Tag Archives: Mixtape

Death Grips – Government Plates

Reviewing Death Grips is really, really difficult.

Well alright, maybe it isn’t difficult, but it might be ridiculous and unnecessary. Any discussion of Death Grips as a musical.. project.. thing is bound to be nested in a description of the sorts of sounds Death Grips actually produce, and an assessment as to whether they’re getting better or worse. You know, like a review – and that’s fine! I like doing reviews! But when it comes down to whether or not I can recommend Death Grips’ new album – the free-online double-entendre Government Plates – it’s largely going to be a factor of whether or not MC Ride, his perma-furious DJ Andy Morin, and drummer Zach Hill are making sequenced sounds you already enjoy, or you know to enjoy because it’s cool to like Death Grips right now, or whether you can appreciate them as an aesthetic entity (if not necessarily a musical one). All three are valid access routes to Death Grips these days, and the band does nothing to dissuade  it – have you seen MC Ride? – and so I feel the necessity to look at the band all three ways, and attempt to parse out what might be going on here musically. Or aesthetically.

That said, this is the MC Ride hype train, and in the spirit of whatever-this-genre-is it feels appropriate to go straight for the throat and get the tl;dr out of the way immediately: Government Plates is a solid addition to the canon. It’s also short, blistering, blood-curdling, increasingly synth-y, sarcastic, free online, unbalanced, and intensely free on the internet. If you’re a fan of these guys, you’ve already bled the MP3’s dry and you’re waiting for your next fix and maybe secretly hoping we can get back to Exmilitary‘s nigh hardcore-punk pacing, lyrical acuity and Vancouver skate-punk music videos (that’d be me). You’d be the ones reading this just to see how I talk my way around having to talk about Death Grips, and checking whether or not my punk cred is going to see any revival after that Lady Gaga review last week. Fair enough! The rest of the review is for anyone else that’s wondering what the hell the deal is, whether or not MC Ride is an MC and therefore this is a rap crew, and why I’m taking so much time getting to the review portion.

This part’s for those people in the latter category.

Wikipedia says “Death Grips is a hip hop group from Sacramento”, which is a charitable and fun way of saying they definitely use beats, and MC Ride’s first name is “MC”. Death Grips cleave closer to something like alternative Hip-Hop attempting to appropriate melodic Industrial while keeping one eye firmly and secretly locked on the club dance floor. At their most accessible (that’d be “I’ve Seen Footage“) they sound like an extremely antagonistic Primal Scream therapy session featuring a Skinny Puppy fan for a DJ and a drummer whose only obvious musical alliance is technical acrobatics. At their least accessible, they sound like someone threw some screws into a washing machine. Along with their pit bull. Sometimes there are guitars; they once let a girl sing. They have trouble showing up to live shows and obeying contracts. One of their album covers is very banned. One Death Grips performance famously consisted of a children’s drum set, their music played through the PA, and a fan’s suicide note. So to say the group values their reputation would be an understatement: they’ve crafted a unique folk appeal by virtue of incredible bizarrity, having no clear musical parallel, and remaining utterly and completely true to their murkily-articulated, libertine philosophy. Fashionable.

So it’s easy to understand why they’ve curried such appeal with their young fan base – MC Ride is fearless, black and coated in arcane symbols and gang signs. His two white accomplices are absurdly talented and musically unheralded in turn. Their music lacks a clear lyrical message beyond rage, paranoia, confusion and isolation – MC Ride doesn’t speak so much as bellow constantly, and his vocal production intentionally obscures  most anything beyond blind, frightening anger at any given moment. They transcend race, they transcend clear imagery or context or politics (beyond, of course, anarchy) – they’re punk as hell, and I’m sure they hate punk music. These boys came out of nowhere, and appropriately they sound like nothing else   – though Yeezus certainly took a shot at it.

