In anticipation of Record Store Day, UGHH is introducing a new column for all the crate diggers, producers, DJs and general music history buffs—“Dig Deep.” Each installment will focus on a different song that has been sampled or otherwise repurposed by hip-hop artists in a significant or meaningful way, exploring its legacy and cultural relevance. To set the series off, music journalist El Scribes has examined the story behind the Billie Holiday classic “Strange Fruit”—reportedly recorded 79 years ago today, on April 20, 1939.

 
Billie Holiday’s 1939 lynching commentary “Strange Fruit” is one of the most evocative and unsettling songs in American history—and unfortunately, at a time when radicalized Tiki torch-wielding racists parade unashamed in the streets and unchecked police violence continues to ravage black communities, is still very relevant today. In fact, it has remained a somber depiction of American racism for almost 80 years, having been covered, sampled and reimagined at least 30 times by a diverse range of artists since its conception, from Nina Simone to Pete Rock to Kanye West. Although written about the actual practice of lynching, the song has almost become a metaphorical representation for the entire history of the systemic oppression of black people in America—the “blood at the root” belonging to the slaves on whose backs our nation was built and the “blood on the leaves” signifying the present-day manifestations of that disturbing legacy.

 
The story behind “Strange Fruit” actually begins in 1930, when two black men named Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith allegedly killed a white man named Claude Deeter in a botched robbery. They were also accused of raping Mary Ball, Deeter’s female companion, but most historians doubt the likelihood of these claims. Regardless, without trial or conviction, Shipp and Smith were brutally beaten and lynched by an angry mob the following day—a sordid historical event loosely recounted on the song “Strange Fruit” by Missy Elliot and Skillz affiliate Danja Mowf, off his 1997 Word of Mowf album (which, of course, contains interpolations of the Billie Holiday original).

 
Lawrence Beitler, a member of the aforementioned mob, took and subsequently sold thousands of prints of an infamous photo that has since become iconic of the Jim Crow South. Incidentally, the morbid practice of documenting lynchings and redistributing the images as a form of white supremacy torture porn supposedly inspired the first line of “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging.” Regardless, 15 years before Dylan, this particular photo also inspired a schoolteacher from the Bronx to write what became one of the most important songs of the 20th century—arguably the first popular protest song.

Abel Meeropol first published the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” as a poem titled “Bitter Fruit” in 1936 under his writing alias Lewis Allan, Lewis and Allan being the intended names for his stillborn children. Also an amateur musician, Meeropol created accompanying music—which would later be changed for Holiday’s rendition—and renamed the piece. He and his wife, who were communists, eventually became famous for adopting the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—another prominent communist couple who had been accused of espionage and executed during the second Red Scare—after meeting the boys at W.E.B. Du Bois’ house.

 
A few years after publishing the poem and letting some other singers perform the song here and there, Meeropol met Holiday at a legendary jazz club in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the first fully integrated nightclub in the country, where she performed regularly. Ironically called Café Society, a mocking jab at the era’s equivalent to today’s trust fund socialites, the club was a haven for the open-minded—a revolutionary venue where blacks and whites could both work and play side by side. By way of the club’s owner, a man named Barney Josephson, Meeropol gave “Strange Fruit” to Holiday—and it was at Café Society that she would first perform the song for an astonished audience.

 
As is the case with most important songs, “Strange Fruit” was instantaneously controversial. So much so that Columbia, her record label, refused to put it out—forcing Holiday to take it to Commodore Records, a smaller, newer, more progressive independent label producer Milt Gabler opened out of his record store in 1938, only a year prior. After the song’s commercial release in the summer of 1939, despite little radio play and numerous bans, it received critical acclaim and sold over a million records. The song’s success even led the Rapp-Coudert Committee, which was established to investigate communist influence in the New York City public school system, to question whether or not the Communist Party had commissioned Meeropol to write it.

 
Allegedly, even Holiday initially didn’t know quite what to make of the song—but after an eerie silence that lasted a little too long for her comfort following its first Café Society performance, the crowd erupted in magnanimous applause and “Strange Fruit” soon became her signature show closer. “She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere,” said Meeropol. “Billie Holiday’s styling fulfilled the bitterness and the shocking quality I had hoped the song would have.”

 
Holiday brought Meeropol’s words to life with a gruesome authenticity only a lifetime of racial discrimination could invoke. After countless renditions and derivatives, Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” remains the most poignant and bloodcurdling. It serves as both a stark reminder of our nation’s violent past and its lasting effect on our present—the ongoing dehumanization of the black population. With police brutality at the forefront of the racial debate in America, and images of state-sanctioned terrorism against black people circulating in the media like never before, “Strange Fruit” incites an all too familiar sense of injustice—even almost eight decades after its release.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

“Dig Deep” is UGHH’s column dedicated to exploring the history behind some of hip-hop’s most iconic samples—helping to preserve the legacies of their original creators and celebrating the ingenuity of their reuse.

Contrast is a powerful creative tool, reflected in Black Milk’s very name and impeccably utilized on his latest studio album, FEVER. Emotionally raw, yet melodically polished, the well-balanced LP drops Friday, February 23 on Mass Appeal/Computer Ugly—and could easily be a case study on the artistic principle.

Musically, it is a bit of a departure from the renowned Detroit producer and emcee’s last two solo projects, which were much more somber and menacing in tone. An organically soulful cocktail of jazz fusion and funk-infused rhythms, with a twist of electronic textures for good measure, FEVER is one of the artist’s most fluid bodies of work to date. Lyrically, the project showcases some dismal, sharp and thought-provoking commentary about modern society and the current sociopolitical climate in America—touching on everything from institutionalized education and organized religion (“True Lies”) to “fake woke” misogynists and the emotional effects of social media addiction (“Laugh Now Cry Later”), as well as capitalism’s taxing toll on human relationships (“Foe Friend”) and much more. The result is a complex listening experience that is paradoxically hard to swallow, but somehow still manages to go down smooth.

Hip-hop is full of rapping beat makers and self-producing emcees, but few who are equally as talented on both the MPC and the mic. Even fewer continue to push the envelope in both disciplines throughout their careers, and fewer still have as much to say as Black Milk. FEVER is indicative of his growth, both as a producer and songwriter—and as a man. UGHH spoke to the multi-talented artist about how the energy on FEVER developed, his ever-evolving creative process, social media-induced anxiety and the Random Axe sequel that would have been, were it not for the untimely passing of group mate Sean Price.

YOU’RE GOOD AT CRAFTING A UNIQUE SOUND FOR EVERY PROJECT, WHETHER YOU GO MORE SOULFUL, ELECTRONIC, JAZZY OR WHEREVER WITH IT. WHAT WAS THE VIBE YOU WERE GOING FOR WITH FEVER?

It was one of the first times where I kinda wanted to do a vibe that was I guess a little more laid back, a little more calmer—more vibe-y, I should say, than my previous projects… That was just the natural wave I was on, at the time, when creating the album. Wasn’t any particular reason. That’s kinda what I was trying to go for sonically. In terms of the topic, I named the album FEVER [to represent] the temperature being kind of high, in the climate that we’re in—in the world and the country, with all the craziness that’s going on… Everybody’s emotions [are] on edge. It seems like most people, no matter what side of the fence you’re on (in terms of politics), have anger [about] what’s going on.

SONICALLY, IT’S A LITTLE MORE… I DON’T KNOW IF THE WORD WOULD BE UPBEAT, OR JUST REAL SMOOTH… I WAS WONDERING WHAT KINDA HEAD SPACE YOU WERE IN WHEN YOU WERE CREATING FEVER, AND HAS IT CHANGED AT ALL SINCE YOU DROPPED IF THERE’S A HELL BELOW?

I think with every album, especially with a person like me that drops albums every two or three years, it’s more so just always a reflection of where I’m at personally, at that time. It’s the same with this new album. It’s just kind of reflective of where I’m at in the world I’m living in at this moment—’cause this world is different than the world we was living in, or the world I was living in, three years ago… This album was kinda made with the new president [and] the new government that we have [in mind], and … [with] all of the issues that’s going on right now in the world, so that’s why the vibe of the album is kinda like up and down sometimes.

ONE OF THE THINGS THAT STRUCK ME WAS THE JUXTAPOSITION OF THE CONCEPTS AND THE SOUNDS, ’CAUSE YOU’RE DROPPING REAL HEAVY BARS OVER … ETHEREAL KIND OF BEATS.

Yeah, a little more feel-good type… [Laughs].

YEAH. WAS THAT BY DESIGN, OR DID IT JUST KIND OF NATURALLY HAPPEN THAT WAY?

Yeah, I can say honestly man, I started the album before a lot of these issues and this new presidency kinda came about. I started the album before everything happened, a little over a year ago, so when I originally went into it, yeah, it was kinda … like, “I’ma make a feel-good album.” You know what I’m sayin’? “I’m gonna make something with feel-good vibes on it, ’cause I feel like my last two—Hell Below and No Poison—those were more dark albums. I’ma change lanes a little bit and do something with a little more feel-good vibes into it.” Like I said, the weight of the world pushed me into a whole other space. I kinda was forced to still talk about some things that might have a darker tone to it, so that’s why you kinda get a mixture of some of those good vibes with some of those darker vibes—it’s just ’cause that was my intention, originally, but the world just didn’t allow me to stay on that [laughs].

LISTENING TO “LAUGH NOW CRY LATER” FEELS JUST LIKE SCROLLING THROUGH MY TIMELINE ON SOCIAL MEDIA… YOU REALLY CAPTURE THAT WEIRD COMBINATION OF DEPRESSION, ANXIETY AND ANGER AT THE STATE OF THE WORLD, MIXED WITH MOMENTS OF HUMOR AND ENTERTAINMENT—AND IT’S LIKE FLIPPING THROUGH EMOTIONS LIKE TV CHANNELS. EVEN SONICALLY, WITH THAT FRENETIC, ALMOST DIGITAL SOUNDING BASS LINE AND THE EFFECT ON THE VOCAL SAMPLE, YOU WAS REALLY DOING SOME WORD PAINTIN’ THERE. WERE YOU TRYING TO CREATE THAT EFFECT, WHERE THE BEAT MIMICS THE CONCEPT?

