Hip-Hop knows no boundaries. I guess you heard that about 100 times. But I doubt that the average hip-hop head has any idea to what extent this is true. I think it’s important they recognize. The fact that hip-hop has spread out to all four corners of the world brings rewards as well as responsibility. In short, the oft-talked about hip-hop generation needs to wake up and realize its powers. On September 11th 2001 the world’s most famous city (and home of hip-hop), New York, was shaken to its very foundation when terrorists flew two hijacked airplanes into Manhattan’s landmark buildings, the World Trade Center twin towers, who subsequently collapsed. Three weeks later the death toll has risen to over 6,000. The full consequences of this tragic event are not yet clear. Initial speculations that ‘Muslim terrorists’ were behind the attacks were confirmed. The USA are expected to strike back within the next few weeks. These days are not easy for anyone living on this planet. Feelings of fear and hatred have surfaced all over. Not so much in New York as in other parts of the USA and the world people were harassed simply because they look or their names sound like they could be of Islamic faith. Thankfully President Bush has rallied religious representatives of the Muslim faith in the US and has spoken out against such hate crimes.

A few days after the attacks I got this here CD in the mail. It’s by a crew from Munich, Germany. Two of its members are originally from Iran, one is American. They call themselves Square One. They rap in English. See, rap music transmits itself really easily: by being heard, by being listened to. Anyone who ever tried to rhyme has had that moment when he heard this particular rapper that made him say: well, let me try this myself. So certainly in the late ’80s to mid ’90s you had people all over the globe rapping in English just because their role models were doing so and they had not figured out yet how to do it in their own language. This and US rap still setting the tone to this day explains why despite there being healthy hip-hop scenes that express themselves in their native languages, English is still very well understood and even spoken within these circles (with the exceptions of France and Japan). Then there’s the huge role that Americans that were actually physically present played in this process. They often were and are an integral part of these scenes, acting as teachers in many ways. This, plus the fact that English is evolving into the main international language, all leads to English being a crucial element to foreign hip-hop cultures.

There’s no reason why Square One shouldn’t appeal to open-minded people in the USA. Both rappers, Rasul Allah and Gianni Dolo, have US high school G.D.’s, so don’t expect any funny accents from them. They know their ABC’s, and it’s not just for the sake of being able to rap in English that they rap in English, they actually have something to say – in English. As the title of their debut album, “Walk Of Life”, suggests, they’ve been places, they’ve met people, they’ve learned lessons, and it all went into the making of this album. Rapper Rasul takes the leading role. This is a quick-tongued, soft-spoken MC who will occasionally raise his voice to Pharoahe Monch-like authority. He specializes in multisyllable ryhming, expanding over entire lines, putting the common rhyme scheme you’ll find on any contemporary record up a notch, similar to what Percee P and other underground legends used to do. This will look like this:

“Sticks and stones, visions of chrome and twisted homes
Brainstorms drift in zones of Bönz Malone
Me and Mrs. Jones intone to Nina Simone
I’m jinxing poems on mystic thrones
To all my dun-duns
Wherever they at or where they come from
Fugitives on the run-run, chocking their very lungs numb
Biographies: humdrum; prophecies: undone
The function’s to slap rappers with a pump-gun
Forfeit, the orbit of grand exalted
My plans seem often like the hands that arson
Plant the corbins in the land of orphans
The co-operate, similar to gangs in Boston
Square: architects, the walking threats
We palm your chest, then bomb your decks
Cause and effect, armed cadets to rob the vets
I’m in the heart of queens like the ball park of Mets”

My experience is: the more rhymes you try to incorporate in your raps, the less you get to say what you really want. In theory rhymes are a limiting factor in regards to content. But time and time again rappers prove that theory wrong by putting extra emphasis on what they say by making it rhyme. Tupac Shakur being one of the prime examples. It’s often the rhyme that really hits home. On the other hand, there’s the danger that you’ll say anything just to make the damn thing rhyme. Rasul Allah stands somewhere between these extremes. None of his rhymes really stick with me, but in detail he is able to draw some really intriguing poetical pictures. Like this one from “Knowledge Is Knowledge”: “I squeeze my pen / my tears repent the deepest sins / Read these hymns / I breed these gems on bleeding skin / My peers and friends / are fearless men / Iman and Rasul are like Siamese twins”. Dare I say – skills?

Then there’s cases where he just overdoes it and ends up with no saying much, really: “I’ll be firing threats / quiet as kept / my nine’ll reflect / signs of regret / through holes that my silencer left / live & direct / computerized minds’ll connect / high intellects / raised in confinements of death / and you better peep the science that I hide in my tec / tryin’ to neglect / the depth of pride and respect / everytime you see the God, you be dying for rep / crying for less / leave your hoes eyeing and wet / When I asked for some beats ya couldn’t find your cassettes / so how the fuck you wanna go line for line with some vets? / Rhyme for a Lex / catch me even rhyme for sex / Make heads bang till they’re bleeding out of their necks / I’m probably the best / my sick terminology’s flesh / all that ‘let’s keep it real’ got me tired and vexed / as hard as it gets / the Concrete Messiahs are next / watch Edward Sizzerhand electrifying your sets, bet”…

