Indie rap groups, like indie filmmakers, indie artists and so on, are always going uphill. They get the admiration, the "respect," but that doesn't pay the bills. No one really talks about the shadow side of putting your art first, not even the starving artists. It's usually "I keep it real" and "I do it for the art," but rarely "I can't pay my Com Ed" or "I walk to the fuckin' studio."
Rising Sunz, a self-distributed hip-hop group from Michigan, don't bullshit about their struggles. It's an unflinching hour-long look into a crew that, if the album is any indication, has seen less good times than JJ. While the beats are blackberry-molasses dark, the rhymes are even darker, making the vibe more appropriate for the coming winter than, say, the rites of Spring. Perhaps the best mainstream comparison would be the feeling one gets listening to DMX's first joint: the beats are good, the vibe is real, and you can't help but feel that at any moment the music is going to suffocate. And kill you. The CD starts on a happy note with "Pocket Change":
"This industry's Monopoly and no one's passin' go
And even if you do, you ain't collectin' any dough
You're a shadow in the night, always out of sight
Even if you're tight, people gettin' over just ain't right
Can't win a fight when you got 10 million to three
And all the wack ass rappers filling up the industry
If I had mad cash you'd probably hear me on the radio
Another palm greased and MTV would play my video
If I had a video, but that cost cash, too
What happened to it being about the skill and not who you knew
The same 10 songs in different orders, it's repetitive
Opportunity knocks, I guess it don't know where I live
Won't forgive, always overlooked because I'm the underdog
Sick of all this shit but you know I'll never quit
No one understands me and no one ever will
Until I'm rollin' in the Lex rapping about the dollar bills
It's not the way I feel, made a promise to myself
Consider pocket change because I ain't in it for the wealth"
Yeah, it's a hard to swallow like an Alanis Morrissette album, but the lyrics are backed by solid, if not necessarily varied production. "Rock The Mic" has a heavy-set bassline and a nice call-and-response vibe that's perfect for a late night hooptie ride. "Bad News" is perfect for serial killing, if you're into that. "Dying Breed," featuring Artfull Dodgers, gives a nod to Hieroglyphics and flips a bassy George Benson/Freddie Hubbard era beat for a posse cut vibe.
Unfortunately, they, like the listener, often drown in their own darkness, with lyrics like "When it's your turn to fall ain't nobody gonna catch ya," ("Gravity"). Even the love song "Better Off," featuring singer Kelly Denooyer, is about betrayal and how "Cupid shot me in the ass". There's absolutely nothing wrong with dark shit -- fans of Scarface and other folks can attest to this -- but there is a difference between examine one's dark side and just being straight up cynical about anything and everything.
The youngins of Rising Sunz are too young to be completely cynical though and when they concentrate on mic skills instead of late bills they sound absolutely great. The MCs have a crisp, clean style reminiscent of an uncluttered b-boy flow from back in the day. No multisylabic bullshit. No eight bars in five seconds. When they let the bitterness go and get behind a tight beat, we get hilarious skits like "Whack Rapper 101," a perfect 22-second freestyle that sounds like your boy rhyming in the high school bathroom. Or "Gold Rush," backed by a riding bass with a subtle piano lick, punctured with funny lines like "even if you were in the sewer, they wouldn't call you the shit."
It's the album gem, "The Formula," that makes the ears perk up like a dog in heat. Alien noises and bass hits flotsam and jetsam through the air, like "South Bronx" remixed by Kraftwerk, and the authoritative, almost bellowing MCs let you know who's the fuckin' boss:
"Competition gets overthrown and blown like a windy day
Cash like Clay jumped in the game like you knew how to play
What can I say to the haters, you know that we love ya
Because with everything you do, we're always one step above ya
When I grab the mic I'm registered a lethal weapon
Can't battle any MC unless they can match me in a session
Can't jock my style without written consent
But you can buy my tape and that's money well spent"
The flows are tighter than a three-piece suit, but unfortunately they spent most of this album downing others for their decisions to go to the majors or for rapping about ice and whips. However everyone, including them, made a choice about their route, and you can't blame the next man for not following your path. As soon as they stop focusing on what everybody else is doing it will truly be a verbal evolution. And it will be lovely.
Music Vibes: 6 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 7 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 6.5 of 10
Originally posted: October 15, 2002