Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Def by DeeJay

Mixtapes are a lot like Christmas: you never know exactly what you’re gonna get. Sure, there’s stuff you expect – and more often than not the fat guy in the red suit delivers – but there are also surprises. Delightful surprises.

While nerdcore hip-hop has a predilection for compilation albums, the more classic mixtape formula is often overlooked. Thankfully, in recent months, artists like YTCracker, Dual Core, and Metamystiks, Inc. have done their part to bring mixtapes to geeky hip-hop, and they’re not alone.

When nerdcore producer nYgel first started kicking around the idea of making his own mixtape, I was intrigued. Though he was, at the time, fairly new to the scene, a familiarity with some of his previous work gave me faith in both his abilities and his artistic vision. When I was approached a few weeks ago about doing a write-up on the project, I was happy to oblige.

nYgel, you see, is far from your average producer, and the list of contributing artists attached to the project spanned the breadth of nerdcore as we know it. From the get-go, this album promised to be an entertaining and exciting experience. And then, of course, there were the surprises.

  1. "Intro": Sparse, sharp, and commanding, the beat for this track really grabs your attention. The rhymes, unfortunately, while charming, are a little loose, but nYgel never claimed to be a rapper. This one serves its purpose; it gets you excited for what’s to follow
  2. "Revenge (featuring Conyeezy)": Conyeezy, you talk too much! I kid the Conyeezy! ;) Seriously, though, ‘Yeez and nYgel work incredibly very well together, though I could have done with more of Con’s well-paced rhyming and less of the spoken interludes. This is one of nYgel’s beats that unapologetically strays from hip-hop cannon, which was an odd choice for such an early track, but it’s one of his best and the song helps to remind you that this is far from your average mixtape.
  3. "Pretend (interlude)": This is one of those delightful surprises I was talking about. It’s an amazing take on Dance Hall Crashers “Cricket” that throws in what could have easily been an obnoxious house beat, but nYgel manages to make it fit. This is easily one of my favorite things on the album, despite the fact that something sounding suspiciously like the musical hook from Britney Spears’s “Toxic” wafts in a time or two. It’s a weird change of pace from last track, but still an amazing song that plays into the “anything goes” feel of the album.
  4. "Friends (featuring funky49)": This boasts a smooth transition from the previous song, and an amazing beat that’s both exotic and relatable. My long-time home-skillet funky49 loses me a bit on the first verse and chorus (which includes some staggering in the background vox that’s a little distracting), but the second verse is structurally simpler and a lot of fun. nYgel’s subtle switch-up on the beat makes it more so.
  5. "Entendre (featuring Able-X)": The overall tone of this track puts me in mind of the neon Babylon that is Las Vegas by night, which is oddly fitting considering that it features Able-X. The lyrics are well-written and amusing, with my only (minor) gripe being the slightly awkward vocal timing on the little bridge that occurs around 1:16 mark. But even that is more than made up for with the Able-X’s brilliant harmony in the outro. nYgel kept the beat simple, and it plays well against Able’s vocals. This track has a vastly different tone that most of the other tracks on the album, but, again, that reinforces the eclectic nature of the project.
  6. "Def by Deejay (interlude)": Here we find another flawless transition. I’m not sure if nYgel was trying to create a signature track with this one, but that’s exactly what I think he did with this 2 minute wonder. This type of warm, danceable, poppy groove is exactly the kind of sound I feel to be synonymous with him as a producer. Perfectly paced, expertly edited, and really inspiring, I was almost floored when I realized he’d actually used a pitch-altered +44 sample as the basis for this track!
  7. "Burnt Away (featuring Morningstar)": Another slow build-up that really pays off, this track features Morningstar, who are better known as Benjamin Bear and The Artist Formerly Known as Fanatical. Beautifully textured, wholly unexpected, and actually quite beautiful, this is the kind of song that would seem unthinkable on any other mixtape, and I applaud nYgel for taking a chance an including it. It’s an amazing effort from all parties involved.
  8. "Frequency (featuring MC Gigahertz)": Honestly, this one’s a little too thin for my tastes, especially after the dense yet airy Morningstar track that preceded it. It sort of sounds at times as if Gigahertz’s lyrics are sitting on top of the music as opposed to being a part of a greater whole. Despite its visible seams and the fact that this isn’t Gig’s tightest flow, the song is really interesting, lyrically, and genuinely relevant to me as a listener.
  9. "Ridikulous (featuring TG_2005)": TG’s flow is sarcastic and borderline obnoxious at times, but it certainly works, and while it seems a little rushed at times, this song bisects the album nicely. I was actually provided with an early demo of this track featuring another high-profile nerdcore artist, but it works very well in both cases. On the production end, this groove has a vaguely similar feel to the Morningstar track, and I enjoyed the recurring motif.
  10. "Repeat Again (featuring Cyanide Soda and M.C. Shinagami)": This one struck me less as a hip-hop track (due a bit of unsteady meter and wordiness in the verses), but as a more than adequate musically accompanied piece of slam poetry. I’m a huge fan of dub, so the beat appeals to me on a lot of levels. Again, portions of the verses sound more like a poem to me than standard-meter rap, but I actually enjoy that element a lot. The kicked-up-snare-as-cicada sound that floats through from time to time also really interests me.