Yeah, that particular song started with the beat—and the actual song concept, the lyrics, kinda came from a conversation I was having with one of my friends about that particular subject… Man, do people really realize the kinda emotional roller coaster that they’re on when they’re scrolling through social media, [or] just being online in general, on a daily basis? … I don’t really know if people really are aware of how they’ll be furious about one topic one minute, and then just see a meme or something about that same topic that will change their entire emotion five minutes later, you know what I’m sayin’? … That’s where the concept for the lyrics came from.

WHEN I FIRST PEEPED “LAUGH NOW CRY LATER,” I COULDN’T HELP BUT THINK OF THAT GUILTY SIMPSON LINE FROM “CHEWBACCA” OFF THE RANDOM AXE PROJECT. WAS THAT AT ALL INTENTIONAL? WAS THERE ANY BEHIND THE SCENES CONNECTION OR INSPIRATION THERE?

[Laughs]. Yeah, definitely! After I had the conversation with my guy about what we was talking about (that gave me the idea for the song), I don’t know why that phrase “laugh now, cry later” came to my head. Of course we all know it’s a popular phrase—it’s been around—but when I thought of the phrase, I naturally thought of Guilty because, on the flip side, that was my favorite bar of the entire Random Axe album. That’s like one of my favorite Guilty Simpson lines ever. “I’ll carve a smile right next to your frown, like laugh now, cry later.” I love that line, so I naturally thought of that line when I thought of the title… [Laughs]. Guilty definitely was in mind when I put the record together.

IT MAKES SENSE, TOO, ’CAUSE THE RANDOMNESS OF SCROLLING THROUGH THE TIMELINE AND SEEING ALL THE DIFFERENT STUFF KINDA GOES IN LINE WITH THE IDEA BEHIND RANDOM AXE.

[Laughs]. You’re right. Exactly!

SPEAKING OF WHICH, I HEARD A RUMOR THAT RANDOM AXE WAS WORKING ON A SECOND ALBUM BEFORE P’S PASSING. WAS THERE ANY TRUTH TO THAT?

Yeah, definitely. We definitely was on our way to jump into that. That’s why I had the Random Axe feature on my last album, If There’s a Hell Below. I can’t think of the song title right now, off top, but it was the song with Random Axe on my last album… That was supposed to be the planted seed and the spark to get everybody excited for the Random Axe project, ’cause that was literally the next project that I was gon’ work on after Hell Below dropped—but unfortunately P passed, so we ain’t get a chance to get that project done.

THE SONG WAS “SCUM,” I THINK.

Yeah, “Scum!” Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DID YOU GUYS RECORD ANY MATERIAL FOR THAT?

Nah, that record was the newest record that we had recorded. We didn’t get a chance to record anything after that, after Hell Below. That’s pretty much the last official Random Axe song that’s ever been recorded. I know P had a lot of verses that he recorded, but it didn’t feel right just trying to put something together and it not being the actual process with all three of us in the room. I didn’t wanna make it low budget like that, just for the sake of having another project.

YOU’VE DROPPED SOME [OTHER] CLASSIC COLLABORATIVE ALBUMS, [TOO]. ANY THOUGHT TO WHO ELSE YOU’D WANNA LINK WITH FOR A FULL PROJECT, IN THE FUTURE?

Not really anybody in particular, but I definitely wanna do more collaborations. The last couple of months, I’ve been getting in the studio with a few different artists and producing just records and songs. Hopefully those records will come out.

ANYONE YOU CAN NAME?

I want to, but you know how that goes… [Laughs].

YOU KNOW I HAD TO ASK, THOUGH [LAUGHS].

Of course! I been gettin’ in the studio with names people are familiar with—a couple of newer artists that’s on the up-and-coming that have pretty good followings, right now—so hopefully some of them records come out. Right now, that’s kinda been my thing (besides doing my own solo stuff), is trying to make more of an effort—’cause I didn’t make too much of an effort in the past—to do more collaboration work with different artists.

MIKE [KING], THE OWNER OF UGHH, WAS WONDERING WHY YOU AND BLU HAVEN’T DROPPED A “BLACK & BLU” PROJECT.

[Laughs]. I know, man. It’d seem like the obvious. Me and Blu actually talked about that a while ago, a long time [ago], but it’s just one of them things where we just never got a around to it. The idea was always there… Me and Blu got the chance to work on a few records together, but never got the chance to do a full LP.

[BACK TO HELL BELOW], ON “WHAT IT’S WORTH” YOU SAID YOU “NEVER WAS ONE TO GO TO ANOTHER ONE JUST TO FEEL VALIDATED” IN REGARDS TO “WORKIN’ WITH THE LATEST OUT.” … IS THAT WHY YOU CHOSE NOT TO FEATURE ANY OTHER EMCEES ON [FEVER]?

Not necessarily, man. When I went into the album, I really didn’t have any features in mind—and by the time I got around toward the end of the process of the album, I kinda noticed that, “Damn, I didn’t really put any features, especially rap features, on the album.” But I was pretty much done, and I feel like I got my message and point across … without having to have any features disrupt that, so I was like, “I’ll shoot for that on the next album, and be more conscious about it.” It wasn’t on my mind at the time, actually. I was just writing all of the lyrics and not even thinking about features. I didn’t really realize it until I was done at the end, like, “Damn, I didn’t even really put no features on this joint.” [Laughs].

WELL, YOU DO HAVE SOME DOPE MUSICIANS INVOLVED—LIKE CHRIS “DADDY” DAVE AND DARU JONES ON DRUMS. HOW’D YOU LINK WITH THEM?

I just started kickin’ it with Chris recently, bein’ out here [in L.A.]—bein’ in similar circles. Me being a fan of him as a musician, and [him being] a fan of me as an artist, we’ve been gettin’ in the studio lately, just working. It was just one of those things where I had him come through and play on some stuff—and then with Daru, I’ve just known Daru for a long ass time, man. You know, he played on my album Album of the Year, which was back in 2010, so it was good for me and Daru to link back up for the first time in like eight years… I [also] had one guitarist playing all the guitar parts you hear on the album, a young up-and-coming musician named Sasha [Kashperko] from Detroit. All of the [keyboard] parts you hear is this cat named Ian Finkelstein, another young, really dope keyboard player out of Detroit. Those two were kinda like the glue for the entire album. There was me, of course, doing what I do with production, and having Ian and Sasha do what they do, as musicians … adding that additional musical element on top. I gotta really give it up to those guys.

I WAS WATCHING THAT VIDEO YOU POSTED—THE “FEVER STUDIO SESSION” JOINT—AND I WAS WONDERING ABOUT YOUR PROCESS. I’M SURE IT DIFFERS A LITTLE FROM TRACK TO TRACK, BUT A LOT OF THE VIDEO WAS YOU KIND OF DIRECTING THOSE MUSICIANS INVOLVED—AND I WANTED TO KNOW, ARE Y’ALL ESSENTIALLY CREATING YOUR OWN SAMPLES TO CHOP UP?

For the most part, with me, my process always still—from the beginning all the way to this day, I should say—is always built from records… Just digging. Diggin’ for dope records, and dope music and dope artists (stuff that’s untapped). A lot of the times, I either go chop it up myself in the drum machine—make a beat out of it and maybe have some musicians [play] on top of it—or there’s other times where I might just hear something and I might just have the band totally cover it, you know what I’m sayin’? Cover what I’m hearing or what I like—a melody that I might have caught on the record—and be like, “Yo man, listen, let’s do something like this. Let’s build on this, right here.” I might either leave what they did alone, or I might even take what they done and chop it up and make something crazy. Yeah, it could vary… There’s tracks on the album, for example a track like “True Lies,” which [are] entirely live. I didn’t take anything on there [and chop it up]. That’s all of them guys just playing straight through. [Then there are tracks like] “Laugh Now Cry Later,” or you could say something like “Will Remain,” where you hear the beat and you could hear the extra live guitar sprinkles of beat on top. It just varies.

I NOTICED YOU’RE USING A TOUCH NOW (THE MPC TOUCH). HAVE YOU STOPPED USING THE 3000 ALTOGETHER, OR DO YOU USE DIFFERENT MACHINES TO ACHIEVE DIFFERENT SOUNDS?

This album was entirely [made] programming on the MPC software, inside the MPC Touch, and working in Ableton, as well—and Pro Tools. That’s kinda been my production foundation for the past year.

HOW DOES CREATING BEATS THE WAY YOU DO NOW, AS OPPOSED TO TRADITIONALLY SAMPLING STRAIGHT FROM THE RECORD INTO THE MPC AND JUST PUTTING IT OUT LIKE THAT, [EFFECT YOUR WRITING PROCESS]? DO YOU FEEL LIKE IT CHANGES YOUR APPROACH TO SONGWRITING, AT ALL?

Somewhat… I’ve never done away with any of the stuff that I used to do, totally. You could still hear elements of what I used to do maybe on my first album, Popular Demand, all the way up to now. It’s more so about just me adding extra layers on what I’ve started and just keep growing… With each album, you’re gonna get a little bit of something that maybe reminds you of something from the past, but it’s gonna still be something fresh, and new and progressive… I still dig for records, I still chop up samples, I still work with musicians—and I’ve been doing that for a while now. Definitely my songwriting has probably changed more than anything, in comparison to my production. I take that way more serious than I did probably when I was younger, on my first album—’cause at this age, and with all the stuff that’s going on in the world, I feel like I have way more to say.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

BROWSE AVAILABLE BLACK MILK PRODUCTS IN THE UGHH STORE.

