I’d like to preface this article by acknowledging and bringing to your attention that there is an ongoing struggle for black liberation in America; it is our utmost duty to do everything we can in support of this movement, especially so as fans of hip-hop. Police are still killing unarmed minorities in the streets, the system which governs us is still designed to sequester and oppress people of color, and there is still a horrifying and grave level of inequality plaguing our country. So continue to go to protests, sign petitions, make donations get loud, and get angry — because the struggle is far from over.
In any case, I wanted to do a quick write-up on some of the artists who have been making waves in the underground scene right now. There’s been a lot of good music released recently, but the best music I’ve heard this year has been less so the releases from major record labels, and more so in the indie / underground rap scene. My hope is that someone somewhere might read this and find pleasure in one of these artists, as they all are relatively unknown and deserve more shine.
Every once in a while, a rapper will appear on your timeline who you find yourself trying to piece together in your head how they have not generated more buzz outside of their regional bubble. Currently, for me, that artist is Vince Ash.
Ash is a lyricist from Hammond, Indiana, who is hot off dropping his sophomore project ‘Vito.’ It was Ash’s bassy, powerful voice which immediately drew me in; that, combined with his seemingly veteran poise, left me reeling to discover that he is only 23 years old. The rapper’s closest analogue that jumps to mind is Freddie Gibbs. The comparison is more than just a lazy equivalence drawn because they are both deep-voiced Indiana rappers; Ash shares Gibbs’ malleability of flow, impressive technical toolkit, and penchant for big-picture talk, so much so that one can’t help but make the comparison. And whilst Ash’s previous and first project, the 2018 ‘Do or Die’, is chock full of no-frills, hard-knock street raps which are a tad reminiscent of an E$GN era Gibbs, now, ‘Vito’ adds a dimension of depth and storytelling which was previously missing from Ash’s catalogue, something which Gibbs himself also honed more and more as his career went on.
This comparison to me is most salient on Ash’s ‘Back n’ the Dayz (Interlude)’, a track which I would be inclined to label the stand-out of the album. The song is a solemn reverie of bygone days on the block, with flittings of brutal reflection — ”through the years seen my peers disappear in front my eyes / look to god and wonder why are we here just to live and to die” — and casual materialist analysis — “to make it out of circumstances / we never had no chances” — peppered through-out. Notably, the sample work on the song is impeccable; the old Barry White post-performance interview which bisects the track comes through like a gut punch, and the song is capped by a sampling of the wistful 1994 ‘Back in the Days’ by Ahmad, which perfectly encapsulates the bittersweet pseudo-gloom of days gone by which this song draws so heavily upon. The consummately employed down-barreling flow which Ash utilizes here combined with the hazy vignettes of street life he paints through his raps strongly evoke ‘Freddie Gordy’, a similar classic from Gibbs catalogue.
But the Gibbs’ comparison is not meant to box Ash in — no, far from it. It is clear Ash’s influences are varied, with hints of several different sounds — from the thundering drums and shouted overlays of Three 6 Mafia to a sort of 2Pac-infused West Coast Funk — blending together for a sound which is distinctively Ash’s own. As a result of this unique hodgepodge, Ash is afforded a rather admirable dexterity on these tracks, as evidenced on ‘Whut It G Like’, where the rapper repeatedly swaps between different flows on the beat’s recurring 3 beat switches effortlessly.
‘Vito’ clocks in at only about 15 minutes of run-time, but within this relatively short run-time is housed great complexity. The typical depictions of the lifestyle Ash raps about on this project which we so frequently find elsewhere, and admittedly enjoy and consume, can be at times two-dimensional, even reductionist; but on this project, the under-girding themes, from brotherhood and loyalty to pain and grief, bolster this more simplistic portrayal with the complexities of emotion and struggle. Even though Ash maintains his rough, mafioso demeanor throughout the project, he showcases a willingness to open up, to show the human element and human toll that comes with street life, in a way that is both touching and impactful. And it is this, this eye for both depth and grit, which truly makes ‘Vito’ a must-listen.
Amir Bilal & Tony Tone
The rap scene of lo-fi, jazzy, seemingly-DIY raps which has begun to gather some serious steam in the past year or so has been a privilege to follow. From MIKE to Ovrkast, the genre is one which thrives in the Bandcamp era, with the dusty loops and the artistically-patched-together 480p clips which constitute the trademark visual of the genre being perfectly attuned to capture what can only be described as, at least for us terminally-online folk, ‘aesthetic.’ But, by the very nature of this home-brewed sound, I find that a lot of the best talent in the scene has yet to be discovered; such is the case for rappers Tony Tone and Amir Bilal.
Both rappers find strength in their superb song-writing which is exceptional not so much because it is technically impressive (although there is plenty of that to be found in their raps too), but more so because it is simply well-written. For instance, take Tony Tone’s ‘Face’ from his EP ‘Heal’ released earlier this year; the song is rife with striking and evocative lyrical gems, all of them punctuated by either simple, but effective, wordplay — “late nights, J lit, thinkin’ how I’m gon’ face this?” — or his trademark annunciation — “too many nights I left my soul malnourished / foul purpose / round the time the boy was couch surfin.” On the side of Bilal, we can look to his verse on the two’s collaborative ‘Everything’; here, his laid back flow hopscotches through syllables upon syllables of nonchalant smack talk and introspective musings — “man, shit / I’m sittin pennin verses in Sanskrit / searching for answers / I seen I concocted most of my cancers,” Bilal raps, his writing chops reminding me of a more direct, less diffusive Earl Sweatshirt.
