206UP.COM’s Top 10 SEA Hip-Hop Albums of 2011: #5 through 1

206UP.COM’s Top 10 Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of 2011 concludes today with the list below, the blog’s five favorite local releases of the year. I hope you enjoyed the list and that it generates an active response in your brain — that’s really the sole reason we do these year-end list things, anyway. Everything is up for conjecture. If you have something to say, I want to hear it — the Comments section is there for you to use. As before, links to download or purchase are included, just click on the album covers.

5. The Good Sin & 10.4 Rog – Late

Producer 10.4 Rog’s beatific sense of rhythm and electronic adornments made for the perfect counterpoint to The Good Sin’s grounded, low-pitched raps on getting by financially and romantically when success with both endeavors seems fleeting. I recall downloading this free album right around the time Odd Future’s proverbial cream was rising to the top and, upon listening, was happy to experience a different type of hip-hop escape: Finding a relatable and comfortable space of existence between Rog’s airy atmospherics and Sinseer’s lyrics on the everyday struggle. For most listeners in Seattle, this was a formal introduction to both producer and MC. Late set an incredibly high standard for these promising young artists whose stars are still rising.

4. Khingz – Liberation of the Monster

A relocation to Vancouver, BC has not changed the allegiance or focus in subject matter of the South End’s most self-aware rapper, Khingz. Liberation of the Monster was the best collection of tracks the MC has released since 2009’s remarkable From Slaveships to Spaceships. Canadian producer Rel!g!on was responsible for all of the beats, a Pacific Northwest re-working of the SoCal gangsta aesthetic found on 1990s albums like Dogg Food. While Khingz may forever associate himself with that style of rap nostalgically (like many us who came-of-age in the 90s), he’s decidedly more responsible and progressive in his rhymes. His course is set on a better future, a destination borne from a dubious past. On tracks like “Monster’s Lib” and “Hard to Say,” the MC is so diffuse in his rhyming it’s hard to keep up with the words. You would be too if you had the rare combination of artistic acumen and social enlightenment of this rapper.

3. Blue Scholars – Cinemetropolis

Even Shabazz Palaces’ debut LP Black Up didn’t ignite the local hip-hop landscape initially the way Blue Scholars did with their third full-length album, Cinemetropolis. Behind the strength of a Kickstarter campaign that generated a pre-album release $62,000 in donations in six weeks and a subsequent 33-date national headlining tour, Geo and Sabzi remained Seattle rap’s sentimental favorite (until the next Macklemore drops, anyway).

Producer Sabzi developed a new sound for the group: A bass-heavy mix of heady synth and tropical rhythms. And MC Geo wove his love for cinema and social justice into conceptual lyrics that succeeded in entertaining and provoking thought. As the members of Blue Scholars age, it seems like their fans are getting younger, which bodes well for the future. If the youth are independently choosing to support acts like this, then maybe there is hope for the coming generation.

2. The Physics – Love is a Business

A giant leap forward for Seattle hip-hop (and R&B for that matter). The Physics’ Love is a Business was the long-awaited follow-up to the group’s first LP, Future Talk, a record that held many promises for those heads still living in rap’s Golden Era. Love is a Business did have much in common with its predecessor, but also moved beyond with a wholly-conceived sound that was more soulful and refined thanks especially to don’t-call-them-back-up singers, Malice and Mario Sweet.

LIAB represents Seattle hip-hop in its most fully-grown incarnation. Thig Natural, Monk Wordsmith and Justo placed themselves contextually in that realm of maturity where one is still young enough to enjoy a Tuesday night jump-off encounter, but not without a hint of regret at having to face the coming work day on little to no sleep. In these mens’ lives, the intersection of their art, professional careers and romantic engagements are inseparable, each one informs the other. If there’s any justice in the musical universe someday The Physics will make beats and rhymes for a living, and this album’s description of their current existence will serve as a fond reminder to them of when life was a little less charmed.

1. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

At this moment in time, it’s impossible to place Black Up into appropriate hip-hop context. But that’s because (and any theoretical physicist will tell you this) time itself is merely an illusion. Similar to the career of Shabazz Palaces’ primary motivating force, Palaceer Lazaro (earthly name: Ishmael Butler), the sounds on Black Up ascend to the stratosphere, only to dissipate and fall invisibly to the terra firma where the music is reformed into new lyrical notions and sonic movements. The sounds here are transient, but everything in Butler’s past seems to have been pointing to this moment.

If you had to pinpoint an origin for Black Up, you would say its spirit is rooted most firmly in Africa. The Palaceer’s words stay tethered to a motherland but course off in many directions, just like peoples disseminated (by choice and by force) across the globe. As I type this, Shabazz Palaces is spreading its ethereal sound across parts of Europe, and will likely move beyond that continent. How fortunate we are in Seattle then, to be able to call our city SP’s corporeal home. I don’t think many people in The Town realized a spirit like Shabazz’s existed in their midst. Seattleites (and the world), take note: If that’s cream you’re putting in your coffee — don’t. Better to drink the elixir Black.

