Hip-Hop is a game of identities, a way to define yourself, instead of having others tell you who you are. In the brief period they were active, British rap crew Kaliphz/Kaleef made it a point to not be categorized as an ‘Asian’ act. While members bearing the last names Nazir and Khan were likely British Asian of subcontinental ancestry, one dubbed himself the Phunky Polak, another was Black British, and one full name suggested simply a Muslim background. What can be confirmed is that before they became quite a conglomerate, the origins of the Kaliphz lay in the hip-hop scene of Rochdale, a city in the Manchester metropolitan area, where two British Asian boys, initially inspired by New York’s Rock Steady Crew, dutifully earned their b-boying and graf writing badges and eventually (around 1992) founded the group Nu Konshuz Kaliphz.
With a shorter name and larger lineup, they put out a couple of singles before debuting on London Records affiliate Payday Records (at the time home to New York heavyweights Showbiz & A.G. and Jeru The Damaja). Why they appointed themselves (as the Arabic term ‘caliph’ implied) ‘governors’ escapes us, but it made for a fancy name in best rap tradition (certainly a more concicse one than the unnecessary multitude of monikers the members came up with for themselves). In short, the setup certainly looked promising. Kaliphz in 1994 were an uncontainable underground crew with frantic flows, the constant energy of their pre-album singles in one instance even channeled into a political bulletin, “Hang ‘Em High”, which reacted to domestic racism with the warning “I’m no pacifist, I’m a pistol-packing Paki-fist”.
Looking to introduce themselves to a bigger audience on their full-length, Kaliphz saved such serious subject matter for the second half. “Blood in Blood Out” acts as an introductory move, underscored with a hypnotic groove. The raps don’t rate a mention, except perhaps for the “Rest in peace Eazy-E” and the presence of female guest Ces of Brooklyn’s Urban Thermo Dynamics (which also included Mos Def). The form is more compelling than the actual content, which also applies to “Bang Bang Boogie”, an engaging, euphoric track where the once more featured Ces puts herself forward as a potential full-time member.
For the remainder, the five rappers keep to themselves, resulting in, well, situations that occur among a surplus of young men. They can’t seem to get an answer out of the opposite sex on “Wass the Deal?” – although that might have to do with the fact that they themselves can’t decide if their love goes deeper than lust. On top, the tune tries to establish a local connection by sampling Manchester band 52nd Street and their 1985 hit “Tell Me How You Feel” and enlists Coolio producer Wino to provide a generic funk groove to go along with it. Wino also assists on “Y I’m Ez”, another grab for smooth jazz funk polished with a pop shine. The overall presentation is convincing and anyone remembering the nineties first-hand can surely relate to the Kaliphz simply “livin’ hip-hop every day” in 1995. But some members are liable to strike the wrong note like the bloke who leaves an unpleasantly lasting impression with the confession “I comb out the last pubic hair from my goatee”. Thankfully, there are others who aim at least a little bit higher:
“Crack the Phillie down the center
Add the content, another silly adventure
I’m the Indo Jones in that Temple of the Boom
The smoke that I choke fills up the room
Lyrics flow free, come spiritually
My eyes are a visor for virtual reality
Clarity of thought, rhymin’ on a mind warp
See I, that’s why I’m easy, hah, signin’ off”
Slowly, “Seven Deadly Sins” starts to converge with its ominous album artwork. “Knockout Position” is inspired by featherweight pugilist Prince Naseem Hamed, by all accounts an outstanding showman and spectacular boxer. Here presented in the form of a DJ Muggs remix, the song was later released as “Walk Like a Champion” and earned Kaliphz their first chart entry. “Kloud 9” warns about the dangers of crack, soloist Chok actually adopting an interesting sing-song flow that vaguely corresponds with the Art of Noise sample. 2Phaaan shows himself concerned about particularly the ecological state of our planet on “Eat the World”, while N.A.D. and Hogweed use the urban landscape as a familiar cautionary backdrop on “Tha Citi Neva Sleepz” (which speeds a Nas sample up to their pitch to interesting effect). The most provocative offering would have to be “Police ‘N’ Thievez”, consisting of first-person raps from the perspectives of a criminal, a corrupt cop and an innocent victim of their dirty deeds. (Conversely, the “Sx Horra Vylence” ‘trilogy’ goes exactly nowhere.) “Open up Your Mind” finally sees the crew wax philosophically about making something of themselves with esoteric language like “Mental elevation equals physical levitation / raisin’ expectation to a state of elation”.
Indeed Kaliphz had the room and the potential to grow. A second album under the name Kaleef two years later gave in to the group’s pop inclinations, but “Seven Deadly Sins” balances their loyalty to hip-hop (“Props 2 Tha Tru Skool” has them rocking the classic “Seven Minutes of Funk” bassloop and asking, “How many suckers even heard of Kool Herc?”), their youthfulness (the downside of which would be a lack of vocal character) and a knack for catchy elements (“Rokkon Shokkon” stands smack dab at the intersection of funk, rap and pop). Under the guidance of production duo Funk Regulators (Neale Johnson and Martin Price, the latter a founding member of critically acclaimed electronic outfit 808 State), the quintet definitely packed a collective punch. Still, despite its many parts, the sum isn’t particularly great. At their worst, Kaliphz may have studied the styles of Cypress Hill, Souls of Mischief, Leaders of the New School and Onyx but ultimately miss the point. The lines they trade are often simplistic and superficial. They “rock like Woodstock” and “get ya open like a pathologist”, exemplary of the rather basic bragging and boasting in a ’90s fashion. “I roll down the highway as if my name was O.J. Simpson”, says one Kaliph, like that would actually mean anything. Admittedly, it’s not always that bad. But despite coming from a number of different angles, it didn’t feel like they could realistically hang with either the UK or the US massive.