2012 was an absolutely stellar year for rap music no matter how you slice it. Seemingly out of nowhere the variety and talent within the genre exploded, and it didn’t seem to be specific to any particular sub-genre or geographic region. I usually tend to favor hip hop that comes out of the NYC area, and it’s no surprise that the area is well represented on my list. The first two albums I reviewed for Thought On Tracks were from Brooklyn MC’s Ka and billy woods. I considered them album of the year contenders when I wrote the reviews back in May and they ended up fighting off a ton of tough competition to hold down the top two spots on my list. Check out my full top ten hip hop albums below, I’ve linked reviews for the albums I reviewed and wrote a few words about the ones I didn’t get a chance to review.
1. billy woods – History Will Absolve Me
Woods’ masterwork History Will Absolve Me was my most anticipated album of 2012 and it more than delivered. It’s the type of album that will only gain importance as the years go by. Woods’ style, while unorthodox, is brimming with intelligence, dark humor, creativity, and above all, pen skills.
2. Ka – Grief Pedigree
Ka’s self-produced classic Grief Pedigree is an album rooted in hip hop’s past, but with a modern sound and devoid of any throwback sentiments. Ka’s attention to detail and dedication to his craft allowed him to overcome the limitations of his monotone flow in a big way and helped him create a perfect album.
3. Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City
What can I say about Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City that hasn’t already been said this year? I’m not sure, which is probably why I didn’t review it. Its greatness is astounding and self-explanatory. Astounding in that he actually made THAT thorough of concept album and a major label actually allowed him to release it, and self-explanatory in that Kendrick’s rapping skill is indisputable at this point. Lamar’s album was perhaps the most anticipated hip hop album of 2012 and it turned out to be far better than it had any right to be. The back to back combo of “The Art Of Peer Pressure” and “Money Trees” is probably my favorite song transition of the year.
Roc Marciano had a big 2012. Even though his stellar sequel to 2010’s underground classic Marcberg wasn’t released until November, his name seemed to be everywhere throughout the year as he released well over another album’s worth of material through guest appearances and loosies. Reloaded was worth the wait though, it feels like a love letter to the genre, an album for the heads who love rhymes. His verses jump out of the speakers on tracks like “Emeralds” and display why many consider Roc to be the best rapper doing it. His subject matter may be limited, but Roc’s visual wordplay and raw rhyming ability make him an addictive listen.
5. Aesop Rock- Skelethon
6. Nacho Picasso & BSBD – Exalted
Habits & Contradictions was an album that I considered reviewing, but it was released so far before I began writing for Thought On Tracks that I thought its time had passed. While the time may have passed for me to review it, it stayed in my listening rotation all year long. Schoolboy’s performance on H&C is as versatile as any rapper’s performance on any album in 2012. There are a few songs I may skip from time to time on H&C, but its high points are really high and reveal an artist with boundless energy and unlimited potential. “There He Go” and “Hands On The Wheel” were amazing singles and show off Q’s fun side, but aren’t representative of the overall artistic depth and variety found throughout Habits & Contradictions. The Alchemist produced “My Homie” https://soundcloud.com/prince-k-frempong/09-schoolboy-q-my-homie and the Kendrick Lamar assisted “Blessed” https://soundcloud.com/topdawgent/schoolboy-q-blessed-ft show off another side of Q and help explain why the word versatile always seems to come up when discussing Schoolboy’s music.
8. Open Mike Eagle – 4NML HSPTL
9. Homeboy Sandman – First of a Living Breed
Nacho Picasso and Blue Sky Black Death might not have received the attention they deserved in 2012, but that’s certainly not because of a lack of effort. Lord Of The Fly was the first of their full length collabs released in 2012, and like Schoolboy Q’s album, it was simply released too early in the year for me to review it. BSBD and Nacho used Lord Of The Fly to hone and perfect the style they created on their debut album For The Glory from 2011. Their focus allowed them to craft an exaggerated concept album of sorts that established Nacho as a larger than life devious cartoon character. Ultimately I slightly preferred the level of introspection that Nacho brought to the darker follow up Exalted, but Lord Of The Fly was still good enough to crack the top ten, making Nacho the only artist to have two albums on the list. “Phantom of The Opera” and “Naked Lunch” are the standout tracks, but there’s not a bad song in the bunch.
Written by John Bugbee
New music comes at us fast. If an idiom for the ears existed similar to drinking from a fire hose then I would try to act smart and type it here. I would consider myself an addict to new releases. Betty Ford does not have a program for these ears. I try to go into every listen with an open mind. After the last track is played I always try to leave time for reflection. As I sit here and reflect on my internal listening system I discover some standard habits that I would like to share with you. Bringing these behaviors to light is somewhat of a healing process for me. These are the steps I have identified that I routinely make to show how much I really like an album.
I am proud to be a contributor to this blog, because we do not post on Stinkers. I hate negative posts. There is too much other good music to write about and I would rather promote the good rather than the bad. The Stinker gets played one time. Most of the time this is my fault. I go into the digital purchase knowing that it really is not my thing, but buy into the hype. The more blogs that post about it the more I feel like I have to give it a shot. Just so I can make it completely clear, this was not the case with Lana Del Rey. I thought she sucked all along and still believe that her music is atrocious. As I digress, I tend to believe that hype gets the best of my addiction and always treat it as a learning experience. The album grows old and becomes irrelevant in the depths of my iTunes library.
Yes, this is a direct reference from the Tom Hanks film ‘That Thing You Do!’. While these cats might have appeared to be more than a one hit wonder, they were not. The movie was named after the song that made them relevant and the only track that viewers of this film remember. The Oneder is tricky. Typically, I hear the first single from my friends on Sirius XMU. I dig into it and turn it up every time it comes up in my car. My next step is to track when the band’s LP is going to be released. Often, a month passes and excitement hits me as I awake on that Tuesday morning. The Oneder is like that friend who comes up big in the beginning and then leeches off you until you realize that they suck. The Oneder gets a few opportunities to be heard, but with every play I realize that the only song that matters is the one that you heard from the beginning. I appreciate the efforts of the Oneder, but do not purchase its next release.
This is where we start to dig into the good. The Transfer is relevant, but it works to earn my respect. Simply put, this album entertained me enough times that I decided to transfer it over to my iPhone. I need to this album with me at all times. Whether I play it in my car, at work, or am introducing it to a friend the Transfer needs to be mobile. I made a huge mistake that I will soon correct when I upgrade my iPhone. Opting to save $100 I went with the 16 gb version. This is just not nearly enough space for addicts like myself. I want to be able to store Transfers both new and old. Managing my Transfers is one of the most difficult parts of my week because I always have to make cuts. Cutting a former Transfer does not mean I am done with it, however it just means that there is something newer out there that needs time. Right Peyton?
This is a record where possessing a digital ownership feels hollow. This record has grown on me and grown with me. This is an album that I can hear the next song beginning while the current is ending. The Memento is taken under consideration when building my best of list at the end of the year. These records are called the Memento because it has earned a vinyl purchase. These records are typically heard and obtained in the digital format initially, but are good enough to justify the double purchase. Mementos never grow old. They gain credibility over time. These are the records that I hope to introduce to my children. I own an entire shelf filled with Mementos. They all have stories and have earned added value in time. These might not be the best recordings to the majority, but are the most meaningful to me personally. They are a collection of souvenirs through song. A powerful reminder for why I listen to so much music.
As we close the doors on the first quarter of 2012 I wanted to take a step back and reflect on what I consider Transfer worthy and potentially Memento earning. These 12 recordings left the biggest impact on me during my listening experience in Q1. I have covered most of them on this blog, but believe they deserve one more opportunity to be recognized as we quickly move towards the first half of the year. Take a second to slow down and enjoy a snippet of what I have been holding on to this year.
Daniel Rossen: Silent Hour / Golden Mile EP – “Golden Mile”
Doe Paoro: Slow to Love – “I’ll Go Blind”
Hospitality: Hospitality – “Betty Wang”
Jessie Baylin: Little Spark – “Love is Wasted on Lovers”
Nite Jewel: One Second of Love – “Autograph”
Oberhofer: Time Capsules II – “Heart”
Written by Brett McGrath
Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten.
In honor of the 18th edition, a number that in Western culture signifies rebellion, independence, and the legal recognition of one’s voice, and its subject, a notorious iconoclast and viscerally subversive revolutionary, let us deviate from the usual formula.
I want to talk about Lee “Scratch” Perry, and I want to do it my way. I don’t want to refer to myself as the author, and I want to include a minimal amount of unbiased reportage, because as anyone who is familiar with Perry will tell you, he does what he wants, when he wants, how he wants. Damn everyone. Damn everything.
So I’m going to tell you, in my words, about the man, a legendary reggae artist and producer, his role in pioneering dub music, and my favorite cuts to ever emerge from The Black Ark.
Let me start by saying Lee “Scratch” Perry was, and is, batshit crazy. Refer to my blurb from 2011’s best reissues post for his album The Return of Pipecock Jackxon, but this isn’t really about his insanity, personal at least, although it is incredibly difficult to separate it.
He was born Rainford Hugh Perry in Kendal, Jamaica in 1936. When Perry was in his twenties, he began selling records for Clement Coxsone Dodd’s sound system.
This might require some translating. In Jamaica, music is not only sold through the likes of our traditional record stores, but through sound systems, rolling carts or cars equipped with turntables, power supplies, and an immense, jury-rigged wall of speakers designed to attend, or begin, street parties where the records played can then be sold. The record sellers of these sound systems are precursors to “selectors” or “controllers”, the reggae and dancehall equivalent to the radio or club DJ. The sound system itself is generally regarded as one of the most important elements in the development of Jamaican music, bringing a wild and seemingly ever-changing array of styles to the masses day-to-day.
So that is how Perry’s career in music began. As his relationship with Dodd developed, so did his job description. He became involved with Studio One, Dodd’s record label renown for its consistent generation of hit after hit. Perry slowly integrated himself into the recording process, rostering with Studio One, and ultimately cutting close to 30 sides. But Dodd and Perry, a unique mind, terribly stubborn and difficult to work with, soon began to chafe. Their personalities, as well as their expectations financially, did not mesh, a reoccurring problem that persists in many of Perry’s professional relationships to this day.
Perry jumped ship to join Joe Gibbs at Amalgamated Records but that didn’t last long either. Another financial dispute led Perry to subvert Gibbs and start his own Upsetter Records, an apt name that Perry would repurpose many times over.
Upsetter Records began as Perry’s vehicle for his own music and the cultivation of his own sound. The first Upsetter releases, 1968’s “People Funny Boy” and “I Am The Upsetter” were direct insults aimed at Gibbs, and proved not only effective, but also popular. “I Am The Upsetter” sold over 60,000 copies in Perry’s native Jamaica. Now known as “The Upsetter”, he and his studio band, named (guess what?) The Upsetters, would proceed to put out a string of extremely popular singles, in time signing with Trojan Records, a U.K. label, and using their distribution network to launch The Upsetters’ first full-length LP, Return of the Django, still one of their most highly regarded releases to date.
After the Django release, the label set it sights on outside artists, proceeding to record and release music by The Wailers and several early sides cut with the immortal Bob Marley. But The Wailers and Marley soon grew too big for Upsetter and left, signing to Island Records. Despite gloomy horizons brought on by the departure of the label’s biggest outside act, Perry pressed on, entering the most important and influential period of his career.
In 1973, he built the legendary Black Ark Studios. I get chills just thinking about it. No place in the history of reggae has ever sourced such mojo, with Treasure Isle with the indispensable King Tubby at the boards a close second.
Later recognized as a pioneer of dub for his experiments with Dodd and Gibbs in the early 60’s, Perry set out in The Ark to continue the very same free-spirited exploration of the boundaries of reggae, now with more control, very basic but personally selected equipment, and nothing but time and ganja.
His production palate expanded. His mixes became more experimental. Like King Tubby, Perry used the mixing board and external effects units, which due to budget and availability were very simple, as instruments, endlessly tweaking, and through what most critics refer to as astonishing, electronic sleight-of-hand creating from pre-recording tracks long, twisted and heady masterpieces, swathed in echo, reverb and punchy overdubbing, barely resembling any shred of the original. Using only a 4-track, Perry engineered remarkably dense musical landscapes that explored the definition of reggae and dub, rife with sounds previously unheard, concluding, in statement after landmark statement, that, perhaps, what people knew as reggae and dub was severely antiquated.
He buried microphones and banged on trees for bass drums. He surrounded drum kits with chicken wire. He famously sampled crying babies, bombs exploding, glass breaking and a multitude of animals, one of which, a cow, was not a cow at all, actually a saxophone played through a cardboard tube MacGyvered with tin foil. The old rules were exactly that: old, and no longer applicable, and Perry, in so many ways, began to invent his own. He blew ganja into running tape, sprayed it with blood, urine and alcohol, blessed his studio everyday with the customs of local magic and allowed candles and incense to burn onto everything, all in the name of The Black Ark:
I see the studio must be like a living thing, a life itself. The machine must be live and intelligent. Then I put my mind into the machine and the machine perform reality. Invisible thought waves – you put them into the machine by sending them through the controls and the knobs or you jack it into the jack panel. The jack panel is the brain itself, so you got to patch up the brain and make the brain