production style—part RZA, part Ennio Morricone and part Motown—which eschews computers entirely, in favor of classic analog gear, sort of like a rap equivalent of folks at Dap Tone Records. Younge’s music is composed of all original parts (drums, horns, strings, organs—you name it) played by his house band Venice Dawn and captured the traditional way—completely analog, from vintage preamps to mixing console to outboard processing gear to 2” analog tape. Younge then takes all of stems, chops and loops them through a sampler and arranges them into lush, multi-faceted hip-hop tracks with a distinctly “live” feel.

Younge’s talents have also led him to creating soundtrack for the neo Blacksploitation flick Black Dynamite” 

…as well as a collaboration with the legendary Delfonics.

His latest project, There is Only Now, released on his own Linear Labs imprint, sees him teaming up with Oakland legends Souls of Mischief to produce the most vital and by far flat-out dopest thing the foursome have released since their ‘90s heyday. The suite of songs takes the form of a narrative loosely based (which is to say it’s an embellishment) on actual events, where unidentified, masked men attempted to assassinate the golden-era rap crew outside a club, during the height of their popularity.

Concept albums are notoriously difficult to pull off: either the concept is half-baked or (as is more often the case) the project is choked by filler. But Younge is in a unique position, having experience in the film industry and having already produced 12 Reasons to Die (featured on DecibalCast 17) with Ghostface Killah, an acclaimed collaboration that saw the Wu Tang don in classic form spinning a gritty Mafioso narrative complete with intrigue, betrayal and murder over what baroque, cinematic production.

In addition to some seriously accomplished rapping from the Souls and Younge’s aforementioned production, There is Only Now is peppered with cameos from a slew of esteemed guests (people clambering to work with Younge) including Snoop Dog, Busta Rhymes and Ali Shaheed Mohamed, who play the parts of various characters in the story.

And the future is looking very bright. In a recent interview with the eminent Gilles Petersen Younge detailed upcoming projects, including forthcoming albums with Snoop Dog, Cee-Lo Green and A Tribe Called Quest‘s Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

Shabazz Palaces – “Les Majesty”

Sophomore albums can be tricky business, particularly when the record to be followed up on is as brazenly and uncompromisingly brilliant as Black Out (SubPop), which dropped on an unsuspecting world with the force and precision of a laser guided-missile. It was, simply put, a revelation. There was nothing at the time even remotely like it.

So the challenge in these types of situations is always: “How to meet expectations without just rotely rehashing what worked in the past?”, but pulling this off requires a deft balancing act, which all-too-frequently can’t be maintained by the heretofore celebrated act. (It doesn’t help that we, as a culture, so enjoy holding our idols aloft only to tear them down as soon as they misstep.) Fortunately for us (and also for them I guess), Shabazz Palaces avoided all that shit, by doubling down on what made them so great in the first place: their eclectic and unabashed weirdness—a wellspring that has proven remarkably deep. The Seattle-based duo went even further out on their trip and in the process created a record that while demanding becomes, upon repeated listens, a thoroughly satisfying sonic experience.

Shabazz Palaces tearing up the New Parish (Oakland CA) on July 29, 2014

Expansive and (let’s be honest) obtuse at times, Les Magestey contains most of what was great about Black Outthe mystic imagery, the Afro-futurist motifs, the startling attention to texture and detail—but as an album, is paced much differently.  The “songs” are shorter and more numerous, blending together with dream-like interludes, creating larger “movements.” The atmosphere is denser and weirder. And the beats slink along rather than smacking the listener upside the head.

I caught these guys in Oakland a couple of weeks ago, and fuck it might have been the best show I’ve seen all year. (Here’s some video courtesy of YouTube user Johnohnoh)

You can purchase Les Majesty here, and check out some of the songs below.

Shabazz Palaces – Motion Sickness from Tourist on Vimeo.

Lone – “Reality Testing”

Matt Cutler has been recording under his Lone moniker since at least 2007. In that time, he has carved something of a niche for himself, developing a style that fuses ’90s golden-era hip-hop production with fat analog techno.

Reality Testing, his latest offering, released via R&S Records earlier this summer, is the most fully realized incarnation of Lone sound.

Besides playing nicely as an album (as opposed to merely a collection of tracks) it manages a to deftly balance decorum and functionality, effortlessly jumping back and forth between glowing electro-infused boom-bap and vintage Chicago house music.