Central Florida’s own Sean Shakespeare may be relatively new to underground hip-hop, but he spits like a seasoned veteran. One-third of the group Table For Three, Sean has been earning local props for his intense, in-the-pocket flow—and was even featured in Orlando Weekly as one of “14 local artists who are reshaping the Orlando music scene.” Teaming up with producer Swamburger and his Second Subject collective, the emcee and producer have developed a fresh sound—vaguely reminiscent of the early aughts-era Def Jux and Rhymesayers aesthetics that first introduced the lyricist to the underground, yet unique to the unofficial duo and perhaps a little more rooted.

On February 22nd, they are releasing Sean’s first solo studio project—a celebration of his ancestry and the evolution of Black music in America, appropriately titled Bloodline. UGHH got up with the emerging lyricist to discuss the project and his charitable endeavors, as well as discovering underground hip-hop (the genre) through a video game and our company’s unbeknownst role in inspiring him to start rhyming.

How’d you get your name? Why do you think it suits you?

I was born with the last name Shakespeare. Don’t know why my parents named me Sean, though. Sean’s an Irish name and I like whiskey, so I guess the stars aligned on that one.

I can’t front, when I saw the cover for Bloodline, I was expecting something much bleaker and maybe more angsty—but was surprised by how upbeat and energetic it is, despite touching on a variety of serious social issues. Was that a conscientious decision, or more indicative of who you naturally are as a person?

Yeah, I’d say it drops a clue on who I am as a person. I’m an observer and a calm dude. Bloodline is an observation of self and society. I’m always challenging the way I think. I flipped the map [on the album cover] as a play on perspective. There is no true up or down. As people, some of us tend to defend what we’re used to or comfortable with before applying any objective reasoning, you know? The list of things that applies to is almost infinite. I just wanted to shine a light on that a bit.

Tell me about the title, Bloodline. What does it mean to you, and how would you describe the underlying theme of this project?

I named the album Bloodline as a statement for my cultural identity and lineage. Slaves had their identity taken from them, which started the process of a people rebuilding an identity of their own. Slaves sang early versions of gospel hymns as we know them, which greatly influenced blues, soul and even jazz musicians. Disco came along with influences from those prior genres, which was the main ingredient for break beats in hip-hop. Eventually, I come into existence looking back at it all like, “Damn, I’ve got a pretty dope bloodline.” This album celebrates that.

Let’s talk about “Ghost.” You pack a lot into that track. What inspired it?

I’ve always thought of myself as a ghost in the flesh, wandering around, doing what I do. Other than that, I’m just a series of choices. I make the choice to get as good as I can at my craft. There’s no finish line. The lyrics in the song are just reminders of that.

The production on the album is really dynamic and compliments your rapid-fire style and complex rhyme schemes nicely. Can you elaborate on your process with Swamburger? How’d you guys link, and how would you describe the sound you two have developed together?

I met Swam at Austin’s Coffee in Orlando a few years ago during an open mic they do every Monday. He took interest in Table For Three—a hip-hop trio I’m part of with Jamar X and TKO—and started putting us on some of his shows. Some time after, he and I started working on music together. The process is dope. Usually, I’ll just go over to his studio and he’s already going ape shit on the MPC. We’ll talk concepts, and I’ll write as he’s building the beats. Swam’s got a seasoned ear for layering samples, choosing drums and creating patterns, which gives me room to stretch all the way out creatively. The sound is hip-hop, point blank—fresh and gritty.

The album also features veteran underground emcee Blueprint. How’d that come about?

I’ve been bumping Blueprint albums since high school and met him at a show he did in Miami like eight or nine years back. Since then, I’ve opened for him a couple times on shows Swam put together—once with Table For Three, then again with my own set. After I wrote the first verse and hook for the song “Be,” I just heard Blueprint’s voice and style being perfect for it. Swam agreed and hit him up. Swam laid a fire verse down too, and that was that. Definitely one of my favorite tracks to date.

What was your introduction to underground hip-hop? What [else] were you bumpin’ back in high school?

Story time: it’s funny ’cause I got into underground hip-hop as a fan through playing Tony Hawk on PS1 when I was a git. That’s where I first heard artists like Aesop Rock, Loot Pack, Busdriver, Murs, Eyedea & Abilities, Atmosphere and Del the Funky Homosapien. I was only like 10 years old at the time, so I didn’t understand how much more of their stuff there was out there. In middle school, my older brother gave me a CD that had a lot of Aesop Rock and Atmosphere on it. The more underground artists I learned about, the less I listened to the radio. Doing this interview is wild, ’cause in high school UGHH.com was everything to me. The music I actually wanted was always there. Not only that, but I wouldn’t have started rapping when I did, if not for UGHH.com. One day, I got an instrumental CD with my order. I listened to it in my car on the way back from skateboarding in Miami and started freestyling with my friend Matt Ramsey over it. After that we would freestyle pretty much every day. I was hooked.

Dope! Who would you like to work with in the future? Who are you checkin’ for, these days?

There’s a lot of artists I’d be interested in working with. P.O.S is definitely up there. We have a good bit in common, based on what he writes. I just did a short tour with Carnage the Executioner and we talked about working together soon. I’m stoked on that. Doing a track with Aesop Rock would be tight. Killer Mike and El-P would be tight. Sage Francis is definitely on that list too, as well as Brother Ali, Murs, Earl Sweatshirt, Homeboy Sandman, DJ Shadow, 9th Wonder, Madlib, Dope Knife, Toki Wright, Joey Bada$$, Anderson .Paak, Aftermarket and Alexandra from Solillaquists of Sound, to name some. [Those] are the same artists I listen to pretty regularly.

What do you like best about the Orlando hip-hop scene?

There’s a dope community vibe here. It’s small, but not too small. I like that I can go anywhere any given night and run into someone from the hip-hop scene.

From your experience, do you think it’s easier or harder to get exposure coming from a place like Orlando, as opposed to bigger cities like New York and L.A.—where a lot of the scene is centralized, but there are also many more artists trying to break through?

I’ll put it like this: a buzz or trend that starts in N.Y. or L.A. has a better chance of translating to Orlando than the other way around, for now. The city’s growing pretty fast, so I’d say that influence on the industry will grow with it.

What are you working on now, and what are your plans for the future?

I’m working on the next album, as well as a new Table for Three album. Aside from that, I’m putting together a foundation that will buy instruments for high school kids that can’t afford to buy the instrument they learn in band. Ten percent of my album sales get tucked away for that, right now.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

“Beneath The Surface” is UGHH’s column designed to unearth the underground’s deepest and brightest gems—exposing and celebrating some of the best emerging emcees, producers and DJs on the scene.

Musically, 2017 was a great year for hip-hop. Contrary to tired arguments concerning the mumble rap phenomenon, real shit flourished this year—from both seasoned veterans and relative newcomers. In the mainstream, JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar dropped stellar albums, arguably influenced by underground aesthetics. No I.D. laced 4:44 with some soulful, dusty, chopped up sample-driven beats that theoretically sound right at home within the underground landscape, as JAY spit some of the most thoughtful and relatable bars of his career. DAMN. featured Kung Fu Kenny’s impeccable artistry, drops by the legendary DJ Kid Capri and production by underground powerhouses 9th Wonder and the Alchemist. Even Action Bronson managed to keep his major label deal without crossing over or switching up his style, releasing his sophomore Atlantic Records project Blue Chips 7000 this year, as well.

But you already know about those albums. Instead of providing yet another bloated list of expected titles (sprinkled with a couple of offbeat selections for good measure), UGHH’s year-end wrap-up features a healthy mix of the 2017’s most celebrated independent releases, some overlooked gems, as well as an under-appreciated, yet a well-publicized joint or two (’cause we’re fair like that).

Disclaimer: UGHH primarily functions as an online record store, so we only considered LPs that are available for sale on our site. If we’d considered others, we might have included Conway’s G.O.A.T. project, The Seven by Talib Kweli and Styles P, Cashmere Dice by Da Villins & DJ Skizz or any one of the many other strictly digital underground releases that dropped this year. Also, lists are subjective by nature, so take this for what it is: a suggestion of dope shit to check out, if you haven’t already. Hit the forum if you think we forgot something more deserving.

10. Joey Bada$$ – All-Amerikkkan Bada$$

Less dusty than his debut studio album, evolving young Joey Bada$$ still keeps it unequivocally hip-hop on his sophomore release. He also forays into overtly sociopolitical subject matter, tackling issues like police brutality and our nation’s abusive relationship with the Black community (metaphorically on the song “Y U Don’t Love Me? (Miss Amerikkka)”). A couple of our other favorite tracks are “Rockabye Baby” featuring ScHoolboy Q and “Super Predator” featuring Styles P.

9. Wu-Tang Clan – The Saga Continues

Though technically not all that underground, we still decided to include The Saga Continues on our list because we feel it deserves more credit than received in its generally mixed reviews. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a proper studio album; it’s really more of a producer project assembled by longtime Wu-affiliate Mathematics—who forged a sound somewhat reminiscent of 36 Chambers, only not as organic or raw (most likely a result of the process by which it was made). Still, the beats knock, all participating Wu members come correct and the refreshing nod to their roots should be appreciated by true Wu fans. In addition to new collaborators like the late Sean Price and Chris Rivers, longtime Wu associates grace the album, as well—including Streetlife and, most notably, Redman (who is featured on multiple songs). Some of its strongest joints are “Fast and Furious” featuring Hue Hef, “Pearl Harbor” featuring Sean Price, “G’d Up” featuring R-Mean and Mzee Jones, as well as “People Say” featuring Redman.

8. The Alchemist & Budgie – The Good Book, Vol. 2

The Good Book, Vol. 2 isn’t your typical producer album or beat tape. In fact, it’s a fusion of both, with only some of its songs featuring rappers. Furthermore, Alchemist produces one half of the project, while Budgie handles the other, resulting in a Grindhouse-like double feature made cohesive by the fact that both sides are composed using samples of religious-themed music (the double CD even comes packed in a Bible-shaped case). Alchemist rains down the fire and brimstone—providing some grimy, soulful, chopped-up, minimalist raw shit to scrunch your face to—and Budgie supplies a juxtaposing funky, R&B-driven vibe that’ll have you clapping your hands harder than the congregation. “A Thousand Birds” featuring Conway and Westside Gunn, “Message For The People” featuring Durag Dynasty, “Pray For You” featuring Royce Da 5’9” and “Looking for a Blessing” are some of Alchemist’s toughest tracks, while Budgie shines on “Ride For Me” featuring Traffic and Dreebo, “By My Side” featuring Evidence and “Bel Air Baptism.”

