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Adam & Cuth - Letters EP (Cover)Adam Kammerling, more commonly known in hip-hop circles as Adam The Rapper, doesn’t really fit a pre-determined stylistic box. He isn’t an overtly “conscious” emcee, a comedy rapper or an avant-garde obsessive; he just plays himself – an unpretentious Brighton-bred, London-based emcee entirely unbound by a need to seek fame and recognition through his artistic exploits.

In the process of aspiring to the plain and simple, he’s in some ways adopted a kind of frontier mentality: a certain freedom to mix influences and depart from both hip-hop and spoken-word traditions through his cross-cultural merging of the two art forms. Far from being an ego-driven genre contrarian, Adam ensconces the listener into his easily accessible, organic sound without the need of didacticism or forced abstraction.

His latest release, The Letters EP, is a fresh, delectably simple and original mutation which successfully marries spoken-word and rap sensibilities. Soul-drenched, sample-heavy beats suspend a medley of serenely self-possessed musings on everyday life and the human condition. Chock-full of heady and happy reflection, the EP never aims to be anything but a laid-back and comfortably sedated affair, whilst providing just enough nuggets of wisdom and insight to pique the listener’s curiosity. In thrall to the notion that art can never remain too stagnant, the most important factor in this release is not just to please the listener, but to also give them something to think about.

Characteristically scruffy and off-kilter, Adam is a fringe-dweller who’s contented to stay grounded in the face of stresses generated in the course of modern living. Without talking witlessly and in mindless platitudes about the day-to-day struggle we all face, Adam prefers to gently massage his own wisdom into the roots of this EP through a sound that is unmistakably of the old-school. Never ranting or rallying, though occasionally betraying his weariness with the current state of the hip-hop (a seemingly inescapable trope of underground hip-hop), Adam prefers, for the most part, to wax lyrical about his abiding love of books, a decent cupper, and a simple life divested of high-octane distractions.

Both Adam and beatmaker Cuth evidently share a similar worldview and enjoy an unerring intuition on this EP. A hand-crafted duo functioning in a smooth, symbiotic arrangement, they’ve taken a traditional format and tried to do something interesting with it — their collaboration being a distilled wisdom gained through careful thought and meditation, merry mishaps and a willingness to drift through life’s challenges with a clear and level-head.

Devoid of pretence, the EP’s sound is a perfect antidote to listeners weary of hearing rappers possessed of huge egos and an obscene fetishism of money and materialism. Carrying a self-conscious hippie image that thankfully never congeals into shtick, Adam shines as a light of quiet transcendence in the UK rap game, gracefully tracing his steps towards spiritual self-fulfilment.

Stripped-down and unelaborate, the EP is solid proof that good music is very often, if not most often, simple music that coaxes traditional elements and occasional innovative flourishes into magical submission.

Download The Letters EP @ http://adamandcuth.bandcamp.com

Strange, Lively, & Commonplace“They call me The Ruby Kid; I don’t make protest rap.”

It’s already been two years since Sheffield-hatched, London-based emcee The Ruby Kid released his superlative Maps EP, a CD which garnered a long list of laudatory reviews by writers and bloggers such as myself. Since then, he’s decided to put rap on the back burner, and instead devote much of his energy to pushing the ever-burgeoning London spoken-word scene forward. His new release, Strange, Lively, & Commonplace, proves however, that he hasn’t abandoned hip-hop altogether just yet.

Like Maps, his new release pivots on the border of hip-hop and spoken-word poetry, and successfully draws together elements of both art-forms in defining a style quite distinct from that of any other UK artist out there. In many ways, the four-track EP represents a continuation of Maps, especially in how it forges sensibilities that emerge from the artist’s own daily political, social and introspective experiences within the spatial framework of the capital. For Ruby, the music serves as a canvas onto which he brushes his ideas, the meaning of which we as listeners are left to infer.

Though his lyricism is especially dense and poetic, he is sure not to privilege his words over his music, and DJ/producer Dan Angell’s input on the EP in this regard is crucial. Angell’s well-crafted arrangements wring out the tension of Ruby’s edgy, disembodied poetics superbly and provide subtle harmonic sequences for genuine narrative arcs to develop throughout each track. Spare and frugal, bar a few horn flourishes and kooky indie film samples, the EP is a very slick and sophisticated soundscape in which the percussion, key and bass layers interlock seamlessly.

