Like the culture it represents, hip hop music has gone through many changes in the last two decades. Producers continue to push their craft to new heights, while emcees are as nuanced as they are divisive. The free online mixtape formula has done just as many wonders for the proliferation of swag, as it has made it harder for progressive collectives to sustain as businesses. Simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic, R.A.P. Music—Killer Mike and El-P’s first collaboration album—is a product of two thoughtful artists working to question, define and give love to the world of underground hip hop.
Part love letter, part sound progression, R.A.P. Music finds both veterans on top of their game, working off each other as much as the concept itself. Throughout the record, El-P’s production feels like a retrospective of the many eras of hip hop–from the boom bap of the Bronx to the spacey synths of Graduation–with Killer Mike’s thoughtful, and sometimes radical flow. R.A.P. Music is a peak in both artists careers, who are scene and sound leaders in their own right. Which is refreshing, since both artists struggled through the late Aughts and early 10s to keep their relevance.
Killer Mike burst on the scene in 2001 as a worthy counterpart to Andre 3000 and Big Boi, dropping a memorable verse on Outkast’s perversely catchy track “The Whole World”. He went on to chart in the top ten on his debut album Monster largely due to the success of his first single “A.D.I.D.A.S.”. Through misguided forays into gangster rap and poor marketing, the public quickly lost interest and he quickly faded into obscurity, despite releasing four strong albums in six years.
El-P—the mad Brooklyn producer with a taste for both weird and hard—first rose to prominence after releasing the underground classic Funcrusher Plus with his former rap group, Company Flow in 1997. From there, he was a pioneer of the underground hip hop scene, establishing the Definitive Jux label, which went on to release much loved albums from the likes of Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif among others. The rise of Definitive Jux marked a new era of underground hip hop, shifting focus from wordplay to avant production and esoteric rhymes. However, by the late Aughts, the underground hip hop world as a business model practically grinded to a halt, with Def Jux announcing a hiatus in 2010, while other avant hip hop labels—Stones Throw, Rawkus, etc.—continued to release less and less. The underground looked to the free online mixtape format, a cheap and homegrown alternative to high-quality studio work. Content with beat recycling, rising rappers exploited the free system, which surely helped the majority of artists on collectives like YMCMB hit it big, while doing little to advance the scene. After the decline and demise of his label, El-P spent some time in the shadows, but soon found new inspiration.
At first, it seemed like the free online mixtape era of hip hop may have constituted the death knell for quality underground hip hop. Of course, a new school of emcees and producers have filled the void, embracing the mixtape format to test boundary pushing material. Collectives like OFWGKTA, Das Racist and Black Hippy released intriguing tapes that pushed hip hop in new and exciting (or exhausting) directions, and managed to find widespread success. In the middle of another renaissance, underground hip hop is again rising to the forefront of pop music, giving plenty more artists opportunities to keep getting weird. Enter our heroes.
Continuing the momentum he started in ’11, El-P has focused his creative energy in producing and emceeing with the best in the new hip hop underground, teaming up with newcomers on the scene like Mr. Motherfuckin Exquire, Danny Brown and Despot. His newest solo record, Cancer for the Cure (5/22) is a rally cry on his way to reclaim his position at the top of the underground. That said, it’s his pairing up with Killer Mike on R.A.P. Music that has proved to be his most unlikely and intriguing project of all.
Killer Mike and El-P play perfect foils to each other: Killer Mike as the grizzled southern rap veteran, generally sounding most at home on syrupy, soulful beats, and El-P churning out claustrophobic, old school Brooklyn beats inflected with gurgling synths and Atari sound effects. The album is a success by the way the two expertly play off each other. El-P infused his beats with UGK-esque organ stabs, while Killer Mike’s southern flow occasionally channels Jay-Z. Their chemistry is both undeniable and dynamic.
The album starts out with a bang on the trunk-rattling single “Big Beast”. The beat is built around unsettling synths and sparse samples before busting into an onslaught of percussion. Killer Mike couldn’t sound any more fired up as he details the seductive, violent side of Atlanta. And Bun B sounds impossibly smooth as he spouts the essentially nonsensical line “when you step out on the ave, make sure that they can see ya/’cause being trill is an onomatopoeia”.
“Go!” acts as a reminder of the lost art of true turntablism. El-P channels Jam Master Jay throughout, unleashing an impossible amount of samples ranging from heavy metal to disco while also making room for an impressive scratch interlude. Killer Mike still somehow asserts his dominance over the madness with Chuck D level bravado, a theme that stays consistent throughout the record. For a second, you forget what rap music ever sounded like after the incorporation of indie rock samples and Pro Tools.
The truest throwback comes on “JoJo’s Chillin”. With a beat built almost exclusively on a syncopated snare-bass drum beat, Killer Mike appropriates the storytelling style of Run-DMC and details the misadventures of the absent minded and impossibly fortunate JoJo, who somehow manages to make it through airport security with a bag of weed in his pocket. The song is clever and engaging, and overall a reminder of how much fun third party narrative in rap can be.
The shallow, surface level pleasures of songs like “Go!” and “JoJo’s Chillin” are counterbalanced by a number of weighty, political and introspective tracks, the most notable of which is “Reagan”. Although the themes of “Reagan” have been addressed in rap songs before (government repression of blacks, entrenched elites, modern day slavery), the track exhibits a nuanced political understanding that elevates the track above the rest, astutely referencing Oliver North, Iran Contra and Moammar Gaddafi. In the track, Killer Mike paints a bleak portrait of America with a cool detachment that imbues his descriptions of a perpetually repressed underclass with a sense of hopelessness and dread. The song builds in urgency, climaxing as Killer Mike describes the dystopian police state in which we currently reside, blaming the Reagan for all. The end is haunting, with Killer Mike chanting “Ronald (6), Wilson (6), Reagan (6).” It’s a bold statement that is echoed in the shifting, chilling beat.
The closer–“R.A.P. Music”–is a paean to hip hop music, summarizing and concluding the album on a pensive, if not spirtitual note. “This is jazz/this is funk/this is soul/this is gospel/this is sanctified sick/this is player Pentecostal”, raps Mike over buzzing synths and snare hits filtered through delay effects. This is real, this is honest. It’s a 2012 anthem.
R.A.P. Music is proof that the underground still exists on the high quality plane that was once pioneered by these two veterans. What was likely an attempt to make both artists relevant in 2012, ends up being something much larger and far more meaningful: a manifesto.
Tim Myers is a frequent contributor to Frontier Psychiatrist. He has never accidentally brought weed on a plane.