In 2012 at SxSW i actually enjoyed a hip-hop performance by one half of Art of Fresh, a Toronto hip-hop act. When i wrote up the review of their set, i looked at some links about the band and discovered that they were giving away their second album, When The Night Comes In for free on BandCamp. I figured i might as well give it a shot at that price.
The band is apparently a collaboration between Defy the Odds, who is also known as D.O. (and who i think is the guy i saw in Austin) and the awesomely named Slakah the Beatchild. I think that D.O. is the primary rapper, but there are often two voices on the songs, so i guess Slakah adds some words here and there.
On the whole, this is a fascinating record. It is hip-hop and not rap, meaning that the music behind the vocals is given as much thought and care as the vocals themselves. I respect that. I understand that contemporary hip-hop is driven / controlled by rappers and thus the words are the most important part of any song. Even so, there is more to a song than just the words. Art of Fresh put some thought into the whole thing, more thought than just "a beat behind the rap".
And the music is interesting. Sure it moves at that syncopated hip-hop beat with drum machines and sampled loops, but there is a real electro element to the music as well. Art of Fresh know Orbital as much as they know Digable Planets, The Chemical Brothers as much as Jay-Z. I really like that kind of diversity as it plays out over the course of this record. Let's examine the songs, and perhaps you will see what i mean.
The record kicks off with Latin music, a female voice over strummed guitar and some clapping. This is called All Around The World and is a short interlude. The two rappers come in, rapping lightly and introducing themselves over the music. Then they realize it is time to start the record, and they segue into Alive, a very electro tune with a frantic hi-hat hit and staccato keys over deeply throbbing bass. On the chorus it is a good, throbbing rave tune, then on the verses it is a funky little hip-hop tune. Then the rapper mentions "The Stanley Cup", and suddenly i remember, oh yeah, Canadian hip-hop. I doubt that any of the Crunk artists from ATL's Southside even know what The Stanley Cup is...
If that tune was more electronica, the next track, Beats and Rhymes is a standard hip-hop tune. It has a shuffling mid-tempoed head-bopping beat with other layers floating in and out, like distorted keyboards and a nice little guitar riff. But the voices are the focus, even though they are not always in front (the guitar in particular being layered over the rap). This is decent, but not their best work.
Art of Fresh mix it up on Good Shoes which is really more of a soul song. There is a female voice singing in the background and cutting loose on the chorus. And behind the female voice and D.O.'s rap is a funky little melody of drums and keys. That keyboard riff is really happy, driving the song along nicely.
Baila is next, a sort of world music song, vaguely reminding me of Deep Forest or the soundtrack to Baraka. The Latin guitar from All Around The World is back, looped over a tight drum riff, as D.O. raps lightly. It's a long song at 7-minutes, but the last 3 minutes are just a female voice singing in Spanish (i think -- it is hard to hear her and it might very well be French) while the beat goes from head-bopping to really thumping. Cool stuff.
What's To Life has a nice stuttering beat, some R2D2 synth sounds and D.O. rapping through distortion while a female voice sings on the chorus. Decent stuff. But the next tune, When The Night Comes takes the electronic nature and amplifies it. Here a guest voice, credited on the record as Tingsek, is added behind D.O. I think that Tingsek sounds kind of like Eddie Grant, a vaguely accented singing on the chorus that really makes the chiming synths and tapped beat shine. This is another good, head-bopping tune.
Art of Fresh take us back to mid-90s hip-hop on Scenario pt 1 with a fast drum riff that reminds me of Bel Biv Devoe or The Grace Period. They rap lightly over this, accompanied by a light guitar trill. It is a simple song, but fun.
They rave it up on Where I Go, which features a nice throbbing beat worthy of The Prodigy and some silly synth sounds floating in and out. D.O. raps really fast here, the rave beat driving him along. Up brings us back to the more pure hip-hop of rapping and drum beats with only slight keyboard accompaniment. The voices are layered here and the chorus has an anthemic quality as they yell, "All my people rise up".
Illamental adds in the deep funk, a wavering bass synth line driving the tune along over a sauntering drum beat. D.O. is almost buried under the tremendous bass riff.
And finally Slakah the Beatchild cuts loose on Electrodisfunktions, five minutes of cool electronic DJ music. It's a nice little happy tune, grooving along at a decent pace.
So, you see, Art of Fresh take world music, rave music, and hip-hop and blend them all together in a very nicely balanced mix. I like what they are doing, and hope to hear more from these boys soon. And the whole thing is not only fun, it is free, so what do you have to lose?