7. Statik Selektah – 8

Statik Selektah accomplishes the near-impossible with his eighth studio album by achieving a perfectly balanced polished, yet gritty sound. He also bridges gaps, featuring a diverse mix of emcees representing different schools of hip-hop—from legendary to emerging and underground to mainstream—all over his signature jazzy, boom bap production. The LP’s standout cuts include “Put Jewels On It” featuring Run The Jewels, “But You Don’t Hear Me Tho” featuring The Lox and Mtume, “No. 8” featuring Conway, Westside Gunn and Termanology, “Go Gettas” featuring Sean Price, Wais P and Tek, “Nobody Move” featuring Raekwon and Royce Da 5’9″ and “Disrespekt” featuring Prodigy (who we tragically lost this year).

6. Milano Constantine – The Way We Were

Perhaps one of 2017’s more slept-on bangers, this is one of those rare albums you can listen to over and over again without having to skip a single song. From start to finish, DJ Skizz and Marco Polo lay down a boom bap soundtrack that’ll make you nod your head so hard you’ll need a neck brace—on which the D.I.T.C.-affiliated “Barbaric” MC evokes Golden Era New York rap, reminiscing on “The Way We Were,” but without feeling tiresome or gimmicky. This is that shit to reverse gentrification. Our favorite joints include “British Walkers,” “Cocaina” and “Rasclat” featuring Big Twins and Conway.

5. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom

Some might argue that its Grammy nomination should automatically exclude Laila’s Wisdom from our list, but considering the extensive dues Rapsody has paid in the underground (and the overall quality of her work), we felt it not only appropriate, but necessary to include this album. Featuring production from underground staples and longtime collaborators 9th Wonder, Nottz and Khrysis, the LP is a soulful sonic masterpiece—and, as always, the Jamla artist delivers pensive, poignant, razor-sharp rhymes in her distinguishable Southern drawl. She really goes in on songs like “Chrome (Like Ooh),” “Black & Ugly” featuring BJ the Chicago Kid, “You Should Know” featuring Busta Rhymes, “OooWee” featuring Anderson .Paak and “Nobody” featuring Anderson .Paak, Black Thought and Moonchild, as well as the album’s title track.

4. Roc Marciano – Rosebudd’s Revenge

When Roc Marciano emphatically states, “Motherfucker, this is art,” he isn’t lying. One of hip-hop’s most imaginatively twisted minds, Marciano vividly depicts familiar, grimy, street visuals in an entirely original style. On Rosebudd’s Revenge, the MC pimp-struts the line between insanity and genius over bare-boned, largely self-produced beats that effectively showcase his laid-back, monotone flow. Though often pegged as a storyteller, he doesn’t simply tell tales. Instead, Marci himself is the story. “History,” “Better Know,” “Gunsense,” “Marksmen” featuring Ka, “Pimp Arrest” and “Here I Am” are among the album’s most memorable tracks.

3. Meyhem Lauren & DJ Muggs – Gems From The Equinox

On Gems From The Equinox, DJ Muggs varies between minimalist and boom bap production techniques, driven by heavily altered and distorted samples that range from soulful and funky to ominous and menacing—a style that pairs nicely with Meyhem Lauren’s baritone vocal timbre. Slightly experimental and almost psychedelic, the combination of vibes results in an overall trippy listening experience that manages to sound both classic and visionary at the same time. Some of the LP’s defining cuts include “Camel Crush,” “Hashashin” featuring Conway, “Aquatic Violence” featuring Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire and Sean Price, “Redrum” and “Tension” featuring Action Bronson and Muggs’ Cypress Hill group-mate B-Real.

2. Planet Asia & Apollo Brown – Anchovies

Planet Asia and Apollo Brown are both in rare form on their beautiful collaborative effort. An immaculate blend of streetwise raps and stripped-down production, Brown shows just how much can be done with sampling alone—composing a symphonic experience void of added drums, relying solely on the source material for percussion. The result compliments Asia’s poetically aggressive lyrics and stream-of-consciousness style, helping his vocals shine. Another strong showing for the minimalist movement, Anchovies’ bars and beats are in perfect harmony. “Panties in a Jumble,” “The Aura,” “Dalai Lama Slang” featuring Willie the Kid, “Deep in the Casket,” “Fire” featuring Tristate and “Nine Steamin’” featuring Guilty Simpson are a few of our favorite tracks.

1. Sean Price – Imperius Rex

Despite having passed two years ago, Sean Price proved to be hip-hop’s MVP in 2017. Besides appearing on a few of this list’s entries (as well as a couple of the year’s other prominent releases), he also dropped one of 2017’s best albums, hands down. P’s posthumous masterpiece Imperius Rex sounds as deliberate and thought-out as any of his traditional studio releases, and features some of his most exciting work to date. On “Clans & Cliks,” two of hip-hop’s most respected super groups—Wu-Tang Clan and Boot Camp Clik—form an alliance that would extend to other 2017 releases by P’s Heltah Skeltah group-mate Rock (Rockness A.P.) and Wu-Tang’s Masta Killa (Loyalty is Royalty), as well as Wu’s aforementioned project (The Saga Continues). Imperius Rex also pairs Ruck with other legends like Prodigy and Styles P on “The 3 Lyrical Ps,” as well as DOOM on “Negus.” Of course, his Boot Camp brethren and a few other longtime associates are featured, as well—while Alchemist, Nottz, Harry Fraud and Marco Polo are among those who bless it with hard-hitting boom bap beats. Regardless, P spits some of his most memorable bars on solo offerings like “Definition of God,” “Rap Professor,” “Refrigerator P!” and the title track. Imperius Rex is full of straight bangers, back to back, from one of the underground’s most prolific artists—earning it the number one spot on our list. riP!

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

Speak your piece in the comments below or at the UGHH Forums.

Bahamadia is one of the most decorated artists in underground hip-hop. The Philadelphia emcee’s distinctive voice and smooth, yet impactful flow has captivated listeners since her 1993 DJ Ran-produced song “Funk Vibes” broke through—including late, great Gang Starr front-man Guru, who signed her to his production company (Ill Kid Records) and became her mentor in the mid ’90s. Her jazzy 1996 debut studio album Kollage is heralded as a classic and featured fellow Philly-natives The Roots (who also featured her on Illadelph Halflife that same year), as well as legendary producers like DJ Premier, Da Beatminerz and Ski Beatz.

Since then, she has gone on to release several projects and work with a diverse mix of collaborators, from Talib Kweli on the Reflection Eternal track “Chaos” for Rawkus Records’ celebrated Soundbombing mixtape series to Jedi Mind Tricks on their second album, Violent By Design. Whether rockin’ with Erykah Badu and Queen Latifah, Slum Village or Planet Asia, the Queen B has always represented for the culture and held her own as a lyricist.

Although she actually began her career as a percussionist and DJ, and music production has always been a passion, Bahamadia has forayed deeper into the craft with her latest project: a series of free-form EPs, each released as a seamless single track available for digital download, that she completely produced (and in some cases recorded) on her cell phone. While she rapped on the entire first installment of Dialed Up, which was released in 2013, she decided to recruit a dope lineup of other emcees including Geechi Suede (Camp Lo), Kev Brown, Rasco (Cali Agents) and Zumi (Zion I) to spit over her smartphone-produced beats for Dialed Up 2, only lending her own vocals to the project’s first cut.

UGHH got up with Bahamadia to discuss the relationship between hip-hop and technology, the ideation of the so-called “femcee” and working with Guru and DJ Premier, as well as her long-awaited upcoming studio album, Here.

Bahamadia

First off, I wanna talk about your Dialed Up series. How did you come up with the concept? Was it born out of necessity, or did you just think it was a dope idea?

Actually, I had been toying around with the app for a while and came upon a stockpile of beats. After a while, I was like, “I need to lay some verses on ’em.” Next thing you know, it just evolved into that. Kinda like necessity too, in terms of wanting to just flesh my ideas out quickly—’cause sometimes, when you’re using hardware, it just takes a long time to get the idea where you want it to be.

To me, hip-hop has always been about innovation. It transformed turntables into full-fledged instruments that you can get lessons for, now. Do you see Dialed Up as an extension of that?

Certainly. I see music production as an extension of DJing, and I actually started out as a DJ before I was [rhyming]. I was always into poetry in my younger years, as a youth, but then I got into DJing. I was DJing first. Actually, percussion was first. That’s how it all began, and then the poetry, and then the DJing—when I got introduced to the park jams and the dollar party stuff and all of that (house parties). I feel like that’s an extension of it, you know what I mean? ‘Cause the DJ is the [one] who loops with the breaks, anyways, right?

What does producing music like this, on the go, do for you creatively? How does it affect the direction of your sound?

