The Renaissance of Holy Hip Hop

Currently listening to: “It Is Not Death To Die” by Sovereign Grace Music
Total disconnect from the content of the post you’re about to read, but SGM makes some amazing worship music (better yet, they write thick, deeply theological lyrics for that music). Definitely a go-to group of musicians in the Bolton residence.

Let’s start with the obvious: I’m white. I’m middle class. Suburban. Only gun I’ve ever shot was my dad’s hunting rifle at target practice out in the woods at grandma’s. I draw graffiti on paper, not illegally on walls. I’m anything but “rough rugged”. Certainly not a “Playa” of any significant Game. I have soft spots in my heart for indie rock and uptempo metal (not that I should call any metal “uptempo”, doing that’s not very metal of me). Oh, and for folk, electronic, and (recently) jazz.

Apparently, that makes me a prime candidate for loving hip hop music. And I do. Boy do I love me some deep bass, a sharp snare, and clever instrumentation all slathered together into tasty beats. I have no affection for a lot of the ‘culture’ that usually gets packaged with it (after all, hip hop is not on the radio) – the bling and sexploitation and violence and whatnot. But I have a great deal of affection for the sounds of hip hop.

Let’s make matters worse: I’m an English and Philosophy major with a background in Biblical Studies. I LOVE words. My brain plays with words. Sentences are like playgrounds to me – places to frolic and laugh exuberantly and enjoy life. I’ve always been enamored with communication and the means by which we accomplish it. Most of all, I’m dumbfounded by how God has chosen to communicate Himself to me (and the rest of you humans) through words – recorded in text, preserved through aeons of history, study-able, deep deep depths of words. As I’ve been reminded much lately – God wrote a book. It is written – “it” being the communication of God to man, the holy Scriptures. Inerrant, authoritative, sufficient, complete… profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, exhortation… all of it communication from God, put in human words for humans to read, know, and understand. We serve a God who communicated his Word with perfection – we should strive for excellence in our communication. It should be our goal to grow in clarity, conciseness, robustness, ‘copiousness’ (depth and breadth), and total self-control.

A love for words makes me a prime candidate for loving hip hop music. See, rap is the music of words in a way unparalleled by other forms. Hip hop is the modern theater for poetry – it really is. I don’t read modern poets, I listen to them “spit rhymes” (read: recite) over beats. Through hip hop I am able to enjoy such (otherwise neglected) vocal magicks as cadence, flow, rhythm, meter – all the hallmarks of performed poetry. Through hip hop I am able to enjoy sonnets and rhyme schemes and rhyme forms of all kinds – polysyllabic, internal, complex, couplets – the list goes on. In terms of structure alone, rap is responsible for so much remarkable innovation in poetry. Besting that, hip hop provides the ideal theatre to showcase thoughts and treatises on subjects far more detailed and technical than most other forms of music. Long words aren’t frowned upon, but indeed are often celebrated (this is significant when we consider the potential for proper theological, philosophical, scientific, or linguistic use).

I love hip hop. Particularly, I am drawn to hip hop that honours and glorifies Christ Jesus the King of Kings. I was first introduced to what is sometimes called “Holy Hip Hop” back in the late 90’s when my bimonthly copy of now-defunct music mag 7ball arrived in the mail, sporting its usual compilation CD filled with usually unheard-of artists. Although the mag focused primarily on rock and alternative music, it sometimes ventured into the then-risque territory of hip hop. This particular issue featured a song on the pack-in compilation called “Cypha The Next Day” by The Cross Movement. I was hooked – great old-school beat, clever and talented emcees busting out wonderful God-honouring rhymes, and to top it off, theological depth. This wasn’t some campfire “sing-songs to Jesus” deal, this was a bunch of Pastor-Rappers roughing me up with biblical insight and not only dropping poetry, but sermonettes, expositions, and commentaries on biblical passages in their verses. Average people like me started calling it “holy hip-hop” (hereafter “HHH”) and the name stuck.

Here’s something that excites me greatly – there’s been a real renaissance of HHH over the course of the last decade. What began with artists like P.I.D., SFC, and Dynamic Twins in the 80’s and continued in the 90s with artists like¬†The Cross Movement, Urban D, and Corey Red & Precise… has experienced a renewed fervency and urgency in the last five years in particular. Artists like Lecrae, Trip Lee, 116 Clique, Shai Linne, Sho Baraka, Flame, and Tedashii (not to mention solo efforts by Cross Movement members Ambassador, Phanatik, and Tonic) are quite literally tearing things up. The beats are amazing, the rhymes are full of bounty, and the biblio-theological depth, missional focus, and Christocentric emphasis is both refreshing and disarmingly confrontative.

So, this post (which has been on the backburner for two months) is just a simple expression of my thankfulness for how God is using men (and women) that he has greatly gifted in wordplay and music to glorify Himself through hip hop; to glorify Himself through the proclamation of his word and his Gospel through skillfully crafted poetry put to the kick and the snare.

Thank you, Lord:

  • for the gift of living at such a time as this
  • for the gift of ears to hear the kick, the snare, and the wordsmithery
  • for the gift of a mind to follow and comprehend what’s being said
  • for the gift of faith to believe in the biblical truths being expressed through your servants
  • for the gift of hip hop music, the gift of rap

James 1:16-17 ESV
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

I’ll close with a personal favourite. There’s this one guy named Shai Linne, and you won’t have to watch for long to see that God has given him a remarkable gift for compacting complex biblical truth into memorable, remarkable, mind-blowing rhyme schemes.

Check it.

Shai Linne with The Greatest Story Ever Told (live) from Grace EV Free on Vimeo.

