Underground Sounds

“Big wheel, big spin, big money, no whammies
Don’t save me a seat when you get to the Grammys” — nomadboy

So, against my better judgment, I watched the Grammys the other night. This viewing experiment reminded me both of how much I love music and how far away my tastes are from “Grammy material.” I made a quick trip to Lou’s Records in Encinitas, California prior to the show, and my purchases there should prove more than my point.

(Note: I’m going to borrow a bit of my friend Richard Metzger‘s disclaimer here: “No one writes anything for public consumption without some level of, er, delusions of grandeur I guess, but… I don’t want to come off like a pompous windbag in public… — AND SO I have decided to keep more to writing about THINGS which I find myself having a great deal of enthusiasm for these days and, in a sense, offer a kind of “underground”/pop culture consumer guide — and a highly opinionated one at that — for if I am anything, I am an AVID CONSUMER of popular — and not so popular — culture.” That is, I’m not writing about my recent musical acquisitions and obsessions to say that I am so much cooler than people who like Grammy-eligible music. I’m just spouting my opinions as per usual.)

At Lou’s on Grammy Sunday, I picked up the new Saul Williams, the new Hood, the Vordul Megallah solo record, and the Lifesavas record.

Saul Williams’ work deserves a much larger audience. He’s a phenomenal poet, songwriter, screenwriter, actor, performer, lecturer, activist, and emcee. His latest missive is packed with the same beautiful fury of Not In My Name (Synchronic), Amethyst Rockstar (American), Slam, and all of his other endeavors.

UK-based Hood’s music usually shifts between “lo-fidelity avant-pop” and “pastoral, nearly instrumental songs,” but this time around, they’ve infused more melody making Outside Closer (Domino) not only a natural extension of 2001’s Cold House (Aesthetics), but a perfect introduction to one of the best unheard bands on the planet. Their sound is subtle, beautiful, and difficult to describe — like the difference between hair and fur. They have about a million records out, and they claim they like the pop stuff, but this is probably as close as they’ll get to Grammy territory. If you like the techno/indie-pop of The Notwist, the artsy experiments of cLOUDDEAD, or Radiohead‘s quieter moments, you simply must hunt down some Hood.

Cannibal Ox‘s 2001 debut The Cold Vein (Definitive Jux) filled a gaping hole in the world of underground Hip-hop and helped establish ex-Company Flow emcee El-Producto’s Def Jux label as an indie powerhouse. (The Cold Vein also introduced the world to El-P’s production style: tense, abstract, and beautifully alarming. His soundscapes gave the differing styles of Vast Aire and Vordul Magallah a proper place to meld and mingle.) Last year, Vast’s first solo record (Look Mom… No Hands) dropped heavy on Hip-hop heads, and then Vordul’s did the same. Where Vast ambles around a topic, slowly giving you a description from all sides, Vordul tends to shoot it at you rapid-fire, letting you figure it out later. Both are great and deserve their place in the current cluster of worthy Hip-hop. The Revolution of Yung Havoks (along with Vast’s joint) should keep everyone interested well occupied until these two emcees get back into the studio together for the next proper Can Ox release.

My man Pete Miser recommended The Lifesavas in a recent talk we had, and I have to concur. This is just good, fun Hip-hop. The lyricism is tight, and the beats are nod-inducing: plain and simple goodness. One way to validate a Hip-hop release is to see who the artist is down with. Well, Lifesavas come out of the Quannum stables (home of DJ Shadow, Lateef, Lyrics Born, Gift of Gab, Chief XL, Blackalicious, etc.). Sold.

Other than the new purchases, I’ve been spinning these ones:

dälek Absence (Ipecac): Heads ain’t ready, and dälek is back to prove it again. They’ve gelled, and they’re music is all the more powerful for it. Absence is big, noisy Hip-hop. The music over which dälek rhymes is kind of like if Kevin Shields, Justin Broadrick, The Bomb Squad, and Psycho Candy-era Jesus and Mary Chain all collaborated. Kind of. The problem with trying to pigeonhole their sound is that no one sounds like them. Really. They’ve been together long enough now, constantly touring and perfecting their clamorous approach to Hip-hop, that it’s all their own. It’s noisy, angry, and confrontational, but there’s an intense beauty to it all as well. Absence is sprawling, majestic, and rife with the hallmarks of good Hip-hop: engaging lyrics and dope beats.

Mike Ladd Negrophilia (Thirsty Ear), and Nostalgialator (!K7): Mike Ladd is the most underrated, hardest working man in Hip-hop. These two records (one is an avant-jazz exploration for Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series Continuum and the other is straight-up, grimey Hip-hop) prove it in spades. A interview is forthcoming.

DJ Spooky and Dave Lombardo Drums of Death (Thirsty Ear): Holy shite! What do you get when one of the most creative DJs teams up with the best metal drummer of all time? And how about if you throw in one of the best emcees ever (Chuck D), a legendary guitarist (Vernon Reid), and an obsessive beat-maker (Jack Dangers)? Another amazing entry in Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series Continuum. Look for it in stores in April (and look for more about it on Disinformation from me and Alex as well).

Hangar 18 The Multi-Platinum Debut Album (Def Jux), The Shameless Self-Promotion CD (self-released), and their new, scrapped mixtape CD (unreleased): The Def Jux stables are strong. Pick an artist, any artist. They’re all solid. The Hangar is no exception. WindNBreeze, Alaska, and paWl bring it — fast, furious, and always on point. Can’t get enough of this stuff, and can’t recommend it enough.

Yet more recent stuff: …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead Worlds Apart (Interscope), El-P Collecting the Kid (Def Jux), Bright Eyes I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (Saddlecreek), Isis Panopticon (Ipecac), DJ Spooky Twisted Science (mix CD), Jesu s/t (Hydra Head), Sage Francis A Healthy Distrust (Epitaph), Doves Some Cities (Capitol), Mos Def The New Danger (Geffen), MF DOOM MM… Food (RhymeSayers), De La Soul The Grind Date (Sanctuary), and old standards like Slayer, My Bloody Valentine, Mogwai, and Aesop Rock, among others.

Nothin’ but the hits!