Of course, for as much as I laud the two’s songwriting, I must also mention that the two have a strong ear for beats — a good thing to be sure, for what would good song writing be without a complimentary beat to buttress it? The two are constantly rotating through a carousel of different producers whose production is marked by a hazy, yet also quite expressive, soundscape, which compliments their style well; in particular, the two’s collaborations with upstart producers Argov, Keysun, and Moki, are some of the best in the scene right now.
Both Bilal and Tony Tone are fresh off of two new EPs which deserve a listen; Bilal’s ‘XVIII’ and Tony Tone’s new collaborative album with fellow contemporary Elijah Bank$y, ‘SEE ME, SEE U.’ Bilal’s project was released to commemorate his 18th birthday — but rather than a typical celebratory affair, the meditative and reflective musings which dot the landscape of this project give it the feeling of a sort of coming of age retrospective. As a result, the project is one that feels deeply personal, relatable, and genuine, a feeling which is only amplified by the project’s more raw, DIY, home-studio vocal mixing. On the other hand, Tony Tone’s new collaborational project is less so focused conceptually, and more of a loose collection of songs showcasing the rapper’s ability. Tony Tone’s more husky, fuller vocal register is the true hook of this project, and when combined with his lax demeanor and pseudo-southern drawl, it is uniquely satisfying to the ear. To me, the best tracks on this project are “30 Piece” and “Jordan Cigar”, two songs whose laid-back, slinking beats perfectly lend themselves to Tony Tone’s delivery style.
With the latest deluge of BandGang releases over the past couple weeks, I feel very confident in saying that Detroit’s BandGang’s depth as a group and collective is simply unparalleled in the street rap scene at the current moment. Whilst there may be other rap groups who arguably have more star power on the top-side, BandGang releases projects at a volume and consistency which is unmatched; really, they’re the only rap group I can think of that has at least 5 different members who are engaging and skilled enough to the point where I would actually want to listen to each rapper’s solo project. But I suppose this is to be expected of Detroit’s marquee rap group, as volume is par for the course for the city. After all, this is a scene known for its ever-expanding laundry list of up and comers and seemingly infinite supply of music videos — so much so that someone might have to check what in the hell they’re putting in the water supply up in Michigan, because sometimes I swear it feels like damn near everybody and their mother in Detroit can rap.
Whilst each of BandGang bring their own unique takes on the Detroit style to the table — be it Lonnie’s versatile, unconventional flow, Javar’s angry punch-ins, or Masoe talking shit recklessly like a rottweiler off-leash — on ‘Applying Pressure,’ Paid Will’s strength is found in his ability to take the more conventional Detroit sound, the sound pioneered by the likes of Peezy and 80’s Baby, and fine tune and perfect it. Consequently, Paid Will’s project is marked by airtight raps, choruses which somehow always end up stuck in your head, and a handful of visceral punchlines (they thought my n***a sold drugs, but brodie rich off hits / and I ain’t talking about raps, bro gon’ spill your shit — ‘In My Bag’) — the result is a project which serves as a great entry-point for anyone trying to familiarize themselves with the Detroit sound. The album benefits from the usual spate of Detroit features (as well as a few West coast cameos!), but my favorite has got to be the ShredGang Mone and Cash Click Boogz assisted ‘Top Shottas’; Mone’s basketball-player-punchlines remain undefeated, and Boogz’ more mellowed-out, nasally delivery offers a nice change of pace.
For as much as this Paid Will album showcases how truly deep BandGang is as a group, the group just got that much deeper with the release of the group’s cofounder Biggs from prison. After spending the last three years locked up, rather than release the typical ‘First Day Out’ type affair (“Everybody do that… it’s so expected,” Biggs lamented in a sit-down interview), Biggs waited a bit to record a few music videos and release the fitting ‘Return of the Beast.’ I use the word ‘fitting’ because Bigg’s presence on this record is absolutely monstrous — track after track, Biggs hops onto the beat and proceeds to bark his verses in what is practically a shouted delivery, in such a way that it’s almost like he is manhandling the beat, commanding it around like his plaything.
Biggs was one of the first names to begin to get hot in this new Detroit wave, and considering how much attention the scene has gotten in recent years, it’s a shame to think about what could have been had he not gotten locked up. But Biggs clearly harbors no bitterness or resentment; despite the ferocity on his new record, he has come out all smiles and positivity. “There are so many new artists doing their thing now, and I’m really proud of these boys,” Biggs said in an interview with the Hip Hop Lab, smiling warmly, “It’s really just a blessing to see this shit… I’m just happy to be in this moment, coming out when I [did].” Truly, one can’t help but admire Bigg’s attitude in the face of all that has happened to him — here’s to hoping it pays off for him.