[23 October 2008]
Combining hip-hop and any subgenre of rock is not an easy task. Many times, the guitar riffs and licks are at the whim of a shoddy producer who is trying to create a larger-than-life, ultimately corny beat. Sure, the Roots do it without batting an eye, and Jay-Z has spit over riffs that make his proclamation as a rock star seem like more than just shit-talking. But, of course, they and few others are the exceptions to the rule. And that is where the High Decibels come in.
A talented combination of two emcees and a multi-instrumentalist producer, this trio is hardly like anything you have heard before. Akin to Nas’s “Bridging the Gap” off Street’s Disciple, the High Decibels blend the blues with hip-hop on their self-titled debut to create a fresh, inspiring record. Some listeners might write them off as the latest group trying to bring back the early ‘90s, but these guys are anything but imitators.
Instead of filling their tracks with lyrics about how hip-hop is dead, the High Decibels focus on creating something new with hints of the past. And, perhaps best of all, none of it sounds contrived. Emcees Duke and Chief play off each other like the longtime friends they are as they spit over producer KC Booker’s bluesy, head-nodding beats. Although it’s true that the production sticks mostly to raunchy and dirty blues riffs over straightforward drums, it never drags or becomes stale. Much of the same goes for the rapping. At times, Duke and Chief almost sound sloppy, like they are trying to catch up to each other. But that quality is part of what makes you want to hit the repeat button, because you are left wanting to hear exactly what Duke is spitting. It also accurately portrays what you might expect from the High Decibels’ live show, which is most likely one hell of a time. And DJ Gordo Cabeza’s scratching further accentuates the live feel of the album.
It’s not hard to imagine the High Decibels stealing a show as they perform tracks like “Miss Cindy”, the group’s ode to a “sexy lil’ thang”, and “That Dude”. Both clearly draw from De La Soul and even the Beastie Boys, a deadly and effective cocktail. And those more playful cuts are balanced by Duke’s more introspective side. “No Peace in the Streets” and “The Great Must Last” are two engrossing looks at inner-city violence and war. And you can tell that Duke is sincere when he spits lines like “It’s a war where I’m at / Babies killing babies / Call it Baby Iraq” in “No Peace in the Streets”.
The most impressive of them all, however, is one where Duke simply struts his stuff on the mic. Before he takes control, though, your ear is drawn in by the opening lick on “A Word I Said”, which keeps you under its spell for the entire track. Then it’s Duke’s time to shine. As a means of not giving too much away, I’ll just say that he spits like a madman who was just let out of his cage. And even though he is a competent emcee across the entire record, Duke easily shines the brightest on “A Word I Said”.
As strong of an outing as The High Decibels is, it falls short in a few areas. Some variety on the production end could have made the whole album more palatable, and the aforementioned sloppiness does take some getting used to. But those are minor flaws that are easily overlooked. Just do yourself a favor and at least check out the High Decibels’ MySpace page to hear what they are all about. It should go without saying that you’ll be glad you did.