Chattabox And Samuel Otis – Hard Graft (hip-hop)

Killamari, 2011, CD album, 53m 38s


Thankfully it’s no longer necessary to pretend to be American to be taken seriously as a rapper, Brains McCloud & Silibil notwithstanding. Now you can spit lahk you be comin’ from sahf London unarmeen? Or you can ignore the industry’s prescriptions, and do what comes naturally. A big part of this album’s appeal (and it has a lot of appeal) is that it showcases a variety of voices, the voices of people rhyming like they come from where they come from. ‘Keeping it real’ has long been a touchstone among rappers who don’t, but it’s obvious from listening to this recording that the participants never needed to give it a second thought.

Much of rap’s potential gets wasted and dissipated in its overblown celebrity culture, which infects and warps the aspirations of many people involved in it at a grass roots level: but when rappers’ verbal agility is employed purely in the service of their artistic vision then, as here, it becomes a potent action poetry, enacting rather than representing the life experience of its authors.

I first became aware of Chattabox some years ago, through some tracks distributed by Northern Dialect (later shortened to Dialect) on the website iCompositions. He speaks in a higher register (as do most people), but his flows have a funky, percussive precision that sometimes reminds me of Chali 2na: his lyrics also have a similarly righteous intelligence, but are animated by a sharper, more satirical sense of social awareness, that produces phrase after phrase of cleverly marshalled imagery, representing the life experience of Britain’s urban poor with razor wit and swaggering intensity.

I can’t pretend to be an expert, but I was unaware that the northeastern crew Dialect had a southwestern equivalent in lowercase: Samuel Otis is one of its members, and he demonstrates a similar capacity for forging deep funk and combative poetry from his native dialect. I am so converted to the sound of Geordie rapping that I was starting to forget it worked in other accents (and Americans just sound daft to me now!); Otis exploits his Bristolian speech brilliantly, exploiting his terminal ‘r’s with relish, as in ‘a rock popper [?]/ the sock-knocker-offer/anybody who’s blocking [?] is obviously off their rockerrrrr’.

Generally speaking this whole release is pretty old school, as are the Dialect  releases that I know Chattabox from: beats are constructed by DJs in the traditional manner, cutting up readymade materials with an encyclopedic magpie sensibility, and the rapping is all about the funkiest rapid-fire flow, the most complex rhyme schemes and the cleverest word play. DJ Needlefluff has overall production responsibilities, but a variety of collaborators are involved, while Chatta and Otis are joined by a select group of guest vocalists. What unites them all is a commitment to realism (the scorn is never so heavy as when it’s poured on the wannabe gangsta) and a genuinely jaw dropping skill set.

If you read me regularly you’ll know I carry a torch for independent music: this release proves my point. It would be virtually impossible for any commercially successful hip-hop artist to put out stuff like this, because fame and wealth would be an insurmountable obstacle. So much of this music’s heart and soul comes from its representation of the ordinary, of young men living ordinary lives on council estates, sharing spliffs, trying to impress girls, trying not to get beaten up or robbed, looking for a job, fare dodging on the bus… All the protagonists involved in this release sound hungry: they never put the brakes on, even for a second; there is no filler, but a continual succession of creative, inventive ideas; every element of the music is funky and witty in equal measure, at all times.

Obviously I wish them every success, and hope they receive the recognition they deserve, because this album utterly trounces the majority of big commercial hip-hop releases. Seriously, it’s so good it just makes those powdered and perfumed over-produced stars look silly. But there’s a part of me that hopes they just make a good living and don’t get rich: working hard at something you love is a great way to spend your life, and it’s an endless source of material, but being rich is frankly boring (or so it would seem from the arid product output by most rich musicians).

Chattabox and Samuel Otis are both clearly at the top of their game: they are literate and intelligent writers with insane amounts of groove, uniting verse with percussion in the archetypal style pioneered by Rakim. I’ve followed Dialect  for a while, without paying too much attention, but Hard Graft has served me notice that I need to listen closely to what everyone involved in it is doing, because this is some of the most creative and truly independent new music I’ve heard in a long while.

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