IV: Columbus, OH
By Chet Betz | 20 August 2007
I already took a stab at summing up Ohio’s cap city in my review of Zero Star’s Forever’s Never Really That Long (2006) on Weightless Records (the premier hip-hop label in “Bustown”), so let’s save the sociology and the tour guide routine. But by way of introduction, this scenecast is going to focus solely on the city’s hip-hop, a once burgeoning underground fountainhead that was rivaled perhaps only by Minneapolis in terms of putting out excellent, slept-on Midwest shit.
I say “once” because right now it’s incredibly difficult to gauge what’s going on with Bustown’s hip-hop luminaries and whether anyone will rise to fill the shoes of those who’ve left for greener cultural pastures (Rjd2 for NYC [then left Def Jux for XL], local icons Amos Famous and Davis for the West Coast, the list goes on). The artists have never been reticent to namedrop the city, and this scenecast will bear proof of that; furthermore, probably the only two album covers in existence that feature the modest Columbus skyline come from hip-hop, from Rjd2’s Deadringer (2002) and Greenhouse Effect’s Columbus or Bust (2005). But I think that has more to do with a pride for the community that the artists built as opposed to any great allegiance to the city itself, and that community has fallen on some hard times. A year ago Columbus lost one of its key music supporters, Daymon a.k.a. SoWhat a.k.a Racist Joe, to a seizure. Two months ago a heart complication took the incomparable DJ Przm, some of whose grimy bangers are represented here (he’s probably best known, though, for the Camu Tao single “Hold the Floor” released by Def Jux). It is to the memory of these two men that this podcast is dedicated.
Some of the tracks here are unusually credited, and I do that because I need the blurbs to explain all the incestuous connections that tie these songs together. “Seems Like” is more technically a Dangerzone song featuring NPayshint, “I Can Only Give You Love” an Illogic song produced by Eyamme, and “Don’t Go” an Illogic song produced by DJ Przm; for the sake of simplicity I wanted to credit one artist per track, and sometimes I went against the standard crediting so as to highlight the contributions of the other artists involved (and to keep from crediting a quarter of the podcast to Illogic, of whom I’m perhaps too big a fan). This was/is a family of artists, with all of the drama and squabbles that come along with family, but their lasting testament is their work, diverse styles bleeding into each other and growing better for it. I’m honored to share a hometown with them.
1. Copywrite: “(O.H.) Ten Times”
- (0:01 – 3:51)
- from Cruise Control, Vol. 1 (Nature Sounds; 2004)
Okay, so maybe Copywrite hasn’t grown a ton. In fact, he might have been less obnoxious back when he was a member of MHz, the godfather group of Columbus hip-hop that also included Rjd2, Camu Tao, and Jakki tha Motamouth. This is an exemplary DJ Przm beat, though, all dirty guitar riffs and lo-fi drums with dying robot noises on the hook; and it is called “(O.H.) Ten Times” (OH10, get it?), so how else am I gonna kick this thing off? I mean, seriously. And Copy does drop some truth: “Ten times out of ten I’m in a Benz that’s rented.”
2. Walter Rocktight: “Make Love”
- (3:52 – 7:51)
At one point Illogic and Walter Rocktight were supposed to drop a project under the name 8076 on Rhymesayers. If the song “Time Is Coming” from Illogic’s Write to Death 2 (2005) and the rare “Wha’ll Out” 7-inch were anything to go by, “8076” equals how many times I would have listened to that record in the first week. But a rumored falling out means that that particular slab of heat will probably never materialize, and I’ll be left to dream. This song features K-Rigga, a rapper so far under the radar he’s Bustown’s Red October. And it’s too bad because — while lacking Illogic’s eloquence — he raps with an energetic wheeze and a penchant for colorful non-sequiturs, thus falling somewhere between Jadakiss and Lil Wayne without the dull stupidity of the former and the fetching insanity of the latter. But it’s Rocktight’s beat that stars here, opening with a Prefuse-worthy sequence of chops and then throwing itself into sinewy synth grind churning in the low-end, Neptunesy drums (circa “Hot in Herre”), and vibrant fragments of samples that add perfect punctuation.