…from nine to nineteen

Title: Cloud Nineteen
Artist: Braille & Symbolyc One
Label: Hiphop is Music
Length: 16 Tracks / 55:35
For More Info: |

Fresh off his fourth LP, 2008’s The IV Edition, Braille has teamed up with S1 aka Symbolyc One to deliver this new project entitled Cloud Nineteen. The most immediate benefit of teaming up with a single producer like this is that it results in a cohesion and togetherness of the record’s sound that was lacking on The IV as well as 2006’s Box of Rhymes.

In the role of beatmaker and production heavyweight, S1 brings his A game. Cloud Nineteen boasts some of the best and most enjoyable beats on any of Braille’s releases, at times rivalling 2004’s Shades of Grey, widely considered to be Braille’s finest album. Actually, it’s fair to say that every release since Shades has been held up against it – and in this regard I don’t feel that Nineteen takes the title as “best Braille”. With that said, Cloud Nineteen maintains the high levels set by Braille’s other post-Shades releases – no small feat. In short, the music here is fresh and enjoyable – with songs like “Megaphone Phonics” and “That’s My Word” standing out as highlights.

What is there to say about Braille’s rhymes that hasn’t already been said before? As always, he brings honesty, true-to-life experience, and an increasing breadth of wisdom to every track. For quite some time, Braille’s vision for Cloud Nineteen has been to give away freely to folks in schools, correctional facilities, and community centers. This vision seems to have informed the content and the topics of the record, which revolve around the idea that if ‘Cloud Nine’ is the best this world has to offer, then Christ offers us something much greater… Cloud Nineteen, so to speak. Throughout the album’s 14 non-interlude tracks, Braille shares from his life and learnings to encourage and challenge his listeners. A great example of this is “Found Her”, which shares his own fledgeling mistakes with women and eventual success in meeting and marrying his wife. It’s also a great follow-up to the only track on The IV Editon produced by S1, “Blessed Man”. Another highlight for me personally was one of the albums most polarizing tracks, the atmospherically dark and brooding “Heart of God”, wherein Braille asks:

How many times have I failed to represent the heart of God with my filthy rag righteousness
It’s painful to admit my lack of discipline when I commit sins, it’s shameful, I can’t live like this

…and later…

How can I dumb down the heart of God?
He sent his Son to come down and die for me.
I was in dire need.

…and finally…

All I really want is the heart of God
But I don’t live my life like I really mean the words that I say,
I want the heart of God to speak through my lyrics,
Why should you listen to me, when I don’t listen to the Holy Spirit?

To me, this track was the album’s highest highlight – brutal honesty from Braille about his own weakness and inability to do anything truly valuable apart from what God does through transforming his heart to be more like Christ.

Between S1’s consistent and engaging production and Braille’s consistent and precise vision for Cloud Nineteen, this is one of 2009’s best hip-hop records and will retain that status despite being released early in the year. Once again, I find myself impressed by and thankful for Braille and his desire to be a voice for hope and our need for the redemption and heart-level transformation that can only come through Christ. His vision to share this record freely with kids in group homes and cons in prison is to be applauded, and much more than that, it’s something to support. Here we have a guy who, rather than trying to cash in on his abilities, feels called to share his life, his talent, and his Saviour with the broken and outcast. That’s something worth getting behind. Getting behind it requires that you pick up a copy of this great album to enjoy, and that goes way beyond ‘cloud 9’ status and on to Cloud Nineteen. I’ll see you there.

Four clouds out of five.

Standout Tracks: It’s Nineteen, Broken Heart, That’s My Word, Heart of God, Megaphone Phonics, Hardrock.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
June 13th, 2009

…glitching to fix something

Title: Future Stars And Small Wonders
Artist: Bizzart
Label: Joyful Noise Recordings
Length: 12 Tracks / 32:33

What do you get when you combine bizzare with art? Bizzart, apparently. Future Stars And Small Wonders, the most recent release from Bizzart, is certainly bizzare – whether or not it’s “art” is ultimately up to each listener.

The record comes in a basic package with no indication of who the artist is, or of what the album is called. The liner notes are printed on a single square page, coded in HTML. The distorted, out-of-focus cover image kindly gives a hint at what the sound contents will resemble.

If you load up Future Stars And Small Wonders, Here’s what you’re going to hear: shout-rap vocals that generally favour oblique lyrical abstraction, weird juxtapositions of sound, erratic/glitchy electronics, schizophrenic loops, acoustic guitar/piano, and vocal samples that seem to bear no connection to the songs in which they are placed. Certainly, there’s a lot of effort that’s gone into this, even just to achieve the amount of layering and mashing of sounds (sometimes complimentary, sometimes intentionally dischordant). Song structures are anything but standardized – constantly doubling back on you and breaking conventions that have been set up in the first two minutes of a song only to frusterate or intrigue the listener. The same can be said of the album, which will follow a spazzy electronic indie rap song (“Android Hearts”) with a quiet piano number (“Changing Stars”) – though both of the songs named fit those descriptions in only the most basic sense. The only thing that comes to mind as a basis for comparison is Soul Junk (particularly at Glenn Galaxy’s more rappish and/or contemplative moments).

With all of these things in mind, this is a complicated record to listen to, and that’s probably an intentional move. The most important things to note about Future Stars And Small Wonders, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of substance here to take hold of, much less to reward a listener’s time and effort.

The promotional material for the record calls it “sound-collage hip-hop meets belligerent poetry for robots in love”, I’m more inclined to call it “difficult to enjoy”.

Check out Bizzart if you’re into Soul Junk and other crazy schizophrenic “sound-collage” music, as this will likely be a profitable listen. Otherwise, you’re better off elsewhere.

Two future stars out of five.

Standout Tracks: Android Heart, Future Girls, Wood Is Whyte.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
June 11th, 2009

…a tsar, falling from the sky

Title: Falling Tsar
Artist: Falling Tsar
Label: Illect Recordings
Length: 10 Tracks / 33:45

Let’s imagine for a minute you’re tasked with throwing together a shortlist of skilled hip-hop artists for a benefit project. What names would you come up with?