Government Plates makes no moves to dislodge Death Grips’ carefully-constructed reputation, though they certainly seem self-aware enough to poke fun at their own superior impulse-control issues (the final track being “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)”). That said, it does push their song construction forward: where previous releases would occasionally deign to hard-rock architecture (The Money Store) or smack of punk (Exmilitary), Government Plates takes Death Grips even further down their own strange road of musical anarchy. Morin’s synthesizers are in full force, several tracks are downright danceable, featuring as close as Death Grips ever come to softer breakdowns (on “Anne Bonny” and the final track). “Feels Like A  Wheel” gave me flashbacks to KMFDM and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult (on guitars, at least). “Birds” even gives us a lurking MC Ride reciting poetry over a shrill, oscillating klaxon, in between drum breakdowns.
MC Ride is more subdued on Government Plates than usual as well, relegated primarily to audio loops with his trademark beatdown-delivery checked for the majority the album’s second half – leaving DJ Morin to take centre stage. He does a respectable job, too, though for many by premise Death Grips’ affinity for unbalanced percussion loops and shrill everything will prove too much within the album’s opening moments. There are fantastic beats here, though – “Big House” is frenetic, bass-heavy and nearly club-ready, “Whatever I Want” has sparkling synths that only serve to unnerve further, “Birds” plays with softer guitar tones in a way Death Grips isn’t yet known for. He’s pushing things forward, certainly, and deserves credit for it.

That said, despite repeated listens Government Plates can’t help but feel somewhat sapped, for me at least. Perhaps this is the result of a couple years of DG fandom (and one insane live show), but the shrill-synth well seems to be running dry for me – and a further focus on that musical direction detracts somewhat from the freneticism that drew me to Death Grips in the first place. In order to stay this angry, you have to keep amped, and if that energy should run out, you need something beneath it. Preferably not, exclusively, sometimes headache-inducing synths (“Birds“). There’s a question of whether or not Death Grips can do this. Government Plates is a solid musical release, absolutely, and a respectable and appropriately-experimental addition to bizarro-Hip-Hop canon, but it fails to energize in the way their previous releases did. Whether this is a result of their growth as a group, a lessening of their rage, or a blossoming maturity remains to be seen. That said, I’m certainly excited to see what comes next as experimentation (or breakup) seems inevitable for the Sacramento trio at this point. Three things are for certain, though: Death Grips will remain an absolute cultural force to their devotees, a literal headache for their detractors, and a fascinating aesthetic exercise in the meanwhile.

B

Reviewed right here, November 2013. 

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Flatbush Zombies – BetterOffDEAD

Say what you will about Tyler, the Creator and Odd Future, but their impact on modern hip-hop culture is impossible to ignore. Take Flatbush Zombies: carving their way into the rap landscape toting equal obsessions with drugs, horror movies and vocal modulation (that is, squealing and growling), whenever they aren’t busily rolling joints or tearing out throats on track with their Method Man fang-grills, they’re engaged in the more personal, street-level activities of decrying the evils of government and wrestling their own post-adolescent mental demons. It’s a shift that’s gradually been occurring amongst young African American artists – a search on this year’s Flatbush riots proves educational here – so it comes as no surprise that in light of America’s recent racial tragedies, the disenfranchised and depressed youth are rightfully enraged; and so their recordings must reflect an alchemy of that violence into music. Of course, this is nothing new: Wu-Tang knew what was going on, we can go farther back to N.W.A., and obviously African American discontent can be traced much further, musically, than that as well. The shift occurring now, though, that melding of skate and young black culture in America (that OF typifies), is something of a new thing. The 90’s gave us our mainstream ultra-violence fix in the form of Eminem and Gravediggaz (obvious touchstones for ‘Zombies); 2013 seems intent to bring us Hip-Hop’s Bad Brains.

