Geographically speaking, the UK underground hip-hop scene has no definitive centre. In fact, it’s probably one of the most dispersed of all music scenes in this small, but highly music-orientated nation of ours. Indeed, owing to underground hip-hop’s niche appeal, the scene is largely comprised of individuals with a specific interest in the art form, but who are often scattered across every conceivable corner of the country. Indeed, the pairing-up of Dialect and Three Kings High member Chattabox from South Shields in the North-East and Samuel Otis of South-West crew Lowercase is testament to the UK’s non-region-specific ethos when it comes to hip-hop. The triumph of a common artistic goal in transcending regional boundaries is at the crux of the duo’s work as they explore infinitely relatable, universal themes in their latest mixtape offering titled ‘Hard Graft’ . This, their much-anticipated follow-up to the ‘Stupid o’clock’ mixtape they put out over a year ago, is a 19-track anthology of tracks bursting full with underground beatmaking and emceeing talent, spanning literally the length and breadth of the UK, whilst also featuring guest verses from underground hip-hop icons Copywrite and Mac Lethal out of the US.
In essence, ‘Hard Graft’ is a talent pool of ambitious, unpretentious hard-core enthusiasts who are all appropriately picked out to best suit the duo’s artistic endeavours. It carries some real underground clout in addition to championing consistently sturdy production values which distinguish it from being yet another D.I.Y. hobbyist release with a cobbled-together feel. With its catchy anthemic hooks and its diverse collection of beats, it’s a robust, non-gimmicky, straight hip-hop package released under the auspices of fiercely independent artist-owned label, Killamari Records.
After listening to ‘Hard Graft’ several times, it seems they’re almost selling themselves short calling this a mixtape; though perhaps a couple of redundancies and filler numbers do mar its overall chemistry and thus preclude it from having the full finesse of an album. Content-wise it also comes up slightly short and this makes for a slightly incoherent aesthetic. Indeed, despite the hard graft theme being very resonant, it could do with greater depth and exploration overall. Still, the music itself is as varied as it is well-conducted — and therein lies the greatest strength of the mixtape overall; its “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” character. With its lack of romanticism and ostentation and its favouring of thick, organic beats which give pathos to the straight-laced candour of the two emcees, the mixtape chisels a no-nonsense countenance that is shot through with genuine emotional undertones which it turn lends it real depth and credibility. At times however, the two emcees could do with expanding their thematic palette in order to break through the stale rap platitudes of which they occasionally fall afoul, though, while the lyrics perhaps aren’t quite as evocative as I’ve heard from Chattabox on previous Dialect tracks , they’re still sure to beat ten shades out of most underground artists owing to their consistently solid multisyllabic craftsmanship. Plus, if you’re an indie rap geek like me, there’s also a nice smattering of alt.rap references thrown in for good measure: “You better up your bass levels / Nayfe the British version of a more disturbed pre-Def Jux Cage Kennylz.”
The overall sonic vibe of Hard Graft is excellent and definitely worthy of multiple replays — not merely for the beats but equally for the vocals. Chattabox’s gravelly but eloquent Geordie enunciation combined with Samuel Otis’ South West inflections and the even more remarkable Wurzel-esque country burrs of his Lowercase cohorts exude a hearty provincial flavour refreshingly distinct from that of countless other hip-hop artists tagged crucially as “urban”. The singing talents of Maverick Sabre on ‘I Just Wanna SIT’ also bestow some beautiful, thickly-layered harmonies into the mix too.
Production-wise, the mixtape kicks off with a heavy track by Butta Verses‘ beatmaker extraordinaire Steesh (originally out of the North West), in which the two emcees extol the virtues of grit and hard graft with real emphasis. Dialect producer Peta Max also features on a few joints, bringing a typically sample-heavy set of instrumentals; in my view however, Bristol-based Sweatbox Studios producer Vee Kay has to be credited with the mixtape’s most stellar analogue production which provides a near-perfect soundbed to the duo’s combination of tongue-in-cheek braggadocio and hard-nosed poetics. Lowercase producer Arthur Needlefluff has done a superb job mixing and mastering, as well as producing the anthemic theme-song sampled ‘Back on the Set’ (one of lighter-hearted feel-good joints on the mixtape).
Overall, it’s a real audible treat that offers a little something different. Plus, it’s available for just £3…