A couple years back, a man by the name of Eric Place passed away. He had a dream of naming a musical endeavor “Falling Tsars”. Turns out, shortly after his passing, his 8-year old son Mason came down with bone cancer. Turns out, Eric Place had a shortlist of skilled hip-hop artist friends, and those friends saw fit to do up a project called “Falling Tsar”, all of the proceeds of which will go directly to Place’s son Mason. Talk about moving in excellent circles.

The names of Eric Place’s friends are Tunnel Rats & Deepspace5 pointman Sev Statik, and Scribbling Idiots’ JustMe, Wonder Brown, and Theory Hazit. Call them Falling Tsar.

Life is love, and love is a choice – a voice for Jesus is what we are.
Just know that we promised, in His name to be honest – not perfection, but direction.
(chorus of “What We Are”)

Think of the Falling Tsar project as Scribbling Idiots, minus Cas Metah, and plus Sev Statik. Make an exception for track 2 (“Table of Content”), which features Cas Metah (HA!). For the rap fans, that should give you a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into here. Production is primarily handled by Theory Hazit (who does up six of the project’s ten tracks), with the rest of the production falling into the hands of other Idiots members. What seals the deal is distribution by Illect Recordings, who seem to be making a habit of putting out the freshest music of late.

On second thought, think of the Falling Tsar project as Illect Recordings does:

We feel like God has given us an opportunity to use hip-hop to really make a difference.

First things first, I have to give credit to Eric Plant for coming up with such a sweet name – Falling Tsar. Brings to mind images of Russian monarchs, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, etc. The project’s subject matter is heady enough to rise to the standard set by its name, as the crew moves through such issues as predatorial women (“Medusa”), deception and false love – with shoutouts to Judas and Cain (“Brotherly Love”), and the weight of representing Jesus faithfully (“What We Are”). It would be vain repetition to praise these emcees for their skill at wordplay – Sev, JustMe, Wonder, and Theory all possess the fire and grey-matter-crunching power to flood these tracks with wisdom, cleverness, and skillfull wordplay. Expect nothing less, because that’s what the project is filled with. Best example offhand? That would be “Argue Believe”, which features a complex piano loop that each emcee caters their rhyme scheme and pitch to match.

So yeah. Plan to pick up this record. Expect memorable beats, fine rhymes, punchlines to the face, the Gospel, the freshness, deep bass, crisp hi-hats, and definitely your ten bucks worth. Until you remember it’s a benefit project and all the money just went to a kid with bone cancer. Which makes it worth probably more than ten bucks.

I’ll just be frank: Buy this record. Zero cents from your purchase go to pad the pockets of deserving rap artists, because they’re passing it all on to honour the memory of their friend and give his kid a chance at life.

You know those “buy the album early and get a free (insert random swag and/or threads here)” promotions? Yeah, this one is much better – “buy the album any time and help a kid survive bone cancer”.

Picking up the Falling Tsar project gives you the right to feel like “King For A Day”, right along with track 10.

4 Iron Curtains out of 5.

For More Info: |

Standout Tracks: Table of Content, Medusa, What We Are, Argue Believe, King For A Day.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
May 13th, 2009

…idiots, scribbling rhythms and rhymes

Title: The Have Nots
Artist: Scribbling Idiots
Label: Illect Recordings
Length: 15 Tracks / 55:58

Add Scribbling Idiots to your shortlist of “Supercrews Worth Listening To”, alongside such mainstays as Deepspace5 and the Tunnel Rats.

Their debut, 2008’s The Have Nots on Illect Recordings, is a well-conceived introduction to this posse. Featuring such up-and-coming emcees as JustMe, Wonder Brown, Cas Metah, Mouth Warren, and Theory Hazit as the core of the group – this bunch of “Idiots” brings heaps of talent, imagination, and passion to this record. Others involved, as members of the extended crew, include such folks as MattmaN, MotionPlus, Elias, Ruffian, Kaboose, and Re:Flex. There are also guest appearances by Griffin from the Tunnel Rats, as well as LMNO and Masta Ace.

So what does it sound like? Summarizing the sound of a hip-hop record, especially a quality one, is always a daunting task. The Have Nots features some great instrumentation, and I think the best way to assess it is to talk about some of the common “themes” in the beats. First, plenty of the songs feature really brilliant piano work – seriously. Best of all, with very few exceptions, the loops, piano or otherwise, aren’t just thrown on repeat and walked away from. There’s some great fills, breakdowns, and bridges scattered in the progression of each beat to keep it fresh. The second “theme” to the music, is the presence of soulful, impassioned sung choruses. A lot of the time, you can bank on rap records featuring choruses that number among either the boring or the annoying. Not so on The Have Nots – this stuff gets stuck in your head and you don’t feel guilty for having it there.

Speaking of annoying, the final audio “theme” of the record that must be mentioned is the Idiots’ apparent taste for “Chipmunked” vocal samples – where the sample has been sped up, resulting in the sample sounding like Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers. There’s a few of them on the record, and I’ll be honest – most of them fall flat. There’s at least one exception – the chorus of “Where I’m Going”. Taking that into consideration, I was surprised that Chipmunked vocals can ever sound remotely interesting… after we all grew up and got over Alvin & his buddies. Yet, for the most part, I can’t really “get” why they thought it was a good call. Thankfully, with only a couple of exceptions, these Chipmunked samples don’t really do much damage.

Long story short, the “music” portion of The Have Nots is stellar. Outside of the piano, singing, and Chipmunked stuff, there’s a lot of generous instrumentation slathered on the tracks, which range from some really grimy, grungy sounds to much more poppy, light fare and most places in-between. Expect to hear some good, jazzy acoustic bass (“Publicity Stunt Doubles”), effective harmonica (“Is That You?”), and what seems to be harpsichord (“Residual”), among many others.