It’s easy to see, too. There’s a major shift occurring in underground hip-hop just now: look to Tyler sure, but look also to Danny Brown depicting Detroit’s devastation over the last decade with his drug-fueled yelp. Look at the near-wordless primal scream stuff going on with Death Grips. Hell, look to Kanye West, mainstream as hell and fanning his Throbbing Gristle collection with white-noise screams. Hip-Hop. I owe the essay on why I find this stuff so fascinating another time (and it explains why I’ve held off reviewing rock of late), but it’s that same fascination that draws me to Flatbush Zombies, especially on the advent of their second release, BetterOffDEAD.

Flatbush are an exciting anomaly,and so the chances of them ever cracking mainstream are incredibly slim. This is obviously to their benefit …Though maybe it’s bad luck to say that the day after Slim Shady somehow releases another album. Regardless, my first exposure to these maniacs came with their fantastic Pitchfork Selector, whose negligence had me naming them incorrectly to months (thanks). They’ve been hard at work touring with Joey Bada$$’ Beast Coast crew ever since, and giving away 100% of their output via Datpiff. That initial exposure blew me away: Meechy Darko’s gravel-blender delivery and wild-eyed madness had me hooked, Zombie Juice squeals like a cartoon character and freestyles like a tornado, and Arc meanders somewhere in between with his more introspective flow (when he deigns to speak). Nothing about that chemistry has changed since, and nothing changed for their freebie debut D.R.U.G.S., either (Death and Reincarnation Under God’s Supervision, somehow). BetterOffDEAD stays the course for the most part, but sees the trio laser-focusing their presentation. Frankly, they’re just better at it, in every sense. It takes a certain stomach to listen to Flatbush Zombies at all, and a certain drug appetite to really empathize with them (which I thankfully don’t share). So while their presentation might not be unprecedented in the field, it’s tough to find an exact contemporary to their work, even now.

BetterOffDEAD is the sequel to D.R.U.G.S. in every logical sense: the boys are older, colder, weirder, and they’ve dropped any pretense of typical gangster pastiche. From the get-go they’re feeding on brains, tearing apart tongues… and ripping into popular misappropriation of black culture. Darko’s first words on intro “Amerikkkan Pie” read “I am redesigning the mind of the masses/That fear a black man with tattoos and bandanas/but when a white man wear tattoos and bandanas/and joins a bike gang it’s all cool with the balance”. These are the politics we’re referring to when we say Flatbush, Brooklyn, and it’s a fantastic strain of millennial rap-punk that runs strong throughout BetterOffDEAD. Not that their success would even demand lyrical substance, really; it’s a challenge to describe Flatbush Zombies’ vocal tics without resorting to worn metaphor or fumbling similes all over the place. The boys would stand out in their strange field regardless; let’s see if you can guess why:

See what I mean? Who sounds like that?! Well, DMX for one, sort of. The trick-or-treater trio from Nightmare Before Christmas, for two, and that’s a prescient example. Flatbush would undoubtedly be uncomfortable with the label horrorcore (who is, ICP?) but there it is, in each and every track. Ultra-violence, mental devastation, moral and physical degradation. Narcotics! They love it, they thrive in it. And they have to – Flatbush Zombies are anything if not massive drug enthusiasts. Their beat production reflects this, too (and that’s Erick ‘Arc’ Elliot’s job, almost entirely) – it’s a hazy mix of thudding bangers and ethereal, horror-movie sampling introspective jams. There are pianos here, Gorillaz samples, Kanye nods, full strings and a full track or two full of homages. Look at “Regular and Complex (GNB)”, a favourite of mine that manages to elicit memories of ATLiens while lyrically tapping bubbling crack rock and suicide. When they reminisce, which is rare, it’s Arc claiming “the first time I did drugs it was makin’ the beats” – and certainly it has to have been every time since as well. He’s consistent too, and so just when you get as comfortable as BetterOffDEAD lets you, suffocatingly dark as it is, it’ll turn around and give you something like “Bliss”, their anarchy lovesong featuring the word “fuck” one hundred and thirty-three times.

