Man Bites Dog Records, 2012, album, 1h 13m 32s
Underground hip-hop takes distinct forms on either side of the Atlantic, to the extent that it’s arguable that ‘British underground hip-hop’ refers to a genre distinct from the American equivalent, rather than a geographically differentiated variety of the same thing. Arguable, but that doesn’t mean I think that’s necessarily the case… I do think that there are some important cultural differences (place and ethnicity both have very different functions in the construction of American and British identity), but I also think that the adherents of hip-hop’s undergrounds probably have more in common globally than they do with their local mainstreams. That being the case, transatlantic collaborations seem to be a little thin on the ground; as with jazz, it’s taking a long time to convince the fans and creators of this distinctively American creative practice that their tradition has an independent existence in the rest of the world. There have long been exceptions, particularly since early sound sharing sites like iCompositions made long distance collaborations practical for grass roots level artists, but God Save The King (Proper English Version) is one of the most high profile examples I’ve encountered (in my ignorance and indolence).
Copywrite is pretty well known for an underground artist – especially by the uncompromisingly obscurantist standards I usually apply – and has racked up collaborations and associations with some notorious figures, such as Jay Dilla, Killah Priest, and… no, on second thoughts I’m not going to abandon my journalistic principles and list a lot of names here. There are prominent names in the list of US contributors to this album, and prominent names in the list of UK contributors (the best known of which is probably Ms. Dynamite’s little brother and MOBO winner Akala). But I’m going to stick to describing the music.
The beats are top notch, as you would expect from an album released under as well respected a name as Copywrite’s; it’s not massively innovative or genre bending, but production geeks will find plenty of crafty details and sly manoeuvres to keep them interested, and it’s all highly conducive to head-noddery. The two that stuck out and made me notice them both turned out to be contributed by Jason Rose: ‘Ghosts In The Machine’ is a loping, heavy groove driven by a saturated synth bass (for which the present writer is a sucker), featuring one of the strongest guest raps from Context; the other is (bizarrely) an electronic reconstruction of Dire Straits’ ‘Money For Nothing’, to which Rose also donates some verbiage.
The dominant vocal aesthetic (and it’s hard to generalise about an album with twenty-three vocalists) is ruff and tuff; there is some very engaging wordplay, but it’s never laid on too thick. If it was rock guitar, it would be hard rock, not shred. There’s a lot of no-messing, confrontational swagger here. On first listen I found it a bit heavy on the name-checks and self promotion, but I think my perceptions were initially coloured by the inclusion of two minutes of the delectable Sarah Love bigging up the album on her radio show. Nice as it may be to have someone like that saying good things about your release, I think the music speaks for itself; and on reflection, despite that moment of excess, the album is no heavier on the shout-outs than most. At times it all seems a little bit in thrall to its own testosterone, but on the whole it’s rugged and exciting. Hip-hop can be pretty self-referential, and there’s a fair proportion of inwardly focussed lyrics, but there’s also an enthusiasm for outward engagement, and some social commentary that is less than usually obvious. The best was definitely saved for last: ‘Still Pickin’ offers the sort of listening experience that takes you right outside yourself, with irresistibly funky flows and head-spinning lyrical conceits; the closer, ‘A Talk With Jesus’, contextualises a moment of uncomfortable self-examination with Christian language, but you don’t need to believe to get the point, which is the deepest to be found on here.
This album is a very high quality, well judged piece of work. It strikes a fine balance between earthy machismo, and a more contemplative approach; the creative decisions here have clearly been made by someone with the experience to trade off ‘worthy’ concerns against entertainment value, and the end result is a recording that has a lot of strength in both areas.
God Save The King will be released on 13 June 2012.