So that’s the beats. Let’s talk about the rhymes.

Every emcee in this crew is considered “up-and-coming”. All of them have basically showed up on the scene within the latter part of this decade – at least, showed up enough for a kid from Canada to have heard them on some projects, compilations, and guest spots. Most of them have at least one solo joint out, some a couple more. None have really been around long enough to be considered highly experienced or old-school, per-se. Most likely, the vast majority of those reading this review won’t have heard of any of these guys (except perhaps some of the guests on the record, like Griffin and LMNO).

With that being said, you can’t tell that they’re fresh to the game. Every emcee displays upright skill consistently throughout The Have Nots.

One of my favourite examples is the track “Residual”, in which each verse captures what we might call a ‘moment of clarity and repentance’. I’m not sure if the stories told in the verses are personal or fictional, but they are definitely full of impact. The third verse in particular resonated with me:

My 9 to 5 residual wins with a few more than 40 hours a week
And more responsibility than the power to speak / convicting truth
To your children in the pews, living the proof / of your grace to the sinners and saints
And I give more than I take, plus I bend and I break
And attempt to lift the whole weight of the whole body
Dear Lord, I need some delegates to spot me
I’m on dropped knees,
I know I’ve dropped seeds / in the congregation
So why aren’t they responding?
Don’t they want to follow their calling?
How can they come every Sunday morning and still not desire being godly?

God, I’m crawling, on the verge of falling-
Too distraught as a pastor to be a proper father.
This job robs me of quality time with my personal harvest,
‘Cuz I’m always at the church’s office
Where my neglected wife often calls me
Wondering if I’ll be home late for dinner again
And with all the “I’m sorry, Darlings”,
I know she’s gotta be sick of it.
There’s gotta be a different predicament You can put me in.
But until then, enter in.

Revive with me with love
Your biggest gift.
Drive me with love
Your biggest gift.
(from “Residual”)

The song also features one of the most soulful and stick-in-your-head, worshipful choruses on the disc:

This life that I live every day for the weekend and the payday, maybe
I live my life in the darkness, shine bright and hope that you’re watchin’
‘Cuz I started livin’ the moment I was forgiven,
and I’m living for You in everything I do.

(chorus of “Residual”)

That’s just one example of the care and heart that the Idiots have loaded this record with. The overall tone of the record is positive, or at very least encouraging. Scribbling Idiots don’t shy away from being transparent about who they are, what they’ve been through (good and bad), or who their Boss is.

Yeah, I’m from America
But you can call it the Divided States of Mass Hysteria
And no, I’m not a pastor or a politician,
But rather a genuine Christian on a mission to follow wisdom
And no, I don’t have to ask Oprah where to call to get it
My heavenly Lord is bigger than earth-worms care to give Him credit.
Yeah, that’s the church included
Let’s forget the war and explore the holy water that’s been diluted.
And no, that’s not a metaphor,
Meant to settle scores or divide denominations
I nightly cry to God for patience
To understand this wasteland where I’ve been sanctioned
Yeah, the pacing back and forth is placing pains in my side
But until the day that I die,
I’ll fight to keep this plank out my eye
So focus is daily applied
‘Cuz the final hours are near
Yeah, that’s right
I’m taking firepower out of the choir and back to the battlefield
(from “Where I’m Going”)

From lighthearted reflection (“Start Livin'”) to paying homage to their wives (“Easily A Muse”), the lyrical content in The Have Nots is well-conceived and presented effectively. The best way to summarize my impressions of the Scribbling Idiots’ skills in rhyme is just to say that “if The Have Nots is their debut, we have the makings of a rap dynasty up in this piece”. Sound good?

Here’s the bottom line:

Choruses, soulful. Raps, meaningful. Beats, an “earful”.
Results? Wonderful.

Scribbling Idiots’ debut? Make sure it isn’t something you “Have Not”.

4 Scribbles out of 5.

For More Info: |

Standout Tracks: That’s Life, Where I’m Going, Is That You?, Publicity Stunt Doubles, Residual, Told You So.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
May 7th, 2009

…from the outside

Current Tunage: Deepspace5 – From The Outside
DS5 is definitely on top of their game, the game, and any game you can think of – pure win.

“From The Outside” from Deepspace5.

Yeah, that’s right. New DS5 sounds. Be sure to check “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be” when it drops (whenever that is!).

Got a half-finished post on Hebrews 2&3 due soon. Keep ’em peeled.

…is another man’s treasure

Title: One Man’s Trash
Artist: JustMe
Label: Illect Recordings
Length: 15 Tracks / 54:10

I’m the antithesis of those who want they bling
And flaunt they things, but I ain’t impressed
By ya transportation and your augmented breast.
I’m in a vest, like Safir in Iraq
Packin’ a MAC-10 while under attack.
But I ain’t all that, I’m a snivellin’ brat
A white male in America that likes to rap.
Slap me with your stereotype, I can take it
I’m like a bad actor, man, I can’t fake it.
(from “The Song”)

I thought I had no idea who JustMe was, but a quick spot of research online revealed that not only do I know who he is, I’m also a big fan of his previous work. Allow me to explain. Back in the early days of this decade, when was the hotspot for all internet music goodness and everyone was still using WinAmp, a Christian hip-hop crew called The SolSeekers took their song “Audience of One” to the top of the site’s rap charts. Their song beat out mainstream acts like Slikk the Shocker, Master P, Snoop Dogg, and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest for cumulative listens and downloads for a duration of multiple weeks. The group went on to release a string of great tracks on, an album entitled People Watching in 2000, and appear on Sackcloth Fashion’s somewhat infamous double-compilation record Fashion Expo in 2001. One of the emcees in SolSeekers went by the name Sage.