The boys are blessed with incredibly bizarre delivery and an obsession with horror imagery and drugs, absolutely. What you’ll also find, perched alongside the rage and the politics and the posturing, is looming, uncomfortable sexism. These boys are as disenfranchised as they come, and their rebellion is an addiction to narcotics: here that word means drugs, violence and pussy. Pussy, specifically, becomes a focal point and a valid criticism of Zombies: there are no women here. There is plenty of pussy, the object, the commodity, apparently the drug. Meechy ‘garburator-flow’ Darko is likely the greatest offender here, if barely, but that’s also his job – whenever he isn’t shocking you he’s… crouched behind something, waiting to get you on the next track, likely. Women aren’t ignored; they’re non-existent. It’s a question of whether pussy even involves women – and while there’s certainly a ton of sex going on, those verses tend to wander by like distasteful filler, something of a necessary nod to the fact that, yes, Flatbush can have sex. Oh good. A very curious counterexample does arise on “222” though, by far the most shocking moment on an album packed with drugs and crime of every describable variety. “222” features Bridget Perez on the album’s only soft edge, crooning the chorus in between Arc’s capable, calm lyricism. He might be the producer, but Arc also shows a hand here for introspective rap that respects and reflects on women. Like an adult would. As an unexpected moral centre for the album “222” is an anomaly and a refreshing change of pace, a touch of catharsis in the midst of Flatbush Zombies’ descent into gothic-gangster madness.

BetterOffDEAD is a massive step forward for the group, in terms of production and presentation, both of which now arrive more confidently and fully-realized than ever before. Another result of their idiosyncrasy, though, is that criticism of Flatbush Zombies is relatively easy to come by. Were you aware that Action Bronson and Danny Brown both show up on this album? Neither was I, and I was halfway through Bronson’s turn before I even realized it was him, sounding lazier than ever on “Club Soda”. Danny Brown is more excited for his brief arrival on “Drug Parade”, but the Flatbush trio wisely limits downplays their collaborators’ presence, preferring to feature their own bombastic vocals. This much is fine. However, because Bronson and Brown have such trademark voices to begin with, Arc muddies their vocals to the point of near-distortion in order to accentuate his own crew, a bizarre move that damages both tracks. Additionally, and again this is difficult to describe by virtue of his voice, Meechy Darko has a habit of Cee-Lo-ing any track that features him on the chorus. That is, he dominates the mic every time he shows up. He’s Horrorcore Meatloaf. Zombie Juice does the same thing each verse, and the interplay between both emcees’ hyperactivity can be exhausting – as can the album’s suffocating weight. It takes a certain type of mood to listen to Flatbush Zombies, and BetterOffDEAD features none of the levity that their breakout hit “Thug Waffle” hinted back on D.R.U.G.S.. Growing pains abound, certainly (the boys are young), but what results is an album that can often be overwhelming in its enthusiasm to disgust and excite.

BetterOffDEAD is a dark and extensive listen, at times exhaustively negative in its density, but pleasantly surprising in its cultural awareness. No one is happy here; none of the performers, and by extension none of the audience. It’s a different kind of political hip-hop, and perfect for Vancouver’s cloudy Autumn season. As I said above, this is something like punk for a young African American audience, and for all their horror-imagery posturing there’s always a deeper, metaphorical intent behind the trio’s work – even though they clearly take greater joy in the medium (drugs, pageantry) than the message itself. After all, who else could come out with a knowing line like “I’m tryna free the slaves/young minds Bad Brains” than a would-be political messenger? And so Flatbush Zombies are certainly a sonic novelty, but rarely an empty one. The boys know what they’re doing and there is a political statement buried in here – so by all means listen to the divisive crew, but know what you’re getting into.

B

Flatbush Zombies are a strange thing to listen to. They know this: they’re giving it all away for free. By all means follow me and pick up D.R.U.G.S., or even BetterOffDEAD for yourself. You’ll enjoy it. Or you won’t. 

Flatbush Zombies are currently on tour supporting themselves, because they give all their music away for free. I saw them open for Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era. Their energy is crazy on album; ridiculous in person. Recommended.  

