Rock the Bells Returns to Miami with a Fresh Crop, Including the Cool Kids, Dead Prez, Santogold, and Wale
Last year marked the inaugural local installment of the traveling hip-hop extravaganza known as Rock the Bells. Breathing some much-needed golden-age and conscious-type air into Miami's bling-ridden environs, the lineup featured everyone from Jedi Mind Tricks to Mos Def and Talib Kweli to Nas to a recently reunited Wu-Tang Clan.
This Saturday, Rock the Bells returns, with a similarly star-studded cast. The big-deal reunions this time around are A Tribe Called Quest and The Pharcyde, the latter's billing specifically promising all of the collective's members. Among the other big names: Nas returns, as does Mos Def, and a few members of Wu-Tang — Method Man, who performs this time with frequent stony cohort Redman, plus Ghostface and Raekwon, also as a duo. De La Soul and Immortal Technique, too, make rare Miami appearances. But the latest addition to the package is a number of leaders from the new pack of cross-genre sensations. Here's our guide to a few of our favorites, as well as an established duo making a new start: Dead Prez.
The Cool Kids
"We're a product of the Eighties and proud of it! That whole fashion, music, gadgets — all that is getting a fresh look right now; 20 years later, we're re-appreciating that shit," says Evan Ingersoll, better known as Chuck Inglish, half of the hottest hip(ster)-hop group out right now. Appropriately calling themselves the Cool Kids, Chuck and MC partner Antoine Reed, a.k.a. Mikey Rock, have been making a steady climb into the mainstream.
You might have caught them performing in some dude's living room with that catchy pop singer Sara Bareilles for that Rhapsody commercial, or maybe saw them briefly during a cameo appearance on HBO's hit show Entourage. Or maybe you read the Rolling Stone article naming them one of the Top 10 Artists to Watch in 2008. Or maybe you saw them in any damn music publication/blog out there. Yes, the Cool Kids are cooler than you know, even if Chuck doesn't think so. "We're nerds," he laughs. "I stare at my computer all day and make beats."
One thing is for certain: The Cool Kids' beats are simply sick, stripped-down, and minimal, with a respect for the 808 drum machine via the sounds of Eric B. When played at high volumes, they sound like mini tremors that can easily vibrate floors and shake car hoods — test it out with the duo's latest EP, The Bake Sale, released in June. Says Chuck: "We always say that you know if you got a hit when you play it in your car and people just stop what they're doing and ask, 'Where's that music coming from?'" (EP)
"It's bigger than hip-hop, hip-hop, hip-hop...." Dead Prez's now-classic line has become an unofficial slogan for rebel rockers and disc jockers. Even the intro hook of the song in which it appears, "Hip-Hop," with its thunderous melodic bass line, has become an essential soundtrack for any over-the-top performer's entrance onto a stage. The lead single off the duo's 2000 debut album, Let's Get Free, it became one of the most unlikely Top 40 hits of the new millennium.
Comprising freedom fighters stic.man and M-1, Dead Prez released its initial salvo unexpectedly, before 9/11 and the worst Bush-isms, at a time of calmness and contentment. In stark contrast, their music spoke of revolution and of the empowerment of ghetto youths worldwide. They styled themselves as modern-day Malcolm Xs disguised under gunshot beats and heavy politically themed verses. With lyrics such as "The White House is the Crack House" and "Fuck the Bible/Get on your knees and praise my rifle," there was, and still is, no middle-ground reaction to Dead Prez. The music will either inspire you to throw a Molotov cocktail through a Starbucks window, or make you hide in terror. In short, the two are adored by many but feared by most.
Eight years after the initial volley, with two major-label releases under their belts (plus both members coming out with solo LPs), Dead Prez is back and ready to tackle the trials and tribulations of the advancing decade. Their third album, Information Age, is set to drop in November, just in time for the presidential elections. Asked if DP has an Obama endorsement up its sleeve, stic.man quickly replies, "People who listen to our music damn well know that answer." In another words, no.
Stic.man does predict Obama will win a landslide victory. But he's simply not buying this idea of change being sold to the public. "We can look at our history and see the facts. Folks thought as long as we got black police or a black mayor or a black judge, things would be different because we'd be represented, but eventually they just become part of the system. We need to change the system entirely!" he says. "The revolution doesn't happen overnight. It's a continual process of educating ourselves and others. That's what Dead Prez is all about — educating people to reach a new level of consciousness.... That's real change!" (EP)
By now the buzz on Santi White, the 32-year-old Brooklyn singer making her debut as Santogold, has grown deafening. Her resumé gets particular play among the four-star accolades: She held an A&R gig at Epic, sang anonymously amid Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse on producer Mark Ronson's album Version, and received writer's cred on the new Ashlee Simpson record.