Sometime around the release of their 2003 EP Halfway There, Sage and The SolSeekers combined forces with another well-known and respected group, Future Shock (who released The Art of Xenos shortly thereafter). For a short time, Sage was even a member of West Coast supercrew the Tunnel Rats. During the mid-2000’s, Sage and his crews were all over the place on compilations and mixtapes, appearing on the records of friends and fellow artists, and just generally making a lot of good noise.

It turns out, sometime in the last few years, Sage changed his name to JustMe, went solo, and helped to start up a new supercrew, Scribbling Idiots. So, confusing as it may be, I’ve shared this brief history lesson for a reason – JustMe isn’t a new face in hip-hop, he’s just a cat with a new name and a new crew, still churning out the rhymes we all recall so fondly from his days as Sage. If you’re skeptical, check out that decade-old SolSeekers track “Audience of One” for a real good time.

Fast forward. I last heard Justme on his combo EP with Sintax.the.Terrific, Merciless, and if you’ve read the review you’ll recall that I was duly impressed with where he’s at in his craft now. His interaction with Sintax on that EP gelled nicely and really helped to make it one of the more memorable rap EP’s in recent memory, both in terms of sound and content. As you can imagine, I was intrigued as to what his solo record One Man’s Trash would offer, as it was released by Illect around the same time in 2006 as Merciless and Sintax’s Curb Appeal.

I just realized that it doesn’t do me any good
to be a mad rapper, you can find those in any hood.
Besides, man, if it were to happen to me,
They could be laughing at me,
I just happen to be
The one that’s rapping for free,
Gettin’ a bachelor’s degree,
I got a family to feed and I’ll be damned if I be
The dad that got selfish and ran with his dream
But man, I’m not helpless; the Lamb’s on my team
And I’m glad that I’ve seen all the madness it brings
When these cats do they thing and the crowds all scream
I can only pray that we planted a seed
Your dreams are only shallow if you quit ‘cuz of greed.
(from “Shallow Dreams”)

With that as background, here are my thoughts on One Man’s Trash. Musically, the whole record has a really jazzy, bluesy, 70’s feel to it. The beats are noteworthy for their generous use of lush horns, strings, keys, and some old synths that sound like they were pulled straight out of an old cop-show theme. There’s also a good, restrained feel to the beats – they haven’t pumped the sound so full of sound that it gets in the way of the raps, and it’s seldom that samples comes off annoying or over-used in their songs. One exception would be the gritty, off-tune warble of the guitar in “Just Playin'” – which is one of the weaker tracks on the album, a brief ditty where JustMe sarcastically beats up on deadbeat gamers that choose their Playstations and Xboxes over family or… well… life. There’s nothing wrong with the concept, or the need to lampoon such folk, but the execution comes off a little weak and the game references waver between too cliche (GTA2, Madden), too old (Pacman), and too obscure (Crash Bandicoot) to really qualify as ‘hardcore deadbeat gamer trash’, even if this record is from 2006.

I wouldn’t cite “Just Playin'” as a stereotypical track from the record, though. There’s actually a lot of meaningful content to be found – some touching, some heavy. The record starts with “The Song”, a great manifesto track that sums JustMe’s approach to rap nicely – something that is, in many ways, also summed up in his assumed name. He’s “just me”, just who he was created to be. This attitude of humility pervades the record, particularly “Latenight Lullaby”, which really brings the Family Man vibe, as JustMe raps to his newborn son – musing on the hard work of his wife, the mysteries of growing up, and the value of relying on God for strength amidst the long sleepless nights. His aforementioned son is sampled for the track, crying during the first verse and progressively calming and happy by the end of the track. Initially this is grating (crying babies tend to be), but once you understand the progression that takes place during the track, it actually adds to the emotional impact of the song considerably to hear the son “responding” to the father’s words and singing. Speaking of singing, One Man’s Trash has great, smooth choruses, usually sung by JustMe himself. If there’s one thing to say about the choruses, it’s that he has a great ear for them – I’ve caught myself with them stuck in my head numerous time. If there’s a dud, it’s “Shallow Dreams” – an otherwise great, chill kind of song that is really only held back by the chorus, which comes across a bit too languid and, perhaps, just below JustMe’s ideal singing range.

Another standout track is “Louder Days”, marked by some beautiful saxophone sampling that really takes it over the top. The second verse really stuck to me:

Life is a series of obstacles, so many resources as your follicles
It’s a jungle out there, but not tropical
And I feel it’s my duty to stop the bull.
There’s no topical solution for these optical illusions
Some packin’ chips, stackin’ grips, losin’
‘Cuz of the lifestyle that they’re choosin’.
Yet they, still swing to knock while I deliver
And while they missing, I stand here and shiver –
Exercising my gift from the Giver,
Instead of despising my ship up the river.
(from “Louder Days”)

JustMe is a talented cat, no doubt. His Southern California pedigree in breaking, producing, and particularly emceeing over the last decade-plus really comes through on One Man’s Trash. The guests he chose to accompany him on the record (fellow Scribbling Idiots like Cas Metah, Mouth Warren, and Theory Hazit, as well as underground mainstays like Pigeon John and newcomer MotionPlus) all come on point and add nicely to the tracks they are featured on. Nowhere is this more clear than on “Just Raps”, which features the entirety of the Future Shock and Scribbling Idiots crews, in all their rap monstrosity – absolutely one of the record’s highlights.

Overall, this is a great hip-hop record – there’s plenty of memorable beats, noteworthy rhymes, and enough cerebral content to keep you ponderin’ long after the record stops. The production is tight, as is arguably the case on all of the records that Illect Recordings has ever pounded out of their camp. If One Man’s Trash has a weakness, it’s that the qualities it possesses don’t always synchronize – as in the earlier example of “Shallow Dreams”, where the otherwise great song is held back by its weak chorus. Of course, this is the area where subjectivity reigns – where I find a beat weak, others really dig. Where I find a chorus to be excellent and praiseworthy, others may find it to be a dud, and so on.