Album Reviews Best of 2011 Downloads

SHOW REVIEW & INTERVIEW: The Physics (Bowery Ballroom, New York City, 11.11.11)

(All photos are courtesy of Eleazar F. Teodoro, who was kind enough to allow me to post. Please check out his Flickr page, here.)

Two Friday nights ago at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, a Seattle hip-hop lovefest went down. It was the final night of the Blue Scholars’ Cinemetropolis tour, the ninth day in a row of performances for road warriors Geo and Sabzi. Similar to the previous time they performed at this venue, there was a capacity crowd in attendance, at least half of which was made up of Seattle ex-pats like me, eager to turn the Lower East Side concert site into Manhattan’s own version of The Showbox (which it kind of is, anyway).

True to form, the duo put on a great set. They’ve developed and honed a live act that is second to none for Seattle hip-hop artists and, more importantly, on the strength of their personalities and music manage to capture the affinities of concert-goers not previously familiar with their material. I should know, I keep dragging my New York friends out to these shows and they invariably walk away shaking their heads at how good this Seattle rap sh-t is.

For me, though, the evening was all about seeing the Scholars’ supporting cast. Los Angeles underground rap soldier Bambu was the main guest star on the Cinemetropolis tour. Bam is a kindred spirit to the Blue Scholars’ ethos, an artist with much more on his mind than the music. Political ideals without forward momentum toward change may as well be inaction for these two acts whose social justice agenda plays at the forefront of their music. Consider also the numerous artistic collaborations over the years between Bam, Geo and Sabzi, and the team-up seemed even more like a natural occurrence.

Over the course of the 33 date tour, Team Scholars also invited various other guests with Pacific Northwest roots to the stage. At Bowery, Focused Noise’s recently NYC-relocated DJ Gen.Erik handled deck duties. Also in town were Grynch and Sol who played short sets.

And arriving in New York that very morning was The Physics crew (albeit one Monk Wordsmith short) who were there to rock for the very first time in the city. While Bambu gave the most riveting performance of the night, and Blue Scholars were clearly the seasoned veterans, it was Thig Natural, Justo, and Malice and Mario Sweet of The Physics, who had the most raw impact on the crowd. The quintet breezed through the title track from their outstanding sophomore album Love is a Business, took a musical trip south down the west edge of Lake Washington with “Coronas on Madrona,” and got all reminiscent on “Back Track” (where, it should be noted, Justo held down Language Arts’ verse with a lyrical dexterity not typically displayed by the group’s in-house producer). The Physics’ stage presentation was polished and professional. If they were nervous, it didn’t show. Before the group went on, I asked a preternaturally calm Thig Nat what they were going to do without his brother and fellow lyricist, Monk. “We’ll be okay. We’ll figure something out,” he said, cool as a Northwest Fall day.

The Physics were also the only SEA crew to specifically connect Seattle’s hip-hop roots to the very city that birthed the movement. Craig G, member of Marly Marl’s legendary Juice Crew, made a special appearance to spit his guest sixteen from The Physics’ new single, “The Recipe.” Craig explained briefly how he first became aware of this group from the Northwest corner of the map: a lady friend played some of their music for him one day and he commented to her on how “hard” it sounded.

Craig G’s presence felt like a real validation for this current generation of Seattle rap, a very small but significant piece of history for The Physics to take home with them as a reminder of how hip-hop succeeds in making this country (and the world) feel like a smaller place. The group finished off their set by re-introducing themselves by way of “Ready for We,” the “P-H-Y-S-I-C-S” refrain taking hold of the majority of the crowd. The Physics did exactly what they were supposed to do as opening acts: engage the audience and prime it for the headliners. Personally, I would have been fine if they’d stayed on for the rest of the night.

I’d been meaning to try and link up with The Physics since Love is a Business dropped, so when I received confirmation from Thig a few weeks back that they were indeed in the Bowery lineup, I asked him for an interview. He and Justo were gracious enough to abide. We met up downstairs in the bar about 30 minutes before wheels up.

When did you start working on Love is a Business? How long did it take start to finish?

Thig: We’ve been working on this album for like the last three years.

Justo: It was kind of an intermittent effort. Some of the songs are older than others, like a year and a half, two years old. And then toward the end, right when we were getting ready to release it, we recorded five songs within two months that [all] made it on the album.

What was the first song you completed for LIAB?

Justo: Probably “Coronas on Madrona.” [To Thig] Didn’t you write that in like 2008?

Thig: “Coronas on Madrona” I actually wrote in college.

