The maturation of hip-hop musicians is a process that can be rarely witnessed publicly. Most artists that make up the canon of classic rap acts were either denied the chance to gain stature by the greedy industry that spit them out as fast as it had chewed them up, or they deprived themselves of the chance by releasing records that weren’t up to the standard they set early on in their career. There have been many quantum leaps between albums in terms of musical and lyrical development, but the acts that have been both able and allowed to mature artistically over the course of ten or more years are few and far in between. The Beastie Boys. Scarface. Zev Love X/MF Doom.
In a few years time, we might be able to add the name DJ Deetalx to that exclusive list. Having started out deejaying for pop rock/rap outfit Bad Ronald, he was then (together with producer Anatomy) responsible for the musical direction of Minneapolis indie quintet Oddjobs, before they reformed without him as Kill The Vultures. In 2005, the beatsmith joins one of his ex-colleagues, rapper Nomi, to form Power Struggle. As anyone who has heard either Bad Ronald or the Oddjobs will be able to attest, Deetalx broadcasts on an entirely different wavelength these days. Eleven tracks are all it takes for him to create a blueprint for an organic mixture of poetic hip-hop and passionate indie rock, without once prompting the reviewer to reach for the term gimmick.
Deetalx finds the perfect partner in Nomi, who trustfully drapes his defeatist musings in his DJ’s rich compositions. With a delivery somewhere between an introspective Slug and a young Scarface, his vocal tone vibrating with a sentiment expressing both annoyance and regret, Nomi recites intense notes from the underground – not so much the hip-hop underground as a world that’s “misunderstood / hidden under hoods.” “The Bad Side of Town,” where you worry about moms coming over because “there’s mice in the cupboard / roaches in the oven and nothin’ in the fridge” and you “can’t let her know that I drink alone / and I sleep in a nest of loose paper clips.” With encounters with neighbors where “it’s hard to step up when she’s screamin’ and he’s drunk.”
Recorded in Berkeley, CA, “Arson at the Petting Factory” sounds anything but, often trodding along with the submissive habit of a chained slave, but ever so often rising up with the rebellious spirit of that same slave willing to escape his fate. “It’s winter in America, my melanin decreases,” Nomi raps on the taxing “Kill Winter” while pondering snow “piled high like elephant tusk [giving] a ghostly feeling.” To him, it’s a particular kind of winter, a “winter of defeat as the Senate takes they seats / and I’m sittin’ on my hands as they draw the battle plans.” Yet knowing that the seasons change, he defiantly expresses his eagerness to shed “a year’s worth of skin for the bugs to eat” in the song’s simmering hook.
Though Nomi’s verses reek of disenchantment, he preserves a certain daredevilry, developing a disposition for the risky (“It’s okay to stare at the sun and alright to swim with the sharks”) and the radical (“You wanna shake it up, why settle for a tremor?”). These are the words of someone who’s smart enough to realize, “I can’t save this world of ours with voting cards or urban art,” but still concerned enough to believe that words and music can bring forth change in a world where “hard working hands end up with nothing.” Unlike the many hood soldiers in hip-hop eager to earn their stripes, this rapper would like to lose his: “I am not bionic, I am bone and flesh / bet can dodge bullets but can’t keep my breath / been runnin’ and jumpin’ gaps higher than mountain tops / with stripes of a jungle cat that wish it could wash ’em off.”
Without a doubt “Arson at the Petting Factory” shoulders a lot of personal emotional baggage, but the real allure lies in the fact that Power Struggle harmonize so incredibly well. Providing more than just bars and hooks, Nomi is highly responsive to Deetalx’ beats, providing not only the existentialist script to their hip-hop noir, but filling out the leading role with fervor. As Nomi combines the non-conformist attitudes of both hip-hop and punk with the drunken swagger of a beat poet, Deetalx concocts a finely balanced blend of abstract moods and concrete music, creating a piece of work that has the power to turn you from a casual, non-committed observer into someone who participates in their passions. This side of Eminem, you’ve hardly heard anger expressed this rabidly as Nomi does on the title track, over a beat that intensifies with each new layer added. Rather than openly political, Nomi looks at the world from a social standpoint, whether he detects “people so poor that they wanna be exported / like products for profit, or drugs to be snorted / sent to America, Europe and Saudi / Japan, Taiwan, just get ’em out promptly,” or whether he finds himself isolated from friends he addresses in letters-turned-songs (“Letters (From Prince Street),” “Lost on a Starless Night”) or sees the Philippines, home of his ancestors, through the eyes of a stranger (“King Philip”).
Far from always making sense to the uninitiated, “Arson at the Petting Factory” is a somber, expressive monologue only sporadically interspersed with isolated moments of clairvoyance or dry descriptions. Still, Nomi’s in-your-face delivery and ultimately basic patterns help him dodge the dreaded ‘abstract’ tag while his voice and penmanship elevate him to the position of a poet. Even in its more subdued states, this album is indeed a little bit of “hip-hop music mutiny,” simply because it is different from what Mr and Mrs Smith understand to be hip-hop. That’s why “Arson at the Petting Factory” is an examplary hip-hop record, because it shatters so many misconceptions without really trying to be different. Admittedly, rock fans will dig the straight drum of “Working Class Drinker,” spoken word enthusiasts will relate to “King Philip,” DJ’s might even consider giving “This One” a spin at the club. But none of these tracks conform to the strict notions of how hip-hop or specific variations thereof have to sound. Even better, “Arson at the Petting Factory” leaves it to the listener to discuss these matters and focuses on the bare essentials of musical expression.