Masai’s Music Monday: Top 5 MCs of the 518
My friend Masai, a local music enthusiast moonlighting as a rapper himself, compiled a list of his top five MC’s of the Capital Region and I couldn’t help but ask if I could repost it here.
I’m in total agreement with Masai in that every day I learn a little bit more about music in this area – whether in the form of a new show announcement, an artist I’ve never heard of before, new material, old material and so on, there’s so much out there. I haven’t heard of every MC on Masai’s list prior to reading it and that fact alone reinforces the importance of doing a little research on the music that’s being made in our own stomping grounds.
As you check out the artists on this list, you’ll start to see exactly why it’s an exciting thing to be a fan of hip hop/rap while residing in the Albany area. It’s going to be a good year for music in Albany, as it already has been.
Additionally, I recently previewed a couple of Masai’s tracks from his forthcoming album, “Almost Home,” which is available for pre-order. Also be sure to add February 28th to your calendar to celebrate the release officially, at the Bayou Cafe.
Thanks again to Masai for always speaking honestly, for humbly not putting himself on this list (no worries, you’re on mine!) and for doing his part in supporting the local music scene. Check out his feature after the jump!
My Picks for the Top Five MCs of the 518
The title of this article is important. Read it again. If you’re upset you’re not on this list, or that your favorite local rapper isn’t on this list, you can relax. First and foremost – I don’t KNOW every rapper in the 518. In fact, every day I find a new one. I can barely keep up. A couple of months ago I was at The Linda on Central Ave, and a skinny white bartender recognized me from online and randomly started rapping and telling me he wanted to work with me. A few weeks ago, I bumped into a bathroom attendant in Clifton Park who revealed to me that he was actually a producer and MC from the area. You can’t make this stuff up. I’ve only met one bathroom attendant in my life, and he happened to be a rapper.
The point being: I can only speak on the 518 rappers that I’m actually familiar with… and while that list grows every day, it’s far from conclusive.
Although I don’t know them all, I’m still familiar with quite a few 518 rappers. Granted, I mainly know the Albany area MCs, but I’ve been making music ’round these parts for about a decade. And I’ve spent the last two years expanding my horizons even more to include both sides of the divided Hip-Hop scene in Albany. Several years ago I organized a compilation project that featured some of the most well known local guys of the time. (From Debo Jones, to Dao Jones… From Fitted to Sev Statik… from Nique to NTS). Shortly after I assisted in organizing and promoting a “Support Local Hip-Hop” block party on Orange St. that featured performances from lots of talented artists.
Albany MCs are nothing if not persistent, and several of them are still a relevant part of the scene today. As recently as last year, my friends and I reached out to a dozen of our favorite local artists to produce a collaborative track and video entitled “You Ought To Know.” I listen to everything I come across. If you’ve ever posted a song that made it onto my Facebook or Twitter; or if you’re one of the multiple rappers who’ve sold me their mixtape while I’m putting gas in my tank on Clinton Ave, or outside of Bogie’s; rest assured – I listened to it. I always say I’m a fan of local music first, and an artist second. Which brings me to my next point.
I have the honor of being in a group with some of my favorite local rappers. Honestly, most of the members of Against The Grain (ATG) annoy the hell out of me… but Sin-City, Mike Arson, JPlus, Kaine, and Madness are a phenomenal collection of talent, and that’s the reason I’ve continued to make music with them. And If I weren’t a member of the group, I guarantee that a few of them would be, and should be, on this list. But since some might question my motives, I’ll happily exclude them for now.
Lastly, I’m not an authority on what constitutes good music. In fact, I’m sure my taste is a far cry away from the taste of the majority of commercial and underground listeners. I like Drake. I thought Nelly’s first album was great. People still give me slack for admitting that. I think Sticky Fingaz is absurdly underrated. I worship the ground Tupac and Jay-Z walk on. I think Slaughterhouse is the best thing to happen to rap since Outkast. I loved Eminem for 4 straight albums, and Kanye West took over when Em didn’t do it for me anymore. I hate Atmosphere, and think Immortal Technique has written some of the best rap songs ever. Some of my most memorable concert experiences include seeing Supernatural, Rakim, and (YEARS ago) DMX. And I think Rick Ross and Lil’ Wayne shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco. And that’s just mainstream rap, which is realistically about 40% of the music I listen to. My most-used Pandora playlists are Sam Cooke and Dion & The Belmonts… so what does that tell you?
