Roughly ten years ago there was a shift in the Canadian hip-hop landscape that was also registered by RapReviews.com. An increasing number of acts from the provinces began introducing themselves to a larger audience, from strictly indie types to major hopefuls – Swollen Members, Choclair, Kardinal Offishall, Solitair, Dan-e-o, Classified, Eternia, K-Os, Da Grassroots, BrassMunk, The Pangea Project, Jeff Spec, DL Incognito, Tru-Paz, Shadez, Mood Ruff, Arcee, Buck 65, Sixtoo, Johnny Hardcore, Cadence Weapon, Sweatshop Union, Pip Skid, mcenroe, Circle Research, Wordburglar…
Among them were Oddities, a Toronto-based quintet that appeared on one of our staffers’ lists of 2004’s best albums. Ranking “The Scenic Route” at number 9, Nin Chan wrote:
If your virgin ears are unacquainted with this outfit from Toronto, your purchase of this record is long overdue. While the Living Legends, Hiero and the Visionaries are all approaching the twilight of their careers, The Oddities have reimagined and reinterpreted classic West Coast underground rap into a collection of playful, meandering yet grippingly relevant tracks, delivering a record that indulges in technical virtuosity without forsaking accessibility or songcraft. The production is fiercely jagged and unconventional, embarking on a variety of off-kilter time avenues that are highly indicative of Bookworm’s endearingly individual flair. Each member of the collective complements the angular production with remarkable effortlessness, boasting devastatingly intricate, distinct deliveries that celebrate the boundlessness of rap as a creative medium. Stop turning your nose at Canadian rap and do yourself a favour.
Better late than never, RapReviews’ current Canada Month gives us the opportunity to finally recognize the album with a full-length review. The result of two crews (Dynasty and Awkward Why?) joining forces in the late ’90s, Oddities in 2003 consisted of producer/rapper Bookworm, MC’s Psy, Snidley Whiplash, J-StaRRRrrr!!!, JSN JNS, and graffiti artist Wysper. With monikers suggesting a typical backpacker background, Oddities fit the mold without submitting to the genre’s most annoying stereotypes.
They adjust their line-up from song to song, depending on who’s down to execute the concept at hand. The opening “Oddities” is the only track where all five vocalists share the mic. The way Bookworm’s slowly unfolding, then gear-shifting beat illustrates how sonic can turn to scenic, it might as well be the title track. The MC’s succeed each other with serpentine flows, combining for a collective declaration of superiorty. All lay their skills on the table, producer Bookworm holding his own with an extended rhyme about how you better “start noddin’ your head to get your neck loose” – “so when you’re at a venue none of us gets sued / cause I refuse to be responsible for heads who / end up with head wounds and spend a month in a hospital bedroom / Bet you didn’t spend 10 bucks to spend the next few / weekends stuck eatin’ meals enterin’ from test tubes.”
Bookworm is the most frequently featured rapper here, getting to plead his case solo on “No Business,” lamenting that he’s “got no business in show business,” touching on virtually all topics that concern the struggling hip-hop artist with skillfully worded sincerity:
“I know my art is prone to leave me starved a bit
Regardless of how hard it gets, I always put my heart in it
but hardly get embraced can start to break up that heart to bits
Make it rich another way and then just make my art for kicks?
You can argue this but do you think you’re fit for marketin’?
Do you have some sparkle to surpass the profit margin?
If you bargain all you got to give and still owe those you bargain with
tell me then and only then how marvelous that stardom is”
Bookworm directs the musical side of the album with a gentle but firm hand. When Oddities craft a song named “Soundwaves,” the musical implementation lives up to that name, rolling melodic elements evoking a maritime scenery, best matched by guest Ishkan’s charmingly frowzy flow:
“Ish just ridin’ on a nice drum crest
Rhyme the first few lines and just hum the rest
Music that two-steps its way
through the coolest depths of blue waves
One good thing – when it hits, man, you feel no pain”
Psy brings a similar calm to “The Scenic Route,” whether it’s solo on the Living Legends-like “Do Your Thang,” or alongside St. Louis representative Katt (who at the time of release sadly had passed away) on the slowly strolling “One Day.” As with other underground rap, there’s potential to resonate with a much larger audience, strictly musically speaking. The same goes for the humble organ orchestration of “Allways,” but without populist proclamations of wanting to be “a billionaire so freakin’ bad,” such songs are prone to go unnoticed.
So yes “The Scenic Route” remains a connoisseur’s choice, partially at its own will, partially because it’s simply too sophisticated. There are times when Oddities’ dexterity manifests itself mainly in the musical set-up (“Revolving”) or when they paint the town too red (JSN JNS has a tendency for D12-ish demeanor), but more often than not they casually strike a balance between badass and mindful. J-StaRRRrrr!!! and Sny Whip rap laps around the objects of their desire on “Pick-Up Rhyme,” trading gallantries that are tongue-in-cheek as well as genuine. Similar sentiments are evoked in “Given it Up,” where Book, Star and Psy reminisce on losing their virginity as JSN’s singing gives the tune a certified candle light sparkle.
J-StaRRRrrr!!! also shows himself to be a competent commentator on gender issues on “WeakDays”:
“There’s so many women walkin’ this Earth
and I just love watchin’ ’em work
I’m sorry if I talked to your shirt
but your titties talked to me first
Livin’ in the city monogamy hurts
Economy must be worse than ever before
cause these ladies can’t seem to afford
clothes that cover their bodies
I couldn’t help but look even if I was in love with somebody
I’m a human male, it’s my hobby
Computin’ and log in
All these booties belongin’
to all these cuties and hotties
There’s no need for you to get cocky
cause I’m assumin’ if you didn’t want me
zoomin’ in on your beauty then you wouldn’t have caught me”
While on a more serious note, “Late Again” and “Coming Down” deal with everyday situations as well, both possessing a cinematic quality that becomes somewhat of a trademark of this album. As of 2010, “The Scenic Route” has yet to be followed up. Oddities went the way of many other rap careers born out of idealism and love for the art. While the group name pops up in bios of ‘Stargate Atlantis’ cast member Rainbow Sun Francks (AKA Sny Whip), Bookworm and co-producer Bounce apparently managed to make a living off music as Jigsaaw Productions, although mainly with soundtracks. But given the inspired performances on their only proper album, there’s no ruling out that individually or collectively, Book, Psy, Jason, Star and Sny will be heard from again.