I think the principle remains though – it’s difficult to get your verses, your choruses, and your beats to all come together in a “symphony of awesome”. Sometimes, JustMe succeeds on One Man’s Trash, and that makes it worth the price of admission. For some, they’ll find more trash than treasure, but some of what you’ll find here is undeniably fresh. The record has been out for a couple years now so there’s no way you’d pay more than 10 bucks for it, so my recommendation is to check it.

3.5 treasure chests out of 5.

Trivia: “Low Budget”, which features RUSH, Cas Metah, and MotionPlus, has a great guitar sample that is immediately recognizable from Phonetic Composition’s song “PC Tools” from the classic record of the same name.

Standout Tracks: Favorite Rapper, Low Budget, To The Toppers, Let Go (Dream Sequence), Louder Days, Just Raps.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
April 7th, 2009

…if you got soul

Title: Deepspace5oul
Artist: Beat Rabbi & Deepspace5
Label: Illect Recordings
Length: 22 Tracks / 63:21

Have you ever wanted to time travel? Do you love relevant, conscious, thinking-man’s hip-hop? If you answered “YES!” to both of those questions, Beat Rabbi and Deepspace5 have concocted the perfect cure for your ailments in the form of their late-2007 Illect Recordings release cleverly entitled Deepspace5oul.

Made up of 22 tracks, about 10 of which are interludes (some are short songs, some are instrumental) – the record is jam-packed with more Deepspace5 than you can handle. Recorded during the summer of 2003 prior to their sophomore release Unique, Just Like Everyone Else, Deepspace5oul is a blast from the past equivalent to the manic time-travel episodes of Bill Watterson’s classic serialized comic strip Calvin & Hobbes. The album gives us an unique presentation of the DS5 crew since it is the only release to feature singular production. Where all other DS5 releases have featured production from DJ Dust and Manwell, as well as rappers Fred Bruno, Playdough, and others (highlighting the multi-disciplinary talent of the crew), Beat Rabbi handles all of the beats on this project with only supplementary scratching and the like from others.

Thus, Deepspace5oul is an interesting side-release of the crew that highlights the excellent sounds coming out of Rabbi’s lab as well as sharing some circa-2004 raps from the crew. This is a remarkable listening experience for any fan of the group; the lyrics are excellent as always, and you can really hear by contrast just how much some of the guys’ vocals have improved since then. It’s a study in improvement and change, in that sense.

Musically, Rabbi sends up some of his best work ever on Deepspace5oul, sampling and fusing extensively from sounds such as soul, jazz, funk, and breaks – harking back to that classic (and rightly so) 1990’s rap sound. Sonically, the album traverses a wide landscape of areas – from full horn sections tickling your subconscious (“Deepspace 5oul”) to brilliant vocal tracks forming the backbone of a beat (“Beautiful”) to amazing bassline-driven rhythms (“On A Side Note”), Deepspace5oul is an exercise in production excellence. It’s plain that much time and thought and perfectionism was focused on this project, and the results are quite frankly thrilling.

Lyrically, the DS5 crew brings it as tight as they always have. Hearing new-to-us verses from almost 5 years ago is a very interesting experience, as it not only highlights the great strides of improvement made since (which has already been mentioned), but also just how amazing DS5 was even prior to that forward progress. Most notable is when the difference isn’t really even in the realm of “improvement” but of just plain difference – see The Listener’s verses, which definitely sound much more akin to his more traditional Whispermoon and The Night We Called It A Day style than to his present manifestation as heard and enjoyed on Ozark Empire or Return to Struggleville. Overall, between the shiny verses and the smart choruses, there’s food-for-thought and phonetic wonder here for weeks of repeated listens.

With the recent release of Bake Sale (an EP by DS5 standards at 10 tracks) and Greatest Beats & Unreleased (a b-sides and beat record), both in 2008, as well as 2009’s soon-coming and much-anticipated third album The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be, it’s becoming clearer than ever that Deepspace5 is one of rap’s undisputed supernovas of talent and an incredible machine that churns out hip-hop happiness in a way few other crews could ever hope to come near.

Deepspace5oul is a blast from the past that seems carefully designed from the top down to remind us that Deepspace5 pumps out quality, mind-and-heart-blowing hip-hop not only in the present and future, but the past as well. If you love rap and time-travel, you owe it to yourself to pick this puppy up and let it explore your soul with sound.

5 Souls out of 5.

Standout Tracks: Deepspace 5oul, Beautiful, On A Side Note, Double Dog Dare You, Downtown Connects, Say Yeah.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
January 10, 2009

…because his mercy is ‘merciless’

Title: Merciless EP
Artist: JustMe & Sintax the Terrific
Label: Illect Recordings
Length: 6 Tracks / 19:32

One part playa, one part Puritan,
All parts Prodigal Son sent to return
(Sintax on “Compound Interest”)

In a genre where albums regularly clock in over 15 tracks and at least an hour of playtime, EP’s are fairly scarce – and even more difficult to ingest. Typically you have a boatload of beats and rhymes to ingest with which to assess the artists’ heart and soul and style. To have just a scant six tracks and twenty minutes of playtime to accomplish the same feat is no small order.

This is particularly true when the EP in question features the dynamite duo of JustMe and Sintax the Terrific. Southern California’s JustMe is known for his past work with early 2000’s crew The SolSeekers and for his current run with supercrew Scribbling Idiots. He also has one solo record out (One Man’s Trash) and another on the way. Sintax is best known as being one of the nine mouth-pieces in rap-godzilla-monster posse Deepspace 5 and for his two well-received solo albums, Simple Moves and Curb Appeal. Both emcees are well-known and respected in the Christian “Triple H” (Holy Hip Hop) community. Thus, the combination of the two is timely and more importantly it promises good things.