Even when he’s in full-on dance mode, the rhythms remain interesting, slightly off-kilter, syncopated with a tilted swing anchored by throbbing analog bass lines and a colorful array of synthesized melodies.

“I think there’s always been a connection with certain house and hip-hop tunes, or any electronic music for that matter. I’m always drawn to any form of electronic music that has the rawness of hip-hop production,” Lone recently told Resident Advisor.

Here are a few previews from Reality Testing.

And here is his Resident Advisor podcast showcasing the primary musical influences behind behind the album.

RA Podcast Episode 420 Lone

Tracklist 
Kenji Kawaii – Unnatural City 2
Tha Alkaholiks – Killin’ It
Mobb Deep – Temperature’s Rising
Ghetto Concept – Much Love (Instrumental)
Pete Rock feat. Method Man – Half Man, Half Amazin’
Gangstarr feat. Inspektah Deck – Above The Clouds
Klear Soul Forces – Get No Better
Hieroglyphics – You Never Knew
Lone – 2 Is 8
Boards Of Canada – Opening The Mouth
Theo Parrish – Lost Angel
Urban Beat Dance – Urban Dust
Anthony Naples – Tusk
Seven Davis Jr – Celebrations (Funkineven Edit)
Brawther – Spaceman Funk (Deep Club Mix)
Brownstone Express – Metro
Omar S – Set It Out
Jtc – South Brooks
Greg Beato – Pma

DecibelCast Vol. 20 “The Nineteen Ninety-Four Tape”

dB20

The idea with this one is pretty straight forward: It’s our 20th DecibelCast, and it’s been 20 years since 1994, so here’s a 20th anniversary celebration of hip-hop in 1994.

1994 was a massive year for hip-hop; many believe it to be the genre’s creative zenith (although I think you could make a case for 1993, 1995 and probably 1996 as well). The West Coast G-funk sound was still largely dominant, but the tides were turning and New York was again asserting itself— setting the stage for the East-West battle of the mid-’90s

Biggie and Nas both released their debut LPs–both were insta-classics. Gang Starr, Jeru the Damaja, Organized Konfusion, The Beatnuts, Digable Planets and The Beastie Boys all put out great records.  The Roots signed to a major label, Slick Rick dropped an album from prison, and the Wu Tang takeover was gaining momentum. In the south UGK and the Ghetto Boys were continuing to do their own thing, and an unknown duo from Atlanta called OutKast quietly offered the world a glimpse of the future of hip-hop. On the other side of the Atlantic Mo’ Wax was inventing trip-hop with singles from DJ Shadow and DJ Krush at the same time a French tastemaker called DJ Cam was perfecting his mad blunted jazz  sound.

This mix largely focuses on the resurgent New York style of ’94. It’s an ode to East Coast boom-bap, which has aged much better than the West Coast G-funk.

dB20 “The Nineteen Ninety Four Tape”

Side A

Digale Planets – “Dog it”

Brand Nubian – “Word is Bond”

The Roots – “Mellow My Man”

Artifacts – “C’Mon With Da Git Down”

UGK – “Front Back & Side to Side”

The Beatnuts – “Superbad”

Big L – “Put it On”

DJ Cam – “Gangsta Sh*t”

Notorious B.I.G. – “The What” feat. Method Man

Scientifik – “As Long as You Know”

Gravediggaz – “1-800 Suicide”

Beastie Boys feat. Q Tip – “Get it Together”

MF Grimm feat. KMD – “What a Nigga Know” (Remix)

Peanut Butter Wolf – “Currents”

 

Side B

Del – “Undisputed Champs” feat. Pep Love and Q-Tip

Jeru the Damaja – “Come Clean”

Society – “F.U.N.K.”

Outkast – “Git Up, Git Out”

Nas – “One Time for Your Mind”

Thug Life – “Pour Out a Little Liquor”

Heavy D feat. 2pac, Notorious B.I.G. and Grand Puba – “Let’s Get it On”

DJ Krush – “Am 300 Tag”

Gang Starr – “Mostly the Voice”

Common Sense – “I Used to Love H.E.R.”

Sway & King Tech – “Wake Up Show Anthem (1994)” feat. Nas, Lauren Hill, Pharoahe Monch, Prince Po, Rass Kass, Dred Scott, Saafir & Shyhe

Raekwon – “Heaven or Hell” feat. Ghostface Killah

DJ Shadow – “What Does Your Soul Look Like (12” Single Mix)