For the most part, The Ruby Kid’s lyrical praxis remains much the same in this EP as it was in Maps. Rejecting mawkish over-sentimentality, he broods over topics and expounds his observations through a nuanced lexicon, shot through with hard and powerful flashes of realism. Much like indie rap forebear Aesop Rock, The Ruby Kid aims to challenge the listener to educe meaning from his music rather than merely spoon-feeding them, and much beholden to his hip-hop idol, he even quotes several memorable lines out of Labor Days.

Despite its brevity, Strange, Lively, & Commonplace certainly doesn’t disappoint. There are a few minor flaws; the choruses for example, lack vitality and Ruby’s cadence could also arguably do with more variation, but the EP’s combination of dense poetic lyricism over cleverly-wrought, low-key instrumentals is still sure to provide a compelling listen to any attentive musical ear.

Download Strange, Lively and Commonplace for free here.

Artwork by Tom Hines.

Two years since the release of his joint effort ‘Scattered Colours on the Rubiks Cube‘ with H-to-O, Anglo-German emcee and battler JollyJay is back with his first ever solo project. Produced entirely by Brighton beatsmith Cloud 9, ‘Fresh Breeze‘ elicits newer and crisper sonic sensations than those found in his debut album and traverses a far richer electronic soundscape.

Essentially an 8-track grab-bag release, ‘Fresh Breeze‘ is a medley of experimental, reverberant and spacious electronic sustains, tinkly jazz piano and vaguely trip-hoppy atmospherics all stretched over walking basses and easy boom-bap rhythms.

Its experimental sounds are matched by a fresh impetus from Jay, who succeeds in imposing a will to assert his self-identity and defiance in the face of ephemeral trends in the rap game. Predicated on Jay’s own carefree worldview, his lyrics contain elements that transcend the traditional conceptual field of hip-hop, with tracks like the jaw-droppingly beautiful ‘Virtual’ betraying a yearning for a world without technological commodity. The synthetic electronic strains in the instrumental somehow give a rich, earthy resonance to the lyrics to which Jay adjusts his ebbing and flowing cadence beautifully.

While the individual tracks have been tweaked and refined beautifully, one thing ‘Fresh Breeze‘ doesn’t do a good job of is sticking to a motif. For example, the juxtaposition of the playful and comedic ‘Just Jam‘ doesn’t play off too well against the quixotic electronic/shoegaze in ‘Thinking‘ and this negates the tape’s overall impact. That said, I can hardly fault the individual tracks which are carried through with an easy charm and bolstered by Jay’s trademark rhyme acrobatics. His penchant for rather facile punchlines notwithstanding, JollyJay is a truly beguiling rapper.

Adding depth to but never overplaying Jay’s boundless gusto, ‘Fresh Breeze’ is relatable, gimmick-free hip-hop for rap enthusiasts and lovers of plain good music alike. This isn’t music to be over-analysed, and although it isn’t a cohesive front-to-back effort, listening to its individual tracks truly is a breath of fresh air.

Download ‘Freeze Breeze’

With his High Focus imprint now deeply embedded in the UK hip-hop scene, indie label boss Fliptrix is one of the few artists successfully carrying the patina of UK hip-hop’s golden-age while continuing to break new ground stylistically. Much like his forbears Jehst and Task Force, the South Londoner thrives with his versatility of expression and seamless ability to imbue real world scenarios with rarefied abstraction.

In the vein of his previous two albums, his aptly named ‘Third Eye of the Storm’ adheres to an uncompromising formula of dense metaphysical lyricism set to a polished score of boom-bap laced instrumentals. 16 tracks deep, the album proves not only his unyielding love for the art form but also what a productive powerhouse he is. In fact, in terms of pure entrepreneurship, there probably isn’t a single UK hip-hop artist out there  working as diligently as the top-flight indie label boss right now.

