Kool Moe Dee – “How Ya Like Me Now” (1987)

How ya like me now?

A lot, Kool Moe… I like ya a lot…

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How can you not love the dying throes of the innocent braggadocio that defined hip hop before it was unceremoniously obliterated by gangsta rap?  With songs based on James Brown (“How Ya Like Me Now”) and The Escape Club (“Wild Wild West”) and Paul Simon (“50 Ways”) (yes, I said PAUL SIMON!) the jams are simple, fun, and catchy.  However, it’s “Way Way Back” that is the true gem on How Ya Like Me Now, the most OG-disco-era-sounding track of the bunch.

If you can’t have fun listening to How Ya Like Me Now, you may need to check yourself, because you might be dead, or at the very least have no soul.

Cell 7 – “Is Anybody Listening?” (2019)

Ragna Kjartansdóttir has been part of the Icelandic hip hop scene since its earliest days.  In 1996 she joined the Subterranean crew and rapid-fired rhymes on their seminal Central Magnetizm the following year, one of the first hip hop albums to come out of island enclave.  It’s an album that has held up remarkably well – classic beats, MCs jumping in and out with precision, and Kjartansdóttir’s female vocals offering a not only a reprieve from the testosterone but showing that she can more than hold her own.  Give a listen to “My Style Is Phreaky” and ” It’s tha Subta” and just try to call me a liar.  I dare you.  And that’s how the world got its first taste of Cell 7.

Another 16 years would pass before Ragna released her first solo album as Cell 7, 2013s CellF.  We caught her that same year at Iceland Airwaves, performing an impressive live set at Lucky Records, and we’ve kept tabs on her ever since.  The following year she was a guest MC at an awesome show by the reggae/hip hop RVK Soundsystem (below), owning the stage and making it clear she still had game.  Needless to say, when I heard she had a new album coming out in 2019, and even better she was crowdfunding a vinyl release, I signed up immediately.  And I’m glad I did, because not only is the record and packaging awesome, so too is the music.

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Copyright Life in the Vinyl Lane

RVK On Stage just published an in depth interview with Cell 7 HERE.  You should definitely check it out if you have any interest at all in the early hip hop scene in Iceland.  As for the review, I thought about writing something new about Is Anybody Listening? for the blog, but when I went back and re-read what I wrote for RVK On Stage I liked what I saw… so that review follows below.

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I’m independent / I don’t have a crew, Cell7 tells us on “Don’t Care”.  And she clearly doesn’t need a crew these days, two decades on from her hip hop debut as part of the group Subterranean.  She was young then.  Today she’s a woman with adult responsibilities and children.  And she won’t put up with any nonsense.  Don’t be fuckin’ with my income / I don’t play / I don’t care.

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Is Anybody Listening? is Ragna Kjartansdóttir’s second solo album as Cell7, a blend of R&B drenched beats and grooves overlaid with in-your-face lyrics.  Ragna’s delivery is perfectly suited to the music, less youthful braggadocio and more mature confidence, with even her disses spit with a matter-of-factness that brokers no disagreement.  I got powermoves / You don’t get to tell me what I’m supposed to do.  She means it, too.  Sometimes bellicose, sometimes smooth as silk, but always poised and bold, Cell7 has been in the rap game since before many of the up-and-comers were even born, and she’s not going to let them forget that fact.

The album opens with an aggressive stance, the first four tracks establishing Cell 7’s bona fides, making it very clear that she’s not to be messed with and culminating with the super-fast and intricate rhymes of “City Lights”.  The next four songs slow things down a bit, embracing the R&B elements and giving Ragna the opportunity to show some vocal diversity, her velvet-like half-rapped-half-sung lyrics perfect for late evening chilling, the slowed down time when the main party is winding down and just a few friends are left hanging out in small, intimate groups.  Most notable is the female anthem “Peachy”, an empowering celebration of self-confidence (I’m feelin’ myself / Bullshit free / A hundred percent / Organically me).  The album closes with “Powermoves”, a track that blends her earlier vocal conviction with the later viscous beats, a perfect way to bring everything full circle.

Released digitally in February 2019, Ragna took to the web to crowdfund a two-color, limited edition vinyl pressing of Is Anybody Listening?  If you’re a vinyl junkie like me, this one will be a must-have with its beautiful cover art and the included poster.  But you don’t need fancy packaging and formats to enjoy Is Anybody Listening?, just get yourself a download or stream it, put your earbuds in, and groove.

Epic Rain – “All Things Turn To Rust” (2019)

With All Things Turn To Rust Epic Rain takes us on a guided tour into insanity.  The only question remaining is, is this a one way trip?

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Dripping with jazz influences, Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason continues to push to evolve as Epic Rain, over time moving from hip hop to pure storytelling, both with words and sounds.  The opening track, “Lumaclad Reflector”, drifts off towards the classical end of the spectrum, the instrumental establishing the sombre mood of the album, casting a damp nighttime blanket over you, the closing repeated note sounding like a distorted fog horn off in the distance… but you can’t tell the direction it’s coming from… I wondered for a moment if we weren’t in store for an instrumental album, but the next track “Distortion of Reality” quickly erased that thought (though there are other instrumental tracks) as I was ushered into a killer’s mind, his thoughts and motivations laid bare, Jóhannes’ voice matter-of-factly painting the scene, both internal and external.  “Every Road” takes us on another trip deep into a depraved and, in this case, hopeless mind, this time using a martial style snare drum roll to act as a counter to the depth of the rest of the music.  This time it’s a suicide.  Or is it a murder suicide… ?  I’m not quite sure.  On “Apart” we find him on the verge of singing, the lyrics including a chorus and patterns that give them a style closer to rock than hip hop while still maintaining the sense of setting, of place and time.  A female vocalist joins Epic Rain on “Mirror Maze”, “Framing the Sky”, and “Evil By Heart”, taking over the duties with her underlying sadness, the sound of someone so exhausted that they don’t have any more tears to give but still haven’t managed to purge those feelings, a contrast from Jóhannes’ more menacing style.  He returns to close the album on “Trading Secrets” (I trade secrets with your reflection in the water…), the tempo picking up as the races to the finish.  Is it the dawn peaking over the horizon?  Did we survive another dangerous night to arrive at the respite of daylight?  And will tomorrow night bring more of the same…?

