Music

Erick Sermon: Chilltown New York

Lee Henderson

Erick Sermon

Chilltown New York

Label: Universal Motown
US Release Date: 2004-06-22
UK Release Date: 2004-07-05
Amazon
iTunes

Fat Beats and Skinny Boasts

When it comes to the culture of hip-hop, Erick Sermon is a passionate conservative. His lyrics demand from other rappers the kind of quality professional ethics he's set for himself throughout his illustrious fifteen-year career. And nothing less that perfection will do from any rapper around him. Off and on, Sermon's been half of EPMD with Parrish Smith, one of the most respected hip-hop duos ever. Sermon has always been a vaunted producer, from hyping careers for Busta Rhymes and Too $hort, to making Shaquille O'Neil and Ja Rule sound good with his laid back "funklord" style. EPMD might not have been the big name in the hip-hop game for very long, but they put out banging records that have endured through rap's squillion new styles.

Sermon's new solo record, Chilltown New York, drops mad Sermon propaganda on unsuspecting streets. And because the album is so good, as strong as anything Sermon's done, I believe it can withstand a bit of serious, respectful scrutiny.

A part of hip-hop is laying down the law. Every rapper's got to lay down the law. And Sermon loves to lay down the law. He knows the game, and he knows how to respect the game, and -- most important to his lyrics -- Sermon knows how to spot the clues when someone else is screwing the game. The same passionate but ultimately conservative professional ethic he holds to, he also believes is central to the health of all hip-hop everywhere as it ages. Nothing but the Sermon's way.

Now, I'm not arguing that hip-hop's been exploited on fewer dates than Kirsten Dunst, but Sermon, you can't expect everyone to act the same just because their records are found in the record bins. Hip-hop is more than labels, it's a sustainable culture, a city of a shared consciousness. But it's nothing without the preservation of the music, and this idea is where Sermon's lyrics get perplexing and contradictory.

So even though he raps in the song "Relentless" that he agrees with Missy, "No creativity in the game no more", there's a part of his soul that's thinking "back in the day, back in the day". He loves hip-hop, but he's jaded. He's seen too many stars fade too soon, and too many cheats that are nothing but flashlights make it big for too long. His music is nostalgic, because back in Sermon's day, everything was better than it is right now.

But Sermon has not got the "next level shit" going on that's made Ghostface Killah the most important MC in New York since the vacuum left by Jay-Z. His flow is trustworthy and familiar, and I've always loved Sermon's style for its honorable consistency, for not being another shape-shifting producer like Timbaland. The only time Sermon's music hasn't been old school inflected was when he put out Strictly Business in 1988. His guests are Talib Kweli, Redman, and Keith Murray, and the album sounds like a rowdy high school reunion at times.

Sermon's remembrances of bling's past have him a little grumpy about the glaciers of ice the youngsters are tugging around without paying some dues. But Sermon must know from experience that money is blind. Money doesn't care how hard you worked to get it. Money doesn't care if you earned it. And when's money not money? When it's credit. Sermon's beef with fame as a producer, where he's always shined brightest, is that he has to put up with all the little stoners who pay his bills when a Funklord Productions credit appears in another unit-moving debut's liner notes.

Nevertheless, in the Egyptian-funky, serpent-hypnotizing track "I'm Not Him", Sermon raps a little history lesson to what are surely bored kindergarten Chingies sitting around him with platinum records stacked like notepads in the back of class. "I'm hip-hop elite, the one who signed Redman, the one who signed Keith", he gives as evidence of his authority. So, in other words, J-Kwop, or whoever you are: Sermon's been around the track upon which you rap, and in fact, now that you mention it, he owns the track.

On "Relentless", he raps the suggestion of retirement, and in a somewhat stinging final remark:

"And this might be my last hurrah /
I'm a rock now until tomorrow /
Some ask about EPMD's prognosis /
But it won't happen til' P get focus /
I won't be compared to Nas or Jada /
But I'm a punish the game for its foul behavior /
And y'all got it backwards /
Those ain't real MC's, those are actors /
Cast as Fear Factors /
And I agree with Missy /
No creativity in the game no more"

But Sermon isn't about breaking new ground. His tracks are surely the most trustworthy in the business, because you can't fail with that fat bassline and the R&B licks. He sticks to the roots of rap music, the subject of how fucking awesome he is. Rap has always been one boast after another diss. Say what you will about Suge Knight, if rappers didn't boast and diss, Tupac and Biggie wouldn't be dead. Whoa! Breaking news? No, it was pretty obvious back in the '90s that the worst that could happen in the grim feud between Pearl Jam and Nirvana was a suicide. Do you know what I'm saying? You can either express an internalized pain, or you can press the nine to externalize pain. What remains true in all three deaths is that everyone involved was way too obsessed with how other people lived their lives. Sermon's track "Street Hop", is one of many on the record that expresses his intolerance for MC's that don't measure up. "All them rappers who can't rhyme", he says, "What you doing is a crime, singing that garbage all the time [shotgun goes off, garbled but congratulatory rapping]". I'll tell you what, Sermon: It doesn't matter if some rappers can't rhyme. You can rhyme.

Don't retire, Sermon. Lead by example. Miles Davis died playing the trumpet. Sermon has a gift for music that is inarguable. But on this record it's clear he feels restricted and frustrated by the rap world. I don't blame him. If he does retire, his career will be remembered as one of hip-hop's true artists, an MC who produced ALL his own music, who never gave up, who respected hip-hop's roots and could rhyme like nobody's business: "I walk this way cause I paid my dues / I'm a giant and you need platform shoes".

Chilltown New York is as amazing a record as Sermon has ever made, and if it's his last, it will stand as one of the finest in his career. But his expectations for hip-hop are beyond his control, and the creativity he finds lacking in others could be found in himself. The Funklord's sound is an unbreakable beatbox groove. Over all these years it has never failed him, so it's been a good box to be in. Sermon might need to think outside of it, though, if he hopes to raise the bar in rap music again.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image