RA Scion and his new hair dropped a fresh three-track EP and accompanying short film/music video. Beg Borrow Steal is available for download and viewing, here. I wrote about it in my weekly column, “The Home Row Keyed,” over at SSG Music. Click on over to read more.
Somewhere inside Chev’s 17-track debut album is an outstanding eight to ten song EP, dying to get out. That’s not to say the long-time coming Charles is a disappointment. Rather it’s a greater reflection of an MC who’s had much on his mind for a minute now, too much to adequately express on a few standout guest shots on tracks by more established Town artists (summarized well by the rapper himself, here).
The first time Chev really caught my ear was on “Certitude” (a joint from Common Market’s 2008 Tobacco Road). His deep, commanding delivery added weight to Sabzi’s synth-heavy composition and his reality rap point-of-view counterbalanced RA Scion’s philosophical wanderings. There’s much more of that grounded perspective on Charles. Chev’s preferred lyrical topic is observations on the hustle, and the fact that he’s in the midst of his own makes him an expert. “Simple Math” is an engaging opening track with commanding head-nod courtesy of Jester. “Beau” pays tribute to lost lives and features a dusty jazz-inflected beat by Def Dee. My favorite song here, though, is the Sabzi-produced “Yesterday” which takes Chev’s nostalgic reflections and Hollis Wong-Wear’s swirling guest vocals, and plants them firmly in early 90s R&B territory.
Charles does go on too long, and Chev over-extends himself with the number of verses on a few tracks, but it’s hard to fault him for putting in work. If you’re first hearing him on this album, it’s his vocal aesthetic that will immediately grab you: a low-pitched, technically proficient flow. Chev’s is a fairly new voice in the local scene that resonates much louder than those of many more well-established ones.
One thing producer MTK isn’t, is subtle. Everything in his production warehouse — from the beats, to the synth, to the samples — are big, powerhouse workouts of hip-hop composition. Sophisticated Slap is a sampler collection of the nationally-sought local producer otherwise known as Matthew Crabtree. The collection, which at its best sounds like the sonic love-child of Just Blaze and Dr. Dre, features a few joints recognizable (previous tracks blessed by RA Scion, Bambu and Prometheus Brown) and others ready for brand new poetical adornment. MCs would be wise to drink their 5-Hour Energys before hopping on, however, as these beats are not conducive to lyrical cut-laying.
In the Fall of last year, emcee RA Scion adopted the new rap persona Victor Shade, named after a character from Marvel Comics’ The Avengers series. The reasons for the change seemed to be two-fold: 1) an intentional distancing from his well-established identity as the emcee half of Common Market, a group (unfortunately) on indefinite hiatus; and 2) a tribute to his late brother-in-law, a comic book aficionado who personally bestowed the Victor Shade identity upon RA. Hip-hop fans around Town already know the man, born Ryan Abeo, as a dramatic stage presence whose shows have veered into performance art territory. So it’s unsurprising that his new Victor Shade project would be accompanied by a dramatic and well-documented change in his rap alter-ego.
It’s a change that serves to blatantly announce his re-entry to the rap game sans his previous collaborator, DJ/producer Sabzi, a notable proposition not just because of how well-entrenched Common Market is in the local rap psyche, but because the two artists seemed like natural extensions of each other, a rare duality that many don’t find throughout an entire career. Well, in case you’re wondering, Common Market fans, there’s no need to fear as this new iteration, while certainly different sonically, is not an uncomfortable deviation from what you’re used to.
Common Market’s last major release, 2008’s Tobacco Road, was a sprawling exercise in conceptual hip-hop. It featured a few classic moments but ultimately was too long, its length consistent with what one would expect from RA Scion, a rapper with so much on his mind that his lyrics literally required hip-hop Cliff’s Notes (which he occasionally provided on his blog). CM’s self-titled debut, on the other hand, was of more manageable length and should now be considered a local rap classic. Like Blue Scholars’ first album, it perfectly replicated the mind-state of Seattle’s liberal populace: current but old-school; urban but organic; aggressive with its principles but…neighborly. Victor Shade finds a comfortable middle ground between the two CM albums. And, while the rapper in question might balk at any extensive comparison, the exposition is necessary because RA Scion, as he existed in Common Market, is our only point of reference.
A new producer means a new sound. Everett beat-maker MTK is responsible for all twelve tracks on Victor Shade. His style is notably more aggressive than Sabzi’s, which isn’t to say the CM composer didn’t bring out the natural battle-rhymer in RA. (As previously noted, theirs was a relationship based on mutual ability, essentially meeting each other halfway in their artistry.) If anything, RA seemed to bring out the battle-producer in Sabzi. MTK, on the other hand, brings a grenade to a knife fight, meeting Victor Shade at the gravel pit where he’s already most comfortable. With monitors drenched in gasoline and a lit match in hand, their fusion on wax is generally incendiary. For lack of a more elegant editorial: the sh*t totally f*cking knocks. MTK’s assailing production is a perfect vehicle for the natural go-hard tendencies of the rapper.
Yet, with a flow so conducive to battle-rhyming, it’s still impossible to overlook Victor Shade as a pure poet. The density of rhyme and structure is simultaneously his greatest strength and overarching flaw. Similar to Talib Kweli, it’s often hard to follow, understand, and digest what he’s saying. That seems like a petty and nearly useless criticism when considering most rappers don’t say sh*t, but it is what it is.
In Common Market, RA Scion was a poet for the proletarian class and Victor Shade keeps the same company here. Although this time he fancies himself as a bit of a hero for those folks, walking amongst them but not altogether of them. Subversive critiques of our social conditions are the rule of the day (“Bodega Politics”, “Boots”, and “Soothsayer”, for example). Victor Shade requires that you hear more than listen in order to get the picture. For some reason, that exercise is a challenge contemporary hip-hop heads struggle with, probably because we’re too busy breaking our necks to the beat when we should be taking notes (a symptom of the relatively new producer-as-celebrity corollary). The value in Victor Shade’s treatise can only be found in taking the time to listen. And, like RA Scion before him, he’ll probably only respect us if we accept the provocation.
The greatest compliment one might pay to Victor Shade/RA Scion, is that listening to his music is a totally holistic experience. The emotive effects from his well-suited production choices, combined with his aptitude for meaningful lyricism (often existing on some higher esoteric plane), create a multi-layered experience uncommon in most rap music. It’s easy to draw a straight line between Victor Shade and artists in the hip-hop family tree to whom he’s directly related. Those folks include the likes of KRS-One, Chuck D, and Dead Prez. And, similar to those rap brethren, listening to Victor Shade casually is like trying to read really good literature on a noisy metro bus: you can get a sense of what’s happening, but you can’t fully appreciate it until you take the time to deconstruct it. Like Common Market before him, Victor Shade demands his listeners be active. Passivity, ultimately, is for suckas when it comes to this brand of intellectual hip-hop.
In case you didn’t already know, rappers take their emcee names pretty seriously. Some almost have a different pseudonym for every t-shirt hanging in their closet. Local cats, however, have been mercifully spare when it comes to carrying more than one moniker. For Ryan Abeo (aka RA Scion), a new name is synonymous with a new musical direction.
Just kidding. The name of my blog is remaining 206-UP! I haven’t been heavy in the blog game long enough to warrant a change in my moniker. But someday, if I keep pushing, maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to possess not one, but two blog personas, as have so many athletes and rappers before me…
Anyway, the point of this post was to make those unawares aware of RA Scion’s new rap moniker, Victor Shade. It sounds like a superhero handle which, in fact, it is. It’s also a window blinds company in Saint Louis, Missouri, but that’s not important here. What is important, is that it appears Common Market has been (temporarily?) shelved in favor of RA’s new collaborative effort with local producer, MTK.
In the perpetual style of all-seriousness, as is RA’s modus operandi, he’s taking this new project, well, serious — as is evidenced by these words spoken to The Stranger’s venerable hip-hop commentator Larry Mizell, Jr.
In any event, I’m bummed (boo!) that we may have seen the end of Common Market, but excited (yay!) for the birth of the Victor Shade project, the genesis of which has been (apparently) some time in the making, but its official release upon the masses will happen at this show.
You can sample a collabo track (“Kasase”) between MTK and RA on MTK’s Myspace page (linked above). It sounds like RA’s — ahem, excuse me, Victor Shade’s — battle-ready flow is fully intact, which isn’t a surprise. But he does sound fresh and new rhyming over MTK’s RZA-style beat. It’s dope. I like it. And I’ll probably like Victor Shade, even though my Lady tells me I don’t do well with change.
More later, fam.
I just pulled this clip off another blog (shout to Blogs is Watching). It’s RA Scion being interviewed by some floppy-haired dude from Seattle’s Sound Magazine. Take a gander (and peep the antique-style throwback lamp in the background, probably purchased for $19.99 at the Fred Meyer Mothership in Ballard):
(Note to Sound Magazine: YOUR EMBED CODES NEVER WORK, YO! Check the video HERE.)
It’s fitting that RA’s on some cable access-type sh*t here, being that he’s perpetually “about the people.” A couple thoughts:
1. Are RA’s opening words a foreshadowing of an official “Due to irreconcilable differences, RA Scion and DJ Sabzi have decided to end their creative relationship” statement? Here’s hoping that doesn’t come to pass any time soon. Still, it was interesting to hear him say he thinks the group has gone as far as it can creatively. Makes me wonder what RA has in mind for his future musical endeavors. (Please don’t say “dance record,” please don’t say “dance record…”) There’s a huge amount of artistic integrity there when he says he doesn’t want to “milk” the group for more than it’s worth; lord knows CM’s musical endeavors haven’t been hugely rewarding from a financial standpoint so that can’t be what he’s referring to.
