“No idea’s original/There’s nothin’ new under the sun/It’s never what you do/But how it’s done.” — Nas
This fairly dubious assessment on the state of hip-hop progression was proffered by Nas in his song, “No Idea’s Original.” The statement, however, is generally recognized as a universal truth among musicians of any type of music — and artists of any medium, really. Everything in a genre’s canon, even up to its most current iteration, is built upon something from its past. In an odd contradictory sense, modern practitioners depend upon clinging to their art’s long-buried roots in order to move their agenda forward. There would be no progression without that fond nostalgic echo.
And nostalgia is something not in short supply when it comes to memories of hip-hop as it existed in the early to mid 90’s. The Golden Era, as it’s lovingly called, is when hip-hop came of age. And fans of the music who were old enough to appreciate that evolution as it occurred cling to the artists of that time period the same way a hungry rapper clings to a mic; for them, it’s an impossible separation. The sounds and styles of that time provide a point-of-reference for those fans’ identities as lovers of the music and influence their critiques of hip-hop as it exists today; perhaps even sometimes to the detriment of a contemporary artist’s deserved appreciation. (Philosophical debates — even well-written ones — have been posited on this very subject.)
The fact that local duo Def Dee and Language Arts (LA for short) have created Gravity in 2010, an album that clearly owes its existence to the Golden Era (especially as manifested in New York City), is not something to be taken lightly. Hip-hop music was certainly being made in Seattle in the mid-90’s but, save for the antics of Sir-Mix-a-Lot, the scene was confined strictly to the underground. The closest thing Seattle had to NYC Golden Era hip-hop was Tribal’s seminal 1996 compilation, Do The Math, a formative and well-known album for local emcees now in their late 20’s to early 30’s, but not a particularly familiar one to the average fan of the same age. New York’s influential boom-bap of the time was loud enough to ring from coast to coast and Do The Math is evidence of that reverberation in Seattle. That the majority of the city’s impressionable youth were too busy shopping for plaid and flannel, however, is not Tribal’s fault.
The local hip-hop scene as it exists today is interesting. The Golden Era was hip-hop’s officially recognized renaissance, but Seattle seems to currently be experiencing its own unique version. The mid-90’s hip-hop genome has already been mapped and well-documented, but perhaps never fully evolved locally until now. Gravity shares the same musical genes as Pete Rock, Jay Dilla and Mobb Deep of the Golden Era. Listening to the album’s sixteen tracks is like following a trail of Timberland boot-prints through that time period. All of the usual production suspects are present: scarce melodies; tightly-wound kicks and snares; the satisfying discord of crackle, pop and hiss behind the samples; chopped-up keyboard licks; and, perhaps most fundamental of all, bass acting as percussion which creates the thick atmosphere that holds everything together. What’s most remarkable here is how producer Def Dee’s mid-90’s aesthetic doesn’t imitate, but actually builds upon what came before. Def doesn’t mimic or parrot his sources of inspiration, he deftly crafts the beats with just as much skill as his predecessors. His work on Gravity is an astonishing accomplishment in that regard.
While Def’s beats lay the pavement for the ride, the man primarily responsible for driving is emcee Language Arts. He weaves his street-oriented rhymes so effortlessly through the tracks that it takes a few listens to realize just how versatile and effective his presence is. Simply put, LA can rhyme his way around any emcee in the 2-0-6. On “Uno Amore” he declares, “Reinvent the wheel? No I’m patchin’ up the tire,” which is an accurate self-assessment considering LA pulls as much from Nas’ Illmatic-era cadence as he does a characteristically West Coast nonchalance. LA uses his flow to tie Def’s beats up into tidy knots, seemingly never needing to breathe on “To Sir With Love,” which features a boot-stomping rhythm that he matches vocally march for march. Though LA is the primary voice in this group, Def’s tracks ride shotgun alongside his partner, saying as much through rhythm as could possibly be said without words. They’re a consistent and impressive two-man show on tracks like “Day In The Life,” with LA displaying a dexterous rhyme handle over Def’s self-inflicted staccato piano stabs. Every track on Gravity features a quality of rapping that equally matches the quality of its accompaniment.
To say that Gravity is the closest thing Seattle has to its own Illmatic is potentially dangerous hyperbole that immediately turns the author of this review into a target for criticism and attempts at discrediting his hip-hop knowledge. But who cares? Given that hip-hop’s fundamentalism is built (at least partially) on series of robust embellishments, the statement can and should be made given the nature of the two albums. Gravity could also be a cousin, once or twice removed, from Mobb Deep’s Hell On Earth, though it’s not nearly as cold. While it is decidedly “street,” Gravity‘s disposition doesn’t begin to approach Havoc and Prodigy’s flagrant nihilism (for example: nowhere do Def or LA make reference to being stabbed by an ice-pick).
As Nas asserted: “No Idea’s Original.” And to capably make an album like this with such conspicuous ties to the forebears previously mentioned, Def Dee and LA must understand that idiom. The significance of what they’ve created, and when they created it, means even more when considered in the context of Seattle’s hip-hop history. The Six never spotlighted this version of hip-hop. And, while it’s nothing new under the sun, it’s never what you do, but how it’s done. The virtue of Gravity is that it’s done right.
(Def Dee and LA’s Gravity is available for FREE download at the group’s Bandcamp page, here.)
I knew he could do it, for Def Dee was in my belly while I was dancing tp J Dilla.
Then it’s obvious where dude gets the dope beats! Thanks for reading!
i knew they could do it, cuz I was right next to LA when he first started to rhyme.
great album, bomb review.
Thanks for reading, Dia. Your blog is bomb, too, BTW.