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Old Fashioned

In 2012 Billy The Fridge dropped his second full album titled Old Fashioned and Seattle was never the same.

At first glance the album is just a sad mockery of an art form that was once based on life-or-death issues in New York City, but this project is infinitely more layered than one might immediately realize. Billy has been trying to meme his way into the public consciousness for a long time. One of his early viral songs was called “Cake Day” based on the Reddit tradition. Billy’s first album in 2009 (Million Dollar Fantasy Freak Show) captured his berserk Biz Markie ‘comedian-of-rap’ quality, but Old Fashioned saw exponential growth in his artistic process.

Fridge created a character who matches the weirdness of Slim Shady, appearing to be in on the joke even despite all the sleaze. It’s a complex performance by a man who mastered kayfabe in semi-pro wrestling for years before turning to rapping. His poetic voice is somewhere between George Carlin and Blowfly.

To be clear, Fridge is no novelty rapper, he is a legit talented rapper who tackles novelty subjects, a distinction that is very important. And his actual voice is no less remarkable, as he manages to frantically spit speedy complex lyrics with the clearest diction this side of the Atlantic.

The listener enters a world narrated by a ghoulish character with a wicked sense of humor. Think Al Yankovich trying to do MC Ren or Geto Boys. Fridge is hardcore, Old Fashioned is not a kid-friendly album, but it sure is immature. Tracks like “Brown Bag,” “8 Ton Gorilla,” and the ridiculous crowd-pleaser sing-along “Dumb” present an artist who creates an ‘insta-vibe’ and makes a song out of it. Many of the tracks are memes of pop-culture properties, for instance, “Workaholic” is not-so-loosely based on the sitcom. “Just A Bill” reimagines Schoolhouse Rock while Fridge lands nuclear punchlines on you like elbow drops. It sounds stupidly simple because it is. Fridge is an internet sensation, and he has a classic rap album. (Written by Novocaine132.)

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Reigncraft Volume 8: Sweat Equity

The final numbers are rather impressive! Seven years. Eight CDs. One hundred and sixty songs! Reigncraft was a networking experiment that released compilations of Northwest hip-hop artists from 2003 until 2009. Reigncraft Volume 8: Sweat Equity is the final chapter of this deep Seattle journey. As with the other volumes, everything on the CD is hot, but I will focus on just a few of my favorites to save space.

Billy The Fridge shouts out Reigncraft 8 on his bouncy track “Cadillac Rollin Fat.” This song was later remixed with verses by Barfly and Gatsby, but here you get three entertaining verses by Fridge. From my years of listening to this artist, I have concluded that while many rappers use words simply to communicate, Fridge instead kaleidoscopes the English language in his quest to entertain. He is the Willy Wonka of Seattle hip-hop, and if you haven’t yet experienced Billy The Fridge, you are in for a treat.

Artist LaRue calls for racial unity and solidarity with the track “Rise Up,” and the positive message here is resounding. Sometimes you need a reminder of what’s important in life. The late Zig Ziglar gave us a relevant quote to chew on, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing, that’s why we recommend it daily.” To me, tracks like “Rise Up” gain value as the years go by, while other materialistic or violent songs become obsolete.

“The Myth” by Fatal Lucciauno is a heavy duty tour de force. The beat by B.Brown is grand, evoking the pomp and circumstance of Dr Dre’s masterpiece 2001. Fatal shows why he is perhaps the most complex lyricist ever to emerge from Seattle. “Fixed everything from horse races to court cases,” he boasts. Fatal’s work carries the somewhat divine authority of a writer who wastes no words. Each word and phrase in “The Myth” is there for a reason, fate demands it.

With a sophisticated beat by Mr. Hill, and lyrics of velvet by Candidt, “Life Of A Emcee” might be competing with Greasy Earl’s “New Earl Order” as my favorite Reigncraft track of the entire series. Candidt makes rapping look effortless, and he threads an important needle that many MCs can’t. What I mean is he puts excitement and drama in his voice, but doesn’t have to raise the volume to do so. Additionally, he doesn’t fall in to the common lyrical trap of rote recitation, so “Life Of A Emcee” feels unrehearsed and spontaneous. Congratulations to the series executive producer KNDNM, and to all the artists who ever contributed to Reigncraft. Written by Novocaine132

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Reigncraft Volume Seven: Wake Up

The Reigncraft series of Seattle rap compilations is a wonderful place to start if you have no idea about hip-hop culture in the 206. There are hundreds of artists in our town who put out interesting music, even if the national press only covers two of them. Reigncraft Volume Seven: Wake Up, which dropped in 2008, is just as badass as volumes one through six. Let’s take a look at a few highlights, unfortunately there are too many tracks here to cover them all.

“Start Some S*** Pt. 3” by Cancer Rising is outrageous. A DJ named blesOne had just joined the group, and the song is like a Tasmanian devil chewing on your leg. The combination of blesOne and Gatsby from Cancer Rising would evolve into late-stage Mash Hall, including classic albums like They La Soul. Former wrestler Billy The Fridge drops “Smells Like Hip Hop” as his oblique tribute to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Fridge goes meta and references Reigncraft a couple of times in his verse. For instance, “This city is behind me and we’re on a mission, buy that Reigncraft disc and give it a listen,” and “If you don’t know Grynch or the Blue Scholars, then give me ten bucks and I’ll give you two dollars, and a copy of Gotta Do It.”

“Plague Your Mind” by Second Family is interesting to me for the commitment to wordplay, and the relentless grinding beat. Producer Baked Beatz shows restraint, and the track just drip, drip, drips like water torture. I replayed this track a bunch of times, and I still can’t quite put my finger on it. Backing vocals by Latin Rose enhance the gloomy yet dangerously thrilling panorama, effectively capturing the allure of street life on tape.

