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A common refrain I hear echoing from all directions these days is “Yo! What’s up with UGHH?!” From some angles it’s fueled by the genuine curiosity of people wanting me to share what I’m up to. The other extreme has kept me up at night—sometimes working until 3AM—out of concern.

Over the past few months, I’ve received encouraging and disparaging words via email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, online reviews and even through a couple of Better Business Bureau inquiries. Many of these inquiries I’ve taken the time to answer, but I haven’t had the time to address what’s going on publicly.

In short, to keep it Internet, here is what’s up with UGHH:

So, how did we get to the point wherein I’m wading through a blaze wearing a t-shirt with the new UGHH branding and sipping an Old Fashioned out of a mug? Let’s discuss.

Failure By the Numbers

2017 started off relatively strong with us paying off a hefty amount of the six-figure debt that UGHH had previously incurred. Things looked positive as we were able to increase revenue at a steady clip. We then had the best Record Store Day that UGHH had ever seen. After that, we dipped back to pre-Record Store Day revenue levels expecting that revenue would, at least, remain flat as we ramped up other efforts for growth. So, we proceeded with our plan to invest in high-quality editorial content.

Revenue slumped considerably through Summer 2017 as the magazine ramped up. We continued to pay off old debts and then the revenue sharing portion of our acquisition deal kick in early July. In other words: more money was going out while much less was coming in.

The goal of UGHH Magazine was to invest in high-quality journalism and develop long-form, well-written stories to remind people that we are the definitive source for underground hip-hop. Those articles were also meant to drive users to the site, which we hoped would encourage record sales. Unfortunately, the investment in editorial content didn’t yield much in the way of traffic or sales. The chart below indicates that the magazine content only saw 20k visits and yielded $152 in direct sales in 2017.

Even if we zoom out and look at the editorial content through a branding lens (considering some readers may have learned of UGHH through the magazine, and then come back later to purchase) we can only attribute 249 purchases and ~$10k in revenue to that.

No matter how you slice it, we lost a lot of money on investing in editorial content.

As a digital marketer, I know that when it comes to content marketing, you need to invest in it long-term before you see results. Naively, I believed that since we had a built-in audience and longstanding brand, creating content would cut down that timeline.

I was wrong. That won’t be the last time I’ll need to admit that here.

Around the time of our content ramp up, we also augmented our approach to Paid Media. We very quickly zeroed-in on the most optimal advertising channels for UGHH. The problem? There is very little volume for direct response marketing in underground hip hop, and a brand strategy would have proven too costly until we found more solid footing. I still believe this site ultimately needs a media component to thrive, but we did not execute it effectively in 2017.

Ultimately, the year ended with little cash in the bank. Together, my partners and I decided to invest more cash to keep the business going. We decided to personally invest in UGHH because we believe in our brand and its mission.

Sales are not sustainable

Being that we are in retail, my next statement will be obvious, but it’s worth saying to give a fuller picture.

Our customers are highly reactive to sales.

As you might imagine, that’s a terrible expectation to set in a buyer/seller relationship, because there are a ton of customers that will only shop during a sale.

UGHH is a relatively low margin business which means that, irrespective of our price to you, we don’t make much profit from the sale of each product even at full price. But, I get it, I’m no different from you, I’m always searching for a deal.

In the research we did early on, it’s clear that we historically haven’t been the cheapest option because we’re not a distributor and we don’t command enough volume to get preferred pricing from distributors. So, when we run sales, it gives us a shot in the arm with regard to revenue, but then when we have to pay our vendors, partners and staff it just doesn’t add up.

While I haven’t had time to validate this hypothesis, I suspect that’s part of how the previous management got into the rut that they were in.

Running a sale also leads to a huge influx of orders. Being short on staff, this influx was something that we weren’t prepared for. As a result, UGHH’s customer experience suffered throughout the holidays and, ultimately, into 2018. To keep it short: sales need to be more strategic to be effective.

And then there were two

From a technical perspective, UGHH is held together by bubblegum and duct tape. Throughout the past year, there was a tremendous amount of resistance against updating UGHH to a more modern, improved technology stack. As I write this, UGHH is using three distinct platforms: WordPress, Shopify, and a legacy homegrown solution for the forum.

On the fulfillment side of things, there are perhaps hundreds of disparate scripts to sync a secondary database with Shopify, manage inventory and queue up product for ordering and shipping. Frankly, there is no reason that everything aside from packing can’t be automated.

Since last year, my goal has been to bring everything on to WordPress/WooCommerce so we can easily integrate everything and quickly/continuously make improvements. Unfortunately, that did not happen on the original timeline we had planned, and in mid-January (after some key departures) managing the technical components of fulfillment fell entirely on my plate.

Our E-commerce Associate and I were left to our own devices to keep things going. Big shout to him for being resilient throughout this whole process and stepping up in a variety of ways to make things happen. He is definitely the biggest personnel win that has come out of my short tenure of running UGHH.

Unfortunately, the documentation for the management of fulfillment was lacking, referenced computers or files we didn’t have access to or the processes were so convoluted that it wasn’t something that could be efficiently managed by someone without a surplus of time.

