Labseven: North Winds

Mad scientists

Labseven finally put it all together with North Winds

Successful hip hop is all about braggadocio. There really is no equivalent in the genre to an indie weenie who can turn his back to the crowd, plink his guitar, and sing woe-is-me faux falsetto vocals about his relationship with his cat while retaining a prayer of success.

Cat Power cried on the Skinny stage and got more popular, but even the most underground of hip-hoppers (say, the mostly-missing-on-the-local-scene Nomar Slevik) don’t really do a whole lot of self-deprecating on the mic [Editor’s note: This originally ran in November 2006, before the game-changer that was “I’m Awesome”]. More than content, the delivery of a good rap depends entirely on an utter and total self-confidence, whether it be smooth self-assuredness or the most aggressive of rat-a-tat-tat bravado. The only reason Sole’s crazy-ass stream of consciousness, like Jack Kerouac on methamphetamine, works is because you know for a fact that he not only couldn’t care less what you think of him, but doesn’t even register the possibility that you might have an opinion that matters.

With North Winds, local hip-hop collective (er, band) Labseven might be the first Portland-centric group to completely deliver with that crucial ego component. While the album isn’t necessarily an announcement of the next great thing in hip hop, it is totally enjoyable because you believe every minute of it, from the self-pimping claims that certain vocalists “flow like a bottle of merlot” while others are “comin’ ice-cold like Canada” and “for the women got stamina” to goose-bumpling cuts by frequent guest DJ shAde (who, in a spot of trivia, sublet an apartment from me in 1995 before getting me into hip hop by leaving me his wax while he traveled to the Asian sub-continent for a stretch).

On a disc that runs that gamut of what I consider to be the Golden Age of hip hop — the mid-’90s run of the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, the Brand New Heavies, the Fugees, Gang Starr, the Wu-Tang Clan — Labseven consistently and fluidly move from one MC to another, one style to another, thanks to the vocal talents of JJ King and Hectic, the Reinstatah and Mello the Verbal Wonder. And don’t forget Autonomous, who lends his own rhymes while handling most of the arranging and mixing on the disc as producer and retains a consistently enjoyable commitment to melody and old-school Motown soul staples like Al Green, Smokey Robinson, and Sam Cooke.

The opening anomaly that is the self-titled production effort from Analog Death Squad starts off like Gang Starr’s “Skills” from their 2004 comeback album, then harkens back to the Heavies’ 1993 collaboration album with a synth line that should recall Jamalski’s “promp, promp.” Similarly, there’s a contemporary underground Atmosphere vibe triggered by talk of “the biggest Bunsen burners,” but plenty of ’90s throwback to the Jurassic 5 when we’re told we want more. Labseven don’t succumb to today’s MTV, eschewing chingy nonsense and denigrating women, but neither do they get overly word-smithy or forget the power of the chorus like hop hop’s true underground often do.

Much of the credit for this must go to Autonomous, but producer Doc Brown’s “Last Call” is a standout even if it’s just one of two contributions here. He leads with a great contrast between a super-low spaced-out bass and what sounds like the last two keys on the right of the piano, then John Legend-style vocals are paired with the female backing of Linze, doing with those lead vocals exactly what that piano is doing with the bass. Now that’s good production – like on Beverly Hills 90210 where there would always be a parallel story line to draw attention to the dynamic action that was driving the plot, except a tad more subtle.

It’s about conflict, people. That’s what makes good writing, be they stories or songs. The only disappointment here is that Linze’s solo is all-too-brief.

Other disappointments album-wide include a trite marijuana paean, a la Method Man (and just about everyone else); two very strange mid-song transitions where it seems like someone changed the channel in “Dark Roads” and “To the Lab”; and “Falling Skies,” replete with Spanish guitar, and “Rising or Drowning,” where the opening spends too much time in half-time, which just don’t acknowledge the listener’s point of view.

None of these are album-killing, however, and there are enough stand-out moments to satisfy just about anybody looking to have some fun without feeling intellectually insulted. The Hammond sample that begins and ends “Movin’ On” is rich like chocolate cake. The three-part harmony on “Dark Roads” is wide open, including the bass and soprano parts so there’s this huge gap from the tenor on either end. “Life You Live” manages to call Ghostface Killah to mind while making some political commentary and embracing a darkly melodic piano line from local goth gal Aepril Schaile (credited as “Apriel Shale”).

Though there have been solo albums on the local front from the likes of Sontiago, Bread, and A-Frame that equal this disc in quality, Labseven here set the standard for a local collective.

Well, maybe until I review Dirt Co.’s disc next week. We’ll see.