[12 March 2006]
Independent hip-hop suffers from a perception problem. The fact is, there are an awful lot of folks who wouldn’t give any hip-hop with the “independent” label a second look, because typically, it does one of two things: either it takes itself too seriously (as epitomized by the so-called emo stylings of Sage Francis and Slug) or it’s too freakin’ weird (cLOUDDEAD and most of the Anticon label falls into this category). KYO records, the progressive electronic / hip-hop / whatever sublabel of Germany’s Kitty-Yo records, would seem by their latest compilation Futurism Ain’t Shit to Me 2 to be out to combat both of these stereotypes, offering up a fun, often irreverent, highly beat-heavy mix that’ll catch hip-hoppers of every style.
Thankfully for novice indie heads, KYO has grabbed some of the bigger names in independent hip-hop for tracks on their compilation, thus allowing for a chance that maybe, just maybe, there’s an artist on the disc that they’ve heard. Sole is here doing his usual schtick with “On Martyrdom”, a track from his recent Live in Rome disc, which finds him ranting and raving over spastic electronic beats and bleeps. Mercifully, the latter half of the track features one of Sole’s more rhythmic deliveries, something to grasp onto as Sole alternates willy-nilly between the provocative and the mundane. Quasimoto (a.k.a. MadLib) lays down a serious beat on The Unseen‘s “Come On Feet” while trading rhymes with found audio samples and his own pitch-shifted voice. Prince Po takes it to the club with “Hold Dat”, from 2004’s The Slickness. No, none of the big names are contributing exclusive tracks—admittedly, one of the weaknesses of Futurism Ain’t Shit to Me 2 is its lack of original material—but as a primer, having the album tracks here is helpful, leading listeners to specific albums rather than daring them to pick from some of these artists’ extensive discographies.
While the “big names” might help draw listeners, however, it’s the relatively unknown artists that take full advantage of their chance to shine. Particularly distinctive is the work of 8-Bit, an LA collective who dresses up like robots for their gigs, here relating their tragic tales of trying to gamble and buy booze and cigarettes…as robots. “You want a passport, bitch? I’ve got a laser gun!” is one of the most hilarious lines I’ve heard in a song in a long time, and the song brings with it the biggest dose of levity on the album. Forss contributes the title track of his album Soulhack and brings a serious, bass-dominated groove with him. Toward the end of the album, Anticon’s Pedestrian contributes “O Silent Bed”, from his Volume One: Unindian Songs album, lending some old-school rhyming to the new-school production style. No matter how knowledgeable you might be in the ways of hip-hop, you’re bound to learn something from this compilation.
Far from being a purely educational exercise, Futurism Ain’t Shit to Me 2 plays like an actual album should play. There’s a flow here, a careful balance between MC-dominated tracks and instrumentals where styles never sound too much like each other, but the wide disparity is tempered by beat-heavy tracks that serve well as transitions. It’s the sort of thing that actually makes Sole’s whining bearable—when he’s not surrounded by massive piles of himself, he can stick out and sound revolutionary and original, allowed to eschew rhyming because most of the MCs here do rhyme—it’s actually nice to have something so dead serious when the track before it has a chorus of “Don’t call me when you’re menstruating” (one of Infinite Livez’ more sensitive tracks, apparently). Putting something as bizarre as Otto von Schirach’s “Earjuice Synthesis” (here remixed by recent critical darling Jamie Lidell) toward the tail-end of the disc was a stroke of genius as well, waking up listeners with electronic malfunctions and a stilted voice exhorting them to “Touch the tweeter, kiss the speaker” and “Gargle my urine”. It’s a little disgusting, a little difficult, and just the right thing to pique curiosity enough to finish out the comp.
As with any compilation, there are weak links. Slum Village’s “Set It” will make you bop, but it’s not memorable in any way. Stacs of Stamina change tempos one too many times on “Tivoli” to hold interest for more than a few minutes, and its placement next to the even stranger von Schirach tune is unfortunate. For the most part, however, this is an hour of great beats, solid, often humorous lyrics, and underappreciated artists. KYO has managed to escape the trap of promoting the sorts of artists that happen to be unknown for a good reason, instead finding a full stack of artists that deserve all the listens they can muster. Maybe Futurism Ain’t Shit to you, either, but KYO’s compilation paints an idealistic future where creativity is rewarded, even as it’s tempered by some good old-fashioned beatmaking and rhyming. Give it a look.