A film about Northwest hip-hop from

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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A film about Northwest hip-hop from

Deadlivers

Oldominion was a hip-hop collective that rose to prominence in the Northwest right around Y2K. Comprised of more than twenty members, the group’s debut album One was released in 2000 to critical acclaim. A few years after One, a side project emerged from Oldominion titled Grayskul that included three members: Onry Ozzborn, JFK, and Rob Castro. Grayskul would go on to record at least ten albums together, but their greatest work remains Deadlivers, released in 2005. Deadlivers is a masterwork of rap theater in the same vein as a Prince Paul hip hop opera. Grayskul paints elaborate pictures in your mind using archetypal good vs. evil battles to illuminate their concepts and bring them to life. “This is the birth of miracle, magic, and majesty,” raps Ozzborn on “Behold,” transforming a cute little line from Paul Simon’s Graceland into a vaguely ominous warning. Both “Vixen” and “After Hours” bring an accessible, fun balance to the album’s generally more dark themes. “Adversarial Theater Of Justice,” and “Action Figure Of Speech,” both appear near the beginning of the LP and display the nimble poetry and twisted imagery conjured by Grayskul on this project. Deadlivers is a hauntingly beautiful fugue, and by daring to stray from tired rap stereotypes, The album achieves true greatness. A 206 classic! (Written by Novocaine132.)

Here’s another take:

The Stranger selected Deadlivers as one of the “Top 6 Hip-Hop Albums of 2005,” saying:

If the Northwest Oldominion crew has an artistic peak, it’s Grayskul’s Deadlivers, which has one of the greatest opening lines of our (post-9-11) times: “If ever there was a time in your life to be afraid/I think this qualifies as the most terrifying of days” (“Behold”). Released by Rhymesayers Entertainment, Deadlivers is relentlessly dark and menacing, with flawless production. More than any other Oldominion record, Grayskul’s sound is both cinematic and architectural. Listening to Deadlivers is much like watching the shadow of a man—a murderer? a superhero? a vampire?—walking through wet, windswept streets. The beats are built big with splendid gothic details, and above black rushing clouds, is a moon that is silver and monstrously pregnant. In Deadlivers the horror/crime/sci-fi image is translated into sonic forms.

“We did about 50 songs,” explains Mr. Hill, who provided most of the beats for Deadlivers. “Castro, Onry, JFK came up with the idea of Grayskul and they wanted to use my style of music. Critics often describe it as dark, sinister, or theatrical, but to me, it just sounds normal. I never think it’s that dark; it’s just my ear, the way I like to hear things. Some of the beats we used were made as far back as 1999, but most were made while we were putting the record together.” Grayskul’s core is Onry Ozzborn, who plays a character named Reason, and JFK, who plays Recluse, and their rhymes are twisted like a madman’s mind, heavier than a tombstone, and as shadowy as the evil eyes of Bela Lugosi. Mr. Hill’s music complements Grayskul’s grave fiction. In fact, if there is one producer who has really helped define the region’s somber aesthetic, it is Mr. Hill, who contributed four beats to Silent Lambs Project’s darkling Street Talkin’… Survival and will contribute two beats to Kool Keith’s next Dr. Octagon CD.

“The thing about hip-hop,” Mr. Hill explains, “is it takes 30 minutes or two days to make, so it’s all about each song. But once I make a beat [Grayskul] go into the studio, and while putting the track together things begin to change. What we start with is never what we end with.”

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A film about Northwest hip-hop from

The Dead Stock Sessions

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A film about Northwest hip-hop from

Polarity

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A film about Northwest hip-hop from

The Grey Area

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A film about Northwest hip-hop from

Alone

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A film about Northwest hip-hop from

Venom

Onry Ozzborn released this Venom EP shortly before his explosive solo album Alone. I’m not the biggest authority on Oldominion, so I can’t tell you too much background info except that this is one of my favorites from the Seattle/Portland massive. For those that don’t know Oldominion, their dark, brooding vibe has been dubbed “the Northwest Sound” by some. The title track, featuring Toni Hill, Snafu, Nyquil, Anaxagorous, and Ezra, is a smooth, atmospheric near-masterpiece courtesy of beat-man Pale Soul. “Immortal” and “Daredevils” are two tracks that I feel are fine examples of the Oldominion sound (angry, desolate imagery; references to grunge and metal bands), and “Lights Out” (featuring Sole of Anticon) is a classic from the dark underground. It’s a perfect record for December in the Northwest. Six tracks altogether (Four vox and two inst). (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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