3. Ree-Dic: “58”
- (7:52 – 12:44)
Here’s K-Rigga on the mic again, this time with a more relaxed flow and a denser notebook scribble. After dropping at least five great beats on Zero Star’s last album, Field Squad beatsmith Ree-Dic wrote his own name down in my ledger of producers to watch. His work with V-Hyphen is excellent, his work with Zero even better, and the peep show he provided in his beat battle with Dyne last year tantalized with the promise of plenty more hot shit where that stuff came from. Breaks, iridescent samples, bass lines that play Lego with your spine: it’s not surprising that most conversations with Ree-Dic involve the kid incanting the name of Primo. But I wouldn’t call him a follower, and if there’s any close comparison it’d probably be to Black Milk, his contemporary in Detroit (plus the two look like they could be brothers). The easy movement of this “58” beat is plain gorgeous, the drums gliding forward on top of wah chirps that could be from Spandau Ballet’s “True” with gauzy horns that could be from Marvin Gaye, to whom “True” paid tribute. As far as Columbus is concerned, Ree-Dic is on some Greg Oden rookie status.
4. Blueprint: “Boombox”
- (12:45 – 17:35)
- from 1988 (Rhymesayers; 2005)
And Blueprint’s the vet. Print’s provided beats for half of every Columbus hip-hop track worth noting, and this is one of the highlights of his solo rapping-and-producing debut. Out of everything on the record “Boombox” best capitalizes on the taking it back to ‘88 concept; it manages to bridge the then with the now by keeping the form, tone, and reference points but updating the aesthetic whole. Apt to its title, “Boombox” sounds both huge and gritty, a descending electric riff and ringing piano chords echoing through a block’s worth of city air. Print slowly snarls his way through the verses and hook, the aggression laconic. And the aftershocks that tremble through the piano line at the end make for a great cross-fade with the next track on this scenecast.
5. Greenhouse Effect: “You Must Learn”
- (17:36 – 21:31)
- from Columbus or Bust (Weightless; 2005)
Along with the beats for Cryptic One’s “Intricate Schemes,” Illogic’s “First Trimester,” and his own “Liberated,” Blueprint proves on “You Must Learn” that he just might be the master of the dark, ethereal hip-hop vibe now that DJ Shadow’s moved on to hyphy. Hip-hop music’s about simple, effective composition; Print’s one of the few producers that fully understands that at the same time that he’s working with semi-experimental source elements and tweaking the edges with stutters and delay chains. “You Must Learn” sort of has to be heard to be believed, a dazzling pulsar of looped piano, synth phases, and tape manipulation over a 1-2 kick, sneezing high-hat, and wet claps — all things considered and congealed into a tight head-nod that still functions just fine as backing music for the raps of Fess, Print, and Jakki. This also happens to be Jakki’s best verse ever.
6. Jakki tha Motamouth: “Get Your Weight Up”
- (21:32 – 24:18)
- from More Music, Less Bullshit: Volume One (Weightless; 2006)
This is how tha Motamouth typically raps, and if you’re familiar with Rjd2’s “F.H.H.,” you’ll know what I mean: the cat’s all attitude. So I advise that you listen to this as part three in this scenecast’s Blueprint suite. The drums are pretty much just a centered fulcrum to the wild string runs, which are either a sped-up, fucked-with sample or a synth patch awesome enough to make me think that it just might be a sped-up, fucked-with sample. Regardless, the allegro movement teeters back and forth, swinging like a metronome to peer down on either side of the beat’s divide. It’s a dizzying piece of 4/4 vertigo.
7. Zero Star: “Help is on the Way”
- (24:19 – 26:59)
- from Forever’s Never Really That Long (Weightless; 2006)
Taking its title from the catchphrase of Columbus’ most famous will-rap-for-food panhandler, “Help is on the Way” is the quintessential Bustown hip-hop song. The other producer featured on Forever’s Never Really That Long besides Ree-Dic and DJ Przm, Blueprint takes a decided backseat to Zero’s scene-sketching, but the low-key melody of his beat sticks with you. And Zero’s lyrics evoke the Columbus life in a way that few other rappers have been able to manage.
