Like most Hip Hop fans not from the South, my knowledge of the New Orleans scene could begin and end with No Limit and Cash Money, two camps nationally recognized as much for their grandiose materialism as for their notable talent. So I was truly surprised after listening to “The Restless Natives” when, as the disc shuttered to a stop in my box, I couldn’t recall even one reference to bling, clothes or cars. What I did find in this compilation featuring over a dozen different N.O. acts was a diverse group of artists and songs, expressing everything from struggle to celebration, delivered in subtle, intricate, humble and humorous tones, with hope and not bitterness driving them on. It seems that N.O. Hip Hop had and has a thriving underground scene that seems to only have gotten stronger from the tragedies and injustices of last fall, and I’ve been worse off for missing out.
“Introduction,” produced by DJ Maxmillion, greets the listener with an infectiously triumphant beat and verses from three strong underground rap cats. Truthfully, you wouldn’t be able to call where these guys were from if you heard this on the radio, as their intricate flows and b-boy friendly content sound universal. The song ends with the previously-rhythmatic drum loop suddenly sputtering and going off-kilter and catching itself at randomâ€”this reminded me of the mayhem recently visited upon the city. Truly, the juxtaposition of the start’s celebration with the end’s chaos is powerful and is one that is found throughout the disc. Next Raj Smoove and Dizzy lighten the mood a little with “Promise,” an ode to a son and a promise of love and fidelity from a father; this song could easily be taken as a metaphor for loyalty to a city in need of love as well. Redemption for oneself, in the success of the future, they are saying here, is paramount.
The spirit of victory over obstacles continues with the Euphonetiks “King’s Hwy,” a dope track that recalls the legacy of powerful past leaders to pave a road into the future where responsibility means finding a mission for living. This crew shows up again with “Rain or Shine,” using a sweet soul sample to orchestrate hungry, focused, unapologetic manifestos of eMCees grinding for years and stronger than ever because of it. Finally, they absolutely kill it with “Never Give In,” where Lyrikill spits this profound gem:
“My exact sentiments in sentences in infinite increments
I’m finished with the ignorance/ building-ers that are killing it
The vision is based on the premise of diligence
The mission is make a living off living that’s limitless
So break the mold if it’s scraping your soul
Be made humble/ glitters ain’t gold/ a story ain’t told
As it goes in this land/ lust love and liberty
Politician piranhas/ trials and trauma…
Gandhi Marley or Dali Llama/ Sodom and Gomorrah
Saddam or Osama/ It’s all drama”
Word upâ€”if you see a joint by these guys in the future, I strongly suggest you cop that.
Another major talent displayed on this comp is Truth Universal, who contributes to “Introduction” and gives a solo joint, appropriately titled simply “Heat.” A lyricist that claims he’s “still more against the grain than the Atkins diet,” Truth embodies that ‘I’m different and proud of it’ vibe of the whole disc, while giving us a complete package by using his commanding vocal presence to spit a little on everything from politricks and economics to upliftment. Peep this sample verse:
“Contemplate giving sight to the blind
For the streets and college charts inclined to climb
Make you wonder how this man designed the dopest rhyme in Central Standard Time
I’m addressing injustice and underhanded crimes
And who killed Indians and said ‘this land is mine’
Preservationist, so that when I die the last b-boy don’t look like the last samurai
Dirty Southern-fied, may seem a bit strange
Midwest/ Mid-South/ in a word, midrange”
The remaining tracks display more diversity and more skills, while all basically retaining a common thread of self-awareness, pride and positivity. While “Never Get Enough” sings the praises of a fellow eMCee and lover, “So Many Days” is a shot of pure celebration that manages to be both ice grill dope and soup for the soul. This being a compilation, however, it is not without its filler and missteps. Don Libido the 9th Ward Avenger shows up twice and frankly, I wasn’t too impressed with his style, which sounds like a bad mix of Del’s overreaching verbosity and Paul Barman’s awkward vocal mash-ups. Dick Darby contributes to three efforts: “Alday,” which might pass for a poor man’s “Wait (The Whisper Song)” (with a drum loop that sounds like someone clicking a soda bottle cap on a card table), “Say Ya,” a tired gangsta retread, and “The Dream,” a seemingly misplaced wack R&B joint (rhythm and bulls—?). The comp ends with “Mayhem in Metropolis,” an instrumental track intercut with snippets of dialogue from Katrina survivors, news reports and political speeches. The generic go-go club beat juxtaposes jarringly with quotes both hopeful and caustic, creating a complex mood that seems to accurately reflect the state of N.O. Hip Hop and the city as a whole.
In sum, despite some noticable miscues, “The Restless Natives” has enough great performances to definitely justify a purchase (if supporting the rebuilding N.O. Hip Hop scene weren’t enough for you). The songs here give me reason not only for hope, but also excitement and joy at the realization that the recent tragedies and setbacks have only increased the conviction and wisdom of artists already ready to shine. By impressively refusing to dwell on the injustices and the horrors, these natives prove that their time in the callous outer realms of Hip Hop’s unacknowledged underground has prepared them well for any and all current and future setbacks, both in and out of Hip Hop. If there’s any justice left down there, more than a few of them will get the national exposure they deserve soon…Birdman, holla!