Def Tex have been around a long time. Seriously! You may never have heard of them, but they’ve been laying down beats and rhymes for 20 years, with a recorded history that dates way back to 1990. As one of the longest-running hip-hop collectives out there, Def Tex are sort of like what might happen if Beastie Boys and The Roots fused together—if, of course, either of those bands was from Norwich, England. The old school is run through a distinctively English filter, augmented by live instrumentation and serious rhyme skills, and if that’s not a recipe for success, I don’t know what is.
As such, maybe it’s no surprise that the latest Def Tex release, called Thanks But No Thanks, is pretty fantastic. It does everything right! The rhymes are tight, there’s a little bit of fire behind them, the production is top notch, the live instrumentation (read: drums!) gives the tracks some serious punch, and the lyrics do their job admirably, opting for poetry over profanity, thought over aggression.
All right, maybe there’s one drawback, which only the Def Tex faithful will pick up on: A couple of these tracks aren’t exactly fresh out of the studio. “Freaks” and “Village Idiot” were released on the Freaks EP two years ago. But hey, that’s OK, because they’re fantastic, and even those who’ve heard them before shouldn’t mind hearing them a few more times. The minimal nature of “Freaks” is inspired by that whole grime thing you might have heard of in the last few years, though the application of an old-school rhyming aesthetic to that decidedly new-school production style is inspired. “We got freaks, freaks, freaks, freaks / More freaks than you seen in three weeks / We got freaks, freaks, freaks, freaks / Freaky like a duck with three beaks”, goes the hook, and it’s hard not to bounce along. “Village Idiot”, for its part, is largely the inverse of “Freaks”, still an ode to the outsider, but far more laid back than its counterpart.
In fact, it is these odes to individuality and examinations of the unusual that Def Tex exces at throughout Thanks But No Thanks. Opener “What The?” starts the trend smashingly in front of a jazzy bass guitar lick and lots of stop-start percussion work, while “Crazy Dog” takes it in a dark direction, displaying the negatives of being the outsider; “I need love like never before / I’m desperate, I keep looking at smackheads and whores…If I was a radio mix they still wouldn’t play that”, says Chrome, the original Def Tex MC. “I’m out there like a wide receiver / The thing is, I’m fumbling balls / I’m a set myself up before I stumble and fall”, adds Anthropologist, and by this point in the album (about 3/4 of the way through), you get the point.
The thing is, they do it with such skill, that you don’t really notice the largely homogenous nature of the subject matter. Both of these guys can straight up rhyme, and they can rhyme fast (“Thanks But No Thanks”), and they can rhyme slow (“These Days”). Just sitting back and admiring the skill on display is a nice way to pass the time.
When they do stray off the well-worn path of pointing out their own individuality, they do a fine job as well. The beat of “Run”, with its piano chords and a bassline that comes alive once the rhyming starts, would be enough to establish it as a standout; the tale of a boy on the street who messed with the wrong crowd and now can’t escape trouble pushes it into classic territory. Tracks like this are what make hip-hop such a vital, utterly necessary form of expression. The production, the instrumentals, the lyrics, the aggressive rhyme style, they all make sense together, to the point where you stop evaluating them on their own merits and just get lost in the song. “Run” is wonderful, and would be worth the price of admission even if everything else on Thanks But No Thanks was completely awful. Which it isn’t, obviously. “Tempest” is another fun little ride, even if only because I love getting the UK side of the current worldwide political climate, which tends to come off as just as bleak (if not bleaker) than the American side. “Don’t believe this world is wrong? Ask Dick Cheney how a national disaster helped his pockets grow faster”, Chrome shouts, and the worldwide impact of the current American administration becomes all the more apparent.
Taken as a whole, Thanks But No Thanks might just be the most accomplished, accessible, and worthwhile album of Def Tex’s long career thus far. It’s as consistently solid a hip-hop album as I’ve heard in a long time, and has a shot at making some of the front runners for album of the year a little nervous.
At least, it would, if only someone would hear it.
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