Wednesday, 27 August 2014

1000 Great British Hip Hop Albums #2 - Fallacy's 'Black Market Boy' (2003)

Some artists are able to transcend genres, eras or trends and survive & adapt to new challenges in music. Some artists stay in their own lane and manage to carve out a niche that satiates the die-hards - this homebase allows them to prevail. Other artists however, flash like lightning but for whatever reason fail to roll with the thunder. Often this final group are exposed as fads or unable to replicate the successes of the past through a mere lack of ideas or ability to keep up, but our second entry had it all at once...and just couldn't for whatever reason, push over the top.

Fallacy was, at one point, touted above everyone else to hit gold and make that all-important crossover move to the mainstream kingdom. Not only that, but he was to do this without selling his soul. A tough sell, indeed. However, after the hype generated leading up to the release of his debut full length LP 'Blackmarket Boy', it was certainly feasible.

Both his beat selection in the past (namely his work with his main partner Fusion) and his own style and skill lent itself naturally to the radio-friendly ear. He had the swagger to back up any success that was forthcoming, and was white hot after the underground success of his signature song 'The Groundbreaker'.
This was followed up with 'Big N Bashy', a smash hit that managed to creep around the UK top 40 (no mean feat for a UK rap artist at this point) and was all over the urban music channels courtesy of a flash US-influenced video alongside the guest singer Tubby T.

The album dropped soon after this, and the years of work that was poured into this album showed instantly. It was a huge success critically, with almost universal acclaim credited to it, but then...

Fallacy's official discography to date, almost 11 years later, still noted Blackmarket Boy as his only full length release. He's popped up here & there in the years since, and has finally had a resurgence as part of the UK supergroup Sleepin Giantz alongside Zed Bias and UK rap legend Rodney P in the past year, but before 2013 he was that guy everybody in the scene loved but rarely saw. Sure, he was hardly a hermit, releasing the odd EP here and there, but nothing post-2003 ever stood up to the immense potential he showed with his opening crescendo.

So, with good luck to his newfound success and a quick recap on his past, onto the album itself. Before it dropped, my own personal experience of Fallacy's music and presence first came from an unlikely source, when Fallacy & Fusion used to host a hip-hop music video show on MTV Base (back when the channel was in its infancy and still played a variety of urban styles) for a short period of time. I taped it and watched it back religiously during its lifespan, as it was one of the only places in the UK I was able to regularly see underground US rap videos and discover new artists. The internet was still years off from being the basic amenity it is now, and it took about 5 minutes to load up the average 'naughtyslag.jpeg' at this point. Napster was on its way, but taking into account my parent's internet connection took a fortnight to download the average popular chart song, my chances of being able to discover Fallacy's music back in 2001/2 was fairly slim without this video show.

At the finale of one of the shows, they premiered the video for their own song 'The Groundbreaker' and I remember, even now, being so blown away by it that I recorded the audio from the VHS onto a cassette and abused that tape for weeks. From that moment on, 'Blackmarket Boy' was an 'event' album for me.

And judging by the press at the time, from Hip-Hop Connection to the even more mainstream broadsheet music journalists, it was an event album for many others too. Off the strength of 'The Groundbreaker' and numerous guest appearances by Fallacy on UK remixes of popular Rawkus 12" singles from the US in the early 2000s, he was able to get a major label deal through Virgin and really get to work on bringing his sound to the big leagues.

This deal allowed him to bring in the 'Champions League' of beatmakers in the UK to complement the hits he'd already created with Fusion. This gave it the feel of a true major label rap album the likes of which we usually see only from an established American emcee. Fallacy cherry-picked producers, whether through a marketing ploy put in place by his new employers or not, to cover a broad spectrum of urban musical styles ranging from straight boom bap and dancehall, to the most popular UK subgenres at the time in Garage and mainstream drum & bass.

Whilst Fallacy & Fusion formed the backbone of the album (and ironically most of the memorable moments on it, which raises the question as to why Virgin didn't feel confident putting the album together solely with the duo) there are occasional star turns behind the boards by drum & bass behemoths Shy FX & T Power and Roni Size alongside the odd inclusion of Rishi Rish, who was riding high at the time with the success of songs he'd made with eventual Cash Money Millionaire Jay Sean and their cohort Juggy D.

As far as the lyrical guest spots go, these were kept to an absolute minimum, allowing Fallacy to weave slang tapestries dripping with britishness, confidence and defiance. The only emcee to run with him on the whole album is Rodney P, who lends his inimitable vocals to 'Rap Folly', a Fusion-produced anthem poking fun at the nonsense they see in the rap scene on a daily basis. They go back-and-forth with experiences throughout their career and boasts of superiority over the average competitor.

