When you close your eyes and think of hip-hop, you're probably like me. You think of tall mountains, deep snow, and some hard-ass Christ-seeking emcees. You think Colorado and church, log cabins, and firewood. No? You're more into crunk than the cross. Well, don't get hung up on all that and let me introduce the Procussions.
This trio came out of the Colorado hip-hop scene (rumors say there's one) in the late '90s, and they've just released their first album, ...As Iron Sharpens Iron. The Procussions don't impose their faith, and it's easy to miss in their lyrics, but any group that titles their album after a psalm doesn't need to be outed by a critic. It's a nice approach to their lyricism: they get their message across without being in-your-face or aggressively Christian. You don't have to believe to like this group. The Procussions aren't trying to evangelize; they just want to "promote the optimist's view". On the first single, "All That It Takes", the rappers mention all four Gospel writers by name, but what you'll remember is the beat that bounces and flows.
The music on this album really stands out. Stro the 89th Key not only raps, but he also plays guitar, piano, trumpet, and drums. His jazz influence is apparent on many tracks, especially when he's on the piano. He's also the group's producer, and he builds a full sound without overpowering his audience. At moments, the Procussions sound as if they've worked in a Public Enemy studio, but they never get quite that aggressive with their production. Mr. J Medeiros also plays drums and piano. Like the first two, Resonant handles the mic, but he doesn't do any live instrumentation.
The jazz sounds on ...As Iron Sharpens Iron smooth out the disc. The melody lines are typically smooth and unassuming. Occasionally the pace changes up with some funk-inflected grooves, which Stro brings out on his trumpet. You might be reminded some of the Roots, but the Procussions really sound much more throwback than that. A Tribe Called Quest comes to mind, and you can find some similarities between the deliveries on Iron and 1991's Low End Theory.
In all that description, though, I might have falsely suggested that the Procussions flow, but they don't hit. Get a few seconds into the first track and you'll be disabused of that notion. "The Beginning" starts with a drum roll followed by a chant of "This is, this is the beginning", while a musical tension slowly begins as the drum line develops and the vocals lose their place in the mix, until the first emcee hits and threatens to keep hitting until things are put right. By the time the chanting resumes, the song's developed an anthemic quality. Then it ends to immediately make room for the PE-like "Introducing", allowing the Procussions to "stay driven on a mission for truth".
Smooth and hard, Iron remains in conversation with other Christian hip-hop discs. In some ways, it's a response to the production values of a group like the Cross Movement. On 1998's Heaven's Mentality the group uses a similar sensibility and a slightly throwback sound, but they use horns to opposite effect. Where the Procussions use brass to bring out the funk side of their album, spicing up some of their mellower tracks, the Cross Movement use trumpets to bring it down, to give the album that jazz inflection that the Procussions have inherently.
Iron also plays like an answer to KRS-One's album Spiritual Minded (2002). KRS-One keeps the old-school beats he's spent years rapping over, but he delivers a newfound bluntness about his faith, proclaiming, "I'm a preacher tryin' to bring my people back from the dead". Along with his preaching, though, Kris insists on his own street-life background. He's the street-boy with religion, refusing to renounce the rhymes of his past because they're connected to the spirituality now on display (and always there). Even the title of this KRS-One refers to his landmark 1987 record with Boogie Down Productions, Criminal Minded.
The Procussions, while clear on their positive spiritual message, aren't so direct about their religion. They avoid tracks like KRS-One's "Take Your Tyme", which extols the virtues of abstinence. At the same time, they don't struggle to impress us with their street knowledge. They are what they are, and it's a fun and moving thing to watch. As they say, "Liberation is a critical thing", and that liberation allows you to vocalize yourself without the need for self-explanation.
The question has to be asked, then: if the Procussions are liberated into their own selves, why the old-school beats? Well, I guess because that's what they sound like. Some feminists discuss liberation as not only the freedom to get the job you want, but also the freedom to stay home with the kids without feeling inferior. Throwing these early '90s beats around is the way the Procussions do it and, maybe surprisingly, it sounds fresh. We're all listening to the pop bands that lift their hooks straight from my childhood. Why? I suppose one argument is that it's both new (in its removal from its original periodicity) and comfortable (in its familiarity). Another argument is that it sounds good. Take your pick, just don't mind me if I put my headphones back on while you debate.