Friday, September 21, 2007

Sankofa - "The Tortoise Hustle"

Sankofa "The Tortoise Hustle"
(reposted from

Stephen "Sankofa" Brydon does not have a typical hip hop pedigree. He was born in Australia, spent some time in Minnesota and L.A., and wandered around on the Appalachian trail before settling in Fort Wayne, Indiana. That's a long way from Queensbridge. His nom-du-rap refers to a symbol from the Cote d'Ivoire of a bird looking backwards, which means "looking backwards to move forwards." It's a fitting name for the rapper, since he has one foot in the old school, and one foot in the future. "The Tortoise Hustle" is his latest album, coming on the heels of several underground albums and singles.

Sankofa has a deep, commanding delivery in the same vein as Brother Ali. He comes out with both guns blazing on album opener "The Bottom Line," a harsh indictment of the record industry. Over an old-school funk beat, Sankofa booms:

"You don’t exist to make music, you live to make a profit
Selling your advertising space but I know it’s never thought of
I wish you best of luck in all your demographic research
But when you follow the trends you’ll end up leaving feet first
Who are the people making money at radio stations?
It's not the disc jockeys, the ones who live shoddy
It’s the people selling all the advertising slots
The fraternizing jocks with their status climbing flock
Who have got expense accounts in dense amounts
Mileage from driving the cars that are stylish
Benefits, got to have the pearly white gates gleam
Backroom deals are done dirty and they stay clean
Hedging bets putting chick’s drinks on my tab
Write it off to corporate slush funds, thinking to stab
Blink and it’s grabbed, another ass another day passes
Thankful I’m a shark in a world content to stay passive
My reign’s acid it isn't about to cease quick
So spin another clone trying to rap when the beat kicks
You're not a listener, your just a customer
And that's the bottom line"

In my mind, there are three things you need to make a successful hip hop song: you have to have something to say, you have to say it in a clever way, and you have to have a fat beat. Sankofa nails all three on "The Bottom Line," and on most of the tracks on "The Tortoise Hustle." He's dropping an important message, and does it with a lot of skill and style. The production, handled by El Keter, sounds like classic James Brown, and may even be live instruments (there is a picture of Sankofa performing with a band in the insert). There are several other tracks on "The Tortoise Hustle" that have a similar funk sound. The album is rounded out by some mellower, more introspective tracks like "They All Die, which is about religious wars, and the title song, which has a piano loop and handclap beat, and sees Sankofa exploring life as an underground and underpaid rapper. "The Tortoise Hustle" also shows that Sankofa is a little older and wiser than some of the young bucks out there:

"Cause they’re prone to say things which I don’t believe
And I’m known to say things that they won’t repeat
So I guess we’re even in a childish kind of way
Both deaf with conviction-listen"

Sankofa is almost completely free of the fronting and posturing that is synonymous with hip hop. He lays himself out as a struggling rapper who loves his wife and his music, and hates haters and the industry. He isn't even getting his grind on-this album was recorded over a year while he was planning his wedding, and is being released as 250 numbered tins (and also digitally on itunes). Clearly, going platinum is not high on Sankofa's priorities. He also tackles subject matter that most rappers don't deal with, like when he takes on America's obsession with underage starlets on "Shiny":

"It’s the cyclical nature making the sick smarter
Who cares about Alicia Silverstone when puberty hit harder?
A nixed artist, varnished, underaged vargas,
Wispy Disney starlet, risky business with a prissy little smarm
it’s harmless
fun and games, child’s play with grown up customers
Trusted perks and thus disgust is blurred, you must’ve heard
The Olsen twins, talking about centerfolds and such
When they’re old enough, barely legal, evil rolling up
Who sold the smut, the same who profit, you got it
And you wonder how some young girls get neurotic
Vomit on the toilet seat, Hubba Bubba mixed with bile
And the best word to apply is denial
It’s the latest style, fashion, fad and must have
Keeping up with the joneses, eyeliner like a musk rat
And all the good news, I wouldn’t trust that
You wonder what she did when she cut class, just ask"