So, I did what any self-respecting web developer would do. I wrote my own shit!

It’s all still a work in progress as I have been plugging new holes and fixing bugs as we go, but I’ve simplified and automated most of what was previously done manually. Processes that once took hours now take minutes. In fact, the process of writing UGHH’s new code has been the one thing that I’ve really enjoyed throughout this tumultuous time. Once we launch our new site, there will be additional efficiency gains and we will be able to serve our customers better than ever before.

However, in the short term, these improvements came at a couple losses. At one point during the migration to WooCommerce, emails about historical and pending orders were accidentally sent to a lot of customers. Also, because there were only two of us to manage everything, and I’m split between many responsibilities on other businesses, focusing on building for the long term slowed things down.

I Failed You At Communication

We sent mass emails out to customers when there were big delays, but we did not do a decent job of answering all the email inquiries. We also didn’t establish phone support once the previous management abandoned it.

And when I say we, in this case, I mean me.

As the showrunner over here, any of our failures are ultimately my responsibility. Yes, I recognize getting behind in orders and not communicating effectively are hallmarks of a fraudulent online business. I assure you that it was never my intention for anyone’s order to get delayed. Rather, I thought that the more valuable thing for me to do with my limited time was to sit in front of the computer and bang out the code to get things working better so orders could actually get shipped.

Nevertheless, we fucked up and I apologize to any customers that were negatively affected.

In fact, as we’ve gotten caught up, our customers began to receive hand-signed notes from me because our lack of communication and delivery delays were completely unacceptable.

To that end, we’ve hired someone just to manage email responses moving forward. Every single message we’ve received is getting a response and we expect to be finished with that in the next few days. Other than that, orders are continuing to be shipped in the order in which they are received unless items are out of stock or backordered.

So Ambitious

“I’m different. I can’t base what I’m gon’ be off what everybody isn’t” -Jay Z

I approached this venture like I do anything else I do in life — with uncompromising ambition and optimism. Despite my personal high functionality and various accomplishments, I’ve never seen anything I’ve done or wanted to do as especially hard or requiring exceptional talent. The sobering reality is that not everyone is on board with or capable of making what I see so clearly into a reality.

In hindsight, I still don’t see anything that we’d set to do as being something that could not get done. However, the goals we set out to accomplish were too ambitious for the combination of people that worked on them. Also, I have been an ineffective manager and, to overcome that, I recently completed a management course and I’m continually devouring books to improve those skills. Nevertheless, the order of operations with what we did was exactly backwards.

In other words, what we’ve been working on since I’ve taken over fulfillment operations is what we should have done first. Had we done that, I’d be sharing growth charts with you rather than telling you why we’ve hit bumps in the road.

We should have focused on identifying opportunities to attain efficiencies with the e-commerce and fulfillment operations and paid off all the debt. Once everything was stabilized and we established a step function of growth then we should have been expanded into more exciting opportunities like the magazine.

I believed that we could do the opposite. Again, I was wrong.

Dancing on Quicksand

“Saw a side of myself that I never knew. I’d probably self-destruct if I ever lose, but I never do” -Drake

I’ve watched enough Scandal and helped enough brands through crises to know I’m supposed to make this all look easy. I’m supposed to act like none of this bothers me. I’m supposed to just look at this like a bad acquisition, cut my losses and sell it to the highest bidder. I can’t, I won’t and I’m not.

As corny as it sounds, UGHH means a lot more to me than that and it’s taken a considerable toll on me, my personal relationships and my family to keep this ball in the air. It’s not just “a business,” it’s something that I feel is an extension of me and my partners and the more adult way that we express ourselves through this artform.

I’ve personally struggled through a variety of things over the past year and I don’t share that looking for sympathy. Rather, I share it to clarify that I’m just trying to do the right and most effective things across the board and have simply made costly mistakes.

The Path Forward

“That’s another difference that’s between me and them: I smarten up, open the market up” – Jay Z

The path forward is actually quite simple. We’re doing what I said we should have done previously, focusing on being the greatest underground hip hop record store possible. I still believe in growing toward the Media direction, but we need to develop the step functions that will help us get back to profitability first. Here’s what you can expect:

