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The Dro Bots Saga

A ‘concept’ album is a listening experience in which each song on a record fits together to create a larger story like chapters in a book. Three of my favorite rap concept albums of all time are Prince Paul’s Prince Among Thieves about a young street hustler gone astray, Kool Keith’s sex-crazed medical-school dropout character on Dr. Octogonecologyst, and The Dro-Bots Saga released in 2008 by Seattle’s Mash Hall.

The plot of Dro Bots is extremely meta. At the start of the album, Bruce Illest, played by Mash Hall’s DJ blesOne, is a weed-addled “Dro-Boy” who is transformed by the “Dro Bots Assimilation” process from a man into a “Dro-Bot.” He flies to the outer space planet of Chronicon 5 and learns that “planet Earth’s resources are at a critical low.” After he returns back to Earth, he receives “Unemployment Deployment,” and then drops a two-part rap “Catch The Bus 1 & 2” in which we meet a second Dro-Bot named Gatsby, played by Larry Mizell Jr.

The next track is my favorite on the album, and it brings on a guest Dro-Bot MC named Barfly from local group The Saturday Knights. The song is called “Weed Murder” and it is one of Mash Hall’s most well-built songs. The three rappers take turns murdering the marijuana and dropping impeccable bars. The album builds to a climax with “Star Whores,” in which Bruce Illest raps while riding shotgun in a car being driven by one of his ‘famous bitch’ conquests. Suddenly the car crashes and Bruce Illest is thrown from the vehicle. I can’t reveal whether he lives or dies, but suffice to say the next track is called “Ascension to Funk Heaven.” The last song on the album “My Weed” blows clouds of purple pot smoke into the picture, which makes you wonder did all this drama really happen or was it just a nice dream?

The production style can be described in many ways, words that come to mind include: patchwork, collage, hodgepodge, potpourri. DJ blesOne hits you with pure anarchy in his beats. He collects sounds and drums from millions of disparate sources and combines them into a funky stew. It is like being in the middle of a “Sharknado” but instead of a shark flying by your window, there is a sample from an old western movie slammed against a glockenspiel melody and all set to a massacred drum sample. If you are ready for some experimentation, it all fits together into a new whole.

The Dro Bots Saga was the fifth release from Mash Hall, and by this point, DJ blesOne had completely mastered his unique art of creative production and wall-of-sound audio. As a side note, Mash Hall changed their name to “They Live!” when they dropped this masterpiece. In 2008 and 2009, they performed as “They Live!” and during this period the group worked on material for their 2010 final opus They La Soul. (Written by Novocaine132.)

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God Save The King

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Active

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Butter & Gun$

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&

Music: Soul of The Man

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The Truth

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White Van Music

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Love or Fate

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Make Happy

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Vinyl Vixens

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Basement Sessions

Northwest cat Dawhud put out this debut album in 2008, but it could have easily been from 20 years previous. Written, performed, and produced by the man himself, this 27-track record, for those reasons alone, is quite an accomplishment. But the Basement Sessions is more than just a collection of songs: This is a cohesive document from start to finish, that plays out like a well-scripted screenplay, seamlessly combining Dawhud’s personal experiences in the world of hip-hop with the more universal sounds and concepts immediately identifiable to those of us tuned in to what hip-hop was at its arguable apex.

To say it’s a unique project doesn’t quite describe how I feel about this record… It is an album unlike any other, but when a term like “unique” is thrown around one might think of Divine Styler’s Spiral Walls or Boom Bip, or something else self-indulgent and perhaps difficult to listen to. Not so here. Although in its hour-length duration Basement Sessions rarely visits anything remotely similar to today’s mainstream hip-hop, it is far from difficult or alien listening; and although it’s Dawhud’s personal story, it manages to be masterfully very un-self-indulgent. The reason being is that with Basement, Dawhud has peeled back the layers of hip-hop down to its core elements, to something universal, and keeps the language basic, pure, and easily understandable (and quite likable) to anyone familiar with the art form. Combining the story of his musical upbringing with an appropriate musical backdrop, and using the novel/film Fight Club as a fitting metaphor to weave the albums’ many songs, skits, and spoken word fragments into a cohesive, flowing monologue, this is his story of a man lucky enough to come of age at the same time hip-hop did and therefore speaks to a huge cohort of listeners who can immediately feel where he’s coming from. Basement is a colorful patchwork of breaks, funk and jazz loops, classic hip-hop samples, and storytelling; with the inclusions of the afore-mentioned skits and historical audio documents to illuminate the story further. He says it plain early on: he’s not out for money, he’s out for respect. It’s a reoccurring theme, and it’s an attitude that can be applied to his feelings about the commercialization of hip-hop in general. But with Basement Sessions he razes all the extraneous garbage that has infested hip-hop culture in recent years to the ground – no dilution here, no watering down of the pure essence of hip-hop. The 4 Elements are present, and that’s really all that matters. Dawhud paints a picture of himself that throughout the record comes into focus: That of a young man frustrated with the bullshit in life and in the garbage found in hip-hop, and throughout the narrative this man strives to better himself and through him, the art. Other reviewers have heard echoes of the second golden age of hip-hop when describing this record, but to me, I hear more evocation of the first: I hear Premier’s beats in the forefront, Ced Gee and Kool Keith’s cadences, KRS’s message, Eric B’s loop-digging. Like I hesitate to use the term “unique”, I also don’t want to say this is “old school”, as that implies something tired-out and nostalgic. But as much as the music and lyricism evoke and pay homage to the golden age of hip-hop, there is nothing tired about this record. This is fresh and vital music, as youthful as the man depicted in the story. It’s vibrant with energy, and that energy flows through the space between the drum breaks, the lyrics, and the loops. This is true school, that’s what it is, and so it never gets old. There are no tricks here, no gloss, no lasers. No choruses of “Make money money,” no glorification of drug use, no violence, no misogyny, no hating. At the same time, this isn’t some vapid party soundtrack, either. This is a testament to personal achievement, through hard work, constant refinement, and long, sleepless nights. This is taking it back to one mic and two turntables – and the holy Akai. This is strictly beats and rhymes. Dawhud does it almost completely alone, and as a personal testament, it should be that way. He is more than capable of handling all the chores here. Dawhud has other releases out there which I will present shortly, but this is the place to start. Download it, then put it on a tape, if you can find one, then put it in your walkman or boom box, if you can dig it out of storage. Turn it on, then listen; remember the past, and use that memory to build a better tomorrow. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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Murda On The Mic