As expected, good things abound on Merciless. The dynamic of doing a collaborative EP is one that JustMe and Sintax approach in a very fluid and manageable way that comes across as being anything but forced and results in some really remarkable intertexting and crossplay. The best example of this would be the first track, “Saturation Point”, where they each have a distinct overall form of the same beat and the beat morphs back and forth between those two forms (and a multitude of subtle variations) as they take their turns – each one going for about 16 bars at a time. The effect is brilliant and it gives a perfect introduction to the rappers as well as to the EP; it showcases their distinct styles while drawing them together to highlight their united voice. The song’s content itself is equally impressive, essentially capturing a fictional conversation’s dialogue back-and-forth.

This united front proves to be a formidable strength throughout the record, as JustMe and Sintax have never really been ones to shy away from difficult or heady topics. Both prove themselves formidable in terms of deftly weaving meaningful orthodox theology and philosophy of life throughout their verses on Merciless. Topics include life and how to live it, death, the mysteries and wonders of God’s justice and mercy in Christ, and quite a bit more. All of this is remarkable considering they cover this ground in a mere six cuts.

One song in particular which gripped me lyrically was the EP’s fourth, entitled “Death is Real”. The best way to explain why is to share some of the profundity with you directly. First, we hear the beginning of the first verse, from JustMe:

In the words of Paul – “I’m the worst sinner”
Living it up while the starving get thinner
Dinner for the flies, Beginner to the wise,
Even God knows what it’s like to die
Like sight to eye, that fades away
Some sooner than later, can’t wait for the Day…
(JustMe on “Death Is Real”)

Later on in the song, Sintax drops this bomb of a verse. This was pretty much the crown verse of the record in my mind, and really served as a beautiful closer on a beautiful, haunting track. Here it is:

Yo, I’m back from the dead to tell you that it’s for real
Out-of-body born-again-believer appeal
I’m feelin’ eager to peel back the ether intact
You might have read some CS Lewis but you don’t know Jack
The brain’s an artifact, body is a relic
But the soul is where it’s at, in fact the new black velvet
Forget what you know, put your hands to the ceiling
Like I’m so post-modern my feelings have feelings
Living in a fantasy world living fancy
Pearls got us strung out on vanity – Girls,
It’s like insanity’s the rule, peace the exception
So I’m feasting on a diet of gruel and resurrection
Hyperbole the tool to wake you from the daydream
Genius is a fool and real rap is mainstream
Death is rebirth, but I’d have to kill you to prove it
‘Cuz life really starts when you lose it (gotta lose it)
(Sintax on “Death is Real”)

Musically, the beats are all very solid. There’s a lot of variety in the sampling and a lot of depth in the layering of sounds throughout the beats. Production was handled by JustMe himself and I’d venture to argue that he outdid all the beats on his first solo record One Man’s Trash by a fairly wide margin on this EP (which I found a little strange – but I guess we can chalk it up to growing experience as a producer). The beats aren’t tiring or annoying as beats can often be, and they generally pulse with a kind of chill and meditative vibe that can actually really permeate the skull and get caught up in it – or, in other words, they can get stuck in your head. That’s always a good thing where rap beats are concerned.

It began on the wrong side of the tracks:
Lack the art of facts, and lack the art of laughter,
Exactly what I’m after – Not knowing, not showing
The signs of a grand design.
Find a fine rhyme in the silence like a pantomime
And to find letting my actions speak louder,
‘Til factions of doubters
Get crushed into powder (and raised again)
It’s called ‘grace’, my friend!
(JustMe on “Rough Crossing”)

All in all, this is a really fly EP – there’s a lot of great moments and the variety of back-and-forth, verse-and-bar trading that JustMe and Sintax supply throughout the disc gives it a lot of gumption as well as uniqueness. Many lesser joint EP’s just have emcees trading off verses and maybe singing the chorus together, so it was great to see some new variations on old ideas.

Bottom line, it left me wanting more – maybe a lot of it. This is a testament to the quality and ability of these emcees, as well as to their ability to give hearers a unified conversation-slash-monologue to take part in and/or be in awe of. Both emcees bring their ‘A’ game, and this means that Merciless isn’t your usual second-rate afterthought EP, but instead an example of two artists coming together with one purpose and one vision to share one message in an impactful manner. It’s everything a rap EP should be.

Here’s a closing thought, on the topic of the mysterious co-existence of Justice/Wrath and Grace/Mercy as attributes of God in Christ, given from His perspective:

Every last breath makes reality true,
I’m unabashed in the way I feel love for you
‘Cuz I dashed everything to make your soul renew
I was merciless the way I showed mercy to you
(Sintax on “Merciless”)

JustMe and Sintax the Terrific are merciless in the best imaginable way on Merciless. Cop it.

4 mercies out of 5.

Standout Tracks: Saturation Point, Compound Interest, Death Is Real, Merciless.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
November 14, 2008

…appealing to the curb and the noggin’

Title: Curb Appeal
Artist: Sintax.the.Terrific
Label: Illect Recordings
Length: 18 Tracks / 69:37

You choose to use the broken and abused soft-spoken misfit to open your good news.
(from “Broke Toys (An Anti-Intro)”)

Curb Appeal is the sophomore outing by founding Deepspace5 member Sintax the Terrific, who when not rapping is known as Ryan Seacrest. Prior to this recording he could be found spittin’ rhymes on Deepspace5’s The Night We Called It A Day (2001, Uprok Records) and Unique, Just Like Everyone Else (2005, Gotee Records) as well as his debut record Simple Moves (2004, Illect Recordings) and a bevy of guest spots on conscious hip-hop records. Before all of that, he got his start in the late 90’s with underground crew The Pride. My first encounter with Sintax was on Mars Ill’s 2001 epic Raw Material where he had a couple guest spots.