Aside from the exceptional level of craft in this album, what really sets it apart from anything in the same category is its visionary intensity and focus, bolstered by a stirring soundbed provided by the likes of Chemo, Jon Phonics and Leaf Dog in addition to up-and-comers such as Kontigo and Extrateless. The latter aces a beautifully layered harmony over which guest Farma G laces his trademark cosmic metaphors, while Chemo leavens the ubiquitous stomping drum beats with some dub and reggae-infused double-time in ‘Walk This Way’. Liverpool-based Reklews imparts an old-school flavour with a haunting minor key piano loop in ‘It’s No Lie’, while 184 infuses a loping violin riff into the meditative ‘Mind Traveling’.

With inter-weaving lyrics playing off against a wide array of studio-wrought beats, the creative output on this album is immense. Armed with a cache of verbal ammunition, Fliptrix’s lyrics flow so naturally and so abundantly that each song boasts a narrative thrust comparable to that of a science-fiction novella. Whether he’s painting gritty urban vignettes suffused in monochrome, waxing quixotic about utopian paradises or disclosing more lucid confessions of personal angst or tribulation, his descriptive depth never fails to incline the listener’s mind to higher things.

Further emphasising his strength in self-expression, Fliptrix aligns himself only to a close-nit assemblage of artists. Established acts like Verb T and Jehst are carefully chosen to match the creative vision and stylistic slant of each track, and this proves to be a real masterstroke. Of course, it would have been easy for him to assemble an all-star cast of UK hip-hop’s elite, but by cherry-picking a handful of rappers (only six in total), he has boosted the album’s overall conceptual scope no end. The real collaborative triumph on this album has to be ‘Frontline Terror’ featuring Ransom Badbonez and Jam Baxter which displays a near-perfect synergy between all three emcees.

Thematically, the album is philosophical and sometimes politically charged, but also introspective and complex enough to keep the listener’s mind in fifth gear. Far from the weed-addled, directionless or meta-explorations of many underground artists, ‘Third Eye’ makes for an immersive listening experience with its myriad nuances that evolve throughout his ever-expanding consciousness and post-apocolyptic vision of the world. To match this, his delivery is dextrous and on-point ensuring you’re left feeling the full cerebral force of his words, while the meticulousness of Chemo’s mastering and adlib placement ensures robust production values carry through the raw energy of his distinctive voice and prosody.

‘Third Eye of the Storm’ succeeds both in style and substance. With its expansive conceptual scope and homegrown underground sensibilities, Fliptrix has honed in and expanded on what has made him and his High Focus imprint so successful. In the process, he has achieved his most accomplished work to date and one that further cements why he deserves to be mentioned among UK hip-hop’s greats.

www.high-focus.com

I’ve got to come clean. I knew pretty much zero about H.L.I . prior to writing this review. However, over the course of several months of intensive listening, my vague knowledge has given way to a more fully formed and complex picture not just of the group, but of a whole other sub-genre lurking in the deepest, darkest depths of the UK hip-hop underworld. Listening to the Birmingham duo was like having a musical epiphany; indeed, Sensei C and Elai Immortal push the envelope so far, they have in the process, come up with a work of outstanding artistry. Put simply, their latest release titled ‘Omniglyph‘ is one of the most exhilarating and extraordinary releases I’ve come across in years.

As a sonic landscape, the 12-track EP is as unique as it is stunning. Providing a sci-fi vision of hip-hop, the duo transcend their musical vision, posing deeply metaphysical questions of the nature of the mind through their sound. The wildly shuffling electronic patterns are very atmospheric, outsized and almost kaleidoscopic in colour, providing musical and lyrical innovation and experimentation way beyond the norm. Omniglyph also has a very mysterious allure; sonically lustrous electronic frequencies are wrought-up and tumultuous, while the themes and concepts are suffused with an otherworldly mysticism.

Its effect is both minimal and maximal; it’s essentially avant-garde but works with very humble ingredients tightly rendered, diligently crafted and sequenced to give way to a layered, cumulative experience. The level of finesse and execution here is sublime and is literally light years ahead of the majority underground hip-hop acts out there. The gossamer-thin electronic pulses and swirling blade beats are something else; they’re almost scientific, but still somehow show a deep and humble reverence for their hip-hop origins. The cross-genre blurring within an essentially hip-hop framework is testament to the duo’s intense, almost zealous level of craftsmanship.