Up until this point, all tracks have been Fallacy & Fusion, and the album is top-loaded with singles (both the aforementioned 'Groundbreaker' & Big & Bashy' are stacked back to back at the beginning after the opening title track). But once 'Square Beamer' kicks in with Shy FX & T Power trading in their usual DnB for futuristic bleeps and a more traditional rap groove it becomes a family affair.

Nearly all of the tracks on the album are blatantly designed to be hits in their own right, whether through club success or radio play, and this trend continues with 'Stopclock', a Full Range Production track that dances between garage & 2 step and hints towards early grime tendencies at certain points. Fallacy sounds at home just as much over these new styles as he does over his bread & butter, and this is something he's proven over many years. His current group Sleepin Giantz are experts at genre-bending and Fallacy is just as comfortable on modern dubstep and bass music as he ever was on any of these Blackmarket Boy tracks.

'Ooh' keeps the mood light, and Roni Size's 'Scrunch' is a truly classic RS banger that would be just as welcome on one of his Reprazent albums with Dynamite MC over the top. Fallacy is at his arrogant best over this song, and its one of the rare moments towards the end of the album that is able to replicate those earlier monster hits.

Speaking of monstrous, one of the album finales is called just that, and although lyrically its standard 'high life' fare, one of Fallacy's most prized assets is his ability to throw a swag cloak over anything and make it sound essential. The dude is Harry Potter ghosting past villians on some of these songs and its wonderful to hear.

A Shy FX & T Power Groundbreaker remix tops things off at the death, bringing things full circle and I can honestly say that despite the influence it had over the UK rap scene and Fallacy himself in the time since it was released not living up to the anticipation, its as fresh now as it was 11 years ago.

Its a shame Fallacy wasn't able to translate Blackmarket Boy into a mainstream career similar to many british emcees since, but that should never take away from how great this album was, is, and most certainly always will be. Enjoy it.

As usual, Spotify and iTunes links below for you to listen to and support the artists. If you liked this piece don't thank me, thank Fallacy.


Monday, 4 August 2014

1000 Great British Hip Hop Albums #1 - Roots Manuva's 'Brand New Second Hand' (1999)

I've made a grave error by announcing this series. I understand this now. 1000 posts will take me about 20 years at my current workrate but after years in the wilderness, I think British hip-hop is finally showing the promise it was in the early to mid-2000s again. It's great to see so many superb producers and emcees coming through with a new sound we can be proud of. The posts will be sporadic, but as mentioned in the introduction, I'm here to celebrate our sound. If you're new to this, hopefully you'll hear a large amount of great music you never knew about. If like me, you've had your ear to the ground for a long time, I'd like to think you'll be able to re-engage and experience this music for the second time, whether it's a forgotten gem or a well known classic.

I'll be going back and forth between new and old school hip-hop, from 80s classics that brought the scene its first shine all the way through to LPs from the last few years. With this in mind, I thought it would be apt to start off with an artist that seemed to usher in the modern UK hip-hop sound in the mid to late 90s.

Roots Manuva is as distinct a voice as UK hip-hop has ever had. Even today, when his prominence on the scene has diminished somewhat due to the change of trends in music, the Stockwell, London-born emcee has almost as much bass in his voice as the beats behind him. There is something almost soothing about his delivery - in the same way Guru from Gangstarr was able to sound both commanding and effortless throughout his life on the mic.

He truly hit the bigtime with his follow-up album 'Run Come Save Me', largely thanks to two massively popular singles, 'Witness' (arguably the most anthemic british rap song of all time) and 'Dreamy Days'. There will be more on this album and it's overarching influence another time. Before this album hit however, he was already an established name in the underground scene and threatening to make the crossover.

I remember hearing his breakthrough track alongside the legendary Skitz 'Where My Mind Is At' when I was 14 years old and it was one of the first times I can honestly say that my head had been turned from the US hip-hop that had dominated my life up until that point (sidebar: a few years after it first surfaced, the song turned up again on Skitz' Countryman album, but more on THAT another time).

His voice is what initially grabs you, but the largely introspective nature of his lyrics pulls you into his dream sequences as you rumble over basslines that sound like they're coming from behind a cellar door. It's an experience unlike any other, and it all started in full swing with BRAND NEW SECOND HAND.

Released on the then-upstart label Big Dada in 1999 after the success of the aforementioned Skitz link-up and lead single 'Juggle Tings Proper' (video below), Rodney Smith was able to lay down the foundations for his career to come straight away.

