Sometimes I feel bad for pop singers, rock bands and the like. It seems the bigger a musician’s popularity, the less people actually talk about his or her music. Agreed, sometimes there is little to say about a tune, while on the other hand some musicians do get the recognition they deserve for their work. But even Madonna, who is praised for her understanding of pop culture and the role she plays in it, is rarely scrutinized for her songwriting or the musical direction she takes when she comes out with a new album. Even when they attempt to up the artistic ante, in the eye of the public pop and rock stars provide us with all sorts of entertainment, just not music. It seems stars of any profession are in the news for everything else but what they actually do. The media rather gauges a singer’s emotional state by the latest gossip than by his or her songs. The fact that these people regularly turn their insides out is studiously ignored. Now some will say that popular music is all about the newest looks and the oldest poses, that it is by definition devoid of substance because the listener projects his own personal interpretation into it. Artists themselves often reject any form of professional criticism because they let nothing come between them and their fans. Who needs critical acclaim when millions of fans offer much more substantial support?
But there is something about critical acclaim and even plain old criticism that elevates the recipient to someone who wasn’t met with indifference in the court of public opinion. Court being the operative word here because selling a million records is a matter of working the market, but a public debate means what you say (and how you say it) others deem worth discussing, and some even deem it worth defending. Faithful fans are certainly not to blame for the lack of critical debate in popular music, because while they are the foot soldiers of the stars, they have it in them to grow with an artist, even if they eventually grow apart. It’s those that are more interested in the pretty face than the person behind it that continuously create these hollow holograms we perceive most pop musicians as. It all goes along with the modern mass media showing very little respect for artistic and intellectual achievements. They may be artists, but god forbid we have to actually deal with their art.
Rap acts are, in that regard, immensely privileged. True, we have our own cultural vultures who bend over backwards trying to dig up dirt on rap celebrities. But there are times when I think that nobody in the field of popular music is taken more seriously than rappers. And I’m not just coming to this conclusion because I’m a repeated offender myself. The hip-hop public at large is an attentive bunch. If you’re into rap, you have an opinion on a variety of artists. Rap fans are judgmental by nature. It all goes back to hip-hop’s conception as a competitive sport, where DJ’s and MC’s not only perform for an audience, but also against an opponent. At some point, that critical approach had to come in written form, a step first undertaken by established music magazines, then by hip-hop publications, most notably The Source, who put down the standard for discussing the musical and lyrical aspects of rap in its review section.
As much as the attention paid to what exactly these rappers and producers bring to the table is appreciated, sometimes hip-hop suffers from being this overpopulated debate team. Sometimes it gets into the way of the most natural perception of the matter at hand. Do I enjoy listening to the music or not? If I do, I keep it on repeat, if I don’t, I turn it off and look for something more suitable. Simple as that. It looks as if large parts of the hip-hop audience have forgotten (or never learned) to listen to hip-hop as music. For some reason, this prelude escaped my fingertips as “Natural Progression,” the second album of Vancouver’s Sweatshop Union, was playing. I will introduce it properly below, but at the moment all I need to know is that it works well on this particular, primordial level. As music that I like to listen to. That being established, there’s no denying its potential to be music I could see myself dancing to. Music I’d be interested in witnessing being performed live. And, eventually, music I sit down to study.
The irony of the name Sweatshop Union lies, of course, in the fact that sweatshop workers largely lack the security organized labor provides, thus remaining subject to taxing working conditions and low wages. In fact, the sweating system as it was conceived in the 19th century relied on the fact that workers were kept in the dark about the work ahead of them beyond the most immediate orders, leaving the negotiating power in the hands of the client and his contractors, pitting the workers against each other and preventing them from realizing the strength that lied in their numbers. Historically, garment sweatshops have played a key role in the establishment of mass manufacture, and at the same time have shown the necessity of safety regulations and labor laws. It is part of the logic of economical development that today most of the clothes that we in the northern hemisphere wear are manufactured in countries with a lower standard of living. The North-American and European garment industries have largely outsourced their production to developing countries who welcome the work, as morally apalling as it is that the person who sows your name brand shirt would have to sow many, many more to be able to afford just one at the price you are buying it.
That short digression ought to tell you that the Sweatshop Union is probably about more than just music. That doesn’t change the fact that “Natural Progression” can be enjoyed without the rewind button at your fingertips and your ears sealed off by headphones. Each song has a distinct musical theme, which is competently followed by the rappers. With their well timed rapping and charismatic deliveries, these MC’s make up a big part of the rhythmic structure and sonic coloration of the music. While Sweatshop can be incredibly catchy, they only once aim for a straight up pop tune. Mostly self-produced, “Natural Progression” may not reside on the grittier end of rap music (especially considering its discrete drums), but there’s plenty of meat to sink your teeth in, including the layered funk of “P.O.T.B.,” the sparse swing of “I Got News,” and the slow-motion bounce of “Truman Show.”