All Things Turn To Rust is available to stream, as well as purchase by download or on limited release vinyl on the Epic Rain Bandcamp page HERE.  You can also pick it up directly from Reykjavik’s Lucky Records, as it’s on their own Lucky Records label as well.

Sensational – “Loaded With Power” (1997)

Do you have that artist who you ALWAYS look for when digging, even though you pretty much know you won’t find any of their records?  I could have dozens of those bands, though practicality and a sense of realism (some might say pessimism) keeps me from looking for Purrkur Pillnikk records in Portland and Fræbbblarnir in Fresno.  However, I do have my one white whale of an artist, one who I hunt with the tenacity of Ahab, scanning all horizons in search for even a trace of his vinyl.  I speak, of course, of Sensational.

Seattle is not a great place for finding hip hop vinyl.  But even in places like LA, Chicago, and New York I have struck out in my quest for Sensational records.  In fact, until a few weeks ago I’d only managed to scrounge three of his releases on wax, one of which, 2016s Special Offer, I actually purchased from the man himself.  To be clear, it’s not that the records are unavailable anywhere.  If I wanted to order from Discogs, I could get most of them today from the comfort of my own home, though the shipping would probably cost as much as the records since most if not all would be shipping from Europe, which is in part what has kept my Sensational searches analog, relying exclusively on in-person digging.  Given Sensational’s general lack of notoriety in the US, combined with the fact that four of his first five releases were on German label WordSound, you just don’t find his stuff here that often.

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On our recent trip to London, however, I hit pay dirt in the used vinyl basement of Sister Ray.  I did my usual search of the Hip Hop S section and lo and behold there it was, not just a Sensational record I didn’t have, but his debut, 1997s Loaded With Power.  I couldn’t have been happier.  The price was reasonable and the condition solid, and I couldn’t wait to get home to play it.

The thing that makes Sensational special is his flow, both musically and vocally.  His beats are far from standard, changing timing and making abrupt unexpected turns.  When the groove works, it’s nirvana; when it doesn’t, it can be a bit jarring, and that’s all part of the Sensational experience.  But the true magic is the vocal flow.  Not the lyrical content per se (there’s a lot of standard 90s hip hop boasting), but the way the words languidly drop from his lips, the lack of formal structure, the at times randomness of the rhyming and near-rhyming words.  Can I compare his style to anyone else?  Is it even fair to try?  I don’t pretend to be enough of a student of the genre to make any definitive connections.  To my ears Sensational is unique.  And Loaded With Power is him at his most flowing, completely unrestrained by the concepts of structure, not even the remotest attempt at creating something “radio friendly”.  You get the sense that these are the sounds that are in the man’s head, the soundtrack in his brain as he goes through life.  Listen to the quiet piano on “Create It To Make It”.  You have to strain to hear it given the forward power of the beats, but it’s there, a small island of quiet solitude in an ocean of bass.  A unique flourish that wouldn’t fit anywhere else.

The album is recorded hot on some tracks.  I’m not sure if this is by design or not, but songs like “Hardcore” are distorted around the edges.  It feels like Loaded With Power was recorded at multiple sessions, which appears to be the case as there are two recording studios listed and the production quality varies a bit.  That, however, should not deter you from experiencing this record.  In fact, it contributes that much more to it’s strange power.  As for me, I will continue to hunt for Sensational records as I still have a lot of holes to fill.

Whodini – “Open Sesame” (1987)

My best guess is that my first exposure to hip hop was via the video for Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” in 1986.  Up until that time I lived in a hip-hop-free universe.  I seem to recall liking the video, but it was another year or two until I actually started to explore the genre, only looking from that point forward, failing to ever go back to the genre’s roots.  To be fair, that kind of retro research wasn’t so easy to do in the pre-internet era, especially given hip hop’s complete lack of positive media coverage.  If I’d been in New York City or Los Angeles I’d probably have had at least some exposure to the earlier artists.  But in Seattle?  No.

A few weeks back we watched the documentary Conny Plank – The Potential of Noise (recommended).  It traced the story of German producer Conny Plank, and it was during a section of that film that we first heard of the hip hop trio Whodini, who Plank produced in the early 1980s.  Since then we’ve picked up a CD copy of their Greatest Hits, and a few days ago added this vinyl copy of 1987s Open Sesame.

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While Whodini’s earlier material was more dance and, dare I say, disco influenced, Open Sesame opens with the hard-rock-riffing “Rock You Again (Again & Again)”, Whodini clearly having registering Run-DMC’s success in blending rap and rock, choosing as their base samples of Mountain’s “Long Red”.  While that song definitely rocked, it lacked recognition of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” – even rock fans couldn’t easily place it.  Besides which the rock-rap partnership wasn’t the wave of the future (though Public Enemy and Anthrax certainly worked well together), instead it was the emergence of gangsta rap.  Unfortunately for Whodini they found the genre moving away from their dance-friendly sound, the sound that defined the rest of Open Sesame (“Cash Money” does offer some social commentary).  But I’ll tell you this – I love this stuff.  It’s upbeat.  And it’s fun.