REVIEW: How the inherent ingenuity of hip hop thrived during a year of worldwide crises
I am framing the project in the wider context of how the inherent ingenuity of hip hop - a music, art form and culture born through 'making something out of nothing’ - has found ways to overcome lockdown limitations during a worldwide crisis unlike any in our lifetime, in the form of the Covid pandemic, as well as widespread protests and counter protests against anti-black racism.
Part One: From 'East Grand' to 'Six Feet'
Be the Master of your fate / and the Captain of your soul / before your heart turns cold / and your body grow old / in the grave, you gonna roll...
- F13ldz ‘Mirror’
‘Six Feet’ was written, recorded, produced and mixed online by The Dirty Ol' Men.
Self-described as an international collective of producers, musicians and curators of hip hop/soul music and culture - including longtime The New Beatmaker favourite Jay Bishop - the crew keep themselves busy via a number of interconnected independent musical releases and overlapping creative avenues with likeminded figures.
These endeavors include a fellowship project, bringing together the worlds of music, education and community organisations; videography for other artists, including music videos and live shows; a web-based cookery series fronted by independent hip hop artist Kaimbr; and the design and online retail of hip hop and beatmaking gear.
‘Six Feet’ follows on from ‘East Grand', another favourite project of mine since it dropped on Bandcamp on 29 February 2020. A fantastic full length project, ‘East Grand’ was inspired and mostly recorded over a weekend get-together in a Detroit Airbnb in July 2019. It was complimented by a nice documentary/vlog shot by crew member Gadget.
Gadget captured the crew, who first came together via YouTube, meeting up in person and visiting places of great black musical importance in Detroit. These include ‘Hitsville, USA’, the home of Motown; Dilla’s Delights donut shop, the world famous bakery owned and operated by J Dilla’s uncle; open mic/beat battles in the city; and of course record shops and charity/thrift stores. We see the crew getting their hands dirty, so to speak, digging for records and samples to flip on the end product which is ‘East Grand’.
Check out the East Grand documentary on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxLY7j8yVwU&t=1706s
What is striking is that the album and documentary/vlog ‘East Grand’ capture a moment in time that feels a million miles away from the world in which ‘Six feet’ was created.
‘East Grand’ captures a moment in time a million miles away from the world in which ‘Six feet’ was created
The tracks on ‘Six Feet’ were written, recorded, produced and mixed online by The Dirty Ol' Men during the first 100 days of the Covid pandemic. This took place via hours long, real-time collaborations between crew members and likeminded creatives in a process the crew call songlab. As discussed in more detail later, several of these online sessions were streamed live via YouTube.
The project does of course address the dumpster fires raging in that first 100 days of lockdown. However, it is both timely and timeless, contemporary and classic -which I think sums up the crew nicely.
Part Two: 'We must make it last, you and me"
‘Six Feet’ is a project which mixes nineties, noughties and contemporary hip hop production. The lyrical content is relatable to the 'average person', with a welcome mix of self-determination, introspection, frustration as well as some good, old fashioned verbal judo.
TRACK 1: 'LANDSLIDE'
Some of that verbal judo is displayed straight off the bat on the track ‘Landslide’, courtesy of Rod Wallace and F13ldz.
The spoken word introduction, as featured on many hip hop classics over the years, includes an impassioned call to ‘walk tall’. This is the first of many moments on the project urging self-determination in the face of continued adversity.
The female vocal sample which is subsequently chopped and paired with hard hitting drums repeatedly reminds the listener that ‘we must make it last, you and me’.
DJ Widebody’s production features a simple but effective bassline. DJ Clark Da Spark’s great scratching exemplifies the crew’s incorporation of more classical hip hop influences, in which it so often excels. In a good way, ‘Landslide’ would be well placed on an album from the mid to late nineties onwards.
Socio-politically, the next track is both ‘so 2020’ and yet could have been released at, well, seemingly any point ever in American history.
TRACK 2: 'SICK'
The project’s first single ‘Sick’ is a protest song which rallies against anti-black racism and police brutality in America.
The production is courtesy of That Blessed Girl, who nicely reimagines a classic 1980’s pop ballad, providing a melodic, ominous and subdued musical backdrop.
The lyrics explore racial double-standards in policing. They compare, for example, treatment of peaceful protests against police racism and brutality with treatment of armed white militia storming federal buildings. The track also urges black economic strength and critiques ‘performative allyship’.
It includes a number of sobering and astute lines, such as “when Kap’ took a knee, all the white people cried, when a cop took a knee another black man died”.
