Tag Archives: Mello Music Group

On “Everything’s Fine,” Jean Grae and Quelle Chris Take Society to Task

jean grae, quelle chris

Photos by Mindy Tucker

In early July 2016, rappers Jean Grae and Quelle Chris explained how frustrating it is to release satirical art in modern-day America. They’d just put out Goodnight Courtney, a comedic short about the isolated life of a depressed cartoon character. But the piece came at the end of a devastating news week, just days after black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by law enforcement in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, respectively, and five police officers were killed in retaliation at a protest in Dallas, Texas. “Every morning,” Grae told Bandcamp, “I can’t just say anything and I can’t just release anything without going online first and checking [to see] if anyone’s dead. It’s not OK.”

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Album of the Day: Open Mike Eagle, “Brick Body Kids Still Daydream”

Open Mike Eagle’s new album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, is a love letter to Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, an infamous public housing project completely demolished in 2007, that’s told with the rapper’s trademark blend of witty quips and bleak social commentary. A Windy City native, Eagle riffs on the pain of government-sanctioned trauma, resulting in his most heartfelt work to date.

On Daydream, Eagle talks about the plight of his hometown’s ghetto, while staying true to his core musical formula, where sharp punchlines meet thought-provoking introspection. “Legendary Iron Hood” is the theme for a young heroic, mystic figure determined to overcome the tragedies of poverty and neighboring gang activity. Here, Exile’s keys, a muffled drum, and electric guitar give the song a folkish backdrop, a contrast to the project’s hyperactive single—“Brick Body Complex”—where Eagle raps from the perspective of the final building to be torn down over rattling percussion.

“95 Radios” is a soothing homage to golden age hip-hop airwaves that loosely ties into the album’s greater narrative, as Eagle and the song’s producer Has-Lo reflect on how their affinity for the likes of Q-Tip and De La Soul became a refuge from their harsh surroundings. On “Daydreaming In The Projects” Eagle extols the ability of youth to transcend its circumstances (over an arrangement that pays mild homage to video game composer Koji Kondo).

A master of detailing the human condition, Eagle weaves satire with sadness on “No Selling (Uncle Butch Pretends It Don’t Hurt),” the tale of a character so accustomed to trauma that he’s become numb to emotion. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream closes with the noisy, angsty “My Auntie’s Building.” Here, Eagle vents: “They say America fights fair, but they won’t demolish your timeshare.” The line feels especially sharp—a wry punchline that reveals a stinging truth.

Jesse Fairfax 

The Best New Hip-Hop on Bandcamp: July 2017

Best Hip Hop

This month’s selection of vital hip-hop projects covers albums inspired by the socially-conscious poetics of Gil Scott-Heron, plus beat tapes homaging the production genius of Prince Paul, and a regional showcase themed around the Street Fighter II video game. Elsewhere, you’ll be pleased to hear that the age-old battle cry against the high-end corporate machinations of the hip-hop industry is still booming through loud and clear.

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Mr. Lif and Akrobatik on Near-Death Experiences and Boston’s Music Scene

Mr Lif Akrobatik

Photos by Mel Taing.

“I was an only child when I met Ak,” rapper Mr. Lif says of fellow Boston emcee and Perceptionists collaborator Akrobatik. “He’s my brother.” Lif and Ak’s 20-year friendship is based on mutual admiration, creativity, and a shared love of the NFL’s New England Patriots. “We link on sports and video games and hip-hop shit,” Ak says. “It’s just guys being guys, really. But the music, there was something special there.”

On Resolution, their first album together in 12 years, the rappers discuss police brutality, racism, and political corruption, along with their respective near-death experiences: Mr. Lif survived his tour bus plummeting over a cliff, and Akrobatik overcame an aortic dissection and emergency open-heart surgery. Surprisingly, those brushes with mortality didn’t harden them or fill them with fear—instead, they provided a new outlook on life, where making music, following their passions, and nurturing close relationships are the top priorities.

Writing and recording this album was cathartic for both Lif and Ak in different ways. Not only did they have a canvas to share the most traumatic experiences of their lives, but they were able to rediscover the joy of making music together again. “The whole ‘Resolution’ concept just made sense on so many levels, because we hadn’t done a record together [in so long], and because we had both been through so much, and never really finished what we started,” Ak says. “It’s like, what else could it be?”

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Record Stores Labels Love

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From emporiums with vast caverns of dusty, disorganized stacks, to the slick, wooden-box shops, where carefully-curated bins of vinyl are perfectly positioned next to screen prints, the world has no shortage of diverse and amazing record shops. There are the miles of stacks at Amoeba (the California-based independently-run music chain), crates to dig through at flea markets the world over—even Myanmar, the former pariah state just now treading towards democracy, opened its first record store in the capital of Yangon. And there’s my favorite, The Thing in Brooklyn, where it sometimes feels as if the head of A&R for Def Jam has dumped 30 years worth of promo 12″s into a cramped junk shop.

