SubZero’s website comically suggests that all purchases of his album “The Mind of a Fortress” are “fully shrink wrapped for that super fresh feeling!” As it turns out though that’s even true of promo copies, because that’s how RR’s copy of his album came by post. I’m used to imports arriving in our postal box in less than stellar shape if they come in a gem case at all (many are single sleeve) but the shrinkwrap must have helped here because his CD popped out as “fresh” as advertised – no cracked case, no broken teeth, no surface scratches. I have to admire the chutzpah of SubZero to make the statement as a joke yet actually deliver on the promise, especially since for an independent self-distributed artist, the cost of every little aspect of printing thousands of albums (including shrinkwrap) adds up.
SubZero is a fairly impressive artist in general. If he were to come from Detroit, Michigan insead of a Tamil neighborhood in London, he would probably be regarded as a “horrorcore” rapper – although even those in that genre often reject it as an oversimplification of their topic matter. Still there’s little doubt there’s darkness in his topic matter and beats, making him a stark contrast to fellow Tamil artists from around his way like M.I.A. – and also making him a subject of controversy at times. His song “Tamilz” shocked Londoners who had long turned a blind eye to the illicit activities of a demographic they did not always incorporate into their mindset, and certainly outraged Sri Lankan immigrants who didn’t want to be lumped into one stereotype as violent sociopaths. Nevertheless the song achieved a dialogue on both sides that had been long overdue – the kind of dialogue there should have been more of before the London riots of 2011. Polite British society can’t ignore its disenfranchised communities forever, especially when the only way to achieve dialogue comes with a Molotov cockail. The alternative is always preferable.
SubZero (born Varunan Balasunderam) has been given many monikers over the years since his controversial 2004 song – “the fastest Asian rapper” and “the first original rapper of Tamil descent” among other things – but like “horrorcore” these are labels which simplify him too much. The nearly 70 minutes of “The Mind of a Fortress” showcase a wide range of influences, although it’s fair to say there’s a Wu-Tang like thread weaving through songs like “Iron Fury,” “The Temple of Vengeance” and “The Grandmasters Delivery.” On “The Kiss of the Dragon” he shows off his hard flow:
“Run with dogs on a scarier pace
So sick I even got malaria to chase
Still don’t drive but got a whip and a wagon
Yeah I’m in the fuckin car with six chicks from a pageant
The falcon’s talons, you’re a fish like a salmon
I pray like the mantis, get kissed by the dragon – muah!”
Even when he’s more soft spoken on songs like “Bipolar Episode,” he tends to liberally refer to people as “cunt.” It’s not even venomous, it’s just part of the slanguage he and his peers speak. Though he tries to claim he’s “fucked in the brain and everybody knows it” his rhymes are quite sensible and show a rugged determination to succeed:
“Time’s up, like you ain’t really done enough
Taught negative, but I turned it to a double plus
[..] I refuse to live on council benefits
I get sick every day tryin to get a job
[..] No thanks I don’t want to watch no TV
Unless it’s a good game, I’ll slide in a CD
I’m in the lounge with my mind so focused
24/7 tryin to hype up my CD”
The entire album is self-produced, which reflects both SubZero’s rugged determination, and the one area where his pursuit of his goals might be exceeding his abilitities. Though there’s a lot to be said for controlling every aspect of your career – producing, emceeing, distribution and marketing – there’s also a time where investing in outside help can take you to the next level. At times Sub is able to flip up the beat and think outside the box on a uptempo dub like “Surrounded by Demons” or create a Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind-like atmosphere on “Walking the Path of Insanity,” there are times when the burden of wearing so many hats causes a sameness in the production of tracks. “Rush” sounds gothic and symphonic, but so does “The Revenge of the Crow.” The drums of “Schizophrenic Bloodline” seem on the verge of falling apart (though that may be an intentional choice) and “The Grandmasters Delivery” is so about his rap speed that the beat is almost entirely an afterthought.
On balance there’s more to like about MC SubZero than not, and although none of the songs on his official YouTube page are from this album it’s certainly a good place to start if you’ve never heard of SubZero before. After that look for samples on his own site or Amazon.com and give him a chance – and happily thanks to the latter you won’t have to pay import prices since his album is available digitally. SubZero will be a big deal now and going forward for the UK and for international listeners – even bigger if he can branch out beyond being in control of his entire product.