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.

Shane Reis: Reis & Shine

Shine on, you crazy rapper

The debut full-length from Shane Reis

Maybe you heard about Martin Manley. A long-time Kansas City sportswriter, he made the extraordinary decision to plan his own suicide 14 months in advance, all the while documenting his life on a web site that went live on the occasion of his death.

It’s interesting that he would at the same time wish to die and effectively live on forever in the annals of the Web, his every interest and familial detail articulated. He was at once documentarian and the guy who shuts off the lights at the end of the show.

There’s something similar going on in hip hop these days, as rappers increasingly create albums that document their interior monologue, hyper-personal introspections over R&B samples and bouncy snares. Further, there are often assurances that said rapper won’t forget his/her upbringing when the big-time hits, that the fire that forged the rapper in question is vital to the forward trajectory of the big hip-hop career and the music, itself.

In other words, you can’t know their music without knowing them.

Shane Reis goes so far as to ponder “what woulda happened if I had died this weekend” late in his debut full-length, Reis & Shine, a 17-track collection of indie-pop contemporary rap, with familiar nods to the soul and funk traditions. On “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” Kristina Kentigian, quickly becoming a studio pro’s pro and piling up credits on local albums (the hip-hop equivalent to a horn section with Ryan Zoidis and Dave Noyes), croons behind the first couple verses, then knocks out a beautifully executed sung verse of her own.

Like Manley and his web site, Reis declares his intentions bluntly, in a cadence like a more-deliberate Bread. “I got a lotta shit to say,” he informs us early on the title and opening track, keeping us up to speed on everything from his age (23) to his foibles: “Hear the people whispering, say I don’t belong.”

It’s not this reviewer’s place to psychoanalyze, but there’s certainly no shortage of fodder here for anyone who might like to take a swing. It’s like he’s lying on the couch laying himself bare.

Heck, in “Human Nature” we get the entire thought process behind whether he should be jealous of his significant other or not. Through one of the more progressive tracks, with back-step beats and an off-time piano cadence, he details the real reason why she decided to put her ring in her purse when out at the club: She didn’t want to lose it like he had done.

Maybe it will strike you as too intimate. Maybe you’ll relate.

The album as a whole is in some ways like De La Soul’s Plug 1 & Plug 2, which is more throwback-‘90s, but similarly delivers a consistent style of hip hop with every track, rather than mixing ballads and bangers or changing up vocal deliveries for effect. You might not have all the songs committed to memory, but every track is very listenable.

Nor do the guest spots by talented MCs like Spose, Lady Essence, Jay Caron and Syn the Shaman overpower their tracks. They mold their flows to Reis’ like a tasteful lead guitar solo.

Essence’s contribution to “Can Your Remember” is particularly sweet (as in: aw shucks), dueting with Reis on a chanted chorus that’s playful and catchy in rap harmony and then giving her side of her friendship with Reis, how the two of them related with their parents and the outside world when Eminem and others infected them while growing up with the need to MC.

Her mother read her rhymes and pronounced, “You need therapy.”

“At heart, we’re still the same kids,” Reis allows, and that’s the ultimate ingredient in making his music successful: It’s genuine. And there is a wonder about it that cuts through any bombast and boasts.

There’s a small part of Reis, maybe, that still doesn’t believe he’s made an album that you can pick up in Bull Moose or buy from iTunes just like “real” rappers. Which means he’s made it for all the right reasons.