On a whole, the Union’s ‘organic’ approach to hip-hop may be a little bit too straightlaced to evoke hip-hop that can take a few hits. But how often do you have a hip-hop album that at least during the opening round has you guessing what kind of music you’re going to hear? With its first full song, “Radio Edit,” “Natural Progression” rushes almost too soon to the conclusion that yes indeed, this is hip-hop, despite sampled soundscapes playing second fiddle to clear instrumentation provided by guest musicians (including Swollen Members producer Rob The Viking).
Each rapper here has his style, some using inflections as strong as Juvenile’s or Eminem’s and twisting their flows into peculiar positions (to the point where it becomes hard to decipher them). They’re intent on infusing their vocals with melodies, occasionally even going for stronger emotions than the prerequisite positive vibe, be it melancholy (“The Way”) or Slug-like revolt (“Any Reason”). As they team up in various combinations, the septet can’t avoid the Jurassic 5 comparison, especially with one vocalist clearly doubling as Chali 2na and DJ Itchy Ron holding down the turntables. As such they should appeal to all who view hip-hop as a group experience, rather than a one-man show.
Coming back to our privileged rappers, I really think that rappers are in the lucky position of artists that can hope to get their message across. All the better then, when that message isn’t completely negative. By the same token, rappers can also get on our nerves with their incessant babble, regardless of what it is they’re trying to tell us. Rappers are attention whores something terrible. We need to ignore them every now and then and – to repeat my point – take what they do for what it is. You guessed it – music. However, some songs simply demand our attention. These songs literally ask to be understood. If they’re not understood, they miss their mark. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the simpler a song is, the less there is to understand. “Natural Progression” has both, lyrically loquacious but ultimately simple, as well as deeper probing, more abstract song material.
“Radio Edit” starts out poking fun at heavily edited hits, then evolves with lyrics dealing with compromise and self-censorship, Sweatshop not excluding themselves from those who “wonder how to leave the underground with dignity intact.” “Garbage Love Songs & Cheesy Jingles” reflects the Ja Rule and 50 Cent era while the similarly-themed “P.O.T.B.” is driven by a humorous hook culminating in the conclusion “Retarted as it gets – it’s part of the business.” It’s up for debate whether the largely melanin-deficient Sweatshoppers are in a position to criticize commercial rap. They do have a point, obviously, but something rubs me wrong about a song that disses Nelly and tells mainstream artists, “I don’t understand your way of life, don’t wanna hear you rhymin’ about it,” while one Unionist prides himself in pronouncing his “-ings and -ers.” If that can be a sign of originality, so can Nelly’s -urrs.
Maybe the Canadian crew is twice as privileged vis-Ã -vis the average musician, considering one of them is “tryin’ make my first mill so I can give it away.” They are right about one thing, though. “If we’re successful, it’s not gonna be because / we do the same things the last platinum CD does.” It will be because the seven Union members somewhere along the road find their own niche. One of the best things about this group is that they manage to place individual and group efforts side by side. Kyprios interprets life as a series of “Stolen Memories” while working against the rumor mill on the tongue-in-cheek “I Got News.” “US” is more than just an anti-American diatribe as it calls on all of us to change what we complain about: “(Us) / We’re the ones that paid for the bombs / (Us) / We built the planes that they’re on / (Us) / It’s insane all of the ways they conned us / But we can change it today, it’s just all on / (Us).”
On a less tangible but no less real level, the remaining tracks contain some (for rap music) rare personal moments. The melancholically thumping “Today” is introspective without being self-centered, one MC admitting, “This is somethin’ else / Shit, I’m still young myself / ain’t figured out / what this whole living thing’s about / The hustle – still haven’t mastered it / the struggle – well I don’t even know the half of it.” “Better Days” featuring Moka Only is an optimistic joint radio couldn’t possibly mind with its harmonious hook, short verses and subdued pop bounce courtesy of producer Bookworm. A more rootsy approach is taken by Mos Eisley and the crew on “Don’t Be Afraid” with its meditative Caribbean bop, fresh lyrical styles and almost spiritual hook that reassures us, “Don’t be afraid, it’s all makebelieve anyway / Yo, we can leave any day / Keep the faith, despite what you hear people say / because the fears keep us chained.”
Closing out “Natural Progression” are the Whitey Ford-tinged “The Thing About It,” once again explaining Sweatshop’s action-speaks-louder-than-words philosophy, and “The Question,” a final political statement presented over an instrumental that sums up the subtleness of Sweatshop Union with a delicate track combinging rhythm and melody in a congenial way. There is probably no greater compliment in this reviewer’s repertoire than the one initially made when I said that “Natural Progression” works perfectly on a purely musical level. Once dissected, Sweatshop Union’s 2003 release reveals some internal errors, the analysis of which indicates that SU are at their best when they’re speaking to all of us, being inclusive rather than divisive, true to their own words: “Trust me, friends / it could never just be us or just be them.”