Perhaps only ‘underground’ rap artists can truly understand the complex challenges of success in the business of music. With low budgets and high expectations they struggle to turn out hip-hop masterpieces and when they succeed despite overwhelming odds skeptical fans assume they blew up because they were “hungry.” This places the creator and performer on the precarious edge of a razor sharp blade – sell more records to pay the bills, but simultaneously risk lost credibility if they are overexposed and fickle fans move to the next “hungry” rap act new on the scene.
Subterraneous Records’ very name describes their purpose – to make quality rap music straight from the underground. Striking gold with their 1999 “Waterworld” LP, ostensibly an album from the group Binary Star, Subterraneous began their tightrope walk with no net over the precarious rap industry. As their name and fame grew, Subterraneous released a remixed version of the album called “Masters of the Universe” in 2001 featuring old gems and some newer tracks. National distribution put the album within reach of the very same rap fans who buy CD’s by Ja Rule and Missy Elliott, but their underground credibility was not at all tarnished. One might speculate that lack of a national music video to go with national sales helped that precarious balance stay in tact; if anything, the album was probably UNDER-exposed.
Coming back with a new album in late 2001, this compilation draws comparison to the first indie Subterraneous release in ’99 but without being strictly attributed to Binary Star. Since that album was something of a compilation and the remixed “Masters of the Universe” put more true focus on Binary Star as a group, having the sequel be a compilation of Subterraneous artists makes perfect sense. Not surprisingly though, Binary Star rapper ‘The Anonymous’ (known as OneManArmy and OneBeLo among other names) features prominently throughout this LP, and all production is handled by the collective of Subterraneous artists known as the Trackezoids. Other rappers on this compilation include Decompoze, Kodac, Magestik Legend and Illite among others; and like their label they are all products of the great state of Michigan.
No question, the new Waterworld order has enough fluid beats and verbals to quench your thirst for good music. Dark piano chords meet hard rhymes on “Mental Planes,” while the kung-fu sound of “Subterraneous” will undoubtedly draw praise and comparison to a Wu-Tang Clan track. Highlights are numerous: the brassy “Millipede,” an uptempo verbal assault on “Splash,” and the solo performance of OneManArmy on “S.S.A. (double essay’s).” From beginning to end, there is no doubt this is a quality compilation. Still, one gets a small sense that the precarious balancing act of the tightrope has taken it’s toll on the crew. There are punchlines and fat beats aplenty but Subterraneous own past haunts them; because anyone who heard the dark humor of songs like “Glen Close” or the anthemic strains of “Indy 500” will wonder why a sequel to “Waterworld” doesn’t have songs that are their equal.
Perhaps like the fickle hip-hop fan, my own expectations are too high for a group of producers and MC’s I consider the torch-bearers of a musical revolution in rap. I mean after all, the sheer brilliance of the flute loop and snappy raps of “Rivers Run Wild” can’t be denied, nor can the rebuttal to people who front on “PlayerHaters” – a played concept only in the sense you’ll want to play the song over and over again. Recommending this album is easy. Reconciling myself to the fact that the crew can’t be groundbreaking after they already broke through from the underground is the hard part. More than anything, I hope Subterraneous won’t become another victim of the industry and the best way they can do that is to do what they did on the first “Waterworld” three years ago: have a lot of fun creating the dopest songs possible and put it out so people can recognize the skills. Going gold probably wouldn’t destroy the label, because many indie labels move big units and stay underground these days – but becoming too tightly wound and not staying loose just might.