I want to like “Homelessness” by Byrdie, but somehow the song never comes together for me. The lyrics are a masterpiece, as they explain all the factors that can lead to someone being unhoused. “I speak for the homeless stuck in the streets, every day and every night trying to make ends meet,” Byrdie practically screams on the chorus. You can tell he feels emotional about this topic, and it’s a revelation to hear a rap that isn’t about selfish materialism. Unfortunately, the production seems oddly mixed to the high end, and doesn’t develop an appropriate vibe for the material. With a different beat, I think this song could be more powerful.

Near the end of Wake Up is nineteen year-old Sol’s “Kno U So Well.” This song is lighthearted and fun, and Sol uses his voice articulately and with good rhythm. The vibe is similar to “My Name Is” by Eminem, complete with circus-sounding production and ridiculous lyrics. “Fuck a pistol, I drop an Iraq missile. Leave nothin but your eyepatch, call it the Slick Rick move.” The song is a bit clumsy, but it shows potential for this young MC. Written by Novocaine132

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From 2005, this is the debut full-length from vitriolic Seattle emcee Ricky Pharoe, also know as Art Vandelay, Greasy Earl, and more. Co-billed with beatmaker Budo, Pharoe raps articulately over the layers of samples and beats, wastes no time getting his point across.

Ricky evidently has a lot to get off his chest here, and he addresses each gripe head-on without fear of critique or retribution. The commercialization of hip-hop is addressed, as is the vapidity of American capitalism, in abundance. Mixed in thoroughly is a bold-faced pro-sobriety stance, a deep-seated hatred of club culture and the misogyny it feeds off of, and general disgust with the hoops one must jump through to traditionally be successful in the arts in this country. It’s rare that an emcee has the guts to preach his ideals when those ideals are so outside the norm – not only is he anti-club and anti-drug, but he openly mocks those who partake in those lifestyles, both of which play a big part in hip-hop culture.

Overshadowing the entire 53-minute rant that is Civilized is Pharoe’s frequent references to the Illuminati conspiracy, which plays a role in everything else he expounds upon, a force in control of the world’s governments just as much as it controls our thoughts and actions. I’ve never read Robert Anton Wilson, or Behold A Pale Horse, or any conspiracy theorists, so I can’t support or discount what he’s saying with any authority, and I’m guessing much of what Ricky’s preaching is lost on me. But obviously, he slung quite an undertaking over his shoulder with this record; a record that never quite has enough time or space to plumb the proper depths, but still manages to compel the listener.

I imagine he’s probably made himself a few enemies in the process of his career as an emcee; but as a cohesive, clever, and articulate statement, this album’s successes far outweigh its shortcomings. Pharoe is a white underground rapper with a dense, articulate flow and a penchant for self-exploratory poetry, so comparisons to Slug and Aesop Rock are unfortunately unavoidable. And yes, the comparison is somewhat warranted, as all three lyricists examine hip-hop from a personal perspective and capture images through the lens of an outsider.

However, Pharoe separates himself from the others with his subject matter and his unapologetic stance on the issues he tackles. He’s gutsy with his various interconnected foci; on the commercialization and dumbing down of hip-hop, which has been a subject of controversy in the past when coming from white mouthpieces in hip-hop. (Remember DJ Shadow’s “Why hip-hop Sucks In ’96”?) Ricky takes his critique several steps further, citing specific and often-reverent examples in popular hip-hop culture, mocking them to pieces, and beating them with a squeaky dog toy into submission. He manages not to sound like a prude with his anti-drug stance, due to his relating his own chilling drug-addled past. As much as he rails against the backward capitalist system this country employs, he readily admits taking advantage of it whenever he can. This gives him some credence; he can genuinely critique these things because he’s been there.

Although the mainstream is in the hot seat, Ricky’s underground compatriots also fall victim to his particular knife, as well as bonafide hip-hop legends. The most poignant example falls on the apocalyptic track “The Not So Great”, where Ricky both tells his own story as well as that of a man much like himself, aware of the sickness that infests his world. But this character chooses to ignore the honorable person within and gives in to temptation. Most effectively, and also most brazenly, he lifts the famous line from The Wu’s “Method Man” as his chorus (“I got myself a blunt, I got wide owl dub and I’m about to go get lifted. I’m about to go get lifted. I got myself a forty, I got myself a shorty and I’m about to go and stick it, yes I’m about to go and stick it”). The intent is blurred, with only the vehemence in Ricky’s voice to show that he’s passionate about what he speaks even when he borrows from another and the philosophy is on another planet, but tantalizingly within reach all the same.

Although masked in self-depreciation and humor, Civilized is an articulate work of anger and frustration. He’s targeting the world Pharoe has been placed in, and often specifically at his very audience – the drunk club-goers and stoners that are too busy listening to themselves bullshit to hear his music and his message of the peril surrounding us. I get the feeling this is music from an artist who’s driven to orate, and receives little, if any, satisfaction in the process.

Despite the laugh-out-loud moments on the record, I don’t hear Pharoe smiling during his delivery. Besides Budo on beats, Pharoe does it pretty much by himself here, with the exception of in-line contributions from PacNW heroes Billy the Fridge and Jewels Hunter. After this record, he put out a collaborative effort with the stylistic master Tru-ID, then released a couple of funny-as-fuck online EPs before resurfacing as Art Vandelay. His new album under that moniker, Face Tattoo, is dope. But this is where you should start. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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