Gas Mask is the sort of underground hip-hop record that always seems to pop up over the last three or four years. Guided by a strict mid-‘90s ethos that sabotages other efforts, it somehow manages to rise above not only that crop, but much of the year’s more contemporary offerings as well. The Left, a trio lead by rising producer Apollo Brown—whose style is more Oddisee, 9th Wonder, or Marco Polo than Detroit proper—and joined by unknowns MC Journalist 103 and DJ Soko, have given old school heads a very nice surprise. The scratched hooks from DJ Soko are all tastefully done and make the heart warm in an era of mostly sung, melodic hooks. Journalist 103’s rhymes are very straightforward and minimal, often decrying the staleness of current hip-hop without using so much of the “let’s take it back” rhetoric as other Tea Party type contemporaries. He also admirably brings back the lost art of rappers—gasp—rapping their hooks. While their main conceit is that the industry is comprised of toxic terrorists pumping fumes of death into the mindspace of mainstream listeners, they easily avoid creating anything overwrought or heavy-handed.
Jouranlist 103 is really the revelation here, coming across like a mix of Black Thought and Kool G Rap, spitting fiery 16 after fiery 16 with little interest in letting up. While he covers all the typical tropes of hardcore, from dirt-off-your-shoulder verbal murder threats and whack MCs to the lack of respect he garners from the media compared to the perceived grandiosity within his own community, he balances it with a no-nonsense delivery that allows his verses to seem more substance than style. This is not an MC who raps about the negative atmosphere of modern hip-hop because he can’t think of anything else to say; it’s a guy that wants to be heard and knows how to explain himself. But he also breaks from pure braggadocio and complaints fairly often, such as on “Binoculars”, the title track, “Real Detroit”, “Reporting Live”, and “Caged Birds”. On these tracks, he often invites local legend MCs like Finale, Invincible, and Guilty Simpson to back him up, creating the strong familial atmosphere most Detroit hip-hop records have become known for.
Apollo Brown’s production, like Journalist’s MCing, is both no-nonsense and somewhat reflective of his times. “How We Live” raids Madlib’s sample vaults for a very familiar chop, though one I’m grateful to hear verses over. There are a few other tracks here that find Brown lifting from the beat tapes of his inspirations, but thanks in large part to the group’s overall vibe, it feels more like honest reverence for quality tunes than an attempt to piggyback off another artist’s creativity. Gas Mask is, quite frankly, a nigh unassailable rap release. Some will want to break out the token “quit complaining” response to this sort of hip-hop, but the quality overcomes in the same way a generic gangsta or pop album would. And with Journalist’s obvious caring for his downtrodden city and the state of his art, Gas Mask is simply a strongly appealing hip-hop record with just the right balance of guests to keep his voice from becoming stale. The Left leave listeners feeling like this is the product of three longtime collaborators putting out their strongest possible work—not unlike Slum Village’s Villa Manifesto—despite being a trio comprised entirely of new faces to the national scene. Definitely a group any self-proclaimed head should turn their attention towards.