  • Focused Mission – Admittedly, we went into 2017 with 19 tactics that UGHH could leverage to generate more revenue. For 2018, we’re going to whittle that down to a handful of initiatives and put the weight of our resources behind those. The core of that mission is being the best online record store and the home for the underground hiphop community.
  • Improved Website – In the next day or so, we will have launched a new website on WooCommerce. Bare with us; we ask for your feedback once its launched so we can rapidly make improvements once this is live. This will position us to continually roll out features and functionality in support of our core mission.
  • Improved Fulfillment – We’ll continue to hire extra support on the fulfillment side as we grow and we’ll bring on seasonal support as we head into higher sales seasons like Record Store Day and Black Friday.
  • Improved Customer Service and Communication – This is our biggest immediate focus for improvement. We understand the need to be able to reach someone about your order and are correcting that right away.
    • Improved Phone Support – You can now reach UGHH Customer Service by phone 24 hours a day and 365 days a year at 866-311-5320. For those of you that are UGHH Premier members, your priority customer service line is 877-218-0176, also available 24/7.
    • Email Support – We now have someone solely dedicated to answering your emails. As she is working through the backlog, I’d recommend that you call one of the numbers above if you need immediate assistance.
  • Improved Customer Experience – I have no illusions about what we’re competing with for your business. I do know that we are capable of giving you a more personalized and higher quality experience then you’ll get elsewhere. We’ll iterate towards being a company that is more personalized and customer-centric. I don’t want us just to be another place that is going to send you things in a brown box. I want to be the company that is giving you a curated experience and knows who you are when you call us.
  • Focused Product Efforts – With us finally moving to a platform where we have more control over how things operate, we’ll be developing and publishing a roadmap of the improvements we’re making. The goal is to deploy new features and functionality on the site every two weeks. UGHH is becoming more of a “product” rather than just a “website.” You can expect things like an improved forum, mobile app, a streaming service in the near future — all personalized for you.

Back Like We Never Left

“Always trying to let go of anything that’ll burden me. That’s the reason you can feel the tension and the urgency” -Drake

I understand that we have undermined the trust that the previous management worked hard to establish. Some customers will never order from us again. I completely understand and I sincerely apologize for failing you as a businessman, rap fan and someone who has devoted a large part of his life to this music.

Perhaps, in the future, you’ll give us another chance.

In the meantime, were’ going to keep pushing forward to make this site and this business better than it has ever been. For anyone that still has questions, you’re welcome to email me directly (mike at ughh dot com) and we’re also hosting a livestream on the UGHH Facebook at 4:30pm on 4/20/2018 where you can ask me anything. I promise not to be too Mark Zuckerberg in my responses.

To those that have supported UGHH over the years and will continue to do so, I thank you so much for sticking with us. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to following through on everything I just said.

-Mike

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This Record Store Day, UGHH has decided to celebrate a hand-picked mix of still-active underground legends with recent releases, canonized underground icons and a couple of cult favorites—creating exclusive sale bundles to salute some of the artists who have made a significant impact on the culture. In doing so, we aim to illustrate underground hip-hop’s longevity—as well as its staying power.

There has been a lot of debate about the state of the underground, recently. Some believe that, thanks to internet technology and the power it gives independent artists to reach wider fan bases, the underground has become the new mainstream—while others attest that, as long as a corporate music industry controls the majority of what does and doesn’t become successful on a mainstream level (despite some exceptions), the underground will continue to exist. Although it is clear that exactly what the underground is has evolved since the polarized “Rawkus Era” of the late ’90s, when emcees were either “independent as fuck” (to quote Company Flow’s old motto) or soulless commercial puppets (with no in-between), we at UGHH subscribe to the ideology that being dubbed underground is more than just an indication of one’s financial status or level of notoriety—and know firsthand that, musically, the underground is very much alive and healthy.

 
Speaking of Rawkus Records, considering that it’s funding was actually provided by the son of Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch, maybe the financial divide between underground and mainstream hip-hop was always a little more complex than once perceived. Regardless, unlike many mainstream artists (who tend to come and go, catering to a fickle corporate music industry that’ll sign and discard talent at the drop of a mixtape), underground emcees and producers often maintain longer, more influential careers. Just ask DOOM, Pharoahe Monch or El-P, to name a few—and try to remember all the one-hit wonders with platinum singles that came and went during the 30 odd years each have been in the game.

In the words of the great DJ Premier, who recently dropped his second PRhyme project with Royce Da 5’9” and remains as influential as ever: “Underground will live forever, baby. We just like roaches: never dyin’, always livin’…”

 

“And on that note, let’s get back to the program…” — Preemo

 

This year, underground Long Island legend Roc Marciano released the sequel to his gritty, soulful masterpiece Rosebudd’s Revenge, one of “UGHH’s Top 10 of 2017”—a contender for one of 2018’s best, as well. Though RR2: The Bitter Dose is only available to pre-order, the original joins his album with former group The UN, UN or U Out, his solo debut Marcberg, his sophomore release Reloaded and his 2013 mixtape The Pimpire Strikes Back in our Roc Marci vinyl bundle.

Having released one of this year’s strongest albums to date, we felt it only right to salute versatile Detroit producer and emcee Black Milk with a bundle. The CD version contains his three most recent joints: No Poison No Paradise, If There’s a Hell Below and, his latest, FEVER—as well as his collaborative project with Danny Brown, Black and Brown! Though FEVER is not yet available on wax, the vinyl bundle includes all of the other aforementioned albums, in addition to Tronic and Album of the Year.

One of the most consistent and celebrated artists the underground has ever spawned, London-born, Long Island-raised DOOM is a cultural icon. With over a dozen albums and collaborative projects under his belt, created using various aliases, the masked super villain has not slowed his conquest for world domination—releasing his most recent collaboration with Czarface this year. In our CD bundle, Czarface Meets Metal Face is offered alongside his fraternal group KMD’s Black Bastards, his solo debut Operation: Doomsday, Madvillainy (his Madvillain collaboration with Madlib), his sophomore album under the MF DOOM moniker, Mm.. Food, and The Mouse and the Mask (by DANGERDOOM, his group with Danger Mouse). In the vinyl bundle, Mm.. Food is replaced by KMD’s first album, Mr. Hood.