Justo: That was like 2003 or 2004.

I’ve noticed that your musical output is much lighter compared to other Seattle acts. Do you guys intentionally curate the music you release more intensely?

Justo: We definitely try to be selective with what we put out. We believe quality is the most important thing in our music. And being that we have limited time, that results in us [releasing less]. We have really busy personal lives, so we don’t get in [the studio] as much as we’d like to. Hopefully that will change if we can get to the point where we just do music. That’s our goal, and then we can release more stuff. We’ve actually been recording a lot lately so the next project should come out fairly soon.

And what’s that project?

Thig: We’ve got two projects coming up. One is called Digital Wildlife. It’s more of an experimental project mixing together hip-hop, R&B and electro. We released a song earlier this year called “Fix You” that is in the vein of Digital Wildlife. We’re still working on that, we want to perfect it and make sure that it’s dope before we release it. And we’re also working on the next full-length hip-hop project which we’re going to release this summer. We definitely recognize the need to give people what they want more frequently so we’ll definitely do [more music] on a yearly basis.

With Digital Wildlife, did that concept come about because of all the current mashing-up of genres going on in music these days?

Thig: I feel like it was organic. When we’re in the studio, you know, we vibe out to beats. And certain beats make you wanna sing as opposed to rap. So we have a lot of songs that are sort of like that. We decided to put them together as one cohesive project.

You guys referenced your nine-to-five jobs. Love is a Business deals heavily in very relatable, everyday issues like relationships and work. How would you say your nine-to-five hustles inform your musical lives and vice versa?

Justo: We’ve been a group since like ‘97, and we didn’t release stuff to the public but we were always making music. It’s always had that personal touch, where we drew off our personal lives and spoke about that in the music. And now that we have these full time careers it’s just natural that we inject that into the music. We don’t play characters in this, we play ourselves and that’s what we’re doing. If we were just doing music for a living, the content [would] change.

How is Love is a Business being received outside of Seattle?

Thig: It’s been received really well. We’ve been going on this tour with Blue Scholars and people are really feeling the music. Even the more Seattle-centric songs. A couple people came up to me at the San Diego show and were like, “Man I was really feeling that song, it almost makes me wanna be from Seattle.” So I think people appreciate the love that we have for our town. And we’ve also been getting a lot of hits and purchases from around the world, like Germany, Africa, France, and other parts of Europe.

I think Love is a Business is a fully-conceived, mature album. It sounds like a record that a group might make three or four albums deep into their career. Thinking about where you guys are at in your lives, I think if and when The Physics blow up, it will be in a different way than a lot of these younger acts currently doing it, and it will be to a different type of audience. Does that sound accurate? Could you guys see yourselves somehow having to compromise your artistry for greater success?

Justo: We’re definitely gonna evolve. We’re always trying to get better and try different things. Hopefully we’re all gonna grow together and the people who listened to the same stuff we grew up listening to will be looking for new stuff. We’re from that era when downloading wasn’t as popular as it is with the current generation. Hopefully we can gain that crowd. As far as Love is a Business being a planned-out thing, we came up with the title [of the album] before we did like ninety percent of the songs on there. Especially with Thig and his content matter, he was trying to weave in different themes that had to do with love and business and how they interact.

How did the Phonte collaboration come about?

Thig: We opened for Little Brother in 2008. After the show we exchanged contact info and kept in touch over time. We hollered at him for LIAB and just made it happen.

Justo: I literally put his verse to about 25 different beats, so it went through its own evolution. As soon as we found the [final] beat, Thig wrote his verse.

Last question: What’s the last non-Seattle hip-hop album you’ve listened to, start to finish?

Justo: Big K.R.I.T.’s last mixtape, Last King 2.

Thig: I just listened to the new Drake album, but I definitely skipped a couple songs on there. Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 was actually the last one I listened to.

Interviews Live Coverage Show Reviews

VIDEO: “Delusions of Grandeur” – The Physics

The Physics’ recent sophomore LP, Love is a Business, is the best Seattle hip-hop album of 2011 not called Black Up. Believe that. (And read the full SSG Music review here while you’re at it.) “Delusions of Grandeur” is the second video from LIAB and features direction by Michael Gaston and animation by Xavier Palin…

(Click here to continue reading at SSG Music.)

SSG Music Cross-Post Video

REVIEW: Love is a Business – The Physics

The Physics’ long-awaited second LP, Love is a Business, is that rare collection of music that isn’t even a week old but already feels comfortably familiar. It’s a lot like that well-worn paperback copy of your favorite novel you stuff into your carry-on before every vacation; or one of the few remaining CD’s you’ve chosen to leave displayed on your bookshelf, a tangible reminder of how carefully we used to curate the music that meant something to us, standing in defiant opposition to the daily haphazard sprawl of un-zipped files littering our computer desktops. Love is a Business is, at the risk of sounding jadedly cantankerous, a throwback to when hip-hop mattered. The fact that the online method of this album’s delivery won’t vary from every other release today is not a lost irony. Still, this is a record that feels like it should first be held in your hands, read over carefully with your eyes, and then discovered with your ears, song-by-song, in the comfort of your ride or living room. You know, the way discerning heads used to distinguish the hip-hop that mattered most.