Largely self-produced and with minimal guest appearances, BNSH was a landmark album and this was apparent from the get-go. After all, he won a MOBO award that year for Best Hip-Hop Act back when that actually mattered. UK hip-hop had already been around for a long long time at this point, but as I recall it, this was seemingly the start of a new generation of artists ready to push through the soil and see daylight.

It's telling that one of the first things you hear on the LP opener 'Movements'  is a filtered bass drone that blends with melodic keys. It sets the tone for the rest of the next hour and creates a soundbed that was imitated many times in subsequent years by many a british artist. He clearly influenced, whether directly or indirectly, everyone from New Flesh to Jehst in their production styles. The scene was finding its own sound, and the low-key, dusty & bass-heavy beats that earlier groups such as The Brotherhood had utilised were being tampered with and given a new lease of life.

90s traditional boom-bap was low-key and dusty too, but this was nothing like it. It sounded futuristic in a sense, moving away from samples but still heavily influenced by dub and reggae music (a huge percentage of UK rap always has been due to the music youngsters grew up listening to and living around, and of course the generational and geographical descent of many artist's families).

Huge swathes of artists still utilise this dub-influenced production style today, and it is one of the most definitively British styles we can boast. The cocktail of English slang, lyrics symptomatic of the claustrophobic urban experience and the music of our parents created this.

From Movements to Juggle Tings Proper, Inna to Soul Decay, the album's opening few tracks introduce Manuva as an intriguing stranger, he lures you in with the swirling production and hits you with pensive couplets that often leave you with more questions than answers.

For long periods he lets the beats do a lot of the hard work and his personality, although hugely apparent, isn't put to as much focused use as it is on 2001's Run Come Save Me or 2005's Awfully Deep. However, 'Baptism' with the at-the-time preeminent UK female emcee Wildflower is a superb back-and-forth that signals the first time on the record that Roots allows the beat to dissolve into the background as he trades bars with Vanessa George (she absolutely slayed Skitz' 'Domestic Science' by the way).

'Strange Behaviour' ripples with familiar bass, key stabs and guitar licks as the lyrics tell stories of drug-addiction and the negative effects it can have on one's mood and how you react to others. The point-of-view narration is a particular master skill of Manuva's, and he uses it to aplomb on multiple tracks throughout his career.

Seanie T drops by for 'Big Tings Gwidarn' as the dub-influence is turned up to a Spinal Tap Eleven. Its another great example of Manuva's ability to mesh superbly with other artists over something undeniably original.

Nearly all of the beats are by Roots himself, either under his artist name or the pseudonym Hylton Smythe (his middle name and rework of his surname), but there is some outside help. IG Culture of Dodge City Productions turns up both behind and in front of the boards on 'Dem Phonies' and Wayne Bennett AKA Lotek handles a couple of tracks. Bennett & Smith have worked together to great effect multiple times, both here and on the Lotek Hi-Fi releases of late 90s/early 2000s. But it's mostly a personal affair, and it works magnificently.

I've never been a huge fan of the major label, multiple dream-team producer line-ups, because for one it often detracts from the rapper's ability to get across his own point through his lyrics, but also prevents him/her from finding their own voice/sound. Roots Manuva has no issue with this and this has remained so throughout his career, even up until his more recent work with Toddla T on Rhyme & Reason and Wrongtom on Duppy Writer.

The album rumbles through like the perfect 2am soundtrack. Whether smoked out or sober it truly captures the English inner-city mindset  in ways not many other albums have done since. 'Cornmeal Dumpling' and 'Yeah...' hit you heavy and Rodney rides the beat in his inimitable way, delivering lines such as 'raw from the south of the thames, bringing folks vision like a contact lense'. But there is one departure from this, and it just happens to be the jewel in the crown.

Sequenced at the end of the LP so as to not interrupt the narrative that preceded it, Motion 5000 was released as a stand-alone single months after the album's release, and it is unlike any other hip-hop song I've ever heard. It transcends genre and captures emotion in a way not even Roots Manuva himself has managed to compete with. The string arrangement is as beautiful as it is haunting, and above the violins and bass punches the man also known as Lord Gosh floats with lyrics that are reworked from the 1995 'Next Type Of Motion' track this was born out of. Its a wonderful end to the LP and both the original & the album version of this song are certified classics in my opinion.

For me, this album was important for the genre and as a singular work it sounds just as fresh & original today as it did when it was released 15 years ago. Roots Manuva announced himself to the world brilliantly on Brand New Second Hand, and built a continually memorable career off the back of it that we should all cherish while he continues to create music. Find the Spotify & iTunes links below and support the artist if you enjoyed the ride as much as I did.

Roots Manuva – Brand New Second Hand