The verses on ‘Sick’ feature a great set of exchanges from F13ldz, Rod Wallace and MENTaL Da God.
The interplay between different lyricists - each bringing a complimentary angle, flow and tone - is a real strongpoint, both on ‘Sick’ and throughout the whole project.
Historical dialogue from race riot media reports bookend the verses. This draws attention to the length of time heavy handed policing and racial disparity have been present in America and prompts the question “For how much longer will this go on?”
This brings us to track three, in which the same question is indirectly posed via another set of carefully chosen news snippets.
TRACK 3: 'EVERYBODY'
The news samples this time are circa February 2020, featuring a big stew of pitched down samples of Donald Trump contradicting himself. In this mixture of press conference soundbites, Trump appears to be having a hard time believing his own claptrap during the early months of the Covid crisis.
These statements add a layer of psychological horror to the track, conveying the feeling that we are all being gaslit.
Rod Wallace, playing the solo MC role this time, echoes the feelings of outright frustration shared by many over how his country’s “Government” “Leaders” have handled with the Covid crisis. He opens up about the negative impact of the crisis on his mental health and explores how racial inequality has resulted in black and brown people suffering disproportionately from the pandemic.
The existential threats posed by racial inequality are reinforced by the album cover
The existential threats posed by racial inequality are reinforced by the album cover, which depicts seven of twelve black men falsely accused of planning and executing an insurrection in 1919. This resulted in their execution and spurred a wave of anti-black racist violence leading to the deaths of hundreds of black men, women and children.
‘Six Feet’ was released on streaming services on the 101st anniversary of this tragedy, which became known as the Elaine Massacre.
|For more on this outrage, please click here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaine_massacre|
As in ‘Sick’, the weighty subject matter of ‘Everybody’ is delivered in a conversational style, giving the impression of a close friend getting weight off their chest rather than someone lecturing or browbeating.
DJ Widebody and Blacmav do an amazing job of taking a soul jazz staple, which has been sampled more times than I can count, and instead of doing something obvious and well worn, flip it in a way that would never have occurred to me. They take a chilled out, happy sounding summertime classic and turn it into a tense thriller.
DJ Widebody and Blacmav take a chilled out, happy sounding summertime classic and turn it into a tense thriller
The echoing of the word ‘everybody’ is paranoia inducing and the repetitive, rising string sounds are especially ominous and almost sci-fi sounding thanks to the way they’re manipulated. Some tastefully added strings and bassline also bring an air of sadness.
The ending features a poignant performance of the poem widely attributed to Kathleen O’Meara from 1869. Since the project’s release, the actual author has been revealed as Catherine ‘Kitty’ O’Meara, who wrote the piece in March 2020 about the Covid crisis. Like The Dirty Ol’ Men, O’Meara seems to have turned to art to help process and maintain resilience during the unfolding crisis.
Naming the incorrect author further highlights, albeit unintentionally, the atmosphere of confusion caused by misinformation and rapidly developing, often contradictory “facts” surrounding Covid. In keeping with the opaqueness of 2020, the project’s title itself could allude to the instruction provided in some countries to keep six feet apart to reduce the spread of Covid or to the the burial of the deceased.
By citing the poem’s supposed year of creation as 1869, ‘Everybody’ re-introduces the notion of time, which is explored throughout the project. Whilst I don’t find the poem any less beautiful because it’s contemporary, it seemed that many were enchanted and maybe comforted by the impression of time’s cyclical nature. This contrasts with the more nightmarish notion of history repeating provided by the Elaine Massacre cover art.
‘Everybody’ re-introduces the notion of time, which is explored throughout the project
Notions of time are of course especially pertinent during Covid. We have spent time in isolation, lockdown and quarantine and Covid has prompted many to wonder how much time they have left; and how this time should be best spent.
These concepts are addressed head-on in the following track.
TRACK 4: 'DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME'
The project’s second single, ‘Don’t Waste Your Time’, is not only a highlight on ‘Six Feet’ but could well be my track of the year.
Hip hop heads who grew up in the ‘second golden era’, in love with that East Coast sound, are sure to instantly recognize the rugged but smooth tones of hip hop legend DV Alias Khryst. Here’s to hoping that he becomes a regular feature on future Dirty Ol’ Men projects.
I would have loved a third verse or a less abrupt ending but ey, it just makes me hit rewind more times I suppose.