What is there to say about Detroit legend J Dilla that hasn’t already been said. Considered the G.O.A.T. by many, Dilla influenced an entire generation of producers—and his signature style has been emulated time and time again. One of the most original, timeless and universally-loved artists hip-hop has to offer, Jay Dee unquestionably made his mark on the game before passing in 2006. Our CD bundle includes his early work with Slum Village (Fan-Tas-Tic, Vol. 1 and Fantastic, Vol. 2), Ruff Draft and his Champion Sound album with Madlib (as Jaylib)—while the vinyl version swaps Donuts for Ruff Draft, and also includes posthumous releases The Shining and The Diary.

Before his untimely death in 2015, Brooklyn representative Sean Price had already become an underground icon in his own right. One of rap’s most consistent lyricists, his tongue-in-cheek wordplay and inimitable, pocketed flow earned him the number one spot on UGHH’s Top 10 of 2017″ list for his posthumous masterpiece Imperius Rex last year. Though he established himself as half of Heltah Skeltah and a member of the Boot Camp Clik, to celebrate his memory, we’ve created a vinyl bundle of his always-stellar solo studio projects: Monkey Barz, Jesus Price Supastar, Mic Tyson, Songs in the Key of Price and Imperius Rex.

Hailing from Connecticut, Apathy is a Northeastern fan-favorite who built a rep as part of the Demigodz crew. In 2017, he released the acclaimed self-titled Perestroika, a group project with D.I.T.C.’s own O.C., and followed it up with a solo offering this year. The Widow’s Son features a ridiculous cast of collaborators including Pharoahe Monch, M.O.P. and AG, as well as DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Nottz and Buckwild on production—and both albums join Weekend at the Cape, The Black Lodge, Honkey Kong, Connecticut Casual, Handshakes With Snakes and Dive Medicine: Chapter 1 in our CD bundle, while the vinyl version excludes Weekend at the Cape, The Black Lodge and Honkey Kong.

Elusive, Bronx-bred trio the Juggaknots are true artists’ artists—revered by practically every emcee that arose from New York City’s underground hip-hop scene in the late ’90s. Though the all-sibling group of Breeze Brewin, Buddy Slim and Queen Herawin only release projects every decade or so, their existing two studio albums, Breeze’s starring role on Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves and some sporadic vinyl releases have managed to uphold the group’s legacy—despite most of their projects’ limited availability. Just last year, over 20 years after its release, a reissue of their classic self-titled debut flew off of UGHH’s shelves—so we decided to secure some rare 12″ vinyl singles (“She Loves Me Not,” “New $/Sumday,” “WKRP In NYC/Generally/J-Solo” and “Berzerkowitz”), as well as the even rarer CD mixtape The Love Deluxe Movement, straight from the source and offer them as part of our exclusive Juggaknots bundle.

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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.

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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 THE 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“Can’t get you out of my head.” Immortalized as a Kylie Minogue lyric, this profundity was bookended by an endless string of “La-la-las.” With irony as a cheeky backdrop, the song worked. Better still, it’s unforgettable.

Monosyllabism FTW.

And so we arrive at the conundrum that is popular music: what is it about certain songs and certain artists that stick? While seemingly interchangeable artists wither on the vine?

For this, we turn to the obvious pairing of rap music and, um, neuroscience. UGHH sat down with three academics who study music’s effect on the brain—how the brain receives music and, ultimately, what drives our tastes in music. Basically, really smart people who say things like, “I find the intersection of neuroscience and musical cognition to be a particularly compelling area” and author things such as Flexibility of Temporal Order in Musical and Linguistic Recognition.

Polysyllabism FTW.

All kidding aside, those are the sage words of Dr. Brian Rabinovitz, an esteemed researcher and professor of Psychology at American University who specializes in neuropsychology, biological psychology, and cognitive psychology. UGHH also spoke with Dr. Jonathan Burdette, a cutting-edge neuroradiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and co-author of a fascinating study on musical proclivity: Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity: From Beethoven to Eminem. So, yeah. This writer will gladly defer to him. Last but certainly not least, we caught up with Dr. Amy Belfi, a cognitive neuroscientist at NYU who boasts a bevy of publications elucidating the very topic in question: how aesthetic experiences, e.g. listening to music, manifest themselves in the brain.

UGHH thanks these talented professionals for their time and also their good humor. To wit, these conversations yielded gems like: “The second part of your question was…What was the second part of your question? It was unanswerable. I know it was unanswerable.” and “That’s a great question and I have no idea.” And “You stumped me again. You’re going to think I’m an idiot.”—Dr. Jonathan H. Burdette.

[insert writer’s glee].

But let’s get into the meat of the matter, including the physiological truth that music myelinates your brain. Yeah. Myelinates.  Showers in myelin.

How did you initially get into music and how did that segue into your professional pursuit?