That's a long way from rapping about having hoes in different area codes. I appreciated Sankofa's thoughtful take on hip hop and issues around it, although the combination of his lyrics and his commanding tone meant that at times I felt like I was listening to my dad lecture me. Thankfully, Sankofa manages to mix it up enough so that the album never feels too didactic or preachy. And when he is on, he is ON. My favorite track is "The Zoom Zip", a funky, uptempo that Sankofa absolutely kills, dropping lines like:

"Act a jerk, you're getting smacked for sure
It's El Keter in the back with a track, superb
and Sankofa with a rap to learn, clap your hands.
Taking it way back to Dapper Dan.

You might find something worth a listen right here
right now, but if you don't try, you'll never find out.
Lie down, taking a load off. making your woes stop.
Oakland to Beantown-A's to the Bosox
Flow locked? No question I'm testing most thought.
Perfection is destined, I'm ready to go off at any given moment
The frozen are arisen with a dose of focus
Delivering the opus, spitting a cyclone
I shiver the light bones and didn’t invite clones
Lip-zip it and fly home, kid it is sick
Minimum I wrote, envision the bliss
With a telescope attached to the dopest rap
Don’t need a skeleton, cause Vogue is wack
Proceed to scatter facts in the mode of fat
Slow speaking data cats grin and grow, with that"

On "The Zoom Zip", as on most of "The Tortoise Hustle," Sankofa is on fire, attacking the mic with a stellar flow and amazing lyrics. His combination of lyrics, delivery, and beats makes this one of the better rap albums of the year, and certainly a disc worth some attention. I've been listening to this album as Curtis and Kanye have been having their public pissing match, and it made me realize that as long as the underground is producing work as funky, innovative, and intelligent as "The Tortoise Hustle," I have no problem with both Curtis AND Kanye retiring.


Kool Keith "Sex Style" Funky Ass Records, 1997
As reviewed by Patrick Taylor (reposted from

Keith Thornton, aka Kool Keith, likes sex. A lot. On his Dr. Octagon project, he interspersed porn film dialogue and gynecology references into his rap persona, and it was freaky but still funny. On his 1997 album"Sex Style", the gloves came off, and he indulged full-throttle in his obsession.

The album cover has Keith wearing a tank top, Kangol, cowboy boots and no pants. He's posing with a model who was most likely found in the back of SF Weekly. There's a car in the background, a motel sign, and that's about it. It has the same cheap and sleazy feel as low-budget porn, and is a good indication of the music inside. The album starts off with an intro, and then the title track, an ominous-sounding song with an even more ominous chorus:

"Sex Style!
Niggas want it free
Their dogs drink my piss"

And right about there is where listeners start to get a little disturbed. Sure, we like porn, who doesn’t'? But dogs drinking piss? That's a little beyond what we signed up for. And it gets weirder and grosser from there. While your average East Coast rapper would use the menacing beat to drop rhymes about life on the streets, Keith goes in a completely different direction:

"You want freestlye, that's right, the style is free
Niggas suck my dick and they girls drink my pee
I'm on some S&M shit you can't get with
Pull your panties down on stage and watch you sweat quick
Suckers back to pull their style's transsexual
Lesbians dance with the funky heterosexual
You on the mic, and when you rhyme I start to jerk off
Let my dog lick you German Shepard want to bust off
I tell your legs and swat em, MC's having anal sex
Step around like a Tampax, and step up next
I enter New York, no problem with my dick out
California porno star, my ass you can lick out
Saying "What?" with sperm dripping down your partner's butt
I see MC's in my face with their ass up
Let me put my cape on, my rubber and my mask up
Not no horror-core shit, this is porno-core
I'm in the club naked man, I'm the fucking pro
Niggas can't wax no ass, girls should let them know"

If there is one adjective that could describe this album, it's "uncomfortable". It's like hanging out with a friend who starts to share a little too much about his perversions. It's like finding yourself at the Clermont in Atlanta watching over-the-hill strippers pay for their songs AND drinks. "Sex Style" marks the area where a healthy enjoyment of sexuality turns into something much darker and potentially damaging. The rumors around this album are that Keith blew all the money Dreamworks had given him to record a follow up to Dr. Octagon on strippers and porn, and "Sex Style" was the result. I don't know if that is true, but on songs like "Don't Crush It" and "Sly We Fly" Keith sounds as strung out on sex as Rumors-era Fleetwood Mac were on cocaine.