The direction of my sound is whatever it happens to be at the moment. On my first Dialed Up, [I made] the visual component to it because when I first did the audio component and put it up on Bandcamp, people didn’t believe that I actually did it [like that]—so I actually had to do a visual of it for them to see the process. It’s like a tutorial, as well. People, they like to be engaged. That’s the cool part about it; it’s the community. You get your support [and] tips—and everybody’s growing, and it’s like a collective of people creating on that piece. Even just feedback, [or] whatever. Again, the con to that is that people think that if they study every single aspect of what you’ve done—if they use the exact same tools that you use—if they even wear the same hat or do the same gestures or whatever, they think that those simulations are gonna impart that part of your creativity into them… That’s not the case. You would have always had to have had that to begin with. Anybody that’s an innovator, or people that are prolific or whatever, you’re always gonna have people that are gonna emulate, or attempt to emulate, what you do. It just comes with the territory. Everybody has to start somewhere and be inspired … but acknowledge the source—out of respect for the particular lane that you’re trying to develop, in yourself and your craft. That’s the issue. People discard people that have been before them, or that have laid down [the] foundation. There’s a lot of revisionism going around in the industry overall because of the internet, which is a very powerful and helpful tool for true DIY artists and entrepreneurs, and all of us in our culture. But the downside and the con, again, of that is there’s no balance and there’s no honor when it comes down to the practice of inspiration or evolving to another level with what you’ve been inspired from to begin with: the source. It’s crazy, because people come in and infiltrate our culture and exploit it. This is the only genre, this is the only culture, where they don’t honor the forefathers and mothers of the culture. In every facet of the culture, even in the business aspect, I think that people need to rethink that or we need to come up with some sort of mentor thing. In analyzing the whole spectrum of everything, I think that sometimes it’s because we haven’t had gatekeepers. We haven’t had those conversations start between the pioneers and the new school (the now generation) and the people that are currently dominating on the mainstream, and in the traditional underground or the indie scene. It’s too segregated.

Speaking to that, are there any up-and-coming artists that you’ve been checking for that you’d consider taking under your wing and mentoring?

Well, I’m open. I’ve been working with youth for a while—over a decade now. I do creative workshops and stuff like [that]. Mentoring, I’ve always been doing that. The people that I’m checking for? That varies. It depends on what my mood is at the time. I don’t really listen to commercial radio, but things that currently come up in my feed, like the Cardi B’s and people like that—or the Kendricks or just different people. I mean, it just varies. I’ma tell you this: somebody that’ll catch my ear is someone that’s being their authentic selves and doing something really amazing with their music and with their craft.

Speaking of Cardi B, I actually wanted to talk to you about women emcees and the current ideation of the “female rapper.” I know you’ve spoken a lot about hypersexualization of women in the music industry and I was curious to know what you think about the success of Cardi B?

Hip-hop was founded on people, inner city youth, making something out of nothing, right? Celebrating your resilience, celebrating expanding things on being your authentic self and expressing yourself from an authentic place—being 100% who you are, right? Did she not do that, from social media to her current success in the mainstream?

I think so. Definitely.

That’s what I’m saying. For the people that argue that that’s not hip-hop, or the success is not whatever, whatever… I don’t even get into that conversation. That’s like politics and religion to me. I just don’t even have that, but I will say that building that presence from social media, from a free platform, to turning it into what she’s become—that’s to be commended. From a business standpoint, from just an entrepreneurial standpoint, and then as a woman in a male-dominated industry… It is what it is, but I just really, really have a lot of respect for the way her career has unfolded and what it’s become, and who she’s become as an individual.

Do you think that a woman can celebrate her sexuality on the mic and still be [considered] a boss, and can a woman’s sexuality ever empower her—or do you just see it as a promotional tool imposed by a male dominated industry?

I think that it depends on what the objective and the goals are of the artist or the business people that are promoting [that] particular imagery. There just definitely needs to be a balance, because for every sexualized female in the industry, there is definitely a b-girl component to it—or a person that’s in the middle of the two. I think that our voices have been marginalized and … oppressed, as women, in every industry. I think that our voices are varied, and I think that every component of femininity should be celebrated and acknowledged and respected—’cause we have a right to express ourselves the way we determine to express ourselves. And in terms of femininity, I think only women should have the authority to define what femininity actually is, though. If we’re talking about the business of music, [there’s] the cliché “sex sells”—but to me it depends on the goal, and if we talking about authentic hip-hop culture or we talking about rap music from a commercial standpoint. Those are two different conversations, and I think people need to make the distinction between the two when talking about the success of mainstream artists or pop artists, as opposed to traditional or authentic hip-hop artists—’cause they’re two different dynamics. They’re totally two different things.

What do you think about the term “femcee?”

Oh my god, what is it? [Laughs]. What is it? [Laughs]. Is there a “mencee” out there? [Laughs].

[Laughs]. Right. I hear you. Let’s talk, real quick if you can, about Here. You’ve been working on the album for a while now. Is there anything you can share about its progress?

Some of the delay was because I had a personal [tragedy]. One of the first major delays or readjustments was my mom had passed away.

I’m sorry to hear that.

That kind of blow—it took me a while to get my senses together and just focus in on the music… Then it was some sample clearance issues—because, me putting out my own stuff now, I just don’t want any possibility of anybody coming back and talking about this and that when it comes to publishing and the whole headache—clearances and all that. A few things came on my radar that couldn’t be cleared and all this kind of stuff—and it was some changes too. You know, I grew from the time that I first started it to when my mom transitioned. My mindset… I was just a different person. That’s what’s been taking so long with it. I even had the cover art and the main core of the project done. It’s just that some of things, they no longer serve their purpose on the project. Sonically, I had to do some things that compliment what the core of the project is.

Are you producing a lot of Here, or is it mostly other producers?

I got a few other producers, but yeah, I’m on there. I got one of my phone beats on there.

Dope! Who are some of the other producers you’ve got involved.

Georgia Anne Muldrow is on there. She was on Stones Throw and all that. She got some really cool stuff. She works with everybody—jazz people [and] soul people. An amazing programmer and keyboardist. She’s really dope—and then Astronote. Did something with him, [J Brown] and a cool friend from the UK, Ty. I didn’t really go out after people. I wasn’t gon’ play the whole politics [thing]. I’m not chasin’ you down. I’m not gonna try to sell the vision. I’m established. I’m not doin’ all of that. I feel like at a certain point in your career, you shouldn’t have to be in the position to feel like you gotta audition for beats—and I’m not doin’ none of that… The people that showed respect and got the vision, those are the people that I work with. But I’ve always been like that, though, in my collaborations (for the most part).

You’ve worn many hats throughout your career: DJ, poet, emcee, radio show host and more… Do you want to dive even deeper into production, and would you say that’s like the next stage of your musical evolution—producing records for other artists on their own projects? Anything like that?

That’s actually how I started. That’s how I became an artist, because I always actually wanted to help develop artists, write for artists and build artists—build brands, in that way. But I could never get nobody to be serious, so I wound up being that person—and it just evolved into me making my first record and all of this stuff and became the career. But yeah, I definitely do. I definitely see myself at the helm of coordinating projects, even producing. Yup, all different facets—and also integrating the technology into it too, ’cause that’s just where we are and that’s where my interest lies (specifically with the educational component of it).

So it’s safe to say that you’ve always incorporated that DIY mentality, from day one. Even when you were workin’ with Guru in the ‘90s on Ill Kid Records, you’ve always had that control over your art?

Yeah, ’cause Guru was a support like that. Premier, as well. They were two people that really gave me the first lessons—the first industry people, and [Ladybug] Mecca from Digable Planets. They was the first three people that had a major impact in the industry and in our culture at that time that told me, “You can control your career and your vision. It should be 100% yours. It’s your voice.” Premier, he would tell me, “Don’t let the labels rush you into finishing your project, ’cause at the end of the day you’ll have to live with it.” And Guru just gave me carte blanche with the whole situation. I was actually in his production company, and he let me like basically dictate how I wanted the vision to go for the project—so I thought that was really awesome. Actually, I thought that was standard practice, [until] I found out that it really wasn’t. When I started, I had creative control from day one.

That’s dope.

It is dope.

So, from the outside looking in, it would kinda seem that you’re approaching Here with a much different mentality than the Dialed Up series. You’re sitting on it. You’re making changes based on your life changes, and revisiting and taking things off. Do you think that Dialed Up was or is in any way kind of a response to the stress or thought that goes into putting together a studio album?

I feel like Dialed Up is like my release. The music is doin’ studio albums. That’s therapeutic, but the process is a little bit more intense—because it’s more focused and it’s more work. Dialed Up and projects like that, it’s just me—it’s a woman that just loves hip-hop, that just loves beats, and that’s just what you hear and see. It’s no nothing involved—so it is kind of like stress reliever. Yeah, it is—it’s an escape. Sometimes you can get kind of confined to the routine, once you become a professional artist. It kind of becomes routine, even if you have an eclectic approach to making your music. It still has a tense of formulaic aspects to it, in order for it to be powerful to your listeners. Even if they’re your core die-hard fans, they still expect a certain quality or level of art from you—and there is a formula for that. But when you doing some freeform stuff (live performance, improv, that kind of stuff), I guess you could kind of [compare] it to jazz musicians in that way—where they improv live, as opposed to studio work.

That’s a dope way of looking at it.

Thank you for even having me think on that, ‘cause I wasn’t even considering that. I was just doing it. It’s fun [laughs].

[Laughs]. That’s how it should be, right?

Yup, yup! But it can be something much more, and that’s why I’m serious about it too.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

Speak your piece in the comments below or at the UGHH Forums.

Prior to the early aughts, the line between underground and mainstream hip-hop was drawn with a fat cap. In the mainstream, the hustler, West Coast gangster and East Coast mafioso rappers reigned supreme—while the underground was a little less discriminating. It was a home to everyone from thought-provoking, revolutionary-minded “conscious” emcees to Golden Era revivalists, verbose backpackers and intentionally off-putting horrorcore acts. With everything in between, the underground was unified in one way—its shared disdain for anything deemed commercial.

By 2007, that all changed, however. Aided by advancements in internet technology, underground artists were able to reach more and more fans. On the flip side, the internet also changed the way people consumed music—and some indie rap institutions failed to adapt. Furthermore, with the crossover success of artists like Eminem and Kanye West, who wouldn’t have traditionally been considered as commercially-palatable, the corporate music industry recognized that there was more room for (and money to be made from) a variety of voices in the mainstream. That year, Kanye—who had a reputation for pairing underground emcees like Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) with artists like JAY-Z and Freeway—destroyed 50 Cent in their 2007 record sales battle, arguably signifying the end of an era for both mainstream and underground hip-hop alike.