Dr. Belfi: I have been into music since my childhood. I played piano and sang in choirs from around age 10 through college. I attended St. Olaf College in part for its great reputation for music. I had contemplated majoring in music before I started college, but an AP Psychology course my senior year got me interested in the brain. So I majored in psychology but still was able to sing and play piano. I started conducting research as an undergrad and decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Neuroscience; luckily, I ended up at the University of Iowa for my Ph.D. I had a great Ph.D. advisor who allowed me to pursue basically any research interest I wanted. So I chose to study music!

Now, I study music cognition; how music relates to other cognitive functions like language, memory, or emotion. Some of the overarching questions that drive my work are: How does music evoke such strong emotional responses in listeners? Why do we like the music that we like? What is the association between music and personal, autobiographical memories? And some of the things I’m interested in are: studying the emotional impact of music; how listening to a song can transport us to a time from our past; how we develop musical taste or preference for certain songs. 

Dr. Rabinovitz: My musical and academic pursuits did not combine until I began graduate school. As a child, I did not have a passion for music, but I loved monsters and I recall being drawn to Iron Maiden’s album cover artwork. I believe I first became interested in their music when I was about 10 years old–purely because of the artwork–but when I heard the harmonized melody lines I was immediately hooked.  Music in many forms and genres has remained a major part of my life ever since. I began my undergraduate studies as a philosophy major. In my senior year, I took a Psychology class that introduced me to Neuroscience and the subject matter fascinated me. When I started graduate school, I had the good fortune of working with an advisor who was interested in both music and memory, and this allowed me to combine my interests in music and neuroscience. Now, broadly speaking, I study memory and metamemory, and I aim to further understand the effects of familiarity and individual differences on musical processing.

Dr. Burdette: I grew up in a musical family; my mother pushed music onto us and we all took the bait. I always played music. I sang, I played the viola, I played the piano. And once I had kids I really got into it. So I love music and I’ve also studied the brain. Naturally, the intersection has been an interest of mine. It’s like “What the heck is going on here?” Why is music one of the most powerful forces that we encounter as human beings? There’s very few things, very few stimuli, that activate so many different networks in the brain: cognition, language, motor, sensory, everything. The brain is on fire when you’re listening to music. So my studies have been attempts to reveal what musicologists have studied and continue to study: What is it about music? What’s going on with your brain when you hear certain rhythms or frequencies? What is the impact of worded music versus wordless? And I actually delved beyond that to determine, whether it’s hip-hop you like or if it’s classical music, are you activating the same networks in the brain as someone who likes something else?

What sort of brain activity occurs when music is taken in? How does it differ from responses to other stimuli, meaning via other senses or even via non-melodic noises?

Dr. Rabinovitz: There are essentially two major levels of physiological response to music. First is the lower level, where the ear transforms the sound into neural signals and then sends these signals to the brain. They enter the brain via the primary auditory cortex, an area that performs basic sound processing. This is where the initial creation of our perception of the sound begins. This applies not just for music but for all sounds we hear. The higher level of processing actually uses many areas across the brain and this is where our deeper appreciation for music takes place. The end result of that process is that the sound is transformed into electrical pulses. The brain is composed of cells called neurons and these neurons send messages back and forth in the form of electrical pulses. At this stage the processing becomes very complex and differs from person to person. These individual differences help explain the differences between people’s musical preference. This is where connections are made with memory and feelings. It is this higher level that accounts for individual differences.

Further, research has shown there is an area of the brain that is involved with tracking melodic structure independent of the actual notes. In other words, there is a part of the brain that processes the relationship between notes rather than the notes themselves. This in part explains why we can easily recognize a melody regardless of its key. For instance, if I sing “Happy Birthday” and start it on a C, I could start again on F or G or and you would still be able to recognize it as the same melody. This happens because of higher processing in the brain. When artists repeat melodic lines in different keys, they are taking advantage of this type of processing to provide an interesting change in the song.

What are some generalizations about popular music—meaning what techniques or gimmicks for audience response and receptivity do you hear? Consistency in sonics, key, tempo, etc.?

Dr. Rabinovitz: Repetition is the most obvious factor. Repetition allows for opportunities to transfer a song from short term to long-term memory. The chorus of almost every popular song, regardless of style, repeats at least three times and generally more than that. The same can be said for the main verse. Repetition increases familiarity. With repeated listens, you form a memory representation of the song structure and so you are able to predict upcoming passages.

When your predictions are accurate that can produce a positive feeling and is one of the reasons you enjoy a song more with repeated listens. Rap thrives on this with its hooks. But in general, popular music needs to walk a fine line between being interesting and catchy. This is really a battle between simplicity and complexity.

In general, our perceptual systems are excellent at noticing change. With auditory information we may notice change in many areas. One area is dynamics, such as sudden changes in the overall volume or sudden changes in volume within a single instrumental or vocal line. Another area is timbre, which refers to the sound of an instrument. For example, a melody may play once on a guitar, then on a keyboard. We hear that it is the same melody, but by switching instruments there is a noticeable change and change is inherently interesting. The artist has to keep the audience interested for the duration of the track so techniques like this are very valuable.