  11. "32 Bars (featuring IllGill and killsaly)": The intro to this seems a tad long to me, but it really grabs the listener after the dubby wind-down of “Repeat Again.” This beat is a killer, and it boasts a slightly glitchy, almost electro feel that, truthfully, has killsaly’s fingerprints all over it. I instantly knew that this wasn’t nYgel’s production because of the departure, but it totally works within the structure of the album. I’m always a fan of killsaly’s nontraditional layering, and I felt it was a welcome addition to the mixtape as a whole. Gill’s flow only slips on a couple of occasions, but I found the hyper-compressed vocal effect to be a bit distracting. Still. “32 Bars” manages to have a sort of experimental, almost drone-rock vibe that makes it memorable.
  12. "Radio Star (featuring Benjamin Bear)": Great. Really great. This is another instance where proper track placement makes a brilliant song even more so. nYgel fucks with a classic and Ben comes in rapping with that upper register bark that’s become his trademark of late. On an album of short tracks, this one flies by quicker than most, but I enjoy every second of it. I know this is one of nYg’s faves, and it’s one of mine too.
  13. "Take it All Back (featuring Grandmaster Pink)": Strange, sad, haunting, and – dare I say – somber. This is one of the longer, slower tracks on Nature’s Outcasts, but nYgel’s skillful manipulation of the beat’s subtleties and Pink’s undeniable flow make it a fun ride, even if it does sound a bit like Pinky’s rapping to us from beyond the grave. Who’s the other MC? Why it’s my Carolina brother Projekt Zero, who’s not credited in the track title for some reason, but his contribution is admirable as well.
  14. "The Wanderer (featuring Conyeezy)": This trails in expertly from Pink’s track. The song continually grows on me. I dug it when I first heard it, and now, a dozen or so listens later, I’m really in love with it. Admittedly, Conyeezy gets a little preachy (and he does a little more talking), but he really hits his stride vocally and manages to sound compelling, convincing, and concerned. On the production end, the Johnny Cash hook and the understated beat make for a thing of beauty. Despite minor gripes, this is another highlight. It could well have ended the album, but, since it didn’t, rest assured that it’ll end an edition of Radio Free Hipster in the not-too distant future.
  15. "Until the Dust Settles (featuring Sir-Up)": Sir-Up, a man known up to this point for his penchant for rhyming about comics, gets political on this one, while nYg takes us on a musical journey that’s distinctly eastern. Not Ups best flow, but his lyrics are acerbic and undoubtedly unexpected. My only real complaint is the misuse of the word hung, but that’s just the English major in me. ;) [NOTE: Since the writing of this piece, the song's title appears to've been changed to "Operation Desert Rhymes."]
  16. "Last Call (featuring Grandmaster Pink, Conyeezy, YTCracker, Beefy, MC Gigahertz, Sir-Up, funky49, Benjamin Bear)": What’s a mixtape without a posse track? Possibly nYgel’s most stirring and well-paced beat, and certainly the only competent hip-hop track I’ve ever heard that lifts a sample from Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Pink and Conyeezy set the tone by starting strong. (This is probably some of Yeezy’s best rhyming to date; you can set your watch by this flow!) Nerdy South icons YTCracker and Beefy bring it just as hard as you’d expect, and MC Gigahertz more than makes up for any missteps in his previous contribution and proves himself to any naysayers. Sir-Up (who comes back with the social conscience) and funky49 (who comes in like the tracks biggest cut-up) bring that crazy Florida wild-style to the forefront, and, as always, they work well together in such close proximity. Ben Bear takes the track home in his own indubitable fashion, and ably caps what’s sure to be the new late-night nerdcore drinking anthem. nYgel manages to take all these lyrical flavors and make them work together in a greater context, even if the track terminates a little too abruptly. I’m not one for overly long songs, but this one keeps my attention and proves undeniably enjoyable.
  17. "Outro (production notes)": nYg comes clean on the creation of the album and really has fun with it. It’s a great way to wrap things up, distinctly personal, and irrefutably good-natured. Not since the first Sublime full-length have I actually enjoyed listening to an album-ending series of stories and shout-outs. Most importantly, I have to thank nYgel for the love he gives to me and Hipster, please!, even if he woefully overestimates my readership!
  18. "Entendre (redux)": In what has become the nerdcore tradition, nYgel’s album doesn’t stop just because it’s done. This weird, glitchy, and tempo-cranked rendition of Able-X’s “Entendre” is a bit more fun than the original, but mostly because even at hyperspeed, Able isn’t quite as fast as Wheelie Cyberman. :)
  19. "In My World (featuring T.Y.T.)": T.Y.T. is nerdcore hip-hop’s answer to Bubba Sparxx, and if that sounds like an insult then you misunderstand me. With an accent, a cadence, a lyrical style, and a flow that’s like no other, the self-professed “the little engine that couldn’t but did it anyway” reminds me of the same simply fact as the great YTCracker: that nerdcore can easily have cross-over appeal. Autobiographical songs are always tough, as they mostly enable artists to wallow in misfortune and overhype their victories, but T.Y.T. tells it like it is, and does so skillfully. nYgel again displays his knack for finding the right beat for the right artist by matching T.Y.T.’s style impeccably. Is it wrong that one of my favorite songs from this album is a bonus track?
  20. "Strongalactic (featuring Beastie Boys)": nYgel cut his teeth doing Beasties remixes, so this is a fitting place to end our musical journey. There are some sharp breaks in this track that I don’t quite understand, but overall it’s loads of fun and a really interesting note to go out on.