At the same time, out in Cali, two other visionaries teamed up to break down barriers, themselves. Also in 2007, rapper/producer duo Blu & Exile dropped their beautifully executed debut, Below The Heavens—a unique blend of sounds and styles, void of gimmicks or musical fads. Both progressive and nostalgic, experimental yet rooted, the limited-release was propelled by internet word of mouth and soon became a highly sought-after cult classic. Ten years and some reissues later, Blu and Exile have decided to revisit the material they created at this important epoch in hip-hop history, releasing In The Beginning: Before The Heavens. Serving as a prequel to their debut, the product of its early sessions, In The Beginning is a testament to the timelessness of true art. UGHH chopped it up with the dynamic duo to discuss the new project and more of their missing material from that era.

Whenever you have a debut as celebrated as Below The Heavens, there will always be those fans who want a return to that sound or moment. I know you’ve said you don’t really feel that pressure when creating in the past, but is In The Beginning in any way a response to that sentiment?

Blu: Oh my God, yes! Fans always request “Below The Heavens” more than any other piece in my catalogue, and I like all my material, so it was a no-brainer for us to re-release songs from that era.

Blu says you recorded 75 songs while working on Below The Heavens, but you only had about 40 to choose from for In The Beginning, correct? Any idea where those missing tracks are? You keeping ’em on ice for the 20th Anniversary?

Exile: We’ve been trying to track down these songs for a minute. No one has the songs anymore! This was back before I had a laptop and before we had our own recording equipment, besides a four-track cassette recorder, so we didn’t really fuck with hard drives—to be able to keep [them] for ourselves. It was [all] in the hands of the label. They say [the music is] on a damaged hard drive, but I don’t believe it. They released some songs from the old sessions on a reissue of Below The Heavens, so they must have it! Diego, please give it to us! I love ya! [Laughs]. We have so many more songs!

Blu: Man, there are only two people left on Earth with those songs. If we had access, I would have put [out] a couple of others we made—like “American Dreams Pt. 2” and “Searching To Find The One.”

Exile: Yup! Both songs are me and Blu going in bar-for-bar, actually. We need to find those! [Laughs]. Fire!

Below the Heavens

What made you guys decide to revisit your old material? Were you just feeling nostalgic, or did you seek it out with the intention of releasing it for the anniversary? Has that been the plan for a while, or did it happen more organically?

Blu: Actually, I just recently started collecting a lot of old songs from my catalogue after my studio and hard drives were robbed. After gathering like 15, I had Exile check them—because he was actually thinking of re-releasing my first album, California Soul. That album is actually the material on ice.

Was it weird hearing all your old songs again? Was it like stepping back in time, or more like hearing ’em for the first time?

Exile: A little of both. It’s a great feeling, hearing them back and reflecting on all the work and time we spent on the music.

Blu: Man, I dig it. It was a great era for me musically, so naturally the songs from the sessions came out nice, as well. Even though they didn’t make the album, I enjoy listening to them a lot. I wish I could listen to my music a lot more, but unfortunately I do enjoy making music to feed my daughter, as well [laughs].

Blu, on “Soul Provider,” you spit a line: “The showstopper, rock spots and flow proper / No album out at Fat Beats, but still know how to pack seats with no problem.” Now Fat Beats not only carries your music, but also helps put it out. How’d it feel to listen back to that line, considering your career since?

Blu: That had to be the first song on the tape! [Laughs].

Exile: Yeah, whoa, what a trip!

On “Back To Basics,” you said what you’re gonna do for Black music is “chop it up, loop it and rap to it.” Besides the obvious, what did you mean by that? What’s the message there?

Blu: That was a line dedicated to real hip-hop. Back to basics.

Exile, you told Billboard you wanted “Constellations” on the original album, but that Blu didn’t. It ended up being the first joint released off In The Beginning. Blu, why weren’t you feeling it for Below The Heavens, and what changed after revisiting it?

Blu: Originally, Miguel sang on it with his homegirl, but we only found the earlier version. I liked the song, obviously, [since] we re-released it—but originally we could only afford 15 songs on the record out of 75. So I had to be choosy and decisive, you know?

Exile: I’m glad it didn’t make the album. I think sonically it didn’t make sense for the classic.

When you guys were working on Below The Heavens, did you realize you were onto something so special, or was it just business as usual, at first? While recording, did either of you ever think, “We’re about to drop a certified classic that people will be talking about 10 plus years from now, right here?”

Blu: I was just hoping people would hear it! Our label was going out of business, at the time, and we only pressed up 3,500 CDs—and the CD just had a single ship. We didn’t [even] have money for a photo shoot or videos anymore, so the success of the album was a farfetched wish. Not to mention the complete album leaked a year before it was released. People wanted it, but I was sure it was over—as far as hitting [anyone] with a gem “out of the blue,” you know? But it made it.

I’ve heard you guys have different mentalities when it comes to recording and putting out new music. Blu, you like to drop raw, rough mixes at will, while you’ve claimed Exile is a little more methodical and calculated with it, in the past. Can either of you elaborate on this dynamic a little? Do your styles ever clash, or do you think you end up balancing each other out?

Blu: Really, I’m blessed to work with Exile. I am a fan of his production, and he is a perfectionist, so he has the will to produce artists well. I love making raw shit, and he does too, so we connect there—but most times he tosses my ideas out the window [laughs].

A lot of folks cite Kanye West beating 50 Cent in their record sales battle as the start of the decline of gangsta rap’s dominance, which ultimately helped open the doors for a lot of underground cats to get on in a major way. In turn, some consider it the end of a Golden Era for underground hip-hop. You released Below The Heavens that same year (and recorded the material for In The Beginning prior). Before then, the line between underground and commercial hip-hop was drawn and very clear, but kind of became blurred after. Where did y’all feel like y’all fit in that environment, back then?

Blu: My first album was commercial as fuck, and it had me talking to major labels like Interscope and Death Row. Then I met Exile, and his production reminded me of my favorite music—like Premier, Pete Rock, Dilla and Hi-Tek. We did a few songs and got signed to do an album, and I already had it in mind to make a hip-hop album reminiscent of the Golden [Era]—dedicated to the underground, this time, and not the majors (since the title [was] “Below The Heavens,” which means the underground). I was also aware of artists [and labels] like Self Scientific, Little Brother and Stones Throw, so I knew we couldn’t do no half-assed album with such great music … being made in the underground.

How about now?

Blu: Now I’m ready for the underground to drown the mainstream! Especially the West Coast underground!

What’s good with a new-new album? If y’all were to start working on a brand new project, do you think you’d approach it similarly and try to give the fans something familiar, or would you experiment with the sound next time around?

Exile: We are going to make another classic with all that we’ve learned, [throughout] the years. We’re the unsung heroes of the West! Hip-hop, we got you!

Blu: We’re gonna do a trap album [laughs].

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Every successful rapper has an equally talented underground counterpart—emcees they are compared to for sharing some common history, creative influence, social inspiration or rhyme style—who, for varying reasons, never attain the same level of notoriety. Regardless, some maintain rewarding independent careers, trading fortune and fame for modest but loyal cult followings, often enjoying more longevity than the average mainstream artist.

Then there’s that special brand of underachiever—the extremely gifted kind whose talent and originality should help them easily break through the monotonous hordes of dime-a-dozen spitters, but inexplicably remains in relative obscurity, perpetually slept on, despite their undeniable skill.

Then again, not every emcee shares the same ideal of success. Some, as Al-Shid told Guerrilla Grooves Radio last year, don’t need fame; they “just want to be felt.”

In the roughly two decades that Shid’s been in the game, he’s never released a proper studio album. Although he did drop a couple of mixtapes with his Sound Bar Recordings crew in the mid 2000s, he’s mostly known for his earlier work with rapper, producer and breakbeat aficionado J-Zone—the super powered sample chopping wizard with an ingenious, albeit oddball musical aesthetic.

In fact, the majority of Shid’s available catalog is limited to guest appearances on Zone’s eccentric, sometimes straight-up ridiculous, but always inventive and masterfully produced projects—often appearing as the sole rapper on full songs, as opposed to just spitting single verses. Incidentally, his imaginative concepts, hard-to-catch punchlines and long-running multiple entendres have always left fans hoping he’d release his own full-length LP (preferably Zone produced). “As a producer I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a lot of great MCs, but Al-Shid is the only one I still have recordings of verses he left on my answering machine in 2001,” Zone posted on Facebook earlier this year. “By far my greatest musical chemistry ever with an MC and in my personal top 10 MCs of all time.”

Most of his fans were probably introduced to the Roosevelt, Long Island rapper on Zone’s 1998 debut, Music For Tu Madre. Both SUNY Purchase students, Zone met Shid in college and featured him on two tracks off his senior project turned first album—“So Pretty” and “S.H.I.D.” Reportedly written when he was only 17, the latter was the initial installment in a series of songs designed to showcase the emcee’s lyrical prowess—on which he revealed that the hyphenated section of his name is actually an acronym for “Still Holdin’ It Down.”

Shid has appeared on almost all of the rapping producer’s projects since, originally as part of the somewhat mismatched Old Maid Billionaires crew (alongside over-the-top Old Maid Entertainment founder Zone and offbeat label mate Huggy Bear). On their early records, Shid’s distinguishing cadence, effortless flow and complex wordplay stood out, often requiring back-to-back listens to catch every clever line. Take, for example, his solo offerings “Recess” and “The First Day of School” off Zone’s second album, A Bottle of Whup Ass, released in 2000.

Although clearly sharp-witted, Shid wasn’t known for social commentary or particularly thought-provoking content, however. In those days, the depth of his lyrics tended to lie in their construction, rather than the ideas they conveyed. Like a less flossy Big L or Eminem minus the temperamental introspection, Shid relied mostly on shock value and, of course, his verbal dexterity to turn heads. “Al-Shid was there to knock somebody out, to let them know we weren’t a novelty act,” Zone explained to the A.V. Club.

Shid was always a consummate storyteller, though, evident in songs like “190”—another track off Zone’s sophomore LP, on which he accounted some of the problematic outcomes of alcoholism.

