The Internet is killing the record industry.  Album sales have been shrinking all decade, showing double digit declines each year; it is so easy to get music for free that paying for it has become a concsious, moral decision similar to buying organic.  As album sales get smaller, so do recording budgets. It no longer makes financial sense for record labels to spend millions recording albums that will only go on to sell hundreds of thousands.  Labels are starting to treat albums as a way of promoting an artist and leading fans to different revenue streams, including ringtones, live shows, merchandising, and whatever product tie-ins they can come up with.  It’s no longer about the music, and it is all about the artist as a brand.

There is a sliver lining in all of this. It is easier than ever for bands to record their music and get it out to listeners. It is fairly inexpensive to set up a decent  home studio. Any band that has been together for longer than ten minutes has a Myspace page with several tracks posted. Radiohead released their last album as a pay-what-you-want download on its website, cutting out the record company altogether (not counting the years and millions of dollars that EMI spent promoting and developing them). Nine Inch Nails has followed suit, releasing pay-what-you-want records as well as free downloads. These releases depend on buzz and word of mouth, but they have allowed artists to get stuff out there quickly, efficiently, and cheaply. The luxury of spending months in the recording studio has been replaced by the freedom of getting music out with a minimum of hassle and overhead.

Which brings me to Sankofa’s “Music With Friends 1” EP, the perfect example of how the Internet might mark the rebirth of the music industry. Sankofa is always DIY, so the fact that this is released on his own label, Obese America, isn’t surprising. What makes this a good model of how the record industry might work in the future is how it was put together. El Keter, who produced Sankofa’s stellar 2007 album, “The Tortoise Hustle,” suggested that Sankova work with beatsmiths AO and Purify. Sankova contacted both of them, got some beats, and three weeks later posted the result on his website as a free download. The result is an album that makes up for its lack of polish with its feeling of freedom and spontaneity.

The EP starts off with “Just Rap,” which has a sinister AO beat structured around reverbed guitar. Sankofa spits rapid fire raps in his baritone, coming off like Gift of Gab mixed with Slug. The next track, “Human Vending Machine,” has a very mainstream-sounding AO beat that is similar to Rick Ross’ “Hustlin’.”  The beat, with its vocal hook of “got my money in rubber bands/cuz I’m young and I’m hustling,” is contrasted by the decidedly un-glamorous story Sankofa details of an aging gambler reflecting on his life.  The track showcases both Sankofa’s dexterity on the mic and his storytelling skills. Clearly Slug isn’t the only MC who can perfectly capture the despair of the down-and-out:

“Flashbacks remain so I’m stacking the blame
The stain remains, but the warmth of drink is pain contained
Changing games, another quarter slot for the bored and sloshed
Tendons tense, my body soon cordoned off
A broken doll’s head bobbling atop a wizened shell
Sipping Zinfadel between shots, my prison cell
Is this hell where I tip the waitress for forgiveness
Close to my end, I grow more religious
Is it too late to tithe, my church a den of smoke
Tried to reach my grandkids, but couldn’t pen the note
Best to let it go, but the failures hold so tight
Closing both eyes, tell them I fold tonight
Shiny lights, trying times, itemized costs
Slightest loss is nothing all the Midas I’ve dropped
Eyes a slight gloss, but that’s the way of the bottle
Lady scratching for Jesus with the way of the lotto”

While AO’s beats offer up an indie take on mainstream Southern rap, Purify offers up some digitized soul. “Live From Fort Wayne” is essentially a synthezied funk band, complete with horns, bass, and keys. Sankofa responds by offering up some verses that are as uptempo as the beat:

“I’m Sankofa, Mister B the seasoned vet
with a heart so cold, the mic can freeze to death
and this rap thing’s a way for me to ease some stress
find me breathing demon breath upon your team’s cadets
A N K O F A but it needs the S
he’s seems adept at making sense of it, these cats are sensitive
emoting effortless they’re moping over comatose and pessimist
make up the first half envelope the rest of it
some tend to grope the messages, folks hope to fetch a bit
slow mo the premise slipped slick off of the slip mat
punch up 911”

 “Nachos” goes further with this digital funk incorporating video game sound effects.  Several other tracks are built around old soul samples, including “House of Games,” “Rose MacGowan’s Face,” and “Our Song.”  The beats are all good, but nothing on here is quite as impressive as El Keter’s work on “Tortoise Hustle.”

Sankofa is one of the most pro-female rappers around, which is a welcome change from the pathological misogyny so prevelant in hip hop.  He does get a little preachy on “Rose MacGowan’s Face,” which criticizes plastic surgery, but his heart is in the right place. The sound quality of his raps is a little dodgy on a couple of the tracks, but for the most part he is as nice on the mic as always, mixing up some clever wordplay with insightful lyrics.  His finest moment comes on “Nachos,” in which he lets loose with some stream-of-consciousness flow about being an MC and eating nachos:

“I never rimed for the sake of Ritalin or Prozac
So clime in the break and innovate with a toe tap
My mood is attached to the groove of a cat who is ruining rap
So fast that it is super sick… suitable to move the crowd
If you want to battle, we can duke it out
It’s easy enough to make a random diss
And make you feel so small that you don’t exist
Take a deal? No thanks. You can keep the fame
I want a laid back life with a secret name
And I may rap nice, but it’s not for pay
I go to sleep, go to work then I’m off to play”

Much like a good mixtape, “Music With Friends” trades polish for freedom.  It doesn’t sound as good as “The Tortoise Hustle,” but the spirit of collaboration and creativity is all over this EP. The bottom line is that in the time it takes to read this review, you can download the EP and judge for yourself.   It is definitely worth downloading, and I hope that it marks the first in a series of collaborations with indie producers.

Sankofa :: Music With Friends 1
8Overall Score