MURS: The End of the Beginning

[30 March 2003]

By Scott Hreha

Just what does it take to be a Living Legend? MURS, a member of the L.A.-based Living Legends hip-hop crew, has forsaken his strictly underground stance to sign with the Definitive Jux label for the sole purpose of breaking those qualities down to a larger audience. After nearly ten years of self-released tapes and CD’s, MURS has become the first to represent for the West Coast on El-P’s hotter-than-J-Lo indie imprint—marking a geographical alliance of proportions that haven’t been seen in hip-hop since Ice Cube tapped the Bomb Squad to produce his first solo record.

MURS describes The End of the Beginning both in interviews and the record’s first track “You and I” as signifying the official end to beginning his career; meaning that the distribution and press he’ll gain from his Def Jux affiliation is gonna take it to a whole ‘nother level. There’ll surely be leagues of backpackers to cry foul at MURS’ abandonment of the pure underground production and promotion aesthetic, but considering that the man’s name stands for Makin’ Underground Raw Shit (among other things), a small detail like signing with a highly respected indie label isn’t likely to change the cosmology of the matter.

“Sitcom Rap” is how MURS refers to his style—“being able to take elements from everyday life and make it entertaining”. That may send up the red flag for “novelty act” in and of itself, but the way MURS welds that lyrical approach to a profound understanding of hip-hop tradition results in a sound that’s truly unique. The finest example of this approach can be found on “Happy Pills”, where MURS and Aesop Rock invoke the spirit of great tandem routines (a la Phife and Tip on a Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rhime”) in a sardonic paean to anti-depressants, trading off prescriptions over Blockhead’s electric-Milesian production. Almost equally amusing is the collaboration with Digital Underground’s Shock G/Humpty Hump on “Risky Business”, which finds MURS stepping into Tom Cruise’s tighty-whities for some freaky Sex Packets-inspired debauchery. And “B.T.S.”—a sort of capitalist update on Gang Starr’s “B.Y.S.”—has MURS waiting in line to buy Star Wars action figures and throwing money around like former New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, proving that wry humor and musical substance don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive.

MURS’ affinity for the tradition also leads him in directions that are surprisingly commercial for a Def Jux release. “18 w/a Bullet”, produced by Atmosphere’s Ant, sounds more Arrested Development than Can Ox—the kind of joint that would’ve been all over Yo! MTV Raps if it’d come out back in ‘90. Although it doesn’t rewind the tape quite as far, “I Know” covers similar territory. With it’s Large Professor-esque production (courtesy of Belief), the track comes closer to that untainted Illmatic vibe than anything Nas has done since.

But MURS has a serious side as well, as best witnessed on one of the CD’s mellowest cuts, “Last Night”. With the opening lines “Now some claim gangsta rap’s the CNN of the streets / But it’s used as an excuse to pretend over beats” setting the tone, MURS takes on frontin’-ass MC’s with a real tale from the streets, basically delivering the message that shit’s a lot more complex than the black-vs.-white, Bloods-vs.-Crips drama most rappers try to pass off on the listening public. In a perfect world, this refreshingly humble, no-bullshit stance would serve as a wake-up call for MC’s with any integrity to keep it real; in reality, though, the best we can hope is that MURS will at least turn a few heads with his laudable lack of posturing.

Of course, it’d be misleading to say that The End of the Beginning is a flawless record, as it does have a few misses here and there. An unusual ode to skateboarding, “Transitions of a Rider”, and the unimaginative “Please Leave” immediately come to mind as the most obvious B-list cuts, but head honcho El-P even drops a blemish in his god-like status with a mediocre production and guest vocal spot on “The Dance” (a fact that MURS even seems to acknowledge with his defensive “Got you all up on your keyboard shunnin’ this shit” line). Regardless, the record still shows MURS as one of the most impressive MC’s to emerge from the underground in years (both lyrically and flow-wise) and he somehow manages to achieve an amazing coherence out of production credits that read like the L.A. phone book. So for MURS, it really is the end of the beginning—and if this record is any indication, that’s one script that won’t get flipped for a long time.

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