Amid all the name-dropping, critics have also touted Santogold as the next M.I.A. But Santogold's less obvious (but more resonant) precursor is the gold-fixated, genre-omnivorous Gwen Stefani. They share roots in pop-punk, with Santogold's recording career kicking off in the band Stiffed. Onstage, these women command uniformed entourages; Santogold arrives flanked by two female dancers dressed like recruits from Public Enemy's Security of the First World, looking ready to mow down Gwen's own rank of Harajuku Girls. Both also surround themselves with high-profile producers. But while Stefani can bankroll the likes of Dr. Dre and the Neptunes, Santogold opts for the priceless cachet provided by Philly cheese mashup DJ Diplo, the UK's Switch, and the late Disco D (the producer's sludgy, dubbed-out "Shove It" hints at his upper-echelon potential — if only he hadn't taken his own life last year).
The flashy newcomer and the chart-topping vet have another parallel in the eclectic styles informing their debuts. On Love.Angel.Music.Baby., Stefani switched from bubblegum pop to cheerleader stomp; Santogold is similarly pliant on her self-titled disc, moving from New Wave to indie rock to booming dancehall. No Doubt's next-wave ska even sneaks into Santogold, which is grounded on the bounce and jerk of 2-Tone, slinky rocksteady, and all things Jamaican. Songs such as the up-tempo "You'll Find a Way" and "Say Aha" buoy her muscular rasp and throaty squeak, sounding at once sleek, choppy, rocking, and frenetic.
But Santogold digs deeper than Stefani through her wholehearted embrace of dancehall and its twitchy hybrids, effortlessly floating atop its titanic bass tones. Diplo and Switch recently worked in Jamaica with top-tier toasters including Elephant Man and Ms. Thing, so their métiers run deep in the form, particularly on a swampy track such as Santogold's "Unstoppable." The equally fierce "Creator" mixes thundering bass drops, robotic pongs, skipping-CD vocal tics, and high squelches, with Santogold sounding closest to the machine-gun clip diction of M.I.A. as she meditates on conceiving music: "Me, I'm a creator/Thrill is to make it up/The rules I break got me a place/Up on the radar."
She's similarly acute on opening track "L.E.S. Artistes." Railing at the absurd social posturing that entangles New York's Lower East Side against a backdrop of clocking snares and pinging guitar lines, Santogold sneers and stands tall. As the chorus builds to an incandescent release, she realizes "it will be worth what I give up/If I could stand up mean for all the things that I believe." From atop such a pop peak, Santogold roars, too empowered to remain just another hollaback girl. (AB)
Wale might seem like the kind of rapper only a blogger could love, but music industry titan Jimmy Iovine is betting he can move units to the masses. Wale's recent signing with Iovine's Interscope Records has been the culmination of a startlingly rapid ascent for the Washington, D.C. rapper, who, after catching the ear of DJ and producer Mark Ronson, released a pair of compulsive, pop-culture-referencing mixtapes. Last year's 100 Miles and Running and the recent The Mixtape About Nothing have outlined his style — rapidly spit rhymes that mention his favorite TV shows, his love for his hometown, and lots of silly jokes.
"My mind is set on one thing /Bringing that Grammy back to D.C.," he says at the beginning of "DC Gorillaz." "I'm gonna have a Grammy around my neck/Like, fuck it, I'm going to tie it on a shoestring and put it around my neck/Walk around with no T-shirt on, and flip-flops and camo shorts."
His blogosphere reception has been nothing short of rapturous, at least partly because he raps over beats culled from popular indie artists such as Justice and Lily Allen. And he seems to be aware of this appeal, having told Entertainment Weekly's blog last year: "Lily + Ronson + Wale = blogger's wet dream."
"I feel like bloggers are just a representation of people," he says, speaking from L.A., where he's working on his debut album, due out early next year. "It's more representative of the average person than television."
He lists Bloc Party and Kaiser Chiefs among his other indie rock favorites, and also name-drops folks such as Jay-Z, Black Thought from the Roots, and UGK's Bun B, all of whom regularly give him advice.
Wale is attempting to break new ground by merging radio-friendly jams with a hipster's sensibility. While The Mixtape About Nothing is ostensibly about his Seinfeld obsession — Julia Louis-Dreyfus even gives him a shout-out on it — its underlying message concerns the inanity of most mainstream rap. "Most people like stuff that's not really about anything," he says of snap music fans and the like. "I'm trying to poke fun — trying to throw them off a little."
It sounds like a bit of a tightrope act, attempting to appeal to a wide audience while simultaneously making fun of it. But even if Wale falls, he will be fun to watch. (BW)
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