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.

Project Dark: …And It Was Black

Let there be Dark

KGB and Moshe unleash a Project five years in the making

The last time DJ/producer/label head Moshe appeared in this column [this originally ran in the winter of 2007], it was posited he had “raised dark and gloomy to a hip-hop art form,” which I meant as a compliment. As a purveyor of his own kind of goth-hop (goth-tronica?), there is no mistaking a Moshe track, full of deep fuzzy synths, half-time beats, and disconcerting samples that are just as Romantic as that new By Blood Alone album.

Now, with partner KGB/Syn the Shaman, he has found his calling with Project Dark’s …And It Was Black, a 13-track concept album of sorts, released by Milled Pavement Records, that shows that minimalist production paired with cogent and crisply delivered lyrics can effect a very interesting piece of art/music, indeed.

Central to the album is a spiraling narrative lifted from/referencing the thirtysomething cult classic River’s Edge, which not only stars Keanu Reeves, but also tells the charming tale of a guy who’s killed his girlfriend for “talking shit” and is reveling in showing off her dead body to his buddies (while they get stoned, if I recall correctly). Somehow, this material both suits Project Dark’s musical intentions and allows them get fairly deep.

[[Editor’s note: Normally, I embed something so you can listen to the album, but I can’t find anything online. It looks like Spotify won’t let the album play because there’s a U.K. group called “Project Dark,” and Spotify is either giving them priority for the name or is just confused. I think Last.fm might be a place you can download it, so that link is here.]]

The first track allows us voyeuristic entrance to an argument that gets rather heated, though our protagonist has done little more than wake his gal up: “I said I’m fucking sorry/ You don’t have to act this way/ But I see how are/ Overdramatic basket case.” On top of Moshe’s languid keyboard line, KGB anchors the track with a delivery that’s monotone and methodical, setting the tone for an album that will proceed to feature an emotional detachment and destruction always personified by his half-rap/half-drone.

By “Practice Makes Perfect Sense,” Project Dark are past the murder and considering the consequences. KGB’s voice is resigned, but with a hint of sing-song, which is all the more creepy, amped up by Moshe’s crazed samples like Hitchcock’s birds chirping. “I should have used a chain, maybe a few bricks,” we’re told, as the body floats. “You’re floating to your grave, and I’ll miss you.” Just as River’s Edge sought to comment on the broken nature of a generation (see Less than Zero for the rich people’s version), here Project Dark seem to mock the it’s-not-my-fault generation, as though actions they commit are completely beyond their control.

This disassociation is paired with an intense self-loathing and –pitying that’s impressive. “The Funeral” opens with a riff on Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35 (the “Funeral March,” of course) accompanied by a soft conga beat and a plodding snare. Then KGB just internalized everything: “Now everything’s ruined/ Just blame it on me … I’ll drive you crazy/ And I’ll make you hate me … Just like a disease/ And there’s no way to treat it.” It is an exploration into what it is to be dark, what makes us dark, what makes some of us fear it, some of us embrace it, and some of us embody it.

In KGB’s case, he has no choice. “I’ll never walk away,” he exhales, “because I’m addicted to the pain.”

The title track, then, is wish-fulfillment, and Moshe signals this with a cheery church organ, joined by an elastic beat that ripples through the mix. As our protagonist offs himself, “death slowly sliding down the back of my throat/ Like a plastic cup of cough medicine,” we almost cheer it. He’s gotten what he wanted, if not necessarily what he deserved.

His soul travels through “Exist Through This,” paired with a two-note keyboard movement like a truncated 2001: A Space Odyssey, before becoming “Residue,” full of a slight right-hand piano and a shuddering and descending guitar line. At this point, denial has completely set in. “Forever I will have to ask myself/ Was there something that I could do/ To prevent you from leaving me/ Without a chance to say goodbye?”

Who’s left whom, now? Mixed way to the back, Sontiago’s voice echoes like a conscience.

It’s no wonder KGB/Syn and Moshe/Whispers (so Moshe’s character is given on the back of the packaging) took more than five years creating this. It is executed precisely from start to finish, is listenable and engaging, and yet occupies a musical genre that should be largely foreign to most listeners. They have introduced an audience to a concept that by all rights should be abhorrent and made it sympathetic, a difficult task, indeed.

It is enough to make an accompanying full album of remixes, Director’s Cut, worth the listen, even if just for the five versions of the title track. The C Money Burns version sounds like it could have been released straight out of 1983 Brooklyn. Highkoo’s is the “Delsym Remix,” which should be amusing for anyone with children.

The package represents 30 tracks of a dark and gloomy artform. Perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon.