Crossfader’s Abstract Hip Hop Primer
Ever feel like you don’t know where to start when it comes to discovering new music? Ever feel too embarrassed to ask your friend with that three terabyte hard drive full of pirated music for some recommendations, because you don’t even know where to begin? Crossfader’s got your back, delivering primers on every genre, subgenre, and sub-subgenre under the sun to give you jumping off points for your auditory wanderings. Entries written by Carter Moon unless noted otherwise.
What with Kendrick Lamar generally being recognized as one of the greatest living artists of our times, Jay Z being one of the wealthiest men in entertainment, and Kanye being, well, the cultural force that is Kanye, it’s hard to believe that there was a time very recently when hip hop was looked down on as a genre of music. But it’s true, for almost as long as hip hop has been around, it’s had to justify itself as a legitimate form of artistic expression. In many ways, abstract hip hop could be held up as the most strictly “artsy” side of hip hop, but it’s also in many ways a satirical reaction to mainstream rap. Characterized by more intellectual lyrics and intricate rhyme structures, as well as more complex beats, abstract hip hop can feel inaccessible at first. After some extensive digging, however, the rabbit hole of abstract hip hop can take on shape and substance that’s both profound and world shifting. Abstract hip hop draws from poetry, jazz, psychology, and many other forms of academic thought as much as it does traditional hip hop, so the ideas and influences present can expand the listener’s mind well beyond strictly music. So follow Crossfader, your white rabbit, as we take you to the very depths of the complicated, nonsensical, and occasionally magical land of abstract hip hop.
Quasimoto – THE UNSEEN
Favorite Tracks: “Low Class Conspiracy,” “Microphone Mathematics,” “Real Eyes”
The silly, cartoonish alter-ego of abstract MC/producer Madlib, Lord Quas could have easily been a featured joke character on a series of Madlib’s friend’s records. Instead, Madlib has managed to spin his weird yellow dude into a trio of expansive concept records, the best of which is arguably THE UNSEEN. In less capable hands, Quasimoto’s goofy voice and penchant for scratchy looped beats could get old quickly, but Madlib’s deft ability to pull hypnotic grooves out of simple beats is rarely as strong as it is here. Additionally, the character of Quasimoto allows for a confessional honesty Madlib couldn’t achieve in his traditional rap persona. Check out “Real Eyes” to hear Madlib talk to himself through Lord Quas. It’s more of a head trip with every listen.
Cannibal Ox – THE COLD VEIN
Favorite Tracks: “Iron Galaxy,” “Ox Out the Cage,” “Raspberry Fields,” “Scream Pheonix”
The palpable paranoia and anger that drips out of Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, the duo which make up Cannibal Ox, is so intense that it makes sense there would still be an audience for them, even after over a decade in hiatus. Writing with Wu-Tang levels of battle rhyme precision, this is a fantastic record for anyone looking to fight the whole world. The two rappers may be attacking each other, but only because they have the confidence to know that they push each other further than any other MC could. In that sense, fans of Run the Jewels should be incredibly surprised to find another equally dynamic duo. Probably what’s most helped this record endure as more than just another wordy novelty is its consistent dedication to pushing the listener to overcome and endure, nowhere more clearly exemplified than the fantastic closer “Scream Pheonix”: “Thinking how we gonna master days/With passion, that’s why we rap this way/From Manhattan 115 to 1-3-5/We pigeons became phoenix with open minds/To open yours, flow the raw innovative, Phoenix.”
Aesop Rock – LABOR DAYS
Favorite Tracks: “Labor,” “Daylight,” “One Brick (featuring Illogic),” “The Yes and the Y’All”
The man credited with having the largest vocabulary in hip hop didn’t earn that distinction overnight. An album about the turmoil of working hard towards a seemingly entirely unachievable goal, this is an equally cathartic and inspiring record for anyone working towards some form of dream. Aesop has an inherently angry voice and a flow that makes his words seem to rattle out of him like a gattling gun, but what’s made him endure as an MC for well over a decade is his intensely intellectual and well-thought-out lyrics. Plenty of great rappers can be real in the moment they’re recording, but Aesop spits with a surety that demonstrates he can live by his rhymes for life. As he says on “Daylight”: “Life’s not a bitch, life’s a beautiful woman/you only call her a bitch cuz she won’t let you get that pussy.” Hard to argue with that, and equally hard to argue with Aesop’s stature in the abstract hip hop community.
El-P – FANTASTIC DAMAGE
Favorite Tracks: “Squeegee Man Shooting,” “Dead Disnee,” “Delorean,” “Stepfather Factory”
While certainly not an incapable rapper in his current incarnation as half of Run the Jewels, the effortless charisma and power of Killer Mike has left many postulating whether El-P is an artist best left behind the production tables. Any and all naysayers should be redirected towards his full-length solo debut, a blistering 70-minute barrage of densely packed, unrelenting rhymes. Seemingly inspired by 9/11 and tapping into the claustrophobic paranoia and confusion of the time, El-P’s lyrics are often just as desolate and visceral as the entirely singular production that he provides, maximizing the ice-cold, alienating sounds he introduced on Cannibal Ox’s THE COLD VEIN. Everyone quotes the opening stanza of “Fantastic Damage,” but “The Fabulous structure that’s coaxed out of rubbles puddles splash/Mechanisms burn with beeping sounds that own their humans sold as/Ruthless rounds of radio dust, Cranial mush, men get flattened out/Radials spun on dusted combatant joust” is one of the most difficult opening volleys to ignore, perfectly establishing the tone of the remainder of the album. Although not a particularly fun listen, FANTASTIC DAMAGE manages to be both menacing and cerebral, all while being one of the most wordy releases ever put to record. [Thomas Seraydarian]
Viktor Vaughn – VAUDEVILLE VILLAIN
Favorite Tracks: “Vaudeville Villain,” “A Dead Mouse,” “Open Mic Nite Pt. 1,” “Can I Watch? (featuring Apani B)”
A detour side project of MF DOOM utilizing beats entirely by other producers should be entirely forgettable, but VAUDEVILLE VILLAIN is way too well done to ignore. Released a year before MM…FOOD and MADVILLAINY, this is Mr. Dumile finding his voice and it’s a true gem in coming to understand the monolith that is MF DOOM. Oftentimes when thinking about DOOM, it’s so easy to get caught up in talking about his production that one can forget that his abilities as a rhymeslayer are largely unparalleled. This whole record is a dizzying combination of DOOM’s uncouth spin on East Coast posturing delivered at such a relentless speed that it can be jaw dropping to realize that one man has so many words and thoughts arranged in his head. Particularly fun and noteworthy are the “Open Mic Nite” tracks that capture the freestyle poetry events Dumile was going to regularly at the time. For anyone who considers themselves an abstract aficionado, this is essential listening, and for anyone new to the game, this is a flawless introduction.
cLOUDDEAD – TEN
Favorite Tracks: “The Teen Keen Skip,” “Rifle Eyes,” “Dead Dogs Two”
If nothing else, this record deserves credit for having the most original and strange sounds of any on this list. What else could anyone really expect from a trio of trippy Jews from Cincinnati, though? cLOUDDEAD is the experimental, abstract supergroup of alternative hip hop label Anticon; made up of Yoni Wolf, Odd Nosdam, and Doseone. The group got its name from an entirely nonsensical knock-knock joke Doseone’s sister told him when she was five years old, which is honestly the best way to make sense of the group’s absurdist sound and lyricism. With a blending of childlike wonder and Jungian dream logic, every track here is guaranteed to take the listener to a very, very odd place.