Ever since his recent telephone experiment, I’ve been revisiting Sol’s extensive back catalogue. Here’s Murda on the Mic, a 2008 debut ep from the then 19-year-old Sol. It’s a killer first release, low-fi and raw, containing a brashness that’s softened and become more polished in his recent work. For me, it’s exactly this early, gritty sound that makes these seven songs so special, finding just the right arcs between serious and funny, nudging your mood a degree or two off-center and in unexpected directions. Take, for example, the flute solos in “Rock On.” These should be cheesy, and maybe they are, but Sol and a funky guitar move you in a way that convinces you that flutes are cool. You come away wondering why, honestly, there aren’t more flute solos. Or the grand, orchestral “Never Thought” that features doubled and tripled vocals doing call-and-response, and choral singers, too. This song and “Tomorrowless” remind you of the moments you love in Kanye’s early work: Energetic, assertive experiments dripping with talent.

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Tobacco Road

Every morning while making coffee, I stand and stare at a poster of pho ingredients that hangs in my kitchen, designed by Sabzi. It was a promotion for his noodle-soup-positive single, “We Heart Pho.” I met RA Scion while doing illustrations in Alaska. Yet, it was only recently that I discovered this gem of an album that brings their talents together.

Common Market’s 2008 album, Tobacco Road is head-bobbing fun, mixing magisterial spitting, melodic instrumentation, and an overarching concept about the working class. The headier first half gives way to a playfully casual second and features a singalong diss track, “Nothin’ At All.” The best diss tracks are honestly the ones you want to sing along to.

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White Gold

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Think Tank

Seattle collective the Mind Movers released this ambitious record in 2008. City-wide in scope, the talents of over 30 Town emcees, vocalists, DJ’s and producers were utilized in the creation of this solidly underground compilation; probably exposing many of them to an audience that may have not heard them before, thus making it somewhat of a Do The Math for the Northwest’s third wave of hip-hop.

Think Tank is 21 varied and energetic tracks in length, and each song has multiple contributors. Crew cuts! I for one had only known of a few of the collaborators when I picked this up; it certainly opened my ears to a ton of great talent. The Mind Movers are made up of emcees Khanfidenz, Inkubiz, Mic Flont, Open Hands, Phreewil (who also handles production, and now resides in Hawaii), and producer/DJ Dead Noise. Besides those cats, the massive Seattle crew Alpha P/First Platoon represents as well, with features from emcees Jerm (also of Cloud Nice), Inkubiz and Phree Wil(again!), Kasi Jack Gaffle, Diez, Asad, Rajnii Eddins, Rufio, Jerz, Julie C, Yirim Seck, and Asun, who especially kicks it all over these tracks. Other names appear as well… It’s a huge who’s who.

Musically the beats are heavy, dusty underground gems. With six beatmakers in attendance, the tracks are surprisingly cohesive, although the ranges of styles are vast. Drum-heavy, broody, atmospheric tracks are heard in abundance (thanks mainly to Phree Wil), alongside upbeat soul samples, and mellow jazz piano loops. Whatever, it’s all nice; no beats out of a can here, this is artistic craftsmanship from the bottom up. Despite the huge undertaking, only the surface of the last decade’s hip-hop scene has been scratched with this release. The Town is bursting at the seams with talent. This is just a decent slice of it. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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