Cleen and his crew, Life For the Better, got started eight years ago at an open mic night at Barnes and Noble in their hometown of Lancaster, California. It’s both a testament to their dedication to hip hop and how little was going on in Lancaster that they were kicking rhymes at a chain bookstore. The crew has fluctuated since then, with members moving away and moving on, but Cleen has stayed consistent. He’s released two solo CDs, “Old Man Winter” and “Audiobesity,” as well as a colloaboration with Plural Clarity as Unseen Tekneeks (all reviewed on RapReviews).
Cleen’s style is focused on verbal acrobatics and storytelling, with a lot of humor and clever rhymes. He sounds a little like a nice Eminem, and his ability to string together complex rhymes is one of his greatest gifts as an MC. The man could probably make waiting in line at the DMV sound good on the mic, a skill he acknowledges on “The White Rapper Song”:
“I could write a song about damn near anything
And make the chorus catchy enough for you to sing
See I pride myself on not just getting people’s attention
But keeping it by not sounding like anyone else”
The song uses a Ofcelfe beat built around Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme,” and Cleen goes on to discuss what it means to be a white rapper:
“See, I’m not a white guy who happens to be a rapper
I’m a rapper that just happens to be white
And I used to start tripping at the drop of a hat when people said
‘Charlie raps? How preposterous is that! Seriously?
Yeah, I’m serious
‘What are you even rhyming for?’
I got my answer passing my demo around in ’94
So by the time Eminem made ‘White America’
Me and hip hop had three kids and I was buying lawn furniture”
There is a strong vein of self-deprecating humor in Cleen’s rhymes, and it is no doubt that sense of humor that has allowed him keep on going as an independent artist. “16 Bars,” a reworking of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons,” talks about the changing landscape of the Life For Better and Broken Complex crews, and all of the Lancaster rappers who have either retired from hip hop or moved out of state. “Get To Know You” is one of several songs that deals with Cleen’s misadventures with the opposite sex, and has nice breezy beat. Ofcelfe offers some bars on “Shoe Shopping,” about the joys and stupidity of rappers’ shoe obsession. “Pay my bills on time? Don’t make me laugh,” he raps on the hook, before cutting to a sample of Q-Tip’s classic line, “pair of Nikes size 10 and a half.” “Free My Mind” has a harder beat and slightly harder lyrics, and it clearly shows Cleen’s love of Ice Cube and classic East Coast hip hop, as does “F. You Heroes.” The track takes it name from Glenn E. Friedman’s classic anthology of photos of early hip hop and punk rock musicians, and sees Plural Clarity and Cleen trading rhymes about the sorry state of hip hop, and their continuing love of it.
Ofcelfe handles the boards on six of the fourteen tracks, with DJ Hoppa, Rock, Wingman, and Offbeat tackling the rest. The tracks are all sample-based, built around dusty grooves, jazzy breaks, and even some 70s lite-rock. It sounds a lot like the kind of true school hip hop that other Southern California crews like People Under The Stairs and Ugly Duckling are doing, and Cleen could definitely share a bill with either group.
I’m all about honest rappers, but Cleen’s rhymes are too personal at times. It’s great that he raps about his career and his crew, but can be hard to relate to some of the songs that deal so intimately with his life, struggles, and his particular hip hop scene. I appreciate the fact that he writes what he knows, but I hope that his future work will see him expanding his scope and range outside of Lancaster. So long as it isn’t about women: Cleen is incredibly nice and self-deprecating until it comes to women, and then a nasty bitter streak comes out. “Freedumb” has the line, “what happened?/your standards kick in at the last minute?/or instead of my dick in your pussy you wanted some cash in it?” This from an MC who rarely swears. Clearly, Cleen is dealing with some female drama, but I would hope for his own sanity that he could learn to deal with it in a less hateful way.
The writers at this publication have been mixed in their reviews of Cleen. Some have found his flow a little boring, others thought he was too backpack, and still others thought he was the best thing since Blackalicious. I could see people finding Cleen’s matter-of-fact flow monotonous, or his subject matter too indie for its own good. However, I would ask those people to listen to a track like “Christmas Lights” before writing Cleen off. Over some jazzy piano, he tells the story of growing up, and how he and his family used to go see Christmas lights:
“When I was a kid we used to pile in the car
And go five miles and hour with the lights off
Looking at the Christmas lights”
It’s sentimental, sure, but it perfectly captures a moment in time, and offers a snapshot of his childhood. “Christmas Lights” demonstrates Cleen’s strengths: his beat selection, his narrative skills, and his ability to make listeners care what he is talking about. As he makes clear on album-closer “Cellar Door,” he is doing what he loves, and is very grateful to be doing it. “Small Talk” is further evidence not just of the struggles of indie rappers, but of what indie rap can offer hip hop.