It's not all tooks and beer in the Great White North eh? Sometimes it's aboot the rhymes and beats instead. If you go to Canada looking for a little hip-hop flavor, the first mistake would be assuming it's all in Toronto. Sure the T dot O is fly and all that, but truthfully there's a lot of talent hidden in cities all across the world's second largest country. Take Vancouver for example. You might call it small compared to some of the dystopian urban jungles of the United States, but Canada's third largest city boasts a hip-hop scene that could rival any of them. The largest collective of their talent is found at Battle Axe Records - home to Swollen Members, Moka Only, Abstract Rude and Sunspot Jonz among others.
In an curious fit of recursion, the Battle Axe collective has become home to another collective of local talents. Creative Minds, Kyprios, Dirty Circus and Innocent Bystanders came together to form the Sweatshop Union. The implication of organized labor in their name and in album titles like "Local 604" and "Natural Progression" is no coincidence. The Union is as serious about their craft as they are about working together for one common cause - moving hip-hop forward into the 21st century. It wasn't long after they united that Battle Axe saw their potential and brought them into the fold, re-releasing their debut CD and every project since. The question for the hip-hop heads who have yet to join their labor movement is whether or not a progressive collective born from the cold hard Canadian soil can take root in the warmer climates of U.S. hip-hop, where the pursuit of bling bling is solitary as opposed to socialistic in nature.
"United We Fall" endeavors to answer that question. Things are slow to reach boil on the opening "Square One," a loping piano melody that sounds like it came from an cowboy Western and met with a hip-hop drum line. After reminding us over and over again that this is "album number three" things finally pick up speed on "Cut Back (Since June)" - quite literally in fact. The beat is double or triple the speed you'd expect and the various rappers spit rhymes in a quick style more reminiscent of Mike Shinoda than Madchild. Things settle down considerably on "Broken Record," a slower jazzy swing with the kind of sung hook you'd expect to hear from Lyrics Born. Without knowing the members individually, I'd like to take a cue from their union and compliment them collectively. The scratched samples on the chorus are hip-hop classics, and the verses they drop match the song's title perfectly - they don't want to be the same ol' ish.
"Ain't it a.. damn shame, music today?
Fad's the same, still you ain't got shit to say
Expect the kids to pay, this expensive fee
When they can get an MP3 off a friend's CD
Especially if there's less then three tracks ya like
If it was worth spendin money then we actually might
So much crap on the mic, labels ain't actin right
Making cash from the hype like The Passion of Christ"
Now you might be tempted towards skepticism, thinking it's the same old "we're going to prove how real we are by criticizing jiggy shit" that seems to come out on every underground rap album these days. Thankfully the Sweatshop Union is NOT a "Broken Record" by any means. In fact the diversity of musical styles and themes they present throughout the album is impressive, if at times a little erratic. The V in Vancouver stands for Violence on "Close to Home," as the rappers look for peace "without the need to hold the chrome." Lechery takes the forefront on "Office Space" as the Union raps about women climbing up the corporate ladder one boob and blow job at a time. "Cheese Cuttin'" is a humerous interlude of turntablism wizardry before S.U. delve back into some serious quick funk junk on "Come Back" while hustling to get known in rap. The track draws a fair comparison to the organic live sound of The Roots, one of the many different styles the Union transitions into with ease.
There are only two dangers for Sweatshop Union making an equally smooth transition to mainstream status. The first obstacle is that the Union function so well as a collective that none of the rappers strike out an individual identity. While some have compared their unity to the Wu-Tang Clan, it's not apparent that they would function equally well in solo presentations, even though their biography insists that they all have (or did). They compliment each other so well it's hard to imagine them apart. The other obstacle to their success is that even though they've struck on a single theme to unite and work together, there's no definining sound one can associate with the Union. On "I've Been Down" they come off as bohemian rap lite, complete with a Q-Tip sample, but on "Lead the Way" featuring DJ Revolution they sound like a hardcore backpacker cult favorite.
It's odd that after three albums Sweatshop Union would still be searching for their niche, but at least with "United We Fall" it's not boring to follow along as they look for it. Take a trip North for some musical adventure and you'll see more than frozen tundra.
Music Vibes: 7 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 7.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7 of 10
Originally posted: January 24, 2006