Another example might be repeating a melody while the drums or backbeat switch to half-time or perhaps double-time. When this happens, we feel the rhythmic shift, although the basic melody has not changed. These types of changes are particularly useful for popular music because artists need to capture the attention of the listener, but avoid being too complex. To be catchy, a song must be appreciated on the first or second listen. If there is too much change the listener may be alienated from the music. Examples of this kind of change might include introducing new melodic lines in every measure, frequently changing time signatures, or utilizing melodic lines that are so long in duration that it is difficult for the listener to keep track of them.

Dr. Belfi: Repetitiveness has a lot to do with memory for songs. Hearing a song or chorus–or hook in the case of rap music–over and over is a good way to remember it. Mode (major or minor) is a pretty large determinant of a song’s valence—valence meaning the emotional quality of a piece, be it positive or negative emotion. So major pieces tend to be perceived as happy, while minor pieces tend to be perceived as sad. But it’s hard to pin down how this relates to memorability, since people are drawn to different things.

Does rap music’s intrinsic spoken component lend itself more reading to memorability than does singing?

Dr. Rabinovitz: That is an excellent question and one that really needs more study to fully answer. Most of the research in this area has focused on lyrics that are sung because they contain both melody and linguistic content. We know that lyrics and melodies are highly interrelated. From a musical perspective, the vocal tracks in rap tend to be less melodic and more rhythmic. From a linguistic perspective, they contain a great deal of information and meaning. A rap song contains significantly more lyrical diversity than a pop song. This meaning can contribute to memorability. Further, if the lyrical content resonates positively with the listener, that will likely drive both repeat listening and memorability. Additionally, rap offers different levels of aggression in both the lyrics and the delivery. Those may combine in ways that attract or repel any particular listener.

Dr. Belfi: To my knowledge, I don’t think there is a ton of research out there in the music cognition world on rap music. However, there are studies that look at melodies paired with lyrics versus just lyrics alone; things tend to be remembered more when they also have a melody. So in that way, I might guess that rap music would be less memorable than music set to a melody. But rap music is very rhythmic, so this added rhythmic complexity might increase the memorability of rap music. It might become almost a motor or muscle memory type thing to repeat back a rap lyric.  

Dr. Burdette: That’s never been studied, as far as I know. It’s never been looked into. But it’s interesting. It’s basically rhythmic poetry. I do believe that dancing and music with groove you can dance to is a powerful feeling and is evolutionarily important. I mean, all those silly hooks in a lot of pop songs are residual dance hooks. Urban music is rhythmic, strongly grooved music. Rhythm is part of our upbringing. It’s second nature for children to enjoy music and to immediately start dancing if they hear music. It’s not until it’s beaten out of them by schooling and society that children really stop doing that.

So, body movement and music are very closely linked. It’s something you grow up with—your musical influences as you’re growing up and myelinating your brain and developing memories and emotions. That connection and the repetitiveness of the construction could definitely contribute. Our study explored the effects of several types of music. Traditionally, people have believed that listening to something with words will leave a different brain signature than listening to something without words. And we showed that this is incorrect; if you liked the Beatles’ “Let it Be” or Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” or Usher, your physiological responses were indistinguishable. Whatever you liked and for whatever reason you liked it, you had a similar brain connectivity pattern.

Are there different responses for music found pleasing straightaway Vs. unpleasant? Does brain activity actually change when a song is met first with dislike, then indifference, to finally preference?

Dr. Belfi: For the first question—yes. Research has indicated that when people find music highly pleasing—often looking at the moment when people experience musical chillsthose feelings of goosebumps—this activates the same brain regions important for other pleasurable activities. So music seems to be a very good way to evoke pleasure and reward. There are several non- mutually exclusive theories about how much evokes emotions. For example, music may evoke emotion though “emotion contagion”—the idea that a listener perceives an emotion in a piece of music and “mimics” that emotion; i.e. it is “contagious.” So if a piece of music is sad, the listener might feel sad; if it’s happy, the listener would feel happy. But, we know that this isn’t always the case. For example, some people enjoy listening to sad music—a powerful symphonic movement or song about lost love, for instance. Music also evokes emotion through its association with personal, autobiographical memories. So hearing a song might remind us of a good time in our life, which makes us feel good.

For the second question: This is something I’m currently looking at in a study I’m conducting. I’m interested in how brain responses unfold over time, as your listening to a piece evolves and your opinions about the piece change. We will have to wait and see!

Dr. Burdette: I can answer that one because that’s exactly what we measured. We played five pieces of music to people sitting in an MRI scanner. One was KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Nite.” One was Usher. One was Brad Paisley. One was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. And one was Chinese opera, which is unusual to Western ears and ultimately sounds weird.

We took everyone’s song that they liked the least—call it the dislike if you will—and looked at their brain patterns. We then compared those results to those recorded while the subjects were listening to their favorite songs. This really illuminated an important, powerful brain network called the Default Mode Network or DMN: It is your place in the world, how you interact with the environment, how you monitor the environment. People consider it the home of introspection or inferential thought, self-referential thought, self-reflective thought. I almost think of it as your soul. When the subjects listened to their least favorite pieces, that network was inert, basically. The anterior parts were not really connected to the posterior parts. It just was not firing, However, subjects listening to their favorite pieces showed tremendous activity in the DMN. The network was fully intact and alive. So we were actually able to illustrate the brain signature of what it is to prefer a piece of music.

