A film about Northwest hip-hop from

Dreams & Reality

Dreams & Reality is the latest release from Ricky Pharoe. He’s been at this rap game for a while now, first as Art Vandelay and now under his own name. Right from bitter opener “Dorks,” this record is an ode to disillusionment: The realities of aging after too much life, cynical at the music industry and the lucky breaks of his contemporaries, eating cup noodles, working from check to check… But far from being a sad sack, the music is damn good and the verses hella funny, like in “Lies” when he proudly raps about how his bank account has oh so many zeroes, no, wait, it’s all just zeros… Heavy use of rock samples left me comparing this album to the work of Raven Hollywood—a live show pairing I’d love to see happen. Mixed/mastered by Spekulation. The “Die Hard” dialogue sprinkled throughout will have you nostalgically wanting to watch the film. Cool cover photo of Seattle from the air.

Did we get it wrong? It happens. Send us an email and let's get it corrected right away!

A film about Northwest hip-hop from

&

Was And It Will Be

The original collage cover of 2014’s Was And It Will Be from Ricky Pharoe and Phreewil is a perfectly apt description of the superb crate-digging, subversive, schizophrenic, Seattle record inside. This one takes you on a journey through money, success, hope and faith that’s worth taking.

Did we get it wrong? It happens. Send us an email and let's get it corrected right away!

A film about Northwest hip-hop from

Eye 8 The Crow

Eye 8 The Crow, an album from emcee Ricky Pharoe and producer Mack Formway is, quite simply, it’s the best thing I’ve heard from either artist. Direct and straightforward, it doesn’t waste a single bar on filler, skits, or any of the needless stuff that so often clutters albums.

The album is thematic and sets a linear course, progressing from sober beginning to end. For those out there not familiar with the American colloquialism “to eat crow”, it means to admit wrongness, to swallow your words, and fess up to guilt. A more apt title would be hard to find, as the themes of guilt, transparency, and moral decay are prevalent. Pharoe has always had a penchant for being articulate, scathingly humorous, and unapologetic. Historically playing the roles of astounded commentator and bemused informer, his previous works found him relating the absurdities of a myriad of topics from religion, to capitalism, to commercialism, to pop art; and revealed him as an ever-growing and passionate orator. Whether his storytelling placed him on the stage or on a barstool, he was quick to jab his finger at everything and everyone that pissed him off. Like a cross between Don Quixote and The Underground Man, he tilted at windmills, gleefully calling out, in turn, each of the malodorous idiots surrounding him.

On Eye 8 the Crow, Pharoe has now turned inward, throwing all the passion he once held towards the outside world away and presenting himself in a new, darker light. His usual barbed humor has been blunted down to a bitter resignation, and his finger-pointing and scorn are reserved almost entirely for himself, revealing a morally ambiguous, menacing, and dead-eyed persona beyond the typical existential crisis. He depicts himself as an indifferent and exhausted man, sickened and numb past any fear of consequence for his actions. Pharoe has not turned thug; in fact, his level of eloquence and introspective depth has never been more poetic. For we are spying on him as he bares his soul and admits his atrocities in front of the mirror, spitting acid through a mask of grinning teeth. Nihilism is the philosophical doctrine that argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilism argues that morality does not inherently exist and that moral values are abstractly contrived.

I say this because Ricky Pharoe and producer Mack Formway have created a nihilistic masterpiece with this album. It’s a distorted, bleak, and desolate journey, both philosophically and musically. Beneath the minor-key melodies and layers of beats, there is something dark, slithery, and mechanically single-minded. Televisions hiss white noise, samples are sliced to translucent thinness, mouths stutter, and repeat mindless noise. Over this, Pharoe relates his most naked confessions and base secrets in a steady, medicated drawl, constantly employing violent imagery, sounding both detached and savage. Thematically the album is connected: Personal achievement has been cashed in for the predetermination of fame and fortune; passion is discarded for materialism, and meaning and purpose are negated by the mere image of meaning and purpose.

This is a violent and traumatic transition, and bloody imagery is pervasive. He burns his bridges, annihilates his enemies, screws his friends, sells his soul, and focuses on his empty goals to the exclusion of all else, so very people he scorns idolize him, and he becomes king of the mindless system he despises. It’s a distilled and unrelenting listen, fatalistic and grim. “I ate the crow, and didn’t even choke” he snarls on the title track – he coldly and readily acknowledges this transformation and has no issue with it.

There’s a contrast and a duality with the characters he portrays, and Pharoe’s perspective constantly shifts between the accused and accuser. He rails against himself, angry when he screws up, just as he applauds himself for the same self-sabotage. Although obsessed with the image of fame and fortune, he cannot run from the crushing weariness of basic survival. When faced with the end of the world, he’s indifferent. He arrogantly calls himself the center of the universe, but immediately follows with a shoulder-shrugging “I guess it sounds fine.”

