Monday, September 22, 2008

Ryan, Jason and Curtis: Why Detroit runs hip-hop

Oooh baybee! Betta DUCK, baybee!!!

In the 21st Century, we’ve become a culture of rap fans driven by production.

Sure, the beat has always been a critical aspect of hip-hop, but I think we’re muting emcees’ words and allowing production to guide our listening experiences more than ever. Next time you run into a 16-year-old girl playing Jay-Z in her iPod, ask her if she can recite the verse of the song she’s listening to.

As hip-hop evolves (devolves?), I don’t think we’ve had much of a choice. Our apathy for meaningful and/or well-delivered lyrics is the only way that we can live in a zeitgeist where popular music magazines support Lil’ Wayne’s self-aggrandizing-yet-painfully-off-base “Best Rapper Alive” title.

But every now and again, with the seeming frequency of Halley’s Comet, you get those rappers who are not just lyrical, but whose flow can stand alone. Cats who actually guide the beat instead of the other way around. Cats who can make a Tony Dofat track sound like a Pete Rock wet dream. Cats from whom you’d listen to 16 bars over no beat whatsoever.

If you’d have asked me a decade ago, I would have laughed if you told me that the game’s very best contemporary rappers would be dwelling right there in my struggling rust belt of a hometown in southeast Michigan. But right now, no other city has Detroit beat for good rap music, thanks to Elzhi, Royce Da 5’9” and Black Milk.

Ten years ago, when Eminem dropped his first major label album, The Slim Shady LP, my immediate favorite track was, “Bad Meets Evil,” a duet with Em and Royce, whom I’d never heard before. I was impressed by the white boy’s prowess back then, but his guest actually owned him on that cut, bar for bar.

I’ve followed Royce’s career ever since, and was always perplexed by the second-fiddle role to mentor Eminem that he allowed, despite his undeniable mastery of rhyme style and cadence. Royce was more listenable because he had Eminem’s raw skill on the mic and none of the pop culture histrionics that made the latter so popular.

But three mediocre Royce albums produced only one truly powerful, memorable cut: the DJ Premier-produced “Boom,” which is probably somewhere in my top 20 joints of all time. Following the dissolution of the relationship with his great white mentor and a brief jail stint, he came back with a vengeance last year: older, angrier and brimming to remind folks that he was, indeed, still on the motherfucking scene. The result was The Bar Exam; probably the best mixtape I’ve ever heard.

The first time I heard Elzhi was on J. Dilla’s 2001 Welcome 2 Detroit album. I heard his verses here and there and respected his transition into a Dilla-free Slum Village, but I didn’t really acknowledge him as a force to be reckoned with until the group’s self-titled 2005 album, on which he blacked out on damn near every verse. When Royce was off the scene in the middle of this decade, Elzhi stepped in for the D and basically annihilated every track he was on. All other rappers on a track with him fell in the shadow of his verses. I’ve literally been waiting years for a full-length Elzhi LP, so you can imagine how I felt this past July.

The Slum album was also the first that brought Black Milk on my radar. As one-half of production crew BR Gunna (with Young RJ), he made no secret about trying to emulate J. Dilla’s signature sound. Since Dilla left us at the beginning of ’06, Black has rightfully ascended to the throne – Detroit hip-hop’s panacea for the loss of its patriarch. Dude swung for the fences with the extremely capable Sound of the City, Vol. 1, and hit a home run with his freshman album Popular Demand, my personal favorite for album production in 2007.

MK’s the best producer on the scene right now, bar none. He can make just about any emcee more listenable than they were, and he’s reached that elusive DJ Premier status where I listen to every cut he produces, regardless of the waterhead rapping over it. What excites me more is the faith that he hasn’t even peaked yet, and that we have years and years of those drums that just don’t stop ahead of us.

Oh yeah…he’s a rapper too, but he should definitely expend more energy playing up his production capabilities, much like someone else we know.

I find myself troubled when trying to determine who, between Royce and Elzhi, I think is more skilled. What they have in common is purity on the microphone: they were both born to emcee. With Class-A lyrical exercise, they both have a tendency to completely black out on a verse; making you rewind the track on some “damn, did he just say that?!?!?”

The main difference between the two lies in their delivery: Elzhi sounds like he’s more meticulous and scrutinizing about the bars he puts on paper, while Royce demonstrates an unrestrained nihilism makes him literally scary. Elzhi strikes you as the dude who, despite his battle-happy words, would rather keep peace, while Royce has demonstrated time and again simply does not give a fuck…which could result in something epic very soon.

In a battle, I’d pick Royce all day over Elzhi and just about anyone else. He’s the type to make an opponent laugh through an examination of all the flaws being exposed about him. But Elzhi’s proven he’s actually adept at storytelling; I’ve never heard Royce paint a picture like Zhi does in Talkin’ in My Sleep.” Elzhi also sounds far more at home in the studio: The Preface, and the slightly-superior Europass LP, both take mango-sized dumps on any project Royce ever put out not called The Bar Exam.

None of these cats, Black MK included, embody cerebral hip-hop. All three are at home in their love for gun-clapping bravado and finding as many clever ways (successfully) to describe the use of a 9 mm. But if you look at the Notorious B.I.G.’s and the Big L’s and all these emcees we consider posthumous legends, most of their songs utilized clever, witty methods and wordplay to rap about much of nothing. This is simply expected in the genre, and it’s why most get a “spit that bullshit” pass.

The current representatives of the Detroit sound are throwbacks to the late 90’s era of hip-hop, when the boom-bap was still alive but on its way south. Popular hip-hop wouldn’t lick your lollipop you or lock your love down…it’d blow your fucking head off and piss on your open neck cavity. None of these cats will ever gain mainstream success – save maybe Milk, if the right cats get their hands on his beats – but that’s not the purpose they serve in the game. They are to keep content the nerds and quasi-purists like me hanging on for dear life to the days of old.

I’ll reiterate what the nets have pretty much unanimously agreed with: These three need to team up to do a full album together, as the results would be legendary. And if you don’t believe the hype, listen to them at work here.

Viva la Detroit.


DocBoone said...

The track from The Preface... Motown 25 is killing em right now...


jstrategist said...

Yeah I can agree with most of everything you said. 5'9" is insanely crazy on the mic and I would not want to battle rap him not even to save my own life. Some of the stuff he says has me cu cu for coco puffs. And Elzhi, well what can I say, he's a silent assassin on the MIC. Even if Royce doesn't put out a tight CD ever he will be in my top 5. Elzhi quickly jumped into my top 5 as well. It's guys like them and others that still have me holding on to hip hop for dear life...when they die out so do I....


douglas martin said...

although i do have to say that death is certain is one of my favorite hip-hop records of the decade, i agree with most everything else you said about each MC.

royce is the quintessential "tough guy" MC, but even as he's leveling death threats, he's still one of the most technically proficient rappers on the planet.

and elzhi's one of hip-hop's best when it comes to thinking of and executing concepts; noone writes songs like he does. yet and still, he can unleash flames all over a track, just like he does on "motown 25."

because of these two (and the beat-making prowess of black milk), the D is an embarrassment of riches right now. great post.