The EP is definitely not your typical boom-bap; it is a high-energy, psychedelic and rhythmically intense assault on your eardrums, that will no doubt translate into a very intriguing set at live shows. While its roots are traditional, the myriad new-age creative impulses edge perilously close at times to invoking pure terror and mind-bending new possibilities.The insane level of multi-instrumental complexity and interweaving elements displays a vigorous urge to entertain but also to educate. The duo achieve this vocally, too; both are clever, cryptic wordsmiths and Sensei C impresses especially with his motley, space-age lexicon while subtler components like Naomi Mighty‘s eerily dissonant siren song plays off beautifully against the heavy, throbbing ultrasounds.

Overall, Omniglyph is a cauldron of ferment and creativity. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it’s is one of the boldest-sounding releases ever in UK hip-hop. For me at least, it was a transforming experience that has irrevocably changed my perceptions of the hip-hop genre. Retaining just enough of the original elements to push the genre forward, H.L.I. embody a spirit of creativity unparalleled in the UK hip-hop scene by exploring the farthest reaches of the genre’s sonic capabilities.

Punning Clan member Benny Diction, who is also the co-host of London’s premier hip-hop night Fat Gold Chain, is a tireless promoter of an underground scene lurking in the deepst depths of the UK rap undergrowth. His latest album, released earlier this year, is a varied résumé of tracks recorded and compiled over the last few years. Shot through with a myriad of distinctive musical and linguistic elements, the album is a million miles away from both the low-brow machismo and the faddy pop-rap sentiments that have become the scourge of the hip-hop scene.

Each track on ‘Hard Graft’ is essentially a showcase of Benny’s own unique musical personality, and he’s the sort of artist who praises originality over the traditional hustler mentality and does his best to avoid the stale trappings of ephemeral trends. Indeed, the album is a refreshingly easy-going affair which gently bobs and weaves between relatable themes such as women, the human condition, life in the Capital and the day-to-day struggles that go with it. The slightly kooky, indie-rap aesthetic may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think most listeners who come across it will welcome the softer, varicoloured image.

Benny himself shares a vaguely similar stylistic slant to that of indie UK rap contemporaries Mowgli and The Ruby Kid, particularly in his reverence for evocative and well crafted lyricism, as well as in his refusal to conform to preconceived notions of what constitutes ‘real hip-hop’. His complex, but laid-back sound runs counter to mainstream influences and boldly displays his unique penchant for philosophising about the ordinary. He transmits an honest and raw essence which speaks to the tangible maturity of his sound.

Stylistically, Benny D achieves a wonderful balance of old and new school, and sums himself up perfectly in his lyrics as a “purist on a progressive tip“. Indeed, his new album plays like a welcome piece of vintage hip-hop for the jaded modern listener, and has with enough creative nous to elevate it beyond being yet another meta piece of UK rap miscellany.

Each song on ‘Hard Graft’ segues nicely to the next and there are some truly beautiful flourishes which help attenuate the percussion prominence and put a nice dip in the boom bap. Some unexpected elements are thrown into the mix like the eccentric accordion loop in ‘World on a Plate’, the edgy, screw-face vibe of ‘Grey Britain’, and the didgeridoo spun, percussion fueled acoustic noodling in ‘The Woods’. Some songs are a bit too predictable in their structure and cadence, but overall the album’s wide range of textures and lyricism make it a consistently listenable effort. This is in part due to its excellent harmonic shifts, which are further bolstered by both the soulful vocal talents of renowned Nottingham artist Liam Bailey and the folksy vibes of Scottish-Sudanese singer Eliza Shaddad who grace their tracks with some beautifully earthy and swooning vocal flourishes.

Overall, ‘Hard Graft’ is a fine album with high-quality production and craft from start to finish, and is easily Benny D’s most interesting and versatile project to date. However, the album strongly hints that he still has plenty more to say, and serves, not so much as an isolated statement, but as another chapter in a saga still being penned.

Purchase ‘Hard Graft, Arts & Crafts and Hearty Laughs’ from Benny Diction’s Bandcamp Page.

Born and raised in leafy Bromsgrove, a small town in north east Worcestershire, self-proclaimed geek-rapper Dan Bull is pretty much your typical nerdy middle-class white kid.