Another thing we studied was the connection between your auditory areas—your listening areas of the brain—and the hippocampus, a place where humans encode memories. It’s certainly very involved in memory encoding. What we saw was this:  When listening to your favorite piece, your hippocampus and auditory areas were not in the same community. They were not in harmony, pardon the pun. Whereas if it was not your favorite piece, they were. And you could argue—we did argue—that when it was not your favorite, the listening areas and the memory-making areas were kind of in cahoots in trying to form memories. Whereas if it was one of your favorite pieces, you already had this strong memory component. One didn’t need the other; the hippocampus was kind of off on its own. It really did not play a part. It was retrieving memories, if you will, rather than encoding memories. Those were two big differences between like and dislike.

Dr. Rabinovitz: There are very different responses for music that is perceived as pleasant compared to unpleasant. Certain properties are somewhat universally considered unpleasant—highly dissonant music, for instance. The early stages of auditory processing in which the basic characteristics of the sound are decoded are similar for everyone. At the higher stages where the song is perceived as music rather than just a collection of sounds, you will see differences in brain activity between those who like and dislike the music. Even a single individual may go through a change in terms of this higher processing. Have you ever heard a song you didn’t like at first, but with repeated listens you grew to enjoy or even love it? The basic processing remained the same between your first and last exposure to the song. What changed was your higher order processing. This reflects a known principle in social psychology that familiarity breeds liking. Social psychologists apply this to people, but it can hold true for music as well.

In addition, we also notice change between songs. When you hear a great song and then a mediocre song immediately thereafter, that mediocre song seems even worse than had you listened to it by itself. And if you heard the same songs in the opposite order—first the mediocre one then the great one—that second song would seem better in comparison. This is known as hedonic contrast and has been shown to occur with visual stimuli, like artwork, in addition to music. The fact that we make comparisons between songs makes it important for an artist to select a good order for their tracks on an album. An artist’s worst song should not immediately follow the best song on an album. Of course, an artist can’t control what songs play before their song on a streaming site or radio, so they simply do their best to make every track the best it can be. Ultimately, if we knew the particular formula to make an artist memorable and beloved then everyone would use it, but the world would be a much less interesting place.

UGHH’s Conclusion: It’s probably no coincidence that melodic (read: sing-songy rappers) have a stronger hold on the listener’s ear. Meanwhile, that new school rap song you hated on first listen will become your favorite song if you hear it enough. Do what you will with that information.

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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].

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

BROWSE AVAILABLE BLU & EXILE PRODUCTS IN THE UGHH STORE.

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It was the dead of Winter. 1995. It’s late on a Saturday night in a land far away, at a time long ago, back when there was no Internet. There was only basic cable, so what’s a 15-year-old boy supposed to do? I used to masturbate to rap video hoes on Urban Xpressions on Channel 48 ‘cause it was local access and they would always show the “raw” versions the videos.

In between Patra and Wreckx-N-Effect videos, I remember seeing the gas flame on the stove, the red Hennesy jersey (not “Hennessy, ”but Hennesy with one S), the drum intro. “Shook Ones” changed my life forever that night.

My mother had just recently died of cancer, my grandfather got diagnosed with cancer (they gave ‘em nine months to live. He’s still alive and kicking with no treatment. FTW.), and my brother would die at the hands of the local police a year later.

‘95 and ‘96 were two of the hardest years of my life, and my ONLY coping mechanism was rap music. Mobb Deep was at the top of the list. Prodigy was my favorite rapper. He WAS New York street rap, and when executed masterfully, there’s nothing better.

I didn’t know Prodigy well, yet I felt his death the way people felt John Lennon’s death. It sent a shock wave through social media. Anyone who’s anyone showed respect, and I can truly say we all lost one with his passing. I’m extremely grateful for his contributions, and even more grateful that I got the dream opportunity to get him on a song this year—which was YEARS in the making. I don’t know if we’ll ever recover from losing someone like Prodigy. For all of the true Prodigy heads like myself, I wanted to share some of his greatest deep cuts.

Mobb Deep & Kool G Rap – “The Realest”

The first time I ever heard “The Realest” was on Thug Thursdays. After Stretch & Bobbito split and were doing every other week, Stretch Armstrong played “Thug Muzik” and “The Realest” back to back. It was not only my favorite Mobb Deep song ever, but maybe my favorite song of all time. It was also my first official introduction to the Alchemist who became my favorite producer and REALLY gave Prodigy a second wind. It’s crazy how you can go from The Infamous to Hell on Earth to Murda Muzik, then you add someone like ALC and the whole dynamic changes for the better. It’s fucking incredible to this day.