Around that time, Shid joined Zone on tour in Europe, performing for only $70 here and (at most) $200 there. Regardless, rocking with Old Maid overseas became one of his fondest musical memories. “We were sleepin’ in promoters’ cribs [and] these small ass hotel rooms, doin’ these little small venues,” he told TheBeeShine. “It wasn’t the best financial situation, but it was the greatest experience I had in hip hop—’cause that’s when I felt like, you know what, I’m doin’ it.”

In 2001, Zone dropped his third project, an Old Maid label compilation of sorts called Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes, which included the fifth installment of “S.H.I.D.” The fourth was released on the b-side of the album’s first single, “Live From Pimp Palace East,” while parts two and three were presumably never put out.

Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes was significantly well-received, especially considering its 9/11 release date (which impacted the crew’s ability to properly tour the project). It even garnered the attention of Atlantic Records, who allegedly intended to re-release it. Zone, however, doubted the likelihood of their proposed plan and opted to remain independent—claiming they “weren’t sold” on Shid or Hug, despite their interest in the LP.

It wasn’t until early 2002 that Shid dropped his first solo 12”—a tongue-in-cheek cut titled “Ign’ant,” featuring Zone’s dynamic production. With razor-edged bars, like his assertion as the “hottest thing to hit the streets of New York since Building 7” only months after September 11, the song was a strong demonstration of the artist’s abrasive wit. It was on the single’s b-side, “Fight Club,” that Shid delivered some of his most elaborate puns, however: “I symbolize for simple eyes that can’t see the meaning / For coke heads that’d rather sniff lines than read between ’em / Your brain’s like a uterus, I provide the semen / Which means I’m fuckin’ with your head ’til you start conceiving.”

Shid really shines on his conceptual tracks, though. Later in 2002, for his second solo release, the rapper expertly employed mathematic terminology to berate gold diggers and the men that succumb to their seduction on “M.A.T.H.”—another b-side, and one of his most popular songs to date. Unfortunately, it would be his last Old Maid 12” record, as the trio amicably parted ways to explore other musical avenues soon after.

Although Shid would appear on Zone’s next two LPs—Sick of Bein’ Rich in 2003 and A Job Ain’t Nuthin’ But Work in 2004—by 2006 he had established his own clique, Sound Bar Recordings. Together, the “SBR Animals” released a little-known, short-lived mixtape series ironically titled Fly Rap Money.

Besides guest spots on Zone’s Chief Chinchilla: Live at the Liqua Sto in 2008 and Peter Pan Syndrome in 2013, Shid hadn’t put much out since he dropped Fly Rap Money II: The Compilation a decade ago. That is until 2015, when he resurfaced to release a collaborative mixtape with lifestyle brand This Respek Wear (which became well-known for challenging Cash Money Records founder Birdman’s infamous use of the term a year later). They also shot a couple of videos to accompany the project, one of which was for Shid’s “Black Kings” song with Super Scott and Sound Bar affiliate Big Apple.

In 2015, Shid also dropped “Shotgun,” an ambiguously produced digital single featuring Zone’s drumming. Though still riddled with his trademark wordplay, both songs were a departure from Shid’s earlier music. “Black Kings” explored sociopolitical subject matter not typical for the emcee, while “Shotgun” was significantly more contemplative and introspective. For fans of his work with Old Maid, however, the absence of Zone’s distinctive production was brutally apparent. Still, Zone assured more music from the unofficial duo to come on Twitter—but did not specify in what form.

Unfortunately, they did not end up dropping a full-length Shid project (besides a catalog album of their previous collaborations), but they did still make good on the promise. Later in 2015, Shid released a familiarly braggadocios and punchline-heavy Zone-produced single, “Clubba Lang”—at the end of which Zone jokingly referred to the song as “‘Still Holdin’ It Down Part 47,’ [or] something like that.” “Clubba Lang” would also be featured on Zone’s 2016 Fish-N-Grits LP, along with a secondary track by the pair called “Dreamcrusher.”

Most recently, however, in the wake of the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of law enforcement, Shid released a poignant song about police brutality titled “Fire In My Heart”—once again straying from the formula of his early work.

Over the years, Shid has proven himself an increasingly well-rounded emcee who has yet to lose his integrity or artistic edge. Although he’s regrettably never been the “center of attention like the letter n,” contrary to his claim on the original “S.H.I.D.”—in regards to sheer lyricism, he has always managed to hold it down.

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Some music is so original, creative and straight-up good that it never gets tired or played out. Actually, timeless is such an appropriate one-word account of the Juggaknots’ catalogue that, despite only dropping two studio albums literally a decade apart, the all-sibling trio has managed to maintain their status as underground legends—still invoking excitement in the most dedicated hip-hop heads, even over ten years after their last release.

Juggaknots

In fact, their discontinued debut became such a sought-after cult classic that original vinyl pressings of the album supposedly sold for upwards of $100, before its eventual re-release. Unfortunately, while definitely celebrated within certain circles, the Juggs never achieved the widespread notoriety they deserved—remaining somewhat of a well-hidden secret, albeit a personal favorite for many.

Early in their career, however, the Bronx-bred group seemed destined for a different path—penning a major label deal with East West/Elektra Records circa 1994 and joining the ranks of signees like Das EFX and Missy Elliott. At the time, the Juggs consisted of brothers Breeze Brewin and Buddy Slim. Queen Herawin, their sister, “kind of fought her way in” later, as Breeze joked on Rap Is Outta Control with DJ Eclipse last year.

Incidentally, Slim had earned himself a reputation for producing R&B tracks, allegedly working with acts like Horace Brown and Missy’s seminal group Sista, which helped the Juggs secure their contract. Regardless, the siblings’ stint on the label was brief, and they lost their deal without even dropping a single. Toward the end of their tenure, the group was called into a meeting where various East West artists were instructed to share what they’d been working on. “You heard like a Missy joint, and this joint and that joint. 8-Off [Agallah] had ‘Ghetto Girl,’” Breeze recalled. “We played ‘Jivetalk’ … and it was like somebody died.”

Although East West may not have shared their vision, someone else did—Bobbito Garcia, who hosted the fabled Stretch and Bobbito radio show on WKCR in the ’90s and owned an influential, mostly-vinyl label called Fondle ’Em Records (a “division of Tickle ’Em Label Group” and “subsidiary of Squeeze ’Em Entertainment,” as was proudly printed on their early 12” records). Bobbito built his brand working with artists who’d been dropped by majors, and would eventually help launch the indie careers of emcees like MF Doom (another Elektra castaway) and Cage (who was previously signed to Columbia). Following their first release, a project by Kool Keith and Godfather Don as the Cenobites, the ragtag label put out the Juggaknots’ 1996 debut—a roughly mixed nine-track masterpiece of material that East West hadn’t known what to do with.

While Slim definitely held his own trading “Troubleman” verses with Breeze, it’s a shame he didn’t rap more on the project—as his gruff baritone voice and in-the-pocket delivery perfectly juxtaposed his brother’s higher-pitched timbre and frenetic, multisyllabic rhyme schemes. That being said, the Brewin established himself as an exceptional lyricist and songwriter throughout the LP. With advanced wordplay, strong punchlines, original concepts and a distinguishing flow, it’s not hard to understand why in-the-know fans consider him one of the best lyricists to ever touch a mic. Most impressive on that album, however, was his knack for imaginative storytelling. “Breeze should write movie scripts, with his intuition and wit,” Bobbito affirmed in the liner notes of the indie’s 2001 closure compilation, Farewell Fondle ’Em.

According to the label on the original pressing of the Juggaknots’ first LP, the album was technically self-titled. It has also been referred to as Clear Blue Skies, however, after one of the project’s most revered cuts. The de facto title track featured Breeze rapping as both a white father and his son, arguing about the latter’s interracial relationship.

The harrowing song “Loosifa,” another poignant hip-hop mini-drama, told the tale of Smokey—a reformed stick-up kid who got a job in a maternity ward and lost his shit after being forced to discard a stillborn crack baby. He then decided to dole out some street justice and take down a local crack house, sacrificing himself in the process and leaving his pregnant wife a widow.

Breeze’s personal favorite, however, was a thriller titled “I’m Gonna Kill You”—on which the rapper accounted a torrid love affair and ensuing death threat, resulting in a paranoid episode with an unexpected plot twist.

Although its original run was limited, the Juggaknots’ LP grew so popular that the group decided to put it back out as Re:Release in the early 2000s, along with eleven new tracks. On CD format, the album was more accessible than its predecessor and flew off the shelves of indie record stores like Fat Beats (where, incidentally, Breeze worked for some time). It has since been reissued twice more, most recently as a blue vinyl double LP with three new mixes earlier this year. The 500-copy limited edition may be worth investing in, even to owners of the original, just for the nod-inspiring “Supaman Original Tape Mix” of “Watch Your Head.”

In between reissues of their classic debut, the Juggs have managed to stay considerably relevant—although only releasing music sparsely, mostly in the form of singles and guest appearances. They formed a short-lived supergroup called the Indelible MC’s with J-Treds and Company Flow (El-P of Run the Jewels, rapper Bigg Jus and DJ Mr. Len), dropping two singles in ’97 and ’98, respectively—one of which (“The Fire In Which You Burn”) was featured on Co Flow’s influential Funcrusher Plus LP, as well as Rawkus Records’ famed Soundbombing mixtape, and the other (“Weight”) on the first Lyricist Lounge compilation.

Breeze has typically been at the forefront of the effort to uphold their legacy, appearing on projects by J-Zone, Marco Polo, Tame One of the Artifacts, Cannibal Ox, Homeboy Sandman, Aesop Rock and as one of the Weathermen (alongside Camu Tao, El-P and more). Most memorable, however, was Breeze’s work with legendary producer Prince Paul—starring as Tariq on his sophomore album A Prince Among Thieves, the bar-setting hip-hopera, in 1999.