Over a bittersweet production from Diggahertz and RTO Beats, the singer/rapper DV Alias Khryst drops a sweet soulful vocal hook and two great verses. He covers celebratory personal reflections, spiritual references and allegories relating to self-determination and perseverance. He also includes some words of wisdom for rappers incriminating themselves in rhymes.
The catchy hooks, air of introspection and concepts of time found within this track continue on ‘Wylin'’.
TRACK 5: 'WYLIN’'
I missed the YouTube livestream capturing the collaboration between DJ Widebody, Diggahertz (producers), Sam Poetry, Jay Bishop, Tay Leeee!!! and Gadget (vocals) to make this track. However, watching it after the event was interesting from a wannabe hobbyist beatmaker perspective. It also made me appreciate the track much more by providing some context.
In the livestream, Sam Poetry decides to rap from the perspective of the lead character from the Eddie Murphy film Boomerang. Not having seen the film, I missed the cultural significance and references made in his verses. Understanding now that the film is a raunchy, battle-of-the-sexes rom com, the messages of illicit “entanglements” and apparent finger wagging at a femme fatale/temptress make sense in the context of the film.
As such the track may not be for everyone, but its air of melancholy, especially the hook lamenting time and mental energy spent/wasted on illicit trysts, is very much in keeping with the project’s various meditations on time.
Production-wise, Diggahertz makes light work of a 90’s RnB sample with swing heavy drums and there’s a neat little beat flip near the end that has a Slum Village type vibe to it.
It’s worth noting that the tracks on Six Feet were each made in a matter of hours. None feels rushed but the project has a zen-like approach of being in the moment and not overthinking. There is a real enjoyment for me personally to be able to sit in on recording sessions and see the creative process and conversations between contributors ranging from introspective to irreverent and back again. As a group of men who have spent so long building up a sense of beatmaking brotherhood on YouTube, it’s a joy to see all involved returning to their YouTube roots in a way that allows the audience to benefit from both the means and ends of project creation.
Remembering how Jay Bishop described the ‘East Grand’ retreat as an opportunity to “show that black men can come together…and just be creative and work together in a positive light”, I’m so happy to see the crew continue to work and flourish together in these extraordinary circumstances.
Remembering how Jay Bishop described the ‘East Grand’ retreat as an opportunity to “show that black men can come together…and just be creative and work together in a positive light”, I’m so happy to see the crew continue to work and flourish together in these extraordinary circumstances
What’s also great about this is that it reflects the increasing number of hip hop albums by middle-aged artists over the last ten years that have got a lot of love. From Sean Price, whose second act was a joy to witness, through to artists as diverse as Aesop Rock, Roc Marciano, Black Thought and Busta Rhymes, who all released much loved albums decades after their debuts. In addition are artists not exactly new to the scene but gaining widespread recognition in their late thirties, including Griselda’s starting three. Hip hop, once a young man’s game, is enjoying a middle-aged golden age, exemplified by ‘Six Feet’.
Hip hop, once a young man’s game, is enjoying a middle-aged golden age, exemplified by ‘Six Feet’
TRACK 6: 'PISS'
It would be fair to say that, of all the sessions livestreamed and still available on YouTube, none captures the collaborative power of The Dirty Ol’ Men’s collective flow state better than the penultimate track, erm, ‘Piss’.
An immediate attention grabber, the track has stellar production by Blacmav, blessed with a spectacular solo vocal performance by Empuls, featuring some more golden-era style scratching, this time from DJ Rugged One.
The beat has a really heavy swing to it, booming double kick drums and a satisfyingly brutal snare courtesy of a sample pack from DJ Widebody.
Captured in the YouTube video is Blacmav’s uncanny reassembling of a saccharine 1970’s R&B/soul number about young love into a suspense-filled wall of anguished wails bringing to mind a track like Ghostface’s classic ‘Cobra Clutch’.
There’s also a really smooth fluid bassline that creeps in and out of the track adding another layer of suspense and funk.
Equally impressive is a memorable performance from MC Empuls, which overshadows many of today’s MCs in its word association, imagery and delivery. At first, Empuls brought to mind a mix of Pharoahe Monch, Danny Brown and a more aggressive Aesop Rock. After spending a bit longer with the track I started to be reminded of Kool Keith. In fact, Keith and his rhyme partner Godfather Don are referenced by Empuls on the YouTube video capturing the 'lightning in a bottle' recording of this track.
|Poetry in motion: Gadget, Blacmav, Empuls, Rod Wallace and DJ Rugged One in the zone during the 'Songlab' session for Six Feet's fiery 'Piss': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeAFVScBe3I|
Whilst I am not for a second trying to call Empuls a clone of these artists, I can definitely imagine playing 'Piss' (I don't think I'll ever get use to writing that title) after Don's demented and timeless underground hip hop classic 'Properties of Steel'.
