Sketches from the Underground
Most producer-slash-deejay compilation albums are wack. As a rule of thumb, they suffer from the same incurable bouts of vanity that plague emcees. Every five minutes or less, they incessantly bombard listeners with annoying shout outs. Even worse, the producer or deejay is often delusional enough to believe they have skills on the microphone. To his credit, The Alchemist relegates his shout outs to the beginning and end, and only on a few tracks. He lets the music speak for itself, and when it does, you’re thrust into a different world.
Now you might be saying, “I don’t know anything about The Alchemist, who is he?” He’s a white boy from the right side of the tracks. The side of the tracks where male offspring live long past 25, attend Ivy League schools, and build successful law practices. Our boy Al turned his back on that life; as music fans, we should be grateful. The Alchemist got his start in 1993, as one-half of the duo Whooliganz. He laced Cypress Hill, House of Pain, and Funkdoobiest with beats before unleashing his sound on Dilated Peoples’ Platform. His style is ‘roaches and rats’ and he has lured gritty street rhymes from a long list of rap’s underground warriors.
Where Kanye West whored out the soul sound to any and everyone itching for commercial success, The Alchemist composes tracks like a forensic officer drawing chalk outlines around dead bodies. Each track suits the emcee; each is tailor-made for emcees courting the crime and grime that infests the inner city. Like West, The Alchemist forges his sound with sped-up soul samples, but unlike West, these beats aren’t glossy commercial ditties, they’re sketches from rap’s underground.
For a guy who grew living a lifestyle I watched in episodes of Beverley Hill 90210 (and, more recently, The O.C.), 1st Infantry speaks fluent ghetto vernacular. Working with everyone from Nas to the infamous Mobb Deep, he provides gritty, number two sandpaper beats—rough in appearance but smooth on the ears. On “The Essence”, The Lox ride atop a ruff, bass-heavy track similar to what Ruff Ryder producer Swiss Beatz lent them after they dragged their sorry selves back to the underground after P.Diddy’s jiggy look failed to win over commercial audiences. It’s morbid, “roll down your windows and let the bullets spray from your Tec-9” music. M.O.P. and Stat Quo retaliate with the brute force of “Stop the Show”. “Hold You Down” features Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, Nina Sky, and Illa Ghee, and puts these unusual suspects together over a beat comprised of some sparse handclapping, a few lonely picks on the guitar, and a butter-flavored soul sample. Prodigy fits in seamlessly on this passionate ode to sticking by your fam, your guns, and your girl. When The Alchemist laces the track with his vocals, as he does here, they’re on point and in sync.
Dilated Peoples aren’t hardcore, but The Alchemist has enough diversity in his arsenal to mix up their blend of California love on the slow-moving, piano-driven “For the Record”. The wailing sirens of “Boost the Crime Rate” will increase your pulse as Sheek and J-Hood clap, pop, bust, and squeeze their way to the top of the most wanted list. Former mentor and collaborator DJ Muggs introduces “Bang Out”, which reunites The Alchemist with Cypress Hill’s B-Real. Many commercial artists have forgotten the street attitude that gave rise to their popularity. As a producer, The Alchemist’s fashions his signature sound in it. [Some people aren’t feeling the collaborations, saying that the beat doesn’t always match the artist. For me, “Bangers” (feat. Lloyd Banks) doesn’t do it, neither does “Tick Tock” (where Nas is uninspiring). Aside from that, I won’t comment.]
A nostalgic snapshot of rap’s culture bridging potential, “Different World” is the perfect track to close out the album. Trading bars with Twin, The Alchemist traces his path from one world to another, with hip-hop bridging the gap. It’s a split-screen track with “two different stories in one picture”. While Alchemist racked up spelling bee victories, popped off cap guns, and grew up in the lap of luxury, Twin ditched school, cocked back hammers, and played survival of the fittest in the notorious Queensbridge projects. Rap was their liberation.
Legend has it that there were once these mystical figures known as alchemists, who by way of some magical brew were able to make gold from lead. All producers try their hand at it, some better than others, but The Alchemist consistently does it better, dusting off old soul samples to create a fiendish underground beat worth its weight in gold. It would be unfair to call this the compilation album the best of its kind in 2004, but based on his growing underground buzz and the artists whose ghetto tales appear on 1st Infantry, The Alchemist lives up to the legend.