Give me a break! Which DJ Edward Sizzerhand will gladly provide (check his solo spot “Unorthodox”), but first I gotta give it up to the group’s beatmaker, Iman. The music that he puts down is nothing short of perfect. It’s some of the most soulful and soothing hip-hop I’ve heard in a long time. This is music that takes its time. Music that evokes different moods. Good moods, not bad moods. Music that is highly persuasive. But still very distinctly hip-hop, down to the last beat drop. Organic beats. None of these hurried drum patterns that knock you off balance. Iman achieves the highest quality with the smallest quantity. I wish Common, Mos Def and Talib Kweli could rock over these beats. But since they won’t know a dope beat, I’m just happy that Square One’s got some. US rappers Ali Vegas, Andre the Giant and Party Arty (of Ghetto Dwellaz) guest-star on “Walk Of Life”, but they could have been left off it, for all I care. Their performances lack the insight and intensity of Ali Rasul’s. He teams up with his partner in rhyme, Gianni Dolo, on several cuts, but it’s always him that shines the brightest. One of the stand-out cuts on this album, “Applause”, shows him in rare attack mode on MC’s:

“Picture the Attica Blues, cinematical moods
My literature’s beyond mathematical jewels
They say Ali spits the most radical views
but I cock back the Mack and happen to snooze
Panicking crews put on their travelling shoes
they chose the right path of what many refuse
Actors and fools are gonna get dramatically bruised
plus their whole entourage gets slapped on the news
Bringing the ruckus, I stomp on you miniature puppets
watch Iman put on the finishing touches
while you lost on the course, pursue an image of others
I represent the seeds and underprivileged mothers”

From the way they rap it’s clear that Square One are heavily influenced by the whole conscious rap philosophy that has its roots in the late ’80s. As “Nuttin’ Changed” indicates, they’re not nostalgic about it, even though things have changed since the days of “‘Wild Style’, ‘Beat Street’ and ‘Krush Groove’ / where writers would cut moods on walls with something smooth / b-boys would bust moves, bumrush fools / 50 deep in the club hollering “La Schmoove!” / the Scoob & Scraps, Chuck D would shoot the facts / Griff would lose the track, sling bad news on wax / loop the sax / dreams to boost the plaques / ignore the ruthless slacks / tell me now ‘who’s the mack?’ / I used to be real abstract / what happened to Mike Bivins or Ill Al Skratch?”

It’s really hard to tell if this album could have come from a New York crew (provided somebody would have signed them). On one hand, you won’t hear anything about their experience living in Europe. I neither can’t tell if they had the American market in mind when they recorded this, or if it’s just their state of mind to come off so American. On the other hand, they possess what most mainstream US rap lacks these days: soul. There are no Muslim references either, save for a single ‘Allah U Akbar’ somewhere and Gianni’s (who is Afro-American) “The fact is you can’t sack these black quarterblacks / we’re strapped like some cats with love for Arafat.” It seems that hip-hop can engulf people so entirely that they take on a ‘hip-hop identity’ and forget about the rest of their lives. And that’s in the US just like abroad. Nonetheless Square One are so articulate in expressing themselves through hip-hop that it can’t possibly be that they just repeat other people’s words. But maybe this verse by Rasul is an indication that hip-hop is indeed something you can be haunted by:

“In my dreams I rock rags, Avis & Clarks
just one in a million, playing my part
in ciphers with Dolo, trading our hearts
on the concrete jungle, state of the art
In my dreams I kept it real a long time ago
before there been MP3’s and them cyber-hoes
before kids knew KRS in Idaho
before making my first tape in ninety-fo’
In my dreams a human out of flesh
Forgive me, but I refuse to be the best
Rasul, disillusioned and depressed
In my dreams I pop a deuce-deuce in your chest
I’m still slingin rocks in my dreams
still the school of hardrocks in my dreams
still them big guns and cops in my dreams
Hip-hop got me shadowboxing with my dreams”

Square One’s multi-layered lyrics make it hard to grasp their full meaning sometimes. So I’m left wondering if the highly analytical “Gangsta” speaks out against the ‘gangsta’ imagery or if it speaks with it. But otherwise Square One write ‘songs’ that deserve the attribute. “Countdown”, a truly funky chumpie, has them going back and forth, counting down from “12 years of struggle, 12 years of hustle” to “Square – 1 life to live, so this life we give / 1 love to the ones who pump our shit / thump our shit in 1-room appartments / have your neighbors call the police department” (with Gianni making a stop at Rakim’s for number 7: “I take 7 MC’s, put them in a line” etc.). The superior “Can’t Mess” also lives up to its name, “Paradise Lost” talks of the world today (“Now that’s real in these fields of sorrow / if parents misbehave, their children follow / they squared 41 shots to kill Diallo / and it’s 40 shots too much for me to swallow / let’s build our boroughs and seal tomorrow / sending out messages in Olde English bottles”), while “Cry” and “Fallen Angels” tell of those living in Hell on Earth and those coming down to Earth from Heaven, respectively.

Overall, this is a very serious album. Both in content and form. Not Mobb Deep-type seriousness, but serious like a man who praises the comfort his wife gives him, as Rasul does in “Taste Of Life”. Its contemplative mood made me think of racial and religious harmony and what role hip-hop could play in it, but that thought may be gone as quick as there will be another album in my CD player. Maybe we really should go back to square one.

Square One :: Walk of Life
7.5Overall Score