With the recent flood of reissues and brand-new vinyl on sale at airports and Urban Outfitters, record stores can feel quaint—what was once a thrilling hunt for rare finds is now a few clicks away on Discogs. This isn’t a treatise on the vinyl revival, that’s been written before. This is a celebration of some of the finest purveyors on this planet, as selected by labels on Bandcamp, and paired with a recent release from each.

Ally-Jane Grossan 

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Album of the Day: Oddisee, “The Iceberg”

Oddisee, a Maryland native and Brooklyn transplant, has been one of the country’s top independent hip-hop producers for more than half a decade, amassing a sizeable fan base out of the rap nostalgists and beatheads attracted to his mellow, expansive instrumentals. But his new record marks a first; the rapping on The Iceberg—fluid, dynamic and above all, thoughtful—finally matches the pull and urgency of his production. In the past, a solemn chorus of horns and bass, like the one on Iceberg opener “Digging Deep,” may have outstripped the lyrical overlay. Here, though, the music provides a backdrop for Oddisee to explain the album’s premise: Our actions are only comprehensible once you understand the circumstances that have shaped our respective characters.

The Iceberg zeroes in on those circumstances, while serving up another selection of near-perfect beats. On the clear standout, “You Grew Up,” one verse traces the divergent paths of Oddisee and a white friend who grows up to become a murderous police officer; another examines a man whose self-loathing leads him to radical Islam. Oddisee offers a complex portrait of both men, and his storytelling is complemented by sharp lyrical asides. The producer places himself under the microscope as well: The go-go beat on “NNGE” affords him an opportunity to return to his D.C. roots, while on “Rain Dance,” he explains how his ambitions as a musician confounded his Sudanese father. The parental pressure led him to focus on his finances.

Oddisee’s focus on the business of his art led him to analyze the weaknesses of independent hip-hop as a whole. In an interview with Passion of the Weiss last summer, he explained his takeaways—“We rap about rapping, we chastise, we preach, we live in the past”—and said that he had challenged himself to do better. He’s succeeded in that regard. The Iceberg uses dynamic narratives to (mostly) avoid the sanctimony that has stained the genre, pairing Odd’s always-reliable board work with a new commitment to lyrical exploration.

Jonah Bromwich

Being Quelle Chris: A Look Inside The Rapper’s Quirky Hip-Hop Sound

Chris Quelle

On a breezy winter afternoon in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, Quelle Chris is reclining on his couch, playing video games and enjoying a smoke. It’s a rare bit of downtime for the producer/rapper; he lives here with his girlfriend—rapper/actor/comedian Jean Grae—and relaxes with Playstation, weed, and Netflix. After pouring each of us a glass of Red Label whiskey, he shuts the window to drown out the sounds of traffic. “If I keep this open, we may not hear any of the interview,” Quelle says. It’s a slightly ironic move—that same hum of traffic is part of the palette of sound Quelle uses to create some of the most unique, forward-thinking hip-hop around.

Most hip-hop producers who build their work from samples spend a lot of time in record shops, digging through crates to find the gems they’ll eventually chop and manipulate into new masterpieces. But Quelle is different; when he goes looking for sounds, he starts with the television.

“I’ll sit and watch hours and hours of the most terrible movies, just waiting for those little moments,” he says. “Not even just samples, but [the sound of] someone tripping up a flight of steps in a movie.” He calls his sound “explorer hip-hop.” It’s perhaps best compared to Madlib or Knxwledge, both of whom use random clips—vocal splices, in particular—from films to create their music, stringing things together with a heavy helping of oddball soul. Some of Quelle’s productions do the same; others seem to go out of their way to create dissonance.

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Topeka’s Stik Figa on ‘Rap Flyover Country’ 

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What happens in rap’s flyover country? Hip-hop, both mainstream and underground, typically takes place in the streets of New York City or Los Angeles, or in parts of the South, or Midwestern cities like Chicago and Detroit. But the rapper Stik Figa hails from Topeka, Kansas, a city known more for the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which led to desegregation, than any hip-hop icons. But Stik Figa is no also-ran. The rapper, born John Westbrook, Jr., has collaborated with two of Mello Music Group’s biggest names: an EP with Oddisee, called From The Top in 2010, and the critically-acclaimed The City Under The City with producer L’Orange in 2013. On his latest solo album, Central Standard Time, he introduces listeners to his hometown, a place where rappers like The Jacka and C-bo hold more weight than 2Pac, where shows are hard to come by, and racism is an everyday experience.

Was one of your goals for this record to put Topeka, Kansas on the hip-hop map?

I wanted to let people know where I’m from, because maybe it would bring eyes over here. I wanted to find ways to tell my story, while telling everybody else’s story that’s from here. It’s a population of like 120,000, but we don’t have [rap on the] radio. We’re 20 miles outside of Kan City so we share everything: Chiefs fans, Royals fans, they’ve got the Speedway out there. None of it is Topeka. So when it came time to start making music, it was kind of important that I said I was from Topeka, so no one got it mixed up.

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