How many elements are there really? I mean, there are the four that are undisputable…emceeing, djing, breaking and writing…but how many other aspects of hip-hop are fundamental enough to the culture to be up for consideration as the fifth element? Thousands push for beatboxing. KRS might argue for some kind of political activism. Thirstin Howl might suggest housing Polo merchandise. And then there’s production. Production is often overlooked because it tends to fall under the DJing catagory. But, especially as sampling laws crack down and knowing records becomes less of an issue, being a DJ doesn’t necessarily preclude making tight beats…just ask Jay Dee, Dr. Dre or Mannie Fresh, all of whom have cranked out some definite bangers in their time without touching a sampler. Plus with this whole backpacker explosion as of late, thousands of kids are asking their rays for an MPC, not turntables, for their birthday annually. So production is bigger than ever.
This is especially evident in the number of albums released by producers or production teams lately. In the last few years, we’ve seen some ridiculously nice ones. Prince Paul and Automator have ruled the scene, each having large parts in a number of them…”Prince Among Thieves,” “Handsome Boy Modeling School,” “Deltron 3030” etc. But some newcomers have gotten their feet in the door, such as The Creators, Jay Dee, an impending release by DJ Hi Tek, and now, Unsung Heroes with “Unleashed.”
I should note that I didn’t really like “The Weight.” Even though most of the beats were off the heezy and Kweli actually rips the mic a few times, I’m just not that big on most of the emcees on the album. And I say this because it pretty much reflects my opinion of most production albums: they’re pretty much just compilations and, I don’t care how much I like a producer, I’m not gonna buy an album of boring emcees rapping over tight beats. That’s what instrumental LP’s are for. But it doesn’t really work the other way. A few good beats can make a lyrically mediocre album decent, but consistantly hot emcees over lacking production is a much better combination–hence my likings for Kool Keith’s “Black Elvis: Lost in Space” or Chino XL’s “Here to Save You All.”
“Unleashed” falls somewhere in between those two. I’m definately feeling the beats, but none of them really got lodged in my head or made my neck snap so hard I done fell over. What this album does have, however, is lyrics by the ton. Granted, when J-Live shows up, I’m bound to jock a little bit, but his sarcastic verse on the witty “Dummy” is undeniably dope. A taste:
“…by the way, do you like my kicks?
they’re changing every week but destination stays the same
I never been out my neighborhood, but ask me who’s to blame?
and I answer you for what cuz all I want is right here too
my block, my peeps, my gear, my jewels,
glocks rocks, weed, bitches, brew
(Word, yo, you ever heard of Miles Davis?)
what? Miles who?
what is he, DJ? rapper or singer?
(he’s an old school jazz artist)
nobody’ll know him unless he’s new
hold up, you said the ‘s’ word, this conversation’s through
cuz I ain’t seen the inside of the classroom since ‘You Know How We Do'”
That standard is met on the same track by L-Fudge, who shows up earlier with J-Live again and Mr. Complex for “What Would You Do?,” another one of the nicest tracks. But all sorts of cats show up on this album. Godfather Don makes an appearance in “Here to Make A Difference,” (yet another track that cuts up OC’s “Time’s Up” for the hook) and Frankenstein holds it down for the T-dot on a couple tracks, dropping his best shit on “Amateurs Get Hung.” UK emcee Ty rips “Crushed Velvet,” sounding a little bit like older Kweli. However, the stars of this album are Siah and Yeshua da poED, who show up for five tracks. I can’t front, this is honestly the first time I’d heard either of them, and I was not at all let down by the hype behind these names. Heavy props to Siah on “The Next Degree” for flipping like three or four languages in the first four bars of the second verse.
Plus, “Unleashed” has some non-lyrical goodness. The DJ work by in-house Mr. Shivers, along with help from Tony Vegas, J1200, Prime Cuts and Dementia is all spectacular. There’s a scratch sampled hook in almost every track, but they really work well with the songs. And they all (minus Dementia) show up on “Daily Intake” for a very enjoyable nine minute DJ track. One of the tracks without a cut hook is “The Next Degree,” where Karime Kendra’s voice does the job nicely. She also closes out the album with “High on Nothing.” “Never Underestimate” showcases the beatbox, with Killa Kela and Dick Dastardly bringing the freshness. And how many cats get shout outs from Roy Ayers?
Reading over this, I realize I didn’t say much about production. Unsung Heroes definately have some skills behind the boards and I can safely say I definately like every beat on this album. They have a unique, jazzy style that goes really well behind the flows of a variety of cats. They can drop chill shit, like on “The Norm,” (reminds me of Ugly Duckling’s “Journey to Anywhere”), but then they can also come with some harder funky shit, like on “What Would You Do.” Sometimes their beats are a little too simple; single piano lines run the track thin sometimes, but it doesn’t really hurt the album. Why? Because, as I said earlier, I think it’s much more important for an album to have good lyrics than to have good beats. Only adequate beats are much easier to make up for than only adequate rhymes. Unsung’s beats are tight (far beyond adequate) and emcees sound good over them, so what more could you ask for?