Is there something like a beat school of Detroit? You have: the master creator (J Dilla), the proteges (Black Milk, Young RJ), the promising apprentice (Nick Speed), and of course the historian (Phat Kat) to literally school the world about the movement he saw emerge. If you want to know what the ‘Detroit school’ sounds like, listen to Kat’s second album “Carte Blanche.”
With this sophomore record, Phat Kat seeks to prove two things. The Detroit veteran with a nasty growl, who considers himself as ‘one of the founders of Detroit hip-hop,’ wants to show the world people were already making good hip-hop music long before ‘8 Mile’ ever came out. And, more importantly, he wants to show his personally selected bad apples in the record industry he really doesn’t need them to blow up. This is what he has to say about it on “My Old Label”:
“My old label, they don’t really want Kat to bubble
Because they know me and my team, plus green, spells trouble
Silver spoon suckers, y’all don’t know the meaning of struggle
Cross my path, I’ll leave your ass face down in a puddle
Really, you silly niggas ain’t seen half my troubles
And my example for you, I’ll leave your crew
Standing around you, crying in a huddle”
His first album “Undeniable,” has put a lot of bad blood between Phat Kat and his former label Barak Records. In a video interview published on the website Midwesterngoodness.com he dismissed the record as ‘watered down,’ and something he could use ‘as a promotional tool.’ The veteran MC, who also goes by the name of Ronnie Cash, dedicates multiple songs to his differences with Barak and other malignant record companies. That is where the name “Carte Blanche” refers to: having creative freedom without corporate interference.
The production of “Carte Blanche” is heavily branded with a sugarcoated Dilla donuts logo. J Dilla, who has been working with Phat Kat since the beginning of both their careers, passed away last year due to a blood disease, and this album is one of the last to feature his trademark sound. The death of the ‘favourite producer of your favourite producer’ has had a considerable impact on the hip-hop world, not to mention the ripple it sent through the local Detroit scene. This LP again proves how much this versatile producer will be missed throughout. Dilla was leaning towards his soulful side on his latest album “The Shining,” but this street soundtrack tips the scales completely. His productions on “Carte Blanche” resemble a freight train rumbling through the yard.
It is a pleasant surprise to see all the local producers on this record have incorporated Dilla’s ideas about beat crafting into their own style. Sometimes it was necessary to take a quick peek at the production credits to tell Dilla beats apart from the others. Black Milk, who just released his own debut “Popular Demand,” showcases a more soulful sound, with pitched voices for added effect. Nick Speed is more the hard hitter type, with low tone classical piano keys and dramatic violin overture. It gives “Carte Blanche” a consistent Motown-meets-MPC sound, even with four different producers doing shifts for Ronnie Cash.
In spite of all the displayed production talent, Phat Kat’s snarling style of rhyming comes best out of the woodwork when Dilla is handling production. “Cold Steel,” a subtle reference to the Motor City’s industrial background, features heavy, distorted bass lines, an aggressive uptempo beat, and samples straight out the lab of Dr. Robotnik. An unleashed Ronnie Cash rhymes:
“I told you: every time I spit I’m on some classic shit
Ronnie Cash and J Dilla on some massive shit
Why y’all niggas still faking on some plastic shit?
We in the lab, stock and bonds, straight blasting shit”
Like two adjacent cogwheels, Phat Kat’s bar control is perfectly adjusted to Dilla’s Motown machinery. His agressive, simple bar structure has improved since his first album, but still works best when he works with the passed away producer. His voice sounds continually angry, like a dominant police chief in an eighties action flick, cursing at the hero cops. Apart from the hated industry suits he mentions throughout the album, Phat Kat restricts his subject matter to his popularity with the ladies and respected status as Detroit underground hip-hop kingpin. He includes a list of ten rules young MC’s should stick by when they want to make it in the harsh game on “Survival Kit.” Ronnie Cash advises rookie MC’s to choose cash over girls, treat their advance like a piggy bank, and never get drunk at their own shows. He concludes with the suggestion to treat his words like gospel.
“Carte Blanche” is Phat Kat’s record industry redemption album. It is also proof of a new generation of upcoming Detroit producers honouring the legacy of the old master. Nick Speed has been signed by New York’s G-Unit label. Black Milk is signed to Fat Beats, after handling production for Slum Village in the past with Young RJ. The question remains how long they will uphold the legacy. If they don’t, there is still a seasoned veteran to remind them of their roots by smacking ’em upside their head.