For as long as Hip Hop has been a recorded medium, producers and DJs have tried to wrestle the spotlight away from their once-subservient counterparts (the MCs, jocko), but overall have failed to take back what was once rightfully theirs. From Grandmaster Flash (recently inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, natch), to Terminator X and his valley of Jeep beats, to recent cats like RJD2 and J Dilla, production-centered releases have left us with the good, bad and mostly ugly. There’s a reason MCs took over when records became center stage: the full-length joint requires a star with charisma and a point-of-view, two aspects damn near impossible for a beatmaker to convey through sonics alone. Yet now in 2007, with the relevance of full-length albums in jeopardy, a beat-centered release may act less like a unified product and more like a sampler used to entice both the buying (i.e. downloading) public as well as MCs interested in spitting over something correct. Enter Hotbox: a producer from Newfoundland who has assembled on “Frostbite” a collection of tracks that have no particular sequencing attributes and are ultimately unified only by their dopeness. Hell, he even lists his e-mail address and myspace page on the back cover so heads can holla for beats. In this new era, then, the CD may be less of a product in itself than a tool of promotion. At the same time, Hotbox harkens back to platters like Marley Marl’s classic “In Control, Vol.1” by pulling together a group of MCs (mostly fellow “Newfies”) that share a loose but unified outlook. So despite my extreme love of the full-length and distain for downloading, if this new trend is bolstered by an awareness and respect for previous DJ effects while helping bring the man behind the boards some much-deserved love, I guess I can dig it too.
Proceedings start slowly because of a corny intro skit, but the beat that follows it more than makes up for the attempt at humor. For all you haters out there, savor that moment of wackness: it is only one of four notable missteps I found on the whole disc (and the least transgressive). Hotbox shows plenty of versatility right out the gate, mixing a love and reverence for past sounds (both within Hip Hop and older genres such as soul) with a willingness to experiment and develop with own unique formula. This specifically involves a ton of uplifting and soulful melodies, drums that march up and down the track with a momentum and energy, and a unique flurry or two that really makes the songs both banging and innovative. Highlights of this sound include the bad ass guitar riff and infectious hand claps on “Non-Stop,” the funky old click-clack boom bap drums on “Narcolepsy,” and ill looping of Curtis Mayfield’s sugary falsetto around a spastic beat on “Best Friend” (the last of which happens to also achieve a rare honor vocally: a truthful ode to H.E.R. that avoids corniness). The man behind the boards never tries to overwhelm us with his talent, so he’s more of a MC’s producer rather than a producer’s producer (got that?). He recalls the best work of Premo and RJD2 by throwing in a pinch of, say piano, or a dash of scratching, working with the vocalists to make for a complete product rather than trying to steal the show.
Vocally he is only helped by the chosen guests, most of which are, I’m guessing, much like Hotbox himself: twenty-something cats, products of a quarter century of the poor getting poorer, rising tuition, shrinking job markets, political cynicism and (most importantly) Hip Hop; ultimately, they are well aware of all the shit the world serves people with passion, but are still able to hold out hope for better days (or at least able to hold out a big middle finger to the establishment). This background means that the rappers here have plenty of candor and knowledge to go with talent and expertise in the studio, creating songs that are genuinely interesting and entertaining for multiple spins. When one MC spits an ill verse about needing but not having a cup of milk for the last box of Mac’N’Cheese, it marks an interesting moment in rap (we’ve come a long way from “I Got it Made”), and essentially renders all the bling-bling bullshit null and void (at least in my book). But don’t worry, it’s not all Slug-like bleeding-hearts, as these cats get plenty clever too, with punchlines and craftsmanship. Plus, the biting, royal and razor sharp MC Lyte stomp “The Wonder Years Remix” is worth the price alone. Seriously, if you ever wondered why Lyte is considered the greatest female MC, peep this and get schooled to twenty years worth of game.
And about those aforementioned blunders: “Got It Locked” is a jarring and ineffective stab at crunk that is both sonically and lyrically unpalatable (chorus intro: “MCs got it locked/ drug dealers got it lockedâ€¦”), especially coming after six wonderful beginning tracks; the empty braggadocio on “Make â€˜em Holla” sounds empty and irrelevant after such genuine expression on the rest of “Frostbite” (and could be satirical if it weren’t so straight-faced); finally, the last track “Markit Places” is wholly forgettable and thus an unjust way to end the album. But overall, by almost single-handedly putting Newfoundland on the map (or at least my map), Hotbox and his posse of “Newfies” have created a product that has many positive attributes, its most significant being Quality. So good looking out Flash, but if you keep sending me such great material to review I’ma just get thirstier for my Hateradeâ€¦and the next wack joint through the pipeline is gonna get mashed unfairly!