Rising from underground obscurity to become something of an internet sensation,Dan has steadily built a sturdy online reputation on his topical raps and  tirades at everything from corrupt political systems to disingenuous popstars. The 25-year-old proves that he can be both fun and witty, but also serious-minded when waxing poetic about the latest video game trailers, the BRIT Awards, or even draconian anti-piracy laws like SOPA.

His album releases are perhaps overlooked in favour of his hugely popular Youtube channel, but a few songs on Face will be familiar to you if you’re a subscriber. The opening track America, which was released as a video couple of years back, is a prime example of Dan’s cognizant, analytical style. With his swingeing critique of the American healthcare system, Dan delivers an impassioned plea for a reform of what is the only privatised system in the industrial world: Nothing should be held higher than citizens / Putting wealth over health, I am sick of it!

Rather than bashing authority, Dan provides a more sanguine voice for the sceptical and disenfranchised. Though his tone is often stark, he projects these criticisms mindfully rather than simply rattling off a bunch of fervid, frustrated torrents at authority figures. His perspective is broad, open-minded and more objective than the image-obsessed activist-type, for whom Dan himself will often lay bare his disdain. In Guilty for example, he is bold enough to censure us, the lumpen public, who are often uninterested in reform, rather than following an obvious mode of laying in to those in power: The blame doesn’t just lay with governments and militants / The population’s got the plague of indifference.

The free-flowing, hook-heavy emphasis of Dan’s songs allows him the free rein to lace his intelligent diatribes on the modulating influences of big-business, politicians and the media within a compelling musical package. The album’s sound is equally as explorative as his themes; it’s jam-packed full of synthy, funk-filled bass and a genuine musical prowess that eludes many hip-hop acts and gives heavy nods to a plethora of acoustic rock and pop influences. Rhythmically diverse, with faster-paced numbers such as The Staircase contrasting well to chugging mid-tempo syncopations in Medicine Ball, the album is successful in its musical variation as much as in its wrangling of anthemic rock sensibilities within an essentially hip-hop framework.

Dan isn’t just some nerd who happens to make words rhyme either – his rap credentials are in fact equally as strong as his intellectual rigour. Riding the beat with complex polysyllabics and precise cadences, Dan delivers a mother lode of rhyme contortions over a confection of beautifully crisp compositional beats. His range of vocal stylings will often leave you bedazzled: he not only raps well, but also sings and harmonises pitch-perfectly over velvety, self-composed harmonies and gauzy acoustic melodies. All the while he maintains his slightly nerdy persona, but never exaggeratedly so at the risk of caricaturing himself. In Proud, a track produced by underground Manchester beatmaker Pro P, he unashamedly declares himself “a middle-class kid from the Midlands” with fast-flowing double-time precision and with a lucid and uplifting sense of honesty. His lyrics are emotionally-direct and rarely descend into non-sequiturs or convolution for the sake of sounding clever.

Aside from a few deviations such as his beautiful tribute to John Lennon, Face is a deeply individual affair and features several moving personal accounts, the most poignant of which being Portrait of the Autist. Over swooning whirs and slow drums, Dan speaks plainly of his real-life experiences with Asperges syndrome, describing his feelings of isolation and his crippling inability to integrate in informal social settings: An overloaded brain is no way to be social and say hello to mates, is it? / It’s made me feel alone for ages, because I know there’s no hope to change it. The track focuses on the real, tortuous nature of the condition rather than the Rainman-perpetuated fallacy that Autism is some kind of superpower, when in fact it can be an incredibly debilitating disorder. That said, he does allude to some of its positive aspects, such as Autism’s role in helping him become a poet.

Overall, ‘Face’ is a high-quality rap collection, but as a full-length concept album it’s still a little undeveloped. He packs great creative punch throughout and makes this an effervescent piece a bedroom studio miscellany, but I still feel it’s in the nascent stages of being a complete album. It is however a diligently wrought piece of art; it ebbs and flows beautifully, and leaves him plenty of latitude to be unique, to tread various thematic paths, and crucially to push the hip-hop genre further. In a genre where artists are too often hidebound to conform to a fake image, Dan is a true beacon of honesty.

Download ‘Face’ for free at itsdanbull.com/face