Prodigy – “Money Is a Weapon”

Ignore the date on the embedded video; this was one of the last things they leaked before finishing HNIC 2 when P went to prison. This is Prodigy at the absolute top of his game. 2007-2008 was nothing but incredible music. Some people may recognize the beat; 50 Cent used the same ALC instrumental for “The Mechanic,” which is probably why this song never went much further than this video. I prefer “Money is a Weapon,” and I think you will as well. The video is gritty and raw, the music is gritty and raw…what more could you ask for?

Prodigy, Un Pacino & H Brando – “They Want Me Dead”

This is the hardest shit ever. Un Pacino and H Brando are Far Rock street legends. They’re in a group called Hard White alongside Scott Cane, Boogz Boogets, and Mumbles. They were breaking through around the time Un Pacino illustrated some of the realest rap shit ever, only to go down hard for a home invasion. Prodigy was already in prison when Product of the 80’s dropped, and it’s just raw. It’s everything I want in a street record. The intro alone is Un Pac listing federal prisons that he may or may not end up doing time in. Sid Roams’s eerie signature backdrop plays perfectly. Product of the 80’s is a GREAT record that unfortunately missed a lot of listeners, which could be due to Prodigy being in jail. When you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind.

The Almighty RSO ft. Prodigy – “The War’s On”

Do yourself a favor and just skip to 1:52 in the video. You don’t need to see Benzino and his Bostonian Goon Squad ruining this ridiculously ill Havoc beat. Prodigy absolutely kills it. “Fuck a pearly white gate, all that bullshit is fake, the only gates I see is if they send the God upstate.” And this was ’96; this was post-Infamous when Prodigy was pretty much the most in-demand street rapper in the business. This passed everybody by because, again, even pre-Eminem beef who the fuck wants to hear anyone on this song except for Prodigy? Maybe Dart Adams (hi, Dart)? Prodigy flamed the shit out of this song and it should’ve been something in the tuck for Mobb Deep to use. Incredible verse.

Mobb Deep & I20 – “When It Comes To Beef”

Alchemist looped up Isaac Hayes; Prodigy and Havoc both spit vintage verses. This is off ALC’s Insomnia mixtape, which is flawless in its own right. Prodigy spits a cryptic flow about his cousin Craig catching bodies at Wendy’s, a sneak diss to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony for no real reason, and it’s just what makes Mobb Deep great. Less is more in every conceivable fashion, leading to an incredible listening experience. This came out in 2003. It’s 2017, and I still don’t know who I20 is. It doesn’t matter. He provided the hook and kept it movin’ apparently. Was he cousin Craig? Hmmm.

Prodigy & Cormega – “Three”

My favorite song off the original HNIC album. This shit is no frills: the Alchemist beat, no hook, and both verses are fire. This is riding music. Point. Blank. Period.

Mobb Deep – “It’s Over”

Havoc killed the Eric Gale sample, and this was during a lull—if you could even call it that. I loved the Free Agents mixtape. It wasn’t well-received, but this was the B-side to “Solidified” on the 12″ and I thought it was clearly the highlight of the Free Agents mixtape. “You know you love our style, get off our dick.” It’s some smooth G-shit especially for 2003, when the music was clearly shifting toward a whole new paradigm. They stayed tried and true to what they do best. I love “It’s Over.”

Prodigy – “Bang On Em”

You could pick any song off Return Of The Mac, but this is my personal favorite for selfish reasons. The sample is The Montclairs, which I had JUST flipped maybe a few weeks before I heard “Bang On Em” and retired my low rent version for good. I was astonished by how Alchemist flipped it. P spit that futuristic, yet vintage street shit, and a few days later I heard the whole project. I said it then, it was an instant classic. Now in 2017, I think Return Of The Mac is the last classic album. It’s the only album in the past decade where you don’t have to skip a single track. It flows seamlessly, the synergy between Alchemist and Prodigy is perfect, the features were minimal and effective, and I’m going to listen to Return Of The Mac as soon as I’m done writing this.

Prodigy & Nas – “Tick Tock”

The best song off Alchemist’s 1st Infantry album. Nas and P sound like they did in the Infamous days. It illustrates a tale of growing up in NYC, and the beat is some of the smoothest laid back G-shit you’ll ever hear. I remember when I first heard the leaked Nas verse, no one even knew Prodigy was on it. Then when the full version was on ALC’s album, I skipped everything to listen to “Tick Tock” first. It’s one of the best Alchemist beats of all time.

Prodigy & Big Twins – “What A Real Mobb Do”

There was a snippet of Prodigy driving around in his Porsche listening to this song. It never came out on anything officially, and I remember searching far and wide for days. It leaked on the net via Tapemasters, Inc. This shit is a rugged Alchemist beat with P just spitting. It’s around the time they were doing Return of the Mac, as several songs off that were leaked via mixtapes like Stuck On You and Legends. This song never went beyond the Internet I don’t think, which is a damn shame ‘cause it’s the hardest shit out there.

Vanderslice has produced for the likes of Prodigy, Action Bronson, Styles P, Jadakiss, Evidence, and Freddie Gibbs. His upcoming project “The Best Album Money Can Buy” is slated for a Fall release. Check out his beats here: https://vanderslice.bandcamp.com/

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