Uncut Raw

First Toke

(Green Llama; 2007)

By Colin McGowan | 17 March 2008

Isn’t Stones Throw fantastic? All those lo-fi drums sputtering, slipping, slapping underneath layers of forgotten funk and soul samples, alternately shimmering and crackling to form some sort of peaceful demilitarized zone where stuffy elitists with too-tight jeans and devoted b-boys sporting “Dilla Changed My Life” t-shirts can commingle freely, admiring the glow of beats simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic. Chicago’s Uncut Raw reference their own Green Llama imprint a handful of times throughout the duration of their dusted debut, but it’s difficult to ignore the nagging suspicion that Peanut Butter Wolf is lurking somewhere behind the 26 tracks of matter-of-fact braggadocio and everyman reflections of rapper Selfish and the alternately liquid and granular productions of Fluent.

It’s easy to point out the similarities, but citing the various parallels between the sound of Uncut Raw and a certain Southern California-based hip-hop label might seem to be an attempt to discredit or dismiss the duo’s gratifying, if derivative, debut effort. It seems, especially in the past few years, that hip-hop has begun to exist in a delusional state, wherein tremendous hype, coupled with sporadic output, satiates fans’ appetites for actual product (Saigon, anyone?). Black Milk offered up the startlingly overlooked Popular Demand (2007) in the shadow of Common’s pseudo-activist lullabies and before the pre-release banter declaring September 11th as the egomaniac battle of the century, and part of what was so essential to that record’s likeability was its lack of context. No one was fully acquainted with Black Milk’s talents at the time; he had developed a modest buzz on a few message boards, had stirred up a bit of press with the release of his Broken Wax EP, and there were a few Dilla comparisons present, but for the most part he released his debut as an untested commodity; an outsider. Selfish and Fluent benefit from a similar set of circumstances, from the commiserating appeal of being broke 20-something Finish Line clerks by day, upstart hip-hip duo by night. It’s fitting that the duo hails from Chicago, a city rife with titan hip-hoppers garnering praise from both indie and mainstream outlets. It seems there’s a Starbucks on every corner of the city’s hip-hop scene these days; Selfish and Fluent are quite obviously the proprietors of a rundown, morning Joe hangout. Low budget bros on a mission.

The record opens with news-update organ stabs, ascending horns, and random yelling, leading into the cliché “hip hop as a genre as a woman” song, titled here as “Imwityou.” Dread seeps in for a brief second, but the production allows the track to save face. Full-bodied drums rumble underneath a wonderfully thick baritone vocal sample, crashing Selfish’s drab party with prettier people and better beer. This is true of a majority of the cuts, though thankfully, none of the subject matter that follows is quite so cringe inducing. Verses from Selfish and a couple nameless guests consist of many of the things one would expect to hear from an all-too-typical indie rapper: complaints addressing the inherent injustices of the recording industry, the occasional mildly engaging story, and a healthy dose of harder-than-thou posturing, tempered by standard don’t-have-to-posture-anyway assurances.

The compositions that house those raps, however, are often brilliant. The opulence of Fluent’s production is indebted chiefly to his superb ear and penchant for richly layered compositions. The first 20 seconds of paranoid standout “Tilthesuncomeup” consist of a medley of steady bass plucking, subdued keys, and a forlorn female vocalist. From that point on, the vocals are turned down and looped in synch with the music, glued together by a simple, effective pattern consisting of kick and snare. But this continues only for a minute as triumphant horns usher in a minute-long interlude of scaling pianos and crashing cymbals. The deceptive simplicity of the production, as well as the schizophrenic song structures, permeates with an air of spontaneity and relentless creativity that lends the album its sense of urgency, and possibly unwarranted poignancy.

Of course, as I’ve implied, the album does lack in places. The handful of instrumental cuts are surprisingly drab and boring, and Selfish weighs the album down with his repetitive verses and ordinary metaphors. This is not an indictment of his skill, simply an observation that his prowess frequently does not seem to match that of his collaborator. As a result, I have had a bit of trouble putting this ultimately innocuous album into perspective. It is difficult not to elevate _First Toke_’s importance in this rather stagnant climate. A new collection worthy of praise, Uncut Raw’s freshman effort is exhilarating and enjoyable, if not the perdurable statement which we may come to beg in the next year.