“When I look into the mirror, it’s only time I get starstruck,” he states on “So What” – his ennui is such that his existence is bleak, that life is tiresome, and that nothing external brings joy. He is ultimately weary on this cut, disillusioned and jaded.

Where Pharoe’s words provide the blueprint, beatmaker Mack Formway’s music provides the architecture. The music of Art Vandelay has always dramatic and heavy, with layers upon layers of samples, guitars, synths, and pounding percussion. The ingredients continue with Eye 8 the Crow, but as Pharoe’s mood has changed, so has the music. Minor keys and descending melodies dominate, and hip-hop structures give way to desolate, industrial clanging, digital distortion, empty creaking floorboards, and unresolved tension. Where Ricky speaks about the monster he has become, Formway animates the golem. Oddly enough he’s also responsible for the brief, few moments of brevity in the album, with refrains emerging through the dust and rubble to shed a little momentary, fleeting beauty to an otherwise desolate landscape.

The defining moment of the album is the oddly titled “Emilio Estevez”. Naked and brutal it is the nadir of the narrative. “Who needs a family / All I need is money / And a burner just in case you try to take it from me / I passed ugly now I’m moving on to retched / Don’t make your head and neck get somehow disconnected,” he bluntly states to a tv screen in the promo video for the track. “I promise I’ll deliver if it benefits me / Through long history, it seems to me the victories / Are written by the ones who use the strategy viciously / So let’s just do it surreptitiously.” Vowing to take a page from the great tyrants of the world, and to do for self at the expense of everything else, he asks himself, almost – but not quite – hopefully, “It’s that simple, right?”

The tone of the album subtly changes during the second half, gaining energy with guest appearances from 206 emcee Matic and the one and only Blueprint; culminating with the final tracks, “The Devil’s Notebook” and “Eyeballs”. These end pieces are concerned with the concept of freedom, although existence is still depicted as very much a meaningless construct. The nihilism is still very much present, but then anything less would only cheapen the dark perfection of the rest of the album. And I wouldn’t expect different from a band who got their name from a show about nothing. Pick it up, it’s my album of the year. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

Did we get it wrong? It happens. Send us an email and let's get it corrected right away!

A film about Northwest hip-hop from

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.)

Did we get it wrong? It happens. Send us an email and let's get it corrected right away!

A film about Northwest hip-hop from

They’ve Got My Number Down At The Post Office

Seattle hip-hop blog 206UP picked this record as one of the “Top 10 Albums of 2011,” saying that:

MC Ricky Pharoe and producer Mack Formway are Art Vandelay, an affiliate of the left-of-center Black Lab Productions camp. On They’ve Got My Number Down At The Post Office they question the honesty of our government, point shotguns at their televisions, and generally wonder indignantly how anyone in their right mind could see worldly goings-on as anything but a degradation of all that is beautiful and just. “Art Vandelay” is a self-delusion perpetuated by Seinfeld‘s George Costanza — a lie in the form of a heroic archetype that helps George feel better about his otherwise mundane existence. Pharoe is calling us the liars on They’ve Got My Number: We’re fools to think for even a second that anything is all good. Oh well, at least when the world begins crumbling down around us we’ll have Art Vandelay’s soundtrack playing in the background, telling us so.

Did we get it wrong? It happens. Send us an email and let's get it corrected right away!

A film about Northwest hip-hop from

&

The Key With No Lock

This is the laid-back collaborative effort from Ricky Pharoe & Tru-ID, from 2007. Both emcees are adept at fire; Ricky P’s debut album, Civilized, was an angry young paranoiac’s manifesto, while Tru-ID’s one played out like the diary of a poet in front of a dramatic, cinematic score. Here they tune it down a few notches, creating an album together that rarely achieved the energy of either emcee’s solo outings, but instead played out easy like a late summer afternoon.

Neither emcee tries any stylistic acrobatics in favor of relatively basic flows and sing-song choruses. The beats are likewise relaxed and mid-tempo. Mr. Xquisit, Jewels Hunter, and Camila lend their vocal cords, and Budo, Apoulo, Laidback Luke, Stuart Rowe, Graves, and Artistic Propaganda produce. The album was recorded and mixed by Macklemore (who also contributes lyrically to “The Real Kings.”)

Up until recently, I wrongly thought Ricky was getting beef for making this record; as it turns out for whatever reason it was Ricky who didn’t feel it was up to par with the rest of his work. He may not be naked on the news screaming “come and get me” on this album as much as his previous efforts, but I for one appreciate it as a fine stand-alone record, and as my introduction to these two distinguished emcees. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

Did we get it wrong? It happens. Send us an email and let's get it corrected right away!

A film about Northwest hip-hop from

&

Civilized

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.)

Did we get it wrong? It happens. Send us an email and let's get it corrected right away!