Whatever his mental state, Keith still manages to deliver the crazy/clever lines that he is famous for, like "shooting jism/she ride like a Geo Prism." His freakiness and trips to Belvue aside, Keith is a stellar rapper, and has a unique ability to twist language and spit verses that may not always rhyme, but always work. He has amassed a cult following not just because he says a lot of crazy shit, but because he says it in a way that few MCs can match.

A perfect example is on the dis track "Keep It Real…Represent." On the surface it is your standard homophobic track, in which an MC disses his opponents by accusing them of being gay. However, Keith gives it a freaky twist, by accusing his rivals of not just being gay, but being transsexuals:

"I heard you quit rap, your wife went back to porno flicks
You turned drag queen, a call girl doing tricks
Nighttime prostitute kid, I'ma take your loot
I heard you queer now like Boy George, blowing flutes
With high heels, you stole your mom's birth control pills
You on some new stuff, I heard about that sex change
You got a vagina, your grandmother think it's strange
New eyeliner, you was flirting with a gay designer
Your girl felt mines, and pulled off her Calvin Kleins
I saw Tampax, gonorrhea red stop signs
I looked at her and said, "Mmm.. put your panties back on"
then jerked off to Foxy Brown, when her verse was on
I wanna stand back and bust nuts at your butts
Your girl is cocked up, with lollipops, doggie style
I feel I'm dealin with plastic, watch these fake smiles
Yeah, meet my left and my right"

The chorus is a classic Kool Keith one-liner: "Keep it real.. represent what? My nuts!"
The whole track is so wrong, so gross, and so vivid that you can't help but appreciate it.

"Sex Style" was recorded in San Francisco by Dr. Octagon collaborator Dan the Automator, with Kutmaster Kurt handling all production. Kurt manages some dope beats, sampling Star Trek sound effects on "Sly We Fly", and delivering some bounce on "Make Up Your Mind". For the most part, the songs have the sparse, boom-bap sound that Kurt is famous for. This works for some of the songs, but by the midpoint, the songs start to sound the same, and there just isn't enough variety to carry all sixteen tracks. The monotonous production and creepy sexuality make "Sex Style" difficult to listen to in its entirety. If you do make it through the whole thing, you may find yourself needing a shower.

That doesn’t mean that it isn't a great album. "Sex Style" has it's own, perverted charm. He remains one of the more unique voices in hip hop. One of the things I like about him, and that is really evident in this album, is the fact that he is nobody's fool. He marches to his own drummer, and if you don't like it, he doesn't give a shit. It would have made sense for him to try to appeal to the white hipsters that gobbled up the Dr. Octagon album. Instead, Keith made an album that was too freaky for the hipster audience, too weird for the more mainstream hip hop audience, and too dirty to get any radio play. "Sex Style" is proof that Kool Keith is both an amazing rapper and a superfreak. Now when are he and R. Kelly going to do a collabo?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Mac and AK/Money Mont

These reviews are both on Both artists are from East Palo Alto, an area I've heard a lot about (in that it is scary and crime-ridden), but never been to.

Mac and A.K. "Legendary" E & K Music
originally posted on

If you want a job done right, do it yourself. Just ask East Palo Alto rappers Mac and A.K. The twin brothers made a splash in 1996 with their debut EP, "Westbound (For Riders Only)." They were briefly signed to Tommy Boy, but soon realized that they were better off on their own, and have released two albums on their own label, E & K Music. "Legendary" is their third release, and not only is it on their label, but label co-owner Mac P handles production on all twenty tracks.

