A few months back, I wrote a review of Verbal Terrorists‘ debut album Small Axe for Rhythm Circus. I thought I’d stick it up on here too. Their second album, The War on Terra, is out this summer – the first single of which you can download here for free.
In the immediate wake of March the Alternative AKA the March 2011 anti-cuts protests in London, a simmering discontent among those Britons directly affected by the government’s actions was laid bare to mainstream audiences.
With a purported attendance of roughly half a million at the demo, it was assuring to know that a broad cross-section of people in the British Isles were willing to stand up to the government’s programme of spending cuts and moreover, to challenge its system of control and the power it ultimately wields over us if we allow it to. It also rekindled my awareness that hip-hop also once evolved from a culture dissent — namely, among young African-Americans and Latinos growing up in appalling ghettoized conditions, and made to feel like cultural outsiders by white America’s oppressive national hegemony. The main dissenting voices in hip-hop of the early to mid-90s have since mellowed – perhaps even been subjugated — through a rampant process of commodification necessitated by mainstream consumer culture and the need to pander to heterogeneous audiences for profit. However, delve deep into the murky and somewhat esoteric underworld of anti-mainstream hip-hop and you’ll occasionally come across a voice that embodies the old spirit of dissent and, in the case of Verbal Terrorists — a hip-hop collective out of the North East – a voice that bashes the establishment with a combination of Chomskyan intellectual rigour and deft street poetics.
Initially I had my misgivings about a self-proclaimed anarchistic hip-hop group bent seemingly upon the sole purpose of fighting the system and its perpetrators; it seemed quite a forced concept. Even though hip-hop artists increasingly conform to the dominions of popular taste, you still hear a lot of anti-establishment bile spewed in both underground and mainstream rap lyrics. But too often it’s clumsily expressed and crafted with little flair. Indeed the universal anti-establishment hip-hop trope can become so clichéd that it does in fact become quite dull and depressing – especially when the artist has an extremely half-baked perspective and awareness of what they’re on about. Verbal Terrorists however, are different. They know their stuff through-and-through and put their case for a better world provocatively but through lyrics underpinned by logic and diligent research.
For starters, the surrealist and highly allegorical album artwork for Small Axe consists of a repertoire of canvas oil paintings by the revolutionary New York painter Jeramy Turner. The choice of these paintings serves perhaps to highlight the fact that this is a more nuanced and weighty affair than one might’ve thought prior to listening – and not merely an album loaded with ill-advisedly unilateral invective. The patent socialist and anarchist insignia incorporated into the crew’s logo as well as the GOVERNMENTAL ADVISORY: SEDITIOUS LYRICS warning emblazoning the CD cover will certainly put moderate-to-casual listeners right off and listening to Small Axe necessitates a little open-mindedness to begin with before you ultimately discover how cogent, accessible and entertaining it actually is.
Perhaps to ensconce the listener into the album a little, the first track is less on an earnest political tip and is more an assertion of the crew’s pride in the North-East, specifically Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This is made all the more emphatic by slightly muted electric guitar chord progressions, a very catchy hook and some impressive double time spitting. However, in terms of subject matter it teeters on being nothing more than a crude posse cut and is overall, a quite unremarkable track. In my opinion, the album could’ve benefited from a more vehement politically orientated track to get things under way as a means of setting a more emphatic tone. In contrast however, the following track Fuck Bovis is a very unequivocal and slamming political indictment – specifically of new Labour policies and Blair’s move towards privitisation of education. In contrast, this is a very solid track with flawless, well-crafted lyrics and a suitably edgy and minimalist beat. The rhyme schemes are heavy and multisyllabic – albeit without sounding too contrived or stilted: PFI schemes wouldn’t be in my dreams / Neo-liberal bitter pill is a tight squeeze. The level of political consciousness is raised again by the impressive Idle Hands, so named because of the use of the brilliant parting phrase in each verse The devil makes work for these idle hands. Featuring a guest verse from fellow Geordie emcee Lims, this track is certain to please the hip-hop purists with its well-balanced interplay of down-to-earth unpretentious lyricism, soulful vibes and some nice cuts and samples in there for good measure.
Despite the stark political messages, the crew’s music isn’t impenetrable or overly hardcore and somewhat surprisingly, the album’s soundscape is as eclectic as you’re likely to hear from any hip-hop album out there. It’s almost become an inevitable truism that so-called ‘conscious artists’ invariably fail at carrying the same musical clout as their mainstream compatriots; but with Verbal Terrorists, the lyrics are no less captivating than the clever musical elements holding them together. There’s an eclectic blend of genres throughout: from synthy electro, to raucous dubstep and old-style hip-hop right the way to comedy folk music. Overall, I’d say the instrumentation, though varied and interesting is a tad sparse and undeveloped and its melodies occasionally misguided. Rhythmically however, it’s all really on point: with a walking-bass on Heavy Affiliates contrasting to some pretty badass dubstep tracks like Edukators and Hardcore and impeccable syllable placement diplayed by alll the emcees throughout.
A real standout track on a musical level is Kindness is His Middle Name which features local group Red Music providing a backdrop of indigenous South American panpipe fair to a long and eloquent anti-imperialist diatribe with explicit reference to American policy and the insidious two-facedness and out-and-out sociopathy of “Uncle Sam”. Indeed, the crew fully embrace the idea of hip-hop as a syncretic subculture and a means of transcending oppressive cultural hegemonies like those seen in Western societies such as America. Albeit they do so without sounding ham-fisted and sophomoric and – while dissenting views are the primary focus of the group – they still allow for less pithy, more sensitive musing on the human condition. ‘I Musnt’ Forget’ for example, features an extended monologue from the groundbreaking 2001 rotoscope film Waking Life in which the protagonist Wiley Wiggins dreamily ponders the meaning of life and man’s free will in cinephilosophical post-Bazinian fashion. Indeed this is one of the more retrospective and inward-looking tracks with the artist flitting between a feeling of self-loathing towards his cynical present-day mindset and his nostalgia for the innocent and blissful child he remembers so fondly, with charmingly honest references to him hiding behind the settee from Count Dracula and the times he used to count keepy-ups and ride his old bike with stabilizers.
The final track is a memorable album closer prominently featuring comedy-folk trio The Old Rope String Band who impart their bold, vaudevillian-esque musical humour to a strong narrative on capitalistic society with great musicianship and a kind of Pythonesque absurdism. The rabble-rousing chorus is uplifting and again a reminder that is an album not just for the dour radicalists and not a release completely lacking in humour altogether either.
In essence, Verbal Terrorists serve as a stark reminder that hip-hop as a means of expression need not be constrained by cultural conservatives, big businesses and political authorities and thereby become a market commodity with commercial spin-offs. With deeply entrenched ideas about hip-hop and the message that it can impart to audiences when harnessed sensibly, Verbal Terrorists are pretty much diametric opposites to the plethora of electro p-hop artists that have flooded our market in recent years. As audiences become increasingly savvy about the ephemerality of this trend and are now slowly yearning for a sense of meaning to their music, political and cultural dissidents like Verbal Terrorists are sure of acquiring an enduring and loyal fanbase, despite small it may be for now. Though not without its flaws, the album’s message is transcendent. Furthermore, it is a highly entertaining and upbeat listen which – though essentially a soundtrack to a very direct exposition of political ideas – realizes that it isn’t ultimately music that will change the world but perhaps that it can be used to shift our consciousness and thus galvanize us to at least look at the world differently from the reality with which we are presented. Needless to say; Small Axe is sure to be beat ten shades out of most rap albums released these days. Real talk.