8. Illogic: “Celestial Clockwork”
- (27:00 – 30:19)
- from Celestial Clockwork (Weightless; 2004)
Illogic’s very flow evokes Columbus, though, its rhythm the tugging of introspection and composure trying to find a home for frustrated ambitions. This, the title track from what I believe to be the finest hip-hop album to come out of Columbus, shows Illogic firing on all cylinders, tying abstractions, images, and pointed puns into a bundle of melancholic weight that plummets through the ocean of Blueprint’s reverb-saturated sample. Multi-tracked on the one instance of the track’s hook, Illogic intones, “It disappoints that conjoint twins / are more individuals than most / So why haunt the industry as a phantom / ‘til all my words become ghosts?” Yeah, it’s kind of like poetry slam, but it’s the best, most musical poetry slam you’ve ever heard.
9. Eyamme: “I Can Only Give You Love”
- (30:20 – 34:16)
- from Write to Death 2: The Missing Pieces (Dove Ink; 2005)
This is more of the same for Illogic, but while Eyamme (pronounced “I-am-me”) gives him something just as moody as Blueprint’s work on Celestial Clockwork, the style is very different — and in some ways equally impressive. The track’s daring in how it switches gears with increasing frequency between a horn line and acoustic loop that contrast each other, and there are even points where Eyamme creates deft overlaps between those two main ingredients and the sample that croons the song title. Eyamme’s been putting out a fair amount of music on his upstart Dove Ink label, but I think this beat represents the pinnacle of his work to date.
10. NPayshint: “Seems Like”
- (34:17 – 37:44)
- from Dangerous Styles (TBA; 2007, hopefully)
Okay, again, more like Dangerzone featuring NPayshint, but I’ll talk about the Zone more on the next track. NPayshint keeps a pretty low profile, yet every once and a while he’ll drop a verse on some excellent track like this or “Turn It Up” from Envelope’s Insignificant Anthems (2005) — the latter you can hear on CMG’s February 2006 podcast, by the way. My nominee for “Most Improved Producer Since His Early Work” (sorry, Ant), Amos Famous drops some lump-in-your-throat shit with this tune, a hazy blend of horns and keys doling out wistful nostalgia for the streaming of late afternoon sunshine through school windows, the sun you just studied in science class making halogen specks out of the dead skin and pencil shavings that fill the room’s air. Air that’s about 78% nitrogen and 20% oxygen, if Mrs. Anderson can be trusted. And if NPayshint can be trusted, maybe 2% marijuana. His verse opens the track, and it’s probably the best rap I’ve heard about smoking one’s way through high school: “I sit in the back / of my classroom / with a spliff in the shoe / and ask for the bathroom pass / to skip for two / periods at a time / Blunt smoke left periods in my eye.”
11. Dangerzone: “Started Out”
- (37:45 – 41:00)
Dangerzone is Columbus’ Amos Famous on the boards and Cleveland’s Bru Lei on the mic, a rambunctious duo with a mid-‘90s rap vibe and a strong debut record (judging by one listen to the master copy) that they’re currently label-shopping out in California. Dangerous Styles will feature Illogic on a track where the hook is a laundry list of addictions, Zero Star doing rap-rock, and a closing song that’s an ode to videogames; it will not, however, feature “Started Out,” so grab this track now. Bru sprays his spit all over the place and Amos playfully works a barrage of Disney samples over a flexible drum track that can accommodate all the flutes and animated birds and, uh, turntable scratching. I think there’s a clip of Snow White singing. Shit’s pretty much bonkers.
12. Envelope: “Don’t You Let Him”
- (41:01- 44:50)
- from Self-titled EP (Easter Island; 2007)
Tony Collinger’s about as unassuming and gracious a rapper as you can meet, and he’s one of the few underground talents that’s as funny as he tries to be. Like, just the way he opens this song with a greeting of “Good morning, America,” the way you can almost hear him bat his eyes once and do a silent lip smack, is fucking funny. The little bits of dialogue incorporated into the body of the track are somehow funny: “Give me a dollar…give me a kiss…give me the time of day?” And, yeah, the punchlines are funny, too: “You got the crowd sitting still like you taking a picture.” Amos Famous struck gold with the titular sample, so it’s one of those situations where all he needs to do is loop it adequately with some unobtrusive drums. And then I put it on endless repeat.
13. DJ Przm: “Don’t Go”
- (44:51 – 47:34)
- from the Off the Clock EP (Fonoslut; 2004)
Obviously, there’s no other song that could have ended this scenecast.
R.I.P, Racist Joe and DJ Przm.