Given The Physics’ deliberate musical track record, this isn’t a surprising notion. The trio of producer (and sometime MC) Just D’Amato, and MC’s Thig Natural and Monk Wordsmith run a musical storehouse much like the celebrated local micro-brews referenced in their lyrics. Since the group’s 2007 debut album, Future Talk, their goal has always been to develop artisanal rap for well-paletted listeners using carefully concocted musical recipes with no disposable ingredients. That promise of quality was realized in subsequent EP releases, 2009’s High Society and last year’s Three Piece. Love is a Business is a further distillation and refinement of The Physics’ formula that relies heavily on layered compositions and soulful R&B progressions. It’s a richer listening experience than that of the crew’s past work, with subtle nuances and off-beat affections that suggest an act at the height of its maturity and creative zenith.

The first thing to note about LIAB’s vibe is how every one of its 13 tracks is given greater significance within the context of the album as a whole, a characteristic the majority of contemporary hip-hop records sadly lack. The first two songs on the album (the title track and “These Moments”) are exercises in quiet restraint. They lack hip-hop’s standard propulsive rhythms and instead rely on richly-layered vocal textures and interspersed live instrumentation to provide distinction and balance to Business’ wide spectrum of flavors. Even “Coronas on Madrona,” one third of last year’s brief Three Piece EP (and perhaps the best Seattle hip-hop track of 2010), seems more fully realized within the confines of LIAB. That’s not to say the album doesn’t feature tracks that can’t stand on their own. The best of these is the Native Tongues-channeling, “Cheers,” where Justo executes a familiar dusty knock and easy bass groove with enough skillful tribute to stand up to even the most stubborn Golden Era revivalist’s skeptical ears. Similarly, album closer “Babble” demands its own attention with commanding horn blasts and an industry-affirming cameo from Phonte (of Little Brother and The Foreign Exchange). Both are excellent examples of hip-hop song making at its finest, but, unlike these tracks, most of the album’s other components would have difficulty existing independently of the whole. That’s meant as a compliment rather than a knock. LIAB is a linear, holistic listening experience, not something that can be broken down easily into separate elements.

Obvious attention was paid to the high grade production value of this record, but as any head will tell you, a hip-hop album ultimately travels only as far as its lyricism will allow. “Love” is in the title of this album and Thig Natural and Monk Wordsmith make sure it remains a prevalent theme throughout, giving careful consideration to what the love of their musical hustle means in relation to daily lives consisting of nine-to-five grinds and romantic matters of the heart. The slow roll of “Red Eye” is a familiar story of a lovesick traveler looking forward to coming home to the physical comforts of his woman. It’s a sophisticated outlook on domestic love that portrays a mature monogamy refreshingly devoid of pretense or prudishness. On the other hand, the playful bounce of “Clubhouse” is less about the strictures of commitment and more about f*cking for the sake of f*cking. The lesson here is that both types of relationships have their time and place, but careful regard for the consequences of each is not a mutually exclusive act from engaging in either.

The other important lady in the life of this crew is the physical environment responsible for nurturing the trio since childhood. Namely, the group’s home base of Seattle, Washington. There’s a deep love and necessity for their town that goes beyond a simple regard for a few favorite local restaurants and coffee shops. Tracks named for actual locations in the city (“Seward Park,” “Coronas on Madrona”) give the impression that this album couldn’t have been made without the influence of the group’s native area code. Thig Nat’s easygoing, composed flow is derived straight from a definitive West Coast nonchalance, especially of the type found in the Pacific Northwest. On “Cheers” Monk Wordsmith recounts an interaction with people from another city who wonder aloud if there are black folks in Seattle. Indeed there are, and Monk shows he is one of many highly skilled underground rappers with a hustle steeped in the city’s rich, albeit lesser-known, hip-hop tradition. Love is a Business is an important entry into that heritage, an album that should be cataloged and archived as a moment when Seattle rap officially entered adulthood.

Album Reviews

NEWS: Track Listing & Artwork for The Physics’ “Love Is A Business”

206UP.COM is so hyped for this. Love Is A Business, The Physics crew’s sophomore full-length drops on August 6. Just caught the entire track list over at The Good Sin’s tumblr. Your official Seattle Summer Soundtrack is almost here. A little late, but better than never. Album release party goes down in two editions (an early all-ages and a late 21+) at The Crocodile on August 6.

Live Coverage News