It’s incredibly easy to make a bad mixtape and oppressively difficult to make a good one, but nYgel and his rowdy team of musical contributors put in the exhaustive legwork necessary to create the latter. It’s stylistically eclectic, exquisitely produced, and a real joy to listen to.

If there’s an underlying theme or message to this collection, it’s that we, as nerds, are nature’s outcasts, and that all the variety you might find in the natural world is reflected in our individual styles and interests. While the mixtape is an artform that promotes diversity and encourages experimentation, nYgel and company have taken that principle to its logical conclusion. The album jumps effortlessly between hip-hop, house, bastard pop, and a myriad of other genres without so much as a batting the proverbial eyelash.

In doing so, it will surely lose some listeners along the way, but the beauty is that anyone who may feel momentarily disappointed with a verse or track will surely be rewarded for sticking around.

While many musical journeys are linear point-A to point-B affairs, Nature’s Outcasts is a scenic drive through the vast landscape of nerdy music. Sure, there may be the occasional rough detour or flat tire, but the listener will ultimately arrive at the final destination enlightened, refreshed, and alive with the promise of new aural possibilities.

Download the album and experience it for yourself.

“Like the last level on Punch-out, I’m destroying a Mike!”

5 comments:

Conyeezy said...

awesome review, and thanks for the love!

to be fair, i did 'revenge' months ago, and i struggled to find a way to seal a chorus into it, so i solved it by shit-talking, a skill i employ constantly ^_^

as for wanderer, 'preachy' is the term i use as well for that part so we can lol @ that together

all said, i'm very happy with how i came on the beats i was given, and like to think it is my best rapping to date

'bring your a-game'

Matt said...

I like that the mc choices are not just the obvious choices. No Karl and YT and Beefy are left to a group track. This looks like a perfect opprotunity for me to familarize myself with some of the other artists out there. Something I fully endorse. I look forward to checking this out when I get a chance.

Also, hats off to you Z. Your reviewing style seems to be shaping up nicely.

Nygel said...

thanks for doing this Z, its awesome. I love reading it. also, my rhymes. .. . i have my vocals at 121 bpm when the track is at 120 bpm, if you dont know what that means, it means i messed up when i brought it in, cuz they def were on time when i recorded them. Expect a better version with real equipment to replace that at some point. I may venture into vocals more now. again, thanks. and i checked my facts when i did the production notes, you definately get that many hits

Able-X said...

I'm glad you liked entendre, especially as how I hadn't actually intended for the original version to be on there lol. Guess you can all take your pic of which one you like more ;)

Z. said...

No problem at all, Yeez; I'm just giving love where it's warranted. And don't sweat the "preachy" thing. A fair number of MCs have had lengthy careers by doing nothing but being preachy! ;)

Thanks, Matt. nYgel really did me a solid by letting me hear the album before its release. That gave me plenty of time to familiarize myself with the material.

That makes sense, nYg. Things did tend to drift slightly as the track progressed, and that definitely accounts for it. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do this write-up. I appreciate it.

Both versions are a lot of fun, Able, as is most of your work. I like that you're not afraid to have fun with your music. In my opinion, that's a very noble place for a musician to be.