Reviewed right here, October 2013.

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Akira The Don – ATD29

Akira the Don’s relationship to mixtape culture is as extensive as it is instrumental to his success, but perhaps the sight of ATD29 (that’s ATD Mixtape Number 29) up there is going to turn people off, maybe it’s intimidating. Twenty-Nine Mixtapes?! they’ll exclaim, shuddering at the prospect of chugging through 29 mostly album-length releases by a man somehow not 80 years old (and not Lil B of  800+ Myspace tracks). Maybe they’ll assume the mixtapes are disposable retreads on beats, or a ruse (Skrillex) to distract us from Akira’s fear of full-length releases. Akira’s as much a friend of the show here as anyone, and I’ll be quick to disclose that he’s an ally of Transylvanilla, I’m an old fan of his, and yes, 29 Mixtapes is a towering queue of releases. What’s astounding is they aren’t throwaways: Akira’s latest series (especially 25 and 26) have been on steady rotation for ages here at The Nest, and my archives show this isn’t my first encounter with his material. That said, written and recorded over 29 hours(!!) apparently on my birthday, ATD29 marks Akira’s first ‘proper’ mixtape in quite a while: other peoples’ beats, his own mixing and production, guest verses, an original production or two, an autotuned jam with his human son Hercules friggin Narkiewicz. It’s a Mixtape Mixtape, not an album in disguise (Manga Music being especially arguable). And that’s great! The stakes are low, Akira’s having fun, Big Narstie shows up to yell about #Pain. It’s enjoyable. It’s a return to form for Akira, whose discography stacks on his website like a teetering pile of zines, and deigns to drop a studio album only whenever the content suits his greater narrative arc. So kick back, and let’s dig in for around the 29th time.

Smokin’ Joe kicks off the album the same way he did  ATD25, though ‘intro’ is something of a misnomer; it’s also a screaming oldschool funk beat courtesy of DJ Mink. Akira’s all over the place: he’s energized, he’s awarding himself Nobel prizes, he’s shouting out to his kid and everyone else. The beat’s manic and so’s the MC, briefing and hyping the crowd, and slicing directly into the molasses-heavy “Hash In The Post” – based on a true story. ‘Hash hovers under a beat by Mike Will Made It and Akira’s back to his old tricks with the voice modulator. The beat’s lumbering, and Akira floats under the mix, bubbling up to echo his chorus. That vocal processing is his best friend these days for good reason: it lets him keep the tone low-key and gurgle out the verses – even if he weren’t rapping about coming up as an aspiring rapper, or flying a based spaceship to a planet unsullied by police or a lack of weed, the effect locks ‘Hash into place. In fact, Akira keeps it fairly heavy for the first several tracks, tearing into an anti-racist polemic on Chief-Keef-nod “Hate SOSA”. And again with the vocal processing: this time it’s an autotune flutter, yanking the track from Keef’s bark and into outer space. Processing song after song, and keeping the beats weighty, gives ATD29‘s opening few tracks a neat sort of consistency. Sure they aren’t long, but they’re fun – MC and audience alike can float on through (with their Hash), cracking hazy smiles at the jokes. …Until Akira breaks set over Action Bronson’s “Pouches of Tuna“. I’ll fanboy for a second and say that hearing Akira rock nasty raps over that beat, nodding to sexual misdemeanours in Bronson’s style, is a treat. This is what mixtape culture is for: taking a dope beat, even miming another artist’s style, and putting your own vocal tics and production smirks into it. It’s all in good fun, it gives him the opportunity to throw a flanger on “Tuna” and rap nasty Bronson-isms like “abstain from fuckery/a Miss Kentucky Derby depravity/a little fucky-sucky in the lavatory” – and it comes off like wordplay homage. Nice. Because it’s Akira messing around in the studio we do get awkward rhymes about his dragon-spirit-animal-thing from his childhood, but there’s a looseness and casualness that licenses it all to fit. Even when it seems to lack polish, that’s sort of what ATD29 is for.

