Album Premiere: Vritra, “Yellowing”

Hal Williams consistently pushes against the grain. Under his current moniker, Vritra, he crafts woozy, complex hip-hop that rattles and shakes. “I want to bring in people [who] don’t really listen to rap,” Williams says. “I want people to respect lyricism, and how creative rappers are with flow and experimenting with tempo.”

That kind of statement isn’t surprising for Williams, who’s long been a mad scientist of sorts. His 2012 album, The Story of Marsha Lotus, blended rock, dark pop and futuristic rap. “He’s definitely a person [who’s] not afraid to go totally left field, even if he thinks it sounds weird,” says Jay Cue, a Williams collaborator. “He’s always trying to push the sound further.”

[Listen to an exclusive premiere of Yellowing, the new record from Vritra, out this Friday.]

The first of two albums he’s set to release this year, Yellowing is a creative step forward for Williams, a prolific producer and rapper who has worked with the likes of Odd Future, Vince Staples , Kilo Kish, and The Internet, and a song he recorded as a member of the production duo The Jet Age of Tomorrow was sampled by Kendrick Lamar.  Yet despite that impressive list of features, Williams is still relatively unknown. He doesn’t seem stressed about it; his new album, Yellowing, which Bandcamp is premiering today, is remarkably zen. Album closer “Wings” isn’t about skydiving or getting high—it’s about parenting. During our conversation, Williams lights up when talking about his newborn child, and learning how to incorporate fatherhood into his music. “Throughout my releases, I’ve been trying to find a way to portray the voice inside my head,” Williams says. “This was the start of me figuring out what I want to do and how to implement it in a song.”

Vritra

Vritra. Photo by Complexcastles/Jerimiah Shaw

The first of two albums he’s set to release this year, Yellowing is a creative step forward for Williams. He’s dropped the “Pyramid” from his name, and the music toes a line between turn up and trap.

“I obviously want to crack the code and figure out how to reach more people without compromising my sound,” Williams says. With Yellowing, he gets a little closer to achieving his goal.

—Jesse Fairfax

The Other Guys Aspire to Be Perfectly Average

The Other Guys

The Other Guys. Photo by Beatrice Myles
“There’s so many MCs out here who rap about rapping, about how great they are. We wanted to separate ourselves from that.” —Mighty Joe, The Other Guys

On their new album, Life in AnalogThe Other Guys resist the urge to embellish. “Can’t pay rent with words in a sentence/ 7 to 3, I’m at the j-o-b,” says lyricist Insanate, on “Seen It All.” That lyric is true to life: Both he and producer Mighty Joe work as security personnel in New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., respectively. And while they once felt alone as self-proclaimed “average Joes” in a genre that thrives on decadence, the Other Guys are in good company on Kevin Nottingham’s HiPNOTT Records, which is home to like-minded rappers Substantial and Tanya Morgan. On Life in Analog, Other Guys MC Insanate raps about forgoing drugs and working around business hours. Backed by Mighty Joe’s serene boom-bap production, these men approaching middle age sound at peace with living life as ordinary people.

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Flowdan’s Grime Longevity

Flowdan

Flowdan. Photo by Hana Makovcova

The UK grime scene is in the throes of a vibrant second wave, but the talented rapper/MC Flowdan has been there since the beginning. Born Marc Vieria, he was present at the foundation of the scene in East London in the early 2000s. Flowdan was in the original line-up of Roll Deep Entourage alongside Wiley and (briefly) Dizzee Rascal in 2002. Even at that stage, his stentorian, reggae-influenced delivery stood out amidst the hyperactive flow favored by most of his colleagues. His doomy voice would eventually break out of grime and into wider international club culture with the 2007 release of the sonic bulldozer “Skeng,” with producer The Bug (aka Kevin Martin) and fellow vocalist Killa P.

Since then, Flowdan has done his best to avoid the boom-and-bust economy of the grime scene. He works with a host of different producers, and tours globally as part of The Bug live crew while still commanding respect within the grime scene. He’s released one solo album – Original Dan on Wiley’s Eskibeat label from 2009 – an underground affair that didn’t reach too far beyond the grime world. His 2014 EP on Hyperdub in 2014, with productions from The Bug, dubstep legend Coki and others, went a bit further. But his new album, Disaster Piece, on Tru Thoughts, is his strongest individual artistic statement to date.

At first, it feels like Flowdan is simply intent on displaying his musical maturity; the album is full of gothic atmospheres, brooding hip-hop rhythms, and, in its first half, the siren voice of guest vocalist Animai. But as it progresses, things take an unexpected turns: The third-person “Groundhog” plays like a Streets-of-London Scorsese narrative, told in five minutes, full of bad omens and claustrophobia. “Flatline” is as cold a set of threats as you’ll hear on record this year, delivered over rave-commanding sub bass. “Bob Marley” is a weed rap that can make even the most devout non-smoker catch a contact high.

Then, at the end, it switches up even more dramatically: the final five tracks are a cavalcade of rambunctious grime energy, full of rapid-fire challenges, insults and affirmations, with guest spots from fellow vets Manga and Tinchy Stryder. It’s an audacious structure—many artists would have kicked the record off with the fun stuff. But it’s a layout that gets more compelling with each listen.

We sat down with Flowdan in an East London pub garden to find out how he approached the album, how he feels about his “elder statesman” status, and whether the scene can ride out the latest wave of hype.

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Hari Kondabolu Once Performed Stand-Up in a Tornado Shelter, and Other Tales

Hari Kondabolu
Hari Kondabolu. Photo by Tawni Bannister

Signing to Kill Rock Stars back in 2014 was a surreal moment for Hari Kondabolu. For one thing, he’s a comedian and they’re an indie rock label. For another, he’s always been a fan. “I loved Elliott Smith and Bikini Kill. It was kind of—‘Really, me?’” he remembers. “It’s still surreal, to be honest with you. The Thermals. I’m listing bands for some reason. It was kind of like, the indie college radio station manager in me freaked out.”

His first record, Waiting for 2042, allowed him to reach a wider audience while also helping Kill Rock Stars establish itself in the comedy world—they’re also working with Kurt Braunholer and Cameron Esposito—and, maybe, get back to its wordy, activist origins. “The first Kill Rock Stars record, I believe, was spoken word,” says Kondabolu, referring to the 1991 split single by Kathleen Hanna and Slim Moon. “That was politicized. That’s in the roots of the place.”

Kondabolu, a touring comedian based in Brooklyn, doesn’t like to be called a political comedian, but it’s fair to say his material is more socially conscious, more charged with satire, than that of his “alt-comedy” peers. His new record Mainstream American Comic, also on Kill Rock Stars, features moments of undeniable political commentary—including some timely election-year stuff—but it’s also a just a straight-up funny-as-fuck comedy record. No matter how pointed his jokes are, they’re always jokes. Stick with them, and you’ll laugh.

“I’ll also say, as a result of being on Kill Rock Stars: Musicians are nicer to me at festivals. Historically, when I share space with bands at music festivals like Bumbershoot or South by Southwest, they do not give a shit if you’re a comic,” he says. Now he’s got a little indie cred, and the bands say ‘hi’ to him backstage. “If anything, it makes musicians be nicer to me and lets me discover who’s a phony.” We spoke with Kondabolu by phone last month, about comedy, vanity, tornados, Apu from the Simpsons, and what it was like to intern for Hillary Clinton. Continue reading

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