But regardless of genre, when I listen to music I’m NOT listening for studio quality engineering or mixing and mastering. I listen for content. I listen for delivery. I listen for technical ability. I listen for humor. And I listen for authenticity. I don’t feel that every rap song has to be 100% true, but if most of your content consists of talking about how you shoot people, then you’re either 1) an unimaginative liar or 2) an idiot for incriminating yourself. Either way I’m not impressed.
To be clear, I’m not against violent rap or misogynistic rap. Maybe I should be, but I actually like a lot of it. In fact, I like a lot of violent and misogynistic literature. But even Poe and Shakespeare knew when it was time to put away the wenches and daggers and talk about other aspects of life.
But you don’t care about that; you just care about who I picked, and why. So let’s get to it.
I hate putting Knowle’ge on this list. Not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because it will go to his head. He’s one of those MCs that knows he’s nice (I mean, look at his freaking Twitter handle – @KnowlegeIzKing). And much to my disgust, rapping is only one of several things he’s really good at. He’s about to get his Master’s degree, and the only thing he rocks better than a crowd, is a suit and tie. Seriously, fuck this dude. But the kid can rap his ass off and there’s no denying it. I started listening to Knowle’ge about seven years ago. At the time I was doing design work, and he asked me to do a CD cover for him, I was surprised to discover that the CD was actually incredible.
Knowle’ge has a large catalogue and has opened up for quite a few mainstream acts. He is an extremely well rounded MC with impeccable delivery, timing, and enunciation. He’s articulate and has clever, thought-provoking lyrics. And he writes songs. Not verses. Not bars. Songs. He also frequently works with one of my favorite local producers, Stay Tune (who’s also underrated). Knowle’ge is the total package, and the only reason he’s not famous is because life isn’t fair. Either that, or it’s because Knowle’ge (like everyone else on this list) hails from a city where there are more self-proclaimed rappers than there are actual fans. Knowle’ge has been relatively quiet lately because he’s busy at school. So rather than post a song of his, I’d rather post this spectacle of him doing an impromptu performance with a full choir and orchestra at SUNY Potsdam.
Rated R has something that a lot of local rappers lack. Authenticity. He’s not a lyrical juggernaut or a witty rap genius. But he’s brutally honest, and speaks openly and freely about personal things that other rappers are scared to touch on. One of my favorite ‘songs’ by him is a 3 minute diatribe called “Thinking Out Loud” where he doesn’t even rhyme. He just talks about his life with the narrative finesse of a latino Morgan Freeman. R’s voice and delivery only add to the honesty resonating in his rhymes. I’m sure I put more emphasis on authenticity than most fans. That’s evident by what constitutes popular music nowadays. But for me, hip-hop STARTS with realness, and Rated R’s as real as they come. If I don’t feel that you, as an artist, believe what you’re saying, I’m just not buying it, figuratively or literally.
Rated R also has a great finished product lately, largely in part due to his team of videographers, producers, and collaborators. He writes songs about things other than how cool he is. In fact he often writes about his screw ups and short comings. And even when he’s rapping ambiguously, there’s a message in the words. When brought up in conversation, I’ve notice that he doesn’t often get regarded as a top area MC. I can’t speak on how universal his appeal is (or isn’t), but the audience that he does manage to reach is incredibly responsive to his particular brand of music. And as much as I hate the over-use of the term “haters,” I think this dude might legitimately have some. Although he wasn’t born in the 518, Rated R has definitely made himself comfortable here, and continues to raise the bar in terms of quality and originality.
Gorilla Tao is the type of rapper that you have to see to believe. I’d be lying if I said that part of his appeal doesn’t stem from him looking like an anorexic lumberjack. And in my mind, the fact that he’s also got red hair and skateboards around town makes him a prime candidate to become an unwitting superhero. But instead, he’s a rapper. And an amazing one. In his latest release, “Glorious,” (produced by PJ Katz) he proudly proclaims that he writes “a rhyme a day,” and while he’s definitely NEVER short on verses, he doesn’t have many recorded songs. Fortunately for him, this list is about quality, not just quantity. I’m also confident that in the next year Tao will have a ton of songs and features released; and I, for one, can’t wait.
Like me, he has the distinct pleasure of rapping with a team of incredibly talented men – The Iron Bar Collective. I’d argue that no other local team more accurately captures the essence of Hip-Hop culture better than IBC. Seriously, they’re like a DJ and a break dancer away from being a Run DMC video. It’s great. And Tao raps like a finely tuned machine gun – firing off bar after bar of meticulously placed verbiage. It’s easy to get lost in his hypnotic flow, but he’s considerate enough to throw little foot holds (ear holds?) in his verses for the listeners to latch on to and savor. It’s difficult for the untrained ear to keep up with his lyrical ability, but even an oblivious listener can recognize his strong delivery. If you ever meet Gorilla Tao in the street, ask him to rap for you. He probably will. And in two bars you’ll be impressed.
