Killamari Records, 2012, DD album, 42m 35s
As I’ve come to expect from a Chattabox release, this one goes in hard from the start. I often go to some lengths to counter the idea that musical quality is a matter of technical skills being exploited at full stretch, but there are times when an impressive display of compositional and performance gymnastics makes a positive aesthetic contribution to the music. This is one such: the very fact that this shit is hard to do is a part of its strength, and since Chatta never takes his eye off the ball in terms of his lyrics and beats it never comes across as smart-arsed, or as empty formalism. A highly developed skill set, in areas completely unvalued by the cultural elite, is a challenge to hegemony, and an assertion of personal agency; this is how hip-hop reterritorialises the landscape of cultural identity for subjects that are denied any coherent context by the mainstream. They Call Me is an assertion, from start to finish, which is not to say that it lacks reflection, but that it exploits certainty as an oppositional trope. Chattabox knows where he comes from, knows who he is, knows where he’s going, and knows what he’s going to do when he gets there. He knows what he wants to say, and, fuck me, does he ever know how to say it!
Beats are supplied by a variety of accomplices, including Dialect stalwart Peta Max. They nail a range of moods, demonstrating a lot of knowledge in their choice of samples and sources, not to mention a finely tuned ear for constructing affective narratives. They are often deftly dovetailed with the lyrical flow in intricate counterpoints, but even when not, they are in full, mutually reinforcing accord with the spitting; whether the credit for that belongs with the production team or the voices is hard to say, but I’d guess it’s a bit of both. There’s a hefty toolbox in play here, ranging from squelchy synthesis, through looped samples to a skittering bob-and-weave of turntablism: all these techniques are delivered with confident, swaggering panache, which is a good place to start talking about the verbals.
What they say, and how much they make you want to move, might be the main measure of quality in a rap vocal, but there’s no easy separation between art and craft in hip-hop, and the first thing that strikes you here, like a trapeze artist’s performance, is the sheer dazzling skill of it. If you have very little to say, finding ingenious and rhythmically propulsive ways to say it can get you a long way; when, like Chattabox, you also have a hell of a lot to say, taking such a technically ambitious and demanding approach to getting it out is a real high wire act, and while the studio may serve in place of a safety net, the sense of creative risk is still pervasive. Chatta’s style tends toward rapid-fire, and is always precise, which is out of step with the current fashion for sloppy, super-chilled delivery, but the grounds for his appeal will still be there after fashion has moved on and left its victims flapping like dying fish in the harsh glare of historical perspective. This stuff will always be a tight, intricate, imaginative, deep-grooving torrent of verbal ingenuity, irrespective of fashion. Personally I like to think I have a good vocabulary and some skill with language, but Joe Eden continually leaves me wondering how he manages to come up with new ways of saying things, new linguistic inversions, and punning double-meanings. His ideas usually arrive so thick and fast that it takes repeated listening and close attention to pick them out, but what really sets this above the competition is that once the listener has unpacked the wordplay, it becomes apparent that every clever device makes its own essential contribution to the complex meanings of these tales and rants. It’s always slick, but never glib.
Personal experience is the touchstone of this material. Authenticity is a tricky beast, which is usually (almost always, in fact) conflated with a spurious sense of subcultural essentialism, but for all that it generally disappears when you look at it too hard, it’s still the measure of value for most listeners, from the unreflecting, casual fan, to the intellectually rigorous, analytical critic. Here, that sense of authenticity comes from a constant referral back to what Chattabox knows from his direct personal experience, be it through his cultural references or the kinds of life experience that inform his lyrics. He appears as a child on the cover; the invocation of childhood is a pervasive strategy in music lately, and I’ve speculated that it represents a form of anchor point for those members of the post-internet generation whose fragmented cultural identities are too ahistorical for comfort. In other words, I would argue, it’s the same kind of reterritorialisation that I described above, where a highly developed technique marks out a territory for the subject to signify powerfully. ‘Nostalgia’ originally referred to exiles’ longing for their homeland, and childhood is everyone’s mythic homeland; as I said before, however, They Call Me is an assertive record, and certainty is one of its key creative components. There is little or no sense of nostalgia here, but a very clear sense that Joe Eden has defined his roots and his identity, on his own terms. The potent regional identity of the Northeast may have something to do with this, and it is certainly a powerful current in this recording. The select guest MC spots also come with a strong sense of locality, be they contributed by longtime Dialect crew members Rick Fury, Sep5 and Gaz Shanksy, or Bristolian (and Three Kings High bandmate) Samuel Otis (although Stig Of The Dump seems less obviously concerned with regionalism).
Chattabox described They Call Me to me as a labour of love: it shows. I’ve been consistently impressed by the releases he’s been associated with, over quite a number of years now, and his work has matured with each recording. He sounds at the top of his game here, with intricate tongue twisting wordplay delivered at breakneck speed, but sounding as relaxed as if he had all the time in the world; as a whole album, this is a very coherent piece of work, an integrated statement that shows as much of a gift for the big pictures of composition and production as for the detailed cut and thrust of the lyrical flow. This is a record that nails each and every one of the values I look for in an album length release, and never lets the quality drop for even a second.