The result is an album that is much more cohesive than your average rap record full of tracks cobbled together from ten different producers. Mac P uses a mixture of keys, drum machines, and live instruments to create solid West Coast funk of the same pedigree as E-40's early work or Dr. Dre's later material. The production sounds slicker and smoother than on Mac and A.K.'s previous albums, and has none of the amateurish quality that often plagues self-released music. Mac and A.K. are experienced players who have been around for a while, and it shows in their confident, laid back beats and their equally confident, laid back rhymes. They spit lines effortlessly, as if they didn't even need to think about it. "Grindin'" exemplifies their style:

"I'm from a small town where they grind it out
If you a hustler ain't hard for you to find it out
On the block all day til the lights is out
Hit the studio and tell you what the life's about
We go hard or go home
Hungry grimey out the trunks
But fuck labels trying to sign us cuz Mac the boss
Known throughout the state
As a grimey go getter out the Golden Gate
AKA the Yay, boy, EPA's finest
We don't need no niggas to cosign us"

"Since I'm a g I'm gonna lean on back
The whole team on the stacks
With bowling ball green on the 'llacs
I bet you never seen more stacks
Cuz when I be on tracks you can call me the king of rap
These other dudes must be on crack
Saying the Bay is dead
You niggas need to ease on back"

The boys aren't going to win any awards for originality, and they aren't going to steal any sales from Talib Kweli or Common. Mac and A.K.'s idea of enlightenment is drinking Belvedere. They stick to the tried and true hip hop cliches of money, women, partying, and capping haters. Titles like "Git Money", "On My Grind", "Grind Time", "Chedda Chasin", and "We Got Swagger" give you a good idea about where they are coming from. They round out the disc with a few party starters ("Make It Hot", "Do That"), a few warnings to haters ("You Ain't Heard", "You Don't Want It"), and the obligatory regional shout outs ("East Meets West", "California", "Where U From").

Much to their credit, the twins don't jump on the hyphy bandwagon, and avoid the bugged out, high-energy sound that is all over the Bay Area. Instead, they look to the roots of NorCal hip hop, and their sound is firmly rooted in the mobb music tradition. Think Messy Marv rather than Mistah F.A.B. I admire hyphy, and the movement has produced some great singles, but I much prefer the menacing funk of "Legendary" to the MDMA-and-Redbull spazz that epitomizes hyphy.

Despite the shallow subject matter, I couldn't help but enjoy "Legendary". The boys do their thing well, and don't pretend to be something they are not. This may not be the most spiritually fulfilling record ever made, but it's a hell of a good time. There are thousands of artists who do this same kind of DIY street rap, but not that many who do it as well as Mac and A.K.

Money Mont "My Life, My Struggle, My Hustle", E & K Records
Reviewed by Patrick Taylor

The only thing worse than growing up in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood is growing up in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood that is in one of the wealthiest areas of the country. Watching the wealthy frolic just down the block while you and your friends and family struggle to survive is its own kind of hell. Money Mont is from East Palo Alto, which had the unenviable distinction of being the murder capital of the U.S. in the early 90s. EPA is a tiny enclave of poverty amidst the excessive wealth of Silicon Valley. 16% of the residents live below the poverty line, the average family income is $45,000, and the average per capita income is $13,000. Compare that to Palo Alto, which is just down the street, home of Stanford University and Hewlitt-Packard, and has a family income of $117,000, a per capita income of $56,000, and about 3% of the population living below the poverty line. That ain't right.

Money Mont, aka Mr. Fetti, has documented the struggles and joys of growing up in the EPA on his debut disc, "My Life, My Struggle, My Hustle". He got his start on Mac and A.K.s debut EP in 1996, and has been featured on songs by local artists for the past ten years. He is clearly a product of the Yay Area: His flow has the same bizarro quality as E-40's, and his production draws from both the g-funk of mobb music and high energy of hyphy.

The production is good throughout the disc. Money Mont uses a slew of local producers like Mac P, Sean T, King Cydal, and Tatum1. Most of the beats are constructed around keys, drums machines, and live instruments, all the better to avoid licensing and legal issues. They manage to mix it up with some cutting and scratching, which adds a welcome old school element. One of my favorite tracks was Blak Muke's "Fresh", which samples a lot of golden age hip hop. "I Been Hustlin" is another great track, which uses the ubiquitous sped up soul sample and strings to create the right tone for Money Mark's introspective lyrics about growing up and getting by.