Dezmatic is a great artist, and (based on technical ability) he may be one of the greatest underground rappers. If he wasn’t so damn ugly he’d probably be famous – not that fame would even mesh well with his current image; which, to me, wreaks of non-conformity. Dez has a ton of EPs and albums. He’s EASILY a top 5 freestyler locally, and puts on a hell of a live show. But what really impresses me about Dez is his ability to put words together. Such a simple thing in the context of rapping, but Dez is a syllable savant. He’s what would happen if you combined Big Pun, Diabolic and Big L into a blender… and then made a greasy fat man drink it. At first listen you might get the impression that Dez is an elitist snob. And you’d be right. But this is because Dez takes music seriously, and he spends much of his time addressing the quickly deteriorating state of rap music. Dez is a child of hip-hop, and I get the impression that hip-hop betrayed him, so now he has no qualms about repeatedly punching what’s left of it in the face.
Dez is one half of the local group Giant Gorilla Dog Thing, and one of the founding fathers of Pig Food Records. His partner, Dood Computer, could have been on this list. And part of me suspects that by the time their studio album, HORSE (executive produced by Absolute), is released later this year, Dood Computer will further assert his own talent and creativity. Their mixtape, ERIC, is better than most albums. And two of Dez’s solo releases “Rocky Dennis” and “Behemoth” are twisted masterpieces in their own right. Like Rated R, I think Dez has limited universal appeal. He’s mastered the art of being vulgar for art’s sake, and he doesn’t have an external filter. These are things I appreciate, but that might turn others off. Still, Dez probably knows more about hip-hop than your favorite rapper, and he uses this knowledge to make his own unique sound.
Like Gorilla Tao, Altez’s fatal flaw is not having enough recorded material, but everything I’ve had the pleasure of hearing is incredibly smooth, clever, and unique. If I hadn’t seen him perform live, I might have excluded him from this list. But Altez is as captivating on the stage as he is on a track. His demeanor is like a caricature of naive innocence and tongue-in-cheek schtick. I can’t even tell where Perdo (his given name) ends and Altez (his rap persona) begins. It’s hard to explain. Altez is like the rap version of Steve Urkel turning into Stefán Urquelle. And it works. Ladies love him; guys dig it too. It’s a balancing act, and Altez pulls it off like none other. He also makes this really weird sound all the time… like a duck “beat-quacking”… and it’s oddly entertaining, if not slightly overdone.
His flow is incredibly laid back, without sounding lazy or sloppy. If Altez does a song with 3 other rappers, his verse will be the one going at a completely different pace, with a completely different vibe. It’s for this reason I look forward to his solo efforts, because it’s hard to tell if he really adds to collaborations since he’s so embedded into his own world. Altez is affiliated with Kloqwork Entertainment, but he also has a life outside of music. Sadly, his life might be distracting him from doing what I want him to do… lock himself in a recording booth and rap. Altez is probably not the best technical rapper on this list, but if I had to pick on person to send to Universal, or Def Jam, or Roc-Nation, or whoever the hell is in charge of making musicians famous these days, it would be Altez. He has huge commercial appeal and may also be the inventor of underground swag.
Honorable Mention -
Mic Lanny – Final Word has a pretty incredible roster – from Mista Pigz, to Animal Cracker – and Mic Lanny is no exception. Mic is another phenomenal lyricist, and his flow is definitely outstanding. In fact, his flow is probably better than half of the other MCs on this list. I’m still looking forward to hearing him put more of ‘himself’ into his future releases. His Fractured EP is a great effort that has more hits than misses.
Kass Crook – I’m starting to notice a trend here. When you surround your self by talented artists, you have no choice but to stay sharp. And being a Trusic Music alumnus, with the likes of artists like Ses Da Great and Intell, has certainly kept Kass Crook on his toes. I look forward to hearing more from Kass in the near future. His Breaking Point mixtape certainly peaked my interest, and his charisma and comfort on stage definitely add to his appeal.
Other talented area MCs to look out for, depending on what you’re into: Rocka Boy – So.NY – Shyste – Luca Sand – Diimez – B Martin – P Nal – Hand Gunz High – Iron Bar Collective – Mirk – JB aka Dirty Moses – Sev Statik – elsphinx – Legend – Capital P – Grizzly Grimace – US Bay – David David