Special mention must be made to the hook which, thanks to a melodic change up, sounds like it is about to totally go off the rails at any moment, with Empuls damn near barking the hook. When the next verse comes in – stepping back from this sonic ledge just a little - everything sounds even more dramatic.
The catharsis provided by earlier tracks ‘Sick’ and ‘Everybody’ is heightened here and reinforced by classic battle rap/mixtape MC’ing energy. As implied by its title, ‘Piss’ provides much needed release in 2020.
This absolute banger of a track would be at home on a Rawkus ‘Lyricist Lounge’/’Soundbombing’ compilation or perhaps a ‘Def Jux Presents’ CD. Every time I play it, it knocks me for six again. This is up there with my favourite tracks of the year.
TRACK 7: 'MIRROR'
Following this maniacal magic is a return to the more restrained, relaxing production and introspective lyrics of ‘Mirror’, featuring F13ldz, Rod Wallace, Tay Leeee!!! & Tim Blackman (Prod. RTO Beats).
With its soulful melodies, boombap drums and subject matter, ‘Mirror’ reminds me a bit of a Little Brother/Foreign Exchange track – in a good way. Again, introspection, self-determination and ‘time being of the essence’ are expressed both lyrically and in the way the drums almost sound like the ticking of a clock. It’s a welcome way to round off this very accomplished project.
Part Three: Hip Hop, the early adopter of the internet
It seems fitting that the final track is reminiscent in subject and style of the Foreign Exchange duo who, in the early noughties, crafted the groundbreaking hip hop soul album ‘Connected’ across continents via email after meeting on the okayplayer.com message board/forum.
Left: The Foreign Exchange's landmark 'Connected' album (2004).
Right: 'Six Feet' by Dirty Ol' Men (2020).
This followed on from earlier hip hop adopters of the internet, from Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Harry Allen to Prodigy of Mobb Deep, who were predicting how the balance of power could/would shift in an internet age from as early as the mid-1990s. This trend continued, for example when rapper and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle worked with Ghanaian tech expert Iddris Sandu to open the world’s first smart store, Marathon clothing in 2017.
In lockdown-hit 2020, hip hop culture was fast to ‘pivot to the new normal’, to use a much over worn cliché. Examples include the legendary DJ and videographer D-Nice hosting ‘quarantine parties’ on Instagram; renaissance man and internet 2.0 earlier adopter Joe Budden making serious power moves with his podcast; and production titans Timbaland and Swizz Beatz taking soundclash culture to another level via their Verzuz events, which started life on Instagram before making the move to P Diddy’s Revolt TV platform.
The Dirty Ol’ Men, have, like the above, been able to further build on their own, pre-2020 online presence and technical know-how to provide much needed solace for people the world over whilst Covid and – I’d be remiss to omit – anti-black racism in many forms, continue to rage.
The fact that hip hop and hip hop inspired artists were early to ‘pivot to the new normal’ whilst shouldering such strain, uncertainty and disruption reflects the longstanding hip hop tradition of making something out of nothing
The fact that hip hop and hip hop inspired artists were early to ‘pivot to the new normal’ whilst shouldering such strain, uncertainty and disruption reflects the longstanding hip hop tradition of making something out of nothing.
Part Four: Timely, yet timeless
‘Six Feet’ is many things at once.
Given the very specific and historically significant time in which it was recorded, the project is a musical time capsule. Conversely, it has a timeless quality, exploring both negative aspects of humanity throughout history, including racist violence, corruption and willfully ignorant leadership, as well as positive aspects, such as perseverance, love and friendship.
Given the very specific and historically significant time in which it was recorded, the project is a musical time capsule. Conversely, it has a timeless quality...
It is a deeply personal album and yet one with the potential to resonate with a broad audience. It continues the time-honoured hip hop tradition of making something from nothing, creating something fresh and new in the most restrictive of conditions. It makes internet technology another tool to keep hip hop alive and well – just like the humble turntable, which gave birth to scratching and breakbeats, and the humble twin tape deck, which gave birth to pause tapes.
One of my favourite hip hop projects of 2020 and the past few years, this is a triumph on many a level.
Digging into ‘Six Feet’ is time very well spent.
Check out 'Six Feet' on bandcamp: https://dirtyolmen.bandcamp.com/album/six-feet
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