Following “Tuna” we hit an Akira original: “End of the Road” featuring Big Narstie and Footsie, that really wouldn’t feel out of place in Narstie’s catalogue. The two-step isn’t out of place here either, slotting into 29‘s darker first half. Narstie and Footsie are in top form, locking in as the background horns pop, and Akira’s back on his political rap scene, and tearing into UK banks in a style that would sit comfortably on one of his bigger releases. With “End of the Road” closing out the grimy half of the tape – because Akira The Don is partially a pop musician – It’s Dance Time. I’ll be the first to admit that these tracks took time to grow on me: I’ve come around on them to an extent, but there’s no mistaking the 8-minute dance party lurking in the middle of ATD29. To its credit, “When Life Gives You Lemons PUNCH LIFE IN THE FUCKING FACE” does feature a fear bit of autobiographical rap (which is great) and the chorus is a fun bit of gratuity filtered through robot-chop processing, but it does drag on a bit. This will certainly quench the thirst of anyone that needed more ATD to toss in their hardstyle mix, so perhaps I’m getting this one in the wrong context. East-Van-Cafe not so much, but in club? A blast, likely, and true of so much dance music. Which is the same deal for the next track’s re-remix of vintage ATD track “OMG (This Is So My Jam)”. Again this isn’t necessarily my, uh, jam, but couldn’t it be if I were partying? And so this is sometimes how we must approach music journalism: I’ll begrudgingly admit that ATD29‘s dance-wasteland might be quite fun! Real loud. Drunk with friends. As it is, it sits as an unexpected intermission, chopping the tape in two. It does, though, bring us to “Django”.

Go buy “Django”, seriously. Don’t mess around: here’s Don and Narstie rapping over an Akira-produced remix of that friggin’ sweet Brown/Tupac mashup from Django Unchained. I can’t stress enough: this production kicks ass. Hands down, it’s one of the finest beats Akira’s ever whipped up, and because ATD29 is a largely outsourced production, “Django” centrepieces it perfectly: this is the proper follow-up to favourites “Lord I Miss (Red Dead Redemption)” and “Big Iron” that we waited years to get. Like those tracks, it’s also a bit silly! That said, I can’t remember hearing this much obvious fun bang out of a production studio in a long time. Everyone’s having a blast, listener included, when those horns drop. To be played loud, inebriated, preferably while astride a horse.

 
ATD29 really has no choice but to cool down after “Django”. It drifts into space-rap about burning spliffs and Thundercats, “Burnt Teeth” that rips another Bronson beat (and slows “Buddy Guy” to its original speed), Don’s political and Satoshi-Kon-dedicated “Daylight” take, and a pair of tracks for his young son, before quietly coming to a stop. One of these odes to Hercules is the roaring, triumphant “Theme From Hercules”, the other’s simply an autotuned Akira singing his son “Moon River”. Both are touching and strange in their own odd, unexpected ways. How cool is that? I love mixtape culture. And really that’s what ATD29 is: Akira’s return to making mixtapes in the classic mode; I can’t not engage with it personally. And while it sometimes plays fast and loose, this thing was slammed together in 29 hours as an intermission between bigger releases. Great swaths of ATD29 are a blast to listen to, and while the pacing gets a bit bizarre (brief tracks, the dance tracks, the sentimental, strange ending) it’s difficult to fault a man that made this in hardly 2 days while celebrating the existence of his brand new human son. Oh right, and he’s uploaded it here if you’d like to listen, too. Real cool, Akira.

A difficult project to score, I think. But here’s a number.

7.0

Full Disclosure: As a longtime friend of Transylvanilla, Akira mailed me this release out of the blue, stating I could review it, enjoy it, whatever. And so, much later, I did. Much respect to Akira The Don and his family unit! 

Full Disclosure 2.0: I missed you guys, too. Thanks for reading.

Reviewed right here, October 20, 2013.

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