DJ Muggs, of Cypress Hill fame, is one of the great names in hip hop production. He’s got at least three classics in his catalogue in my opinion (“Cypress Hill”, “Black Sunday”, “Grandmasters“), so if he’s going to produce a full project with somebody, they best be up to the task. Thankfully, Rochester’s Eto came through on “Hells Roof”, one of 2019’s best releases that flew under many radars (including ours, given it’s now 2020).
Muggs dropped a few projects in 2019 that avid fans of a certain type of hip hop lapped up, while many latecomers were left scratching their heads. A minimalist, moody style that often lacked traditional kicks and snares, underground hip hop is now more likely to sound like the score to an Italian horror flick than it is breakbeat or chopped-up soul. Much has been written on how Roc Marciano pushed through that change, but that’s a story for another day. Tha God Fahim, CRIMEAPPLE and Mach-Hommy all released albums with DJ Muggs last year, and all were experiments that can prove divisive, and more challenging listens.
“Hells Roof” is probably the most accessible of the four, despite being stark, depressive and ultimately a haunting journey. Eto’s voice is wholly unique and offers something extra that many post-Roc emcees lack – identity. “Hells Roof” is quite literally the ground or the streets, and the Rochester emcee’s gravelly tone drags the listener through its harrowing backdrop of crack-dealing and urban survival. If there was a theme running through the album, it’s most certainly drugs and how crack cocaine is still terrorizing communities in 2020.
“Dominate” comes in with an ice-cold drum loop and the heartless nature of Eto’s delivery cuts right through the beat like a hot knife through butter:
Whether it’s the pounding bass of “Holy Wine” or the injection of class on “Roses” as Roc Marciano waxes lyrical over a killer piano loop, the album is sequenced just right. Flee Lord and Big Twins lend their presence to “Still Mobbin'”, one of the more conventional tracks, a nonetheless imposing triumvirate of street-hardened soldiers. I don’t care who you are though, there’s not a HARDER voice out there than Big Twins. He’s as mean as he’s ever been and deserves his flowers! Then there’s the underrated Willie the Kid on “Victory” declaring “this ain’t a fly rap lyric, I really do it”. Meyhem Lauren keeps his chef hat on for “Last Supper”, a collaboration that doesn’t quite live up to its potential – Eto starts what could be a great hook but inexplicably stops short.
My favourite track is “Attics” – Muggs must have been on some potent kush when he crafted this one. I feel like I’m peering through a cracked window, catching a glimpse into a dystopian Robocop-like environment of urban decay with the occasional flicker of sunshine (in its use of piano). Eto’s stark use of everyday brands used in sinister surroundings harks back to heavyweight storytellers of the genre such as Raekwon and Tragedy Khadafi:
“My third favourite need a kidney
I tried to tell her she’s a Whitney
My fourth kind only snort lines
Down the fifth before court time
No meal, just pork rinds
Bag of chips, half a Twix, it’s four dimes
Fiends haven’t got shit but they keep me paid
They helped pay for my lawyer, no legal aid
The D’s misinformed us
All that did was have us on different corners”
“Homie” is downright terrifying. It straddles the uncomfortable line between majestic and unlistenable, playing out like a bad dream. Eto’s lines almost fall in and out of focus, words scrolling in and out of a vision that contains potent statements like “hope is a poor man’s word” and “built too many walls, not enough bridges”. It’s a paranoid tale of mistrust in the drug game, but Muggs’ canvas takes things into the more macabre territory.
“The Blues” and “What You Sayin'” are the longer songs, with more downtrodden backdrops that lack the ferocity of the others and therefore, didn’t catch as much replay value from this listener. I did include this record in my Top 10 of 2019, but I didn’t realise how good “Hells Roof” truly was. Some records capture a certain feeling and enrapture the listener in a sequence of scenes that play out like a movie. You can put headphones on and be taken away – something great records like “Liquid Swords“, “Marcberg” and “Bandana” all do so well. “Hells Roof” is initially a challenging proposition, but unravels into a dark trip through Eto and Muggs’ vision of the modern drug game, and it’s as cut-throat as its ever been. Clearly, this record isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and it took me 5-10 listens before I began to appreciate what Muggs and Eto were trying to achieve here. “Hells Roof” succeeds, and ends up being one of the best examples of grimy, atmospheric hip hop from the past twelve months.