With few if any exceptions, his stuff is always well-received for its honesty, wit, and unashamed proclamation of spiritual truth – be it troubling and convicting or just lighthearted and touching. Sintax has a way with words, and a noticeable love for life, hip-hop culture, and most of all Christ. All of these things come through loud and clear on Curb Appeal – there’s just so many incredible and well-worded thoughts permeating this disc that it’s all but impossible to do it justice unless I quote from it pretty extensively:

I’m the Ryan Seacrest of this rap game, no shame
In my dep gel, making pop idols look lame
Bring revival, not fame – I’m Billy Graham plus Busta
Rhymes, spit theology in double time structure
Sike! I hate double time, I only spit traditional
Boom bap, KRS-One type material
(from “Moonlighting)

Sintax has a way of weaving insight and challenge throughout his lyrics that I find particularly impactful. One of the closing tracks on Curb Appeal is called “Make Believe” and the first time I listened through it closely, I was in tears. Here’s the chorus as a sample:

You make me believe it’s not make believe
Fill in all the gaps that I can’t conceive
Break a skeptic down to his basic need
To put a finger in the wrist where salvation bleeds
You make me believe it’s not make believe
I’m breath taken by your sacred mysteries
Take me to the root of that ancient tree
Where knowledge is the fruit that only faith can see
(from “Make Believe”)

All throughout the song, the interplay between the idiom “make believe” and the injunctive idea of being made to believe goes back and forth, to the point where Sintax has encapsulated an often complicated spiritual concept – the idea of faith – in an easy to remember and repeat statement. Namely, the re-casting of the idiom “make believe”. It’s brilliant, and I hope it serves as a clue as to what kind of calibre of rapper we’re dealing with on Curb Appeal.

Sintax is a father, a husband, and an all-around normal guy who loves Jesus Christ. He’s also a bona-fide premium rap-artist wordsmith who can tangle flows with the best of them. He keeps the heavy and yet very accessable content of the album from becoming dark or overbearing by putting his eldest son Jackson (who’s about 2.5 years old) to extremely touching use. Jackson appears a few times on the album, in one place he’s recording himself trying to sound cool like his dad (“Yo”) and thus delightfully trying to rap and beatbox. In another spot, he introduces the Christmas-tinged song “Immanuel” by attempting to sing the old classic carol “Hark The Harold Angels Sing”. It’s a poignant moment designed to ease the listener into the right frame of mind before the song beats them over the head with the wonder and glory of the thought that the Creator God would humble Himself to come as an infant and ultimately as the Savior. Here’s one particularly brilliant moment in the song:

Oh! Bethlehem, your sky was so thin
Didn’t even try to hide the Hope within
Heavens open wide to let the oceans swim
“Peace on Earth” spoke the Golden Rim
of angels found a few of life’s broken men
To show the rest of us how to behold a gem
Go and tell the Word that’s now life and limb
That Immanuel will grow to throw the yoke of sin
Hope can’t choke the well of grace we’re soaking in
Nor provoke the Son of Man to turn stone bread-thin
(from “Immanuel”)

Musically, the album is what I like to call a “slow burner”. It grows on you. Some beats will grab you right away, while others will take repeated listens and maybe even a month or two. Trust me though, they’re all keepers. The sound runs a gamut from laid-back (“Hurricane Crush”, “Soul Weep”) to the very intentionally boom-bap (“Falcon Plume”, “Showstopper”) and most places in-between. There’s a lot of horns, guitars, and minimalist synths. It’s not a very complex sound, but the choice to take that direction seems intentional, and it serves to accentuate the lyrical content quite well. A couple of the beats made me drop my jaw a bit (“Soul Weep”, and “Moonlighting”), but for the most part they take a pleasant backseat and avoid getting in the way (something that both incredible and awful beats can do). All in all, the record has a cohesive sound despite a handful of producers, likely due to the pedigree involved; Production was handled primarily by DJ Ryval and Sivion, with Fred B, Playdough, JustMe, Beat Rabbi, and Kurfu contributing as well.

I write the raps that make kids dream in colors
Where whites and blacks are brothers from different baby mothers
I write the raps that make people better lovers
Not between the sheets, but with the God that they discover
I write raps cuz a Terminator X scratch
Made my heart skip a beat my breath couldn’t catch
I write raps cuz I love to hear the snare snap
To let the bass drum know exactly where the fun’s at
Plus writing raps is safer than gun clap
I’d rather talk smack than trade shots you can’t retract
And that’s a fact, rap is better than flowers
To shower you with sun spun from the night the light devours
I write for hours so that you can really know me
Every word I write is like a long lost friend who left me lonely
Christ the only path to righteousness before me
I write raps to tell His story
(from “Showstopper)

If I had to level criticisms against Curb Appeal, the first and most natural thing to say is that it’s way too short. Unfortunately for me, it’s 18 tracks long, only two of which are “filler”. In other words, it’s already plenty long, and clocks in over an hour. I just want more Sintax – so I ordered his first record. It hasn’t arrived yet.

If it wasn’t clear by now, I love Curb Appeal. It’s full of groove and poignance, full of heart and meditation, and best of all… full of challenges. It’s full of Sintax taking every ounce of himself and recording it in the hope that those who listen would come to know Christ or to follow Him more closely.

Curb Appeal is something I worship to, something I think to, something I live to.

Curb Appeal deserves your attention. A very worthwhile (terrific?) sophomore effort from Deepspace5’s Sintax The Terrific.

As a way of closing, I’ll share the album’s inscription, taken from the Biblical book of Amos:

Take away from Me the noise of your songs,
for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments.
But let justice run down like water,
and righteousness like a mighty stream.
(Amos 5:23-24)

Curb Appeal reveals that Sintax has his priorities straight, and the music to back it up.

Five Deep-spaces out of Five. (YES!)

Standout Tracks: Hurricane Crush, Immanuel, Moonlighting, Soul Weep, Make Believe.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
October 22, 2008