Breeze got the part after sending Paul an early Juggaknots demo while still signed to East West, hoping to enlist his services on their would-be label release. Much to the Brewin’s surprise, years later, it was Paul who would recruit him—supposedly seeking him out and finally getting in touch through Eclipse at Fat Beats, who hired Breeze to work at the iconic store.

Although the concept album featured guest spots by legends like Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Sadat X, Kool Keith and De La Soul, Breeze was selected to be the classic LP’s protagonist—and the honor was not lost on the grateful MC, who killed the role. Unfortunately, though well-received, the Tommy Boy gem failed to propel his career in any significant way, however—and he didn’t end up dropping another proper studio album until seven years later, with his brother and sister.

Following a few dope singles, as well as a 2004 conceptual compilation mixtape called The Love Deluxe Movement, the Juggaknots finally put out their second LP in 2006. Use Your Confusion was noticeably different than their first, in that everything about the project seemed more polished, marketed and deliberate—from celebrity features (Slick Rick and Sadat X) to expertly-executed thematic concepts (like a whole song about smiling). Even its advertised “hologram cover art” was a far cry from the Juggs original Fondle ’Em white label.

Herawin also really came into her own as a lyricist, on the project—skillfully going bar for bar with her brothers. Eventually, she even beat Breeze to a solo release, dropping her own album, Metamorphosis, in 2015.

Of course, the Brewin has remained active over the years, himself—sporadically dropping singles and videos. He even penned a response to Kendrick Lamar’s infamous “Control” verse a couple of years ago, triggered by Kenny’s line “the juggernaut’s all in your jugular” (most likely intentionally taking it out of context), as well as the Compton emcee’s claim to be the king of New York. Unlike some of his peers’ attempts, Breeze’s diss was more the good-natured imparting of elderly wisdom from an underground veteran to a relative newcomer than it was a straight up schooling.

In fact, as a whole, the Juggaknots have aged gracefully—never seeming out-of-touch, despite prolonged hiatuses, perhaps indicative of their shared vocation as actual school teachers. Their last project, however, was another collector-oriented vinyl release, a 2015 compilation of pre East West demos called Baby Pictures (c. 1989-1993).

They really haven’t put a body of new music out together since 2006, considering, making them a year overdue on their one album per decade average. It’s all gravy, though, because their existing catalogue is ageless enough to hold the group’s legacy down for a lifetime.

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Some artists are more celebrated in death than they ever were in life. It’s an unfortunate phenomenon, true for posthumously-crowned hip-hop royalty like J Dilla and Big L—who, despite impeccable talent and significant influence on their peers, were rarely regarded as hip-hop elite outside of in-the-know creative circles until after their passing.

MC, producer, vocalist and cancer victim Camu Tao, on the other hand, has never been shown the appreciation he deserves—neither before, nor following the loss of his year-and-a-half long battle with the deadly disease, which took his life only a month before his 31st birthday in 2008.

Like Dilla, Mu was equally talented as both a lyricist and beatsmith. Similar to L, he refused to be boxed-in by convention—toying with Horrorcore one moment and attempting party music the next, yet always in his own unique way. Too ahead of his time to be fully recognized in it (yet too unacknowledged at his death for it to properly uphold his legacy), Mu has remained in relative obscurity—a largely unrecognized subject of tribute verses by former collaborators and an all-too-often overlooked footnote in the indie hip-hop history books.

He was, however, an integral part of a few influential projects that came out of New York City’s flourishing underground scene in the late ’90s and early ’00s, usually alongside various members of The Weathermen supergroup: a Suicide Squad-esque assembly of hip-hop antiheroes mostly affiliated with the popular Eastern Conference and Definitive Jux indie labels that, at different points, included El-P of Run The Jewels, Tame One of The Artifacts, Breeze Brewin of The Juggaknots, Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock and Cage, among others.

Named after a revolutionary anti-imperialist student organization that declared war on the U.S. government in the ’70s, The Weathermen never got a chance to stage their musical coup or release their promised studio album, The New Left. Instead, they only dropped their mixtape The Conspiracy in 2003 and then unofficially disbanded, allegedly due to internal arguments that arose within the clique after Mu’s untimely death.

Before The Weathermen’s formation, however, Mu cut his teeth with another prominent underground crew from his Columbus, Ohio hometown, the MHz. Comprised of fellow Weathermen Copywrite, Tage Proto and Jakki Da Motamouth, as well as sample-chopping maestro RJD2, MHz earned a rep on the indie rap circuit with a couple of 12” singles released in the late ’90s on Fondle ’Em Records—Bobbito Garcia’s mostly vinyl label, best known for reintroducing KMD’s Zev Love X to the world as MF Doom.

On those early records, as well as the group’s 2001 compilation album Table Scraps, Mu’s rhyme style was noticeably more abstract and animated than in later work. For example, on “Magnetics” (his 1999 solo offering off their second Fondle ’Em single), Mu spat intricately-rhymed “metaphysical metaphor[s],” vocal timbre wildly fluctuating.

Two years later, he dropped the lesser-known 12” “Hear Me Talkin to You,” utilizing an equally original, oddly-syncopated rhyme scheme (albeit significantly less wordy and much easier to follow). On “Open Hands,” the single’s second cut, he also sang the hook—a hint at the direction of his future music.

In 2002, Mu released his first studio LP, Nighthawks, a hastily conceived concept album in collaboration with Cage—loosely based on a 1981 Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams cop thriller of the same name. On it, the two emcees rhymed as a pair of crooked detectives engaging in all sorts of corruption and debauchery. The album fared about as well as the film, receiving generally favorable reviews but failing to make an overwhelming impact.

Earlier that year, however, Mu had released his first single on Def Jux, “Hold The Floor,” which ended up being one of his most sought-after cuts. Before 50 Cent had popularized half-sung rap hooks on hardcore hip-hop tracks about a year-or-so later, Mu belted out an infectious melodic chorus with a simple message: “Y’all don’t really want it.”

“Hold The Floor” stood out from the rest of Definitive Jux Presents II (the compilation on which it was featured), in that the song—although still distinctive to Mu—was more catchy, rooted and universally digestible than the majority of the project’s otherwise spacey material. Most notably, it was also much harder.

Founded by former Company Flow frontman El-P at the turn of the century, in its formative years, Def Jux was defined by his “dusty but digital” sound and launched with the group’s mantra “independent as fuck” at heart—pushing the kind of artists who definitively juxtaposed the perceived superficiality of mainstream rap’s shiny suit era, but without strictly adhering to the sample-driven boom bap aesthetic typical of other underground movements at the time.

Def Jux carved out its own niche, as a result, stressing musical and conceptual deviance—priding itself on being different. Its well-marketed brand of offbeat hip-hop became increasingly popular among angsty stoners and Brooklyn hipster prototypes, somewhat alienating the label from the culture that birthed it—and eventually even a couple of its original signees, as well. As it progressed, Def Jux quickly earned a reputation for being out of touch with hip-hop at large.

Even early in the alternative indie’s conception, however, it was clear that Mu didn’t quite fit the Def Jux mold. His first full-length record for the label was another collaboration, this time with partner-in-rhyme and fellow Columbus native Metro, unlike anything the indie had ever promoted.

Or ever would again.

In 2003, S.A. Smash released Smashy Trashy, their ode to smoking, fucking, fighting, stealing and getting blackout drunk—glamorizing all things gutter over thumping, head-knockin’ beats. With songs like “Love To F*ck,” “A.A.” and “Slide On ’Em,” not to be taken too seriously and almost seeming satirical at times, the album was unfortunately lost on many critics and Def Jux groupies, despite featuring some of Mu’s most dynamic production (and simply being plain old fun as hell to listen to).

In a scene where being different was the norm, and broody intellectualism reigned supreme, appealing to less-lofty tastes was the ultimate act of rebellion. Def Jux’s increasingly homogeneous, predominantly white fan base was not unnoticed by the group either—and was even acknowledged on the song “Weird,” in its hook: “And I know it seems weird to you, we the only n***as in the room.”

“[Mu] was always bucking back against what anyone ever thought of him,” El-P explained to Columbus Alive earlier this year. “If you thought he was at the vanguard of the so-called backpack-rap style, he’d buck back and say, ‘I’m going to do this [S.A. Smash album] called Smashy Trashy,’ and it was party music… It was almost like he never wanted anyone to be able to tell him who he was.”

Following a series of captivatingly ridiculous Blair Cosby mixtapes, self-distributed over the next couple of years, Mu’s aversion to being pigeonholed became abundantly apparent on his genre-transcending LP, King of Hearts—which fused hip-hop with elements of post-punk, new wave, electroclash and even uptempo electronic pop music. Tragically, Mu would not live to see his solo studio album’s debut—or even complete it, for that matter. Still, El-P decided to put the unrefined gem out in 2010 (two years after his passing), as Def Jux’s final release before shuttering—along with a similarly experimental free collaborative EP (Forever Frozen in Television Time) that the two had been working on as a duo called Central Services.

Strikingly, most of the album (as well as the EP) was sung, as opposed to rapped—which really shouldn’t have been all that much of a surprise, in retrospect, as Mu had flirted with singing throughout his career. It should be noted that, given the project’s unfinished nature, several of its tracks only featured choruses—so how many rap verses were actually intended for the final product is really a matter of speculation. A testament to El-P’s theory, in the moments where he did spit, Mu showed considerable range as a lyricist—commenting on America’s post-9/11 political climate with “Ind of the Worl,” then skillfully weaving in and out of intricate flows on “Major Team.”

Much of the project’s material handled some appropriately dark themes, most apparently death. Recorded with one foot in the grave, Mu’s piercing melodic shrieks were as haunting and mysterious as they were beautiful—especially considering the album’s posthumous release. In contrast, however, it had an overall upbeat, energetic undertone, and Mu’s message of non-conformity rang throughout.

King of Hearts offered a heartbreaking glimpse of what could’ve been for the multi-talented artist, who died when only beginning to tap into his own limitless potential. Happy Birthday to Camu Tao, on what would have been his 40th birthday.

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