Imagine the identity crisis of an underground MC. A chorus-heavy track by a big-name producer could risk landing you on the sellout side of the chalk-line. Too much talk of positivism will label you “preachy”, but if its all ho’s and tricks then you’re just “party rap” or “mainstream.” How does an underground MC have fun? On the collaborative release Parallel Uni-verses, two, well-established MC’s from the underground, Del the Funky Homosapien and Tame One, attempt to show us exactly how.
Despite coming from opposite coasts, Del and Tame have similarities that make them a likely duo to record together. Both got their start with rap groups in the ‘90s: Tame One with the New Jersey b-boy duo Artifacts and Del as a solo artist who later joined the Bay Area’s Hieroglyphics. Since the turn of the century, the MCs have each released respectable solo albums. Del’s recent catalog was highlighted by the Dan the Automator produced futuristic space-odyssey Deltron 3030. Tame One, after a nearly 10-year hiatus from the mic, returned in the 2000s to release a series of eccentric LPs best exemplified by the critically praised 2006 album Spazmatic, which had him impressively rapping/singing/impersonating over bizarre, staccato beats that often seemed less hip-hop and more dub-step or glitchy-electronica. But maybe all the strange production and semi-concept albums weren’t letting either of these two MCs just let loose for fun’s sake. Thus, with its loose swagger, comes the release of Parallel Uni-verses.
Teaming up with Drum and Knowledge from the Parallel Thought crew, who provide an eclectic array of hard-hitting, upbeat throwback productions, Del and Tame attempt to prove why their mutual brand of oddball rhymes and unusual lyrical content is worth a listen. Surprisingly, the majority of this LP showcases Del and Tame One rather subdued. The topics slog along from drug-use, girls and parties to a whole lot of weed-induced nostalgia. No space voyages and not many loony non-sequiturs here. Rather, we get a lot of weekend fun with the occasional free-style and compulsory shit-talking on the always-lacking “today’s MCs” (how many times have we heard this line?).
In a way though, this is kind of the point of Parallel Uni-verses. Del and Tame aren’t trying to change the rap game with this record. That would be ridiculously ambitious anyway for a pair of MCs who spent the majority of their time underground. Rather, Parallel Uni-verses is more about scraping the core of the urban lifestyle that these two have sprung from. It’s reckless and youthful but tough as well, and requires brief moments of existential reflection before sparking another blunt. By keeping the torch lit that they’ve carried all their life, Del and Tame continue here to hold tight to the history of hip-hop from where they have developed their respective styles, while trying to keep it fun and, of course, real. Still, despite the “wild style” nature of Parallel Uni-verses, the album as a whole feels lacking at times, although no blame should be laid on the production.
After exhibiting his lyrical dexterity on recent solo records, Tame One seems tired and out of ideas on these tracks. He stutters and stops like a hung-over freestyle, loses his train of thought and lets empty spaces between lyrics fall too awkwardly and at odds with the beats to be on purpose. While neither MC reaches deep into their pages of lyrics, Tame is just boringly predictable. When he isn’t talking about his cocktails of prescription pills (“There’s more drugs in me than hospitals!”), he is bashing MCs for being gay (“You a fag with a rag needin’ a pad”). You can’t help but feel that it might do Tame One some good to put down the bong and listen to some records that came out after 1999.
There are a few gems, though. The overambitiously titled “We Taking Over” features a sick roll call of 80s and 90s hip-hop figures across mid-tempo jazz strings. The boastful “Specifics” showcases Del keeping it poetic, with claims of mixing up a psychedelic elixir, before stating his rapping CV. He’s gone “from the basement to the pavement to your tape deck” and now the Ipod. “Before This”, the best track on the album, features Del and Tame at their most focused, over an old-school beat full of big drums, samples and scratching, illustrating what Parallel Uni-verses could have been with a little more concentration.
Despite the sometimes lackluster lyrical content, Parallel Uni-verses is ultimately saved by its jazzy upbeat production and Del’s delivery, which, despite his goofy swagger, fills up the album with relative fluidity. While Del isn’t at his most outlandish, he still offers a few oddball lyrics: “Like Nightcrawler, I’m raw as nose candy / eat you up, bless you’re whole family / calamity, like Penelope Pitstop / the annual mob will get stomped.” No one ever really knows what the hell Del is talking about, but it sounds good when he spits it. Which is how Parallel Uni-verses should be approached. It’s a fun ride that is more entertaining when not closely examined. And really, how can we judge? Underground MCs should be allowed to get their kicks as well.