[26 July 2009]
Released in anticipation of independent dance label Tru Thoughts’ tenth anniversary, Unfold Presents Tru Thoughts Hip Hop is an enlightening retrospective scrapbook of, well, the hip hop put out by said label and its defunct imprint Zebra Traffic. (Unfold is yet another imprint dealing with Tru’s compilations). A defiant stride away from celebrity rap burdened by the trite machinations of street life (well, almost; “I, Silverfish” does give one that obligatory dose of drug-induced self-destruction and despair), not to mention Auto-Tune, the hip hop this compilation corrals is the kind the genre’s pioneers would be proud of.
It recalls in the listener a time when rappers rapped beatifically about rapping, b-boy culture, and crate-digging. It also returns hip hop to its place as a porthole of aspiration and exploration rather than as a slick cash-cow of a commodity. This ethos is convincingly captured by San Francisco-based MC and hip hop producer Kero One when he beams self-referentially on Lanu’s “It’s Time”: “So I grab the mic and flip my words, I get down and spit it to the herd; I move MCs with the rhythm of my kick down into the mic, lyrics and quick wit…”
The compilation is also instructive in the enduring versatility of hip hop production and lyricism. “Blow Your Horn”, for instance, masquerades in East-Asian sonic vernacular while Milez Benjamin’s “Soundcheckin” grates with cyborg gestures. Even Hint’s “I, Silverfish”, for all its drudging through of a man’s dystopic drug-induced mania, wafts with arresting allegory over a bleak tribal accompaniment. Meanwhile, “Get in the Scene” by Australian funk sensation the Bamboos (featuring Ohmega Watts on the mic), restores some good old Sugar Hill Gang-style hip hop with its rhythmical exhortations to “get down”.
Despite the compilation’s apples-and-oranges miscellany, highlights do beckon. These include “Wilderness Kids”, where little known British rapper Rup provides a spoken word account of peripatetic life over TM Duke’s morose piano accompaniment—an accompaniment that ingeniously transitions into a much-needed loungey glockenspiel reprieve. “Get It Together”, another Duke gem, evokes RJD2-esque bravura with its jazzy atmospheric undertone, smoky brass, and off-beat quasi-psychedelic vocal sampling (“Make love”, says one non sequitur).
Like one would expect of any good compilation covering a decade’s work, Tru Thoughts Hip Hop ploughs the depths of sentiment and dynamism. My only criticism is that its 16-track arrangement fails to parcel out the various changes in mood and lyrical content to sustain the listener from beginning to end. Jaunty and catchy but less interesting songs, such as the boisterously shuffling “En Focus” by Quantic (and featuring the French rapper Trinidad), pile in at the beginning, leaving heavyweight tracks like “Wilderness Kids” and musically audacious numbers like the Nostalgia 77’s languid bluesy jazz “So Grown Up” lingering unappreciated for want of attention span. Listening to Tru Thoughts Hip Hop can be a bit like going to a party, only to have to come home to a poetry reading.
In any case, the compilation’s distinction is that it manages to transport the listener to back-to-basics rhythm-loving hip hop while simultaneously challenging him with production that refuses to rest on its laurels. This no doubt has to do with Tru Thoughts being a label that invests in artists who wish to remain artists, not money-grubbers. Given the decisive English bent to the album (Tru Thoughts is based in Brighton), the compilation is undoubtedly a well deserved self-congratulating pat on the back for the nation’s hip hop scene, a mature animal that is contrarily experimental in nature.