While I am not a huge fan of the whole hustler motif, Money Mont pulls it off here. Sure, he does a lot of bragging about pimping, making money, having jewelry, and getting with the ladies. However, he manages to instill some honesty and vulnerability into his rhymes, so that you buy into it. He also manages to make hustling seem like an act of rebellion, a big "fuck you" to all of the rich people in the Bay Area who couldn’t give a shit about the people who have been left out of the internet and biotech bonanza. This sets Money Mont apart from a lot of the street rappers who seem to be reading from a script, spewing the same tired cliches because they think that's what hip hop is. He even nails the "sensitive thug" song without coming off as cheesy or hypocritical. On "I'm Blessed" he raps:

"I play the cards I was dealt in the small town cemetery
I was raised in a place where everything wasn't all gravy
Where in the blink of an eye, you can lose your life
When them shots were fired, I should have lost my life
But by the grace of God, I'm here to testify
Yeah, I got hit, but He didn't let me die
Laying on my side, looking at the sky
Didn't say it out loud, but I’m asking why
Was it the dirt I did now back to get me?
They say life is a cycle, everything 360
Don't want no pity, just a chance to live"

That verse might come off to some as a blatant attempt to cash in on 50 Cent's property, but I bought it. He also gives numerous shout-outs to his wife, which is unfortunately pretty rare in hip hop. By presenting a more respectable and sensitive side of himself, Money Mont adds a layer of complexity to his persona that a lot of rappers ignore in their quest to be the hardest, richest, biggest pimp on the block.

I would have enjoyed Money Mont's lyrics even more if I could have understood everything he was saying. Between his garbled, rapid delivery and heavy use of obscure Bay Area slang, Money Mont is not the easiest rapper to comprehend. The slang is fine, and will no doubt enter the popular lexicon (by way of a Southern rapper) in a few years. What Money Mont needs to work on is breath control and delivery. He deserves to be heard, and he should make sure that listeners can understand what he's spitting. "My Life, My Struggle, My Hustle" is a good album by a rapper who deserves some attention.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Public Enemy #1

On September 25, Congress is holding a hearing into media stereotypes and degredation of women titled "From Imus to Industry: The Business of Stereotypes and Degredation". The hearing is being organized by (African-American) representative Bobby Rush of Illinois, who is also head of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection. The goal is "To engage not just the music industry but the entertainment industry at large to be part of the solution". Witnesses will include bigwigs from Universal, Viacom, and Warner Music, as well as representatives from African American women's groups. the only artist confirmed at this point is Master P, who made a shitload of paper in the 90s doing gangsta rap, but has recently switched to more positive messages. the fact that his sales had flatlined probably had some influence on his decision to switch tactics.

We are spending billions of dollars a week on an unpopular, unsuccessful, and illegal war. The middle class is getting squeezed out of existence, healthcare is out of control, and everyone in the country is up to their eyeballs in debt. We have 2 million people in jail, mostly for non-violent charges, and african americans are overrepresented in prisons as well as homicide statistics, both as victims and perps.

In other words, the US in general and african americans in particular have bigger fish to fry than the copious use of the word bitch and ho in rap lyrics. I am happy that they are taking on the white execs who help decide that offensive lyrics are what the kids want, and thus what they will produce. But really, the whole thing seems like a waste of time and money. Why not work on helping ex-cons find legitimate work, or in reforming our justice system so taht we don't just chuck mass amounts of young men into prison each year. Why don't we focus on the socioeconomic problems behind offensive lyrics? Hell, for that reason, why don't we focus on women in general rather than african american women only?

We are allowing our government to torture people, to deny terror suspects of their civil liberties, to deny the whole public of civil liberties in teh name of protection, and our biggest beef is with rap lyrics? That's fucked up, Mr. Rush.

Blog Archive