Madvillain – MADVILLAINY
Favorite Tracks: “Accordion,” “Meat Grinder,” “America’s Most Blunted,” “Figaro”
Of all the records on this list, few weigh as heavy on the psyches of hip hop fans as this record. Easily one of the most richly textured and varied listening experiences imaginable. What makes this album endure year after year is probably how it manages to run the full gambit of anything that could fall under the umbrella of hip hop. MF DOOM and Madlib are two juggernauts in the realm of abstract rap, and neither of them were as sharp and focused as they were on MADVILLAINY. Perhaps what makes this album especially fascinating is how it can equally be appreciated ironically as it can be entirely seriously. Is DOOM simply caricaturing the posturing of most East Coast rappers? Is the mask a joke, or is DOOM a character meant to allow Dumile to express his true self? The meaning is left entirely to the listener and is largely irrelevant at the end of the day, because tracks like “America’s Most Blunted” are a blast no matter their interpretation.
dälek – ABSENCE
Favorite Tracks: “Distorted Prose,” “Asylum (Permanent Underclass),” “Ever Somber”
An absolute assault on the ears, in many ways as dark as the album cover, ABSENCE is openly antagonistic and provoking. From the opening bars of “Distorted Prose,” it is instantly evident that this will not be an easy listening experience. Dalek has gained notoriety for just how uncompromising he is and how little he concerns himself with mainstream success or acclaim, making the few who can endure devout fans. As a lyricist, he’s particularly gifted at long strings of metaphor on top of precise rhymes to drive his points home: “Never one to feel blessed, beliefs are all blurred/Breath in nocturne/Tone ever somber/Must be meant to wander/Woeful soul won’t get conquered.” As political as the likes Public Enemy and Immortal Technique, while possibly even more literary and with even harsher industrial and noise beats, this is probably the most niche record on this list, but it’s so well-crafted that it certainly deserves respect and attention.
Shabazz Palaces – BLACK UP
Favorite Tracks: “Free Press and Curl,” “Are you… Can you… Were You? (Felt),” “Swerve… The Reeping of All that Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)”
Part of the ever-expanding recent nebulus of jazz hip hop, while distinctly leaning on the hip hop side of things, Shabazz Palaces present consistently dark and challenging contributions to the world of abstract hip hop. What makes their sound particularly enthralling is their constant use of a whole array of percussive instruments from different parts of Africa, smashed against modern, nihilistic electro. Don’t get lost entirely in the production, however, because Ishmael Butler can spit on a level with some of the very best MCs on this list, only to be expected after his years with jazz rap trio Digable Planets.
Open Mike Eagle – DARK COMEDY
Favorite Tracks: “Dark Comedy Morning Show (featuring Toy Light),” “Qualifiers,” “Doug Stamper (Advice Raps) (featuring Hannibal Buress),” “Big Pretty Bridges (3 Days Off in Albuquerque)”
For every poor, misguided soul that thinks they like Childish Gambino, I would like to offer Open Mike Eagle as your chance at salvation. As with many abstract hip hop albums emerging from those identifying as black, DARK COMEDY is almost entirely preoccupied with conflicts surrounding identity and how it relates to artistic output. However, what’s most impressive about Open Mike Eagle as an MC is his propensity for being genuinely clever and humorous in how he tackles the existential conflicts of himself and his peers, as opposed to just namechecking things he enjoys that society tells him only white people should like (*cough* Milo *cough*). Whether it be self-referential deprecation of fellow abstract hip hop artists (“He’d get in my car and be like/’Daddy, play some Busdriver’/Why the fuck’s it take two lines to do a one liner”), direct assertions of individuality separate from racially coded “roles” (“Fuck you if you’re a white man that assumes I speak for black folk/Fuck you if you’re a white man who thinks I can’t speak for black folk”), or clever jabs at other artists from the underground (Lil Ugly Mane, below) packaged in seemingly innocuous absurdism (“Any karaoke fans here?/If so, never get drunk and do Kashmir/It’s not a good choice and white rappers quit/Rapping in your hood voice, sound like a clown/Hundred pounder that took ‘roids/Don’t do videos for tracks with your back to the cameraman”), Mike Eagle II has written some of the most captivating lyrics of recent memory. Although the production would improve with A SPECIAL EPISODE OF…, at the very least, it leaves room entirely for OME to impress as a frontman, easily establishing him as the most vital voice in contemporary abstract hip hop. And c’mon, who doesn’t want to hear Hannibal Buress rap about porn subscriptions? [Thomas Seraydarian]