2. At about the 5:50 mark, RA starts speaking his mind on the supposed “progressive” mind-state of Seattle’s residents. He calls Fremont “the biggest fucking sham of progressive politics that I’ve ever seen in my whole life…a bastion of bullshit.” I like that this statement caused a few uncomfortable chuckles around the room — I really hope some of those folks live in Fremont. I definitely feel RA on this one. A few hippie artists and their naked bike-riding friends a “progressive neighborhood” do not make. All I know is that going out on a Saturday night in Fremont is only fun if you’re a white male between the ages of 23 and 30, six feet or over in height, and wearing a severely creased Abercrombie and Fitch hat (save for those nights at Nectar when Sportn’ Life wrecked sh*t on the regular).
I’ve never met RA, but he seems to possess a very intense personality, which is probably why his lyrics are so often inspired. Say what you will about him, but you certainly can’t question his love for hip-hop, nor his commitment to being honest and true to the art form.
Here’s an interview with Blue Scholars and Common Market at the 2009 South by Southwest festival in Austin.
Note to self: Next time I see Sabzi, Geo, or RA Scion outside a venue after a show, do NOT, under ANY circumstances, “accuse” them of making “conscious hip-hop.”
Sheesh. Did you see the Sab’s reaction when Mr. Interviewer used the dreaded C-word to describe their music? You’d have thought the producer had been accused of stealing beats from the pre-made demos on his Casio keyboard! When did conscious rap become a bad thing?
I’m guessing the reason why he got so upset is because Blue Scholars doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into a particular category, which I understand — labels are only good on clothes and produce. But in the interviewer’s defense, how is he supposed to quantify the very particular styles that exist within the genre?
My Lady once told me that she can’t listen to a Blue Scholars album all the way through because it eventually starts to depress her. I can kind of relate. Even their party-rocking tracks contain traces of the revolution. The fact is, Geo’s rhymes always reflect a consciousness of the world around him. This is exactly why his music resonates so loudly in a place like the Pacific Northwest, where we pride ourselves on being “progressive,” and “liberal,” and always down-for-the-cause, sometimes to the point of silliness.
I think most thoughtful fans of hip-hop like a little bit of that in their music. You could argue that the Scholars’ spirit best represents the very origins of the culture. Paying them this kind of compliment could be the highest form of praise for what they’ve accomplished as artists. So where’s the beef, Sabz?
I’d be interested to further hear his take on the matter and I shouldn’t speculate on what his particular thoughts might be. I do think that unequivocally putting the “conscious” label on some artists and not others is dangerous. Here’s why: it’s too broad of a term. When we say “conscious,” what exactly are we describing? If, in this case, “conscious” refers to Geo’s lyrics about his Filipino heritage and the struggles his people go through then, yes, his music is conscious. If “conscious” is synonymous with “political” then, yes, without a doubt Blue Scholars’ music is conscious.
For better or worse, in the world of hip-hop criticism, “conscious” is typically indicative of a style that’s considered more valuable than another. This is rarely explicitly stated, but the connotations are there. The problem is, we can’t conveniently use the term to describe one type of subject matter, while excluding others that might also contain value.
If you were to ask ten random fans to describe the subject matter of Blue Scholars’ rhymes, nine out of ten might use the word “conscious.” Ask the same ten fans to describe the subject matter of Dyme Def or D. Black’s music, and you’d be lucky to get four out of ten to use the term. This is where the problem might lie, and possibly why Sabzi gets so upset.
I have to presume that D. Black’s rhymes are inspired by his life experience. Black is a young African-American male in an “inner-city” environment. His experiences in life have thus far been shaped because of these facts. The angst from his trials and tribulations as a black man in America are completely evident in his lyrics. So why would we not describe his music as “conscious?” Would Mr. Interviewer have used the term if he were interviewing D. Black? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Other words might come to his mind. Words like “gangsta,” “street,” “ghetto,” “crack music,” etc. Words that don’t necessarily come with positive connotations.
Fact is, D. Black’s hip-hop is just as viably “conscious” as Blue Scholars. The general populace just doesn’t put as much value on it and therefore doesn’t use the term to describe it. And that’s a damn shame. The reasons for this extend far beyond what I am capable of as a writer, and are best left for the experts to meditate on.
In the end, I still don’t think we should stop using the term altogether. I would still use it to describe Blue Scholars, and I would use it to describe D. Black and Dyme Def. There are degrees to which “conscious” can be applied. If you really wanted to get technical, I suppose you could put all of Geo’s lyrics on a page next to all of D. Black’s and try to quantify how many times each rapper says something of value that might positively contribute to a discussion on racial/sexual/social politics. Who would win the “conscious contest?” Honestly, I don’t know. I’m not interested in conducting an experiment like that. I think it’s better to just listen to the words, actively, not passively. If we can recognize that there’s something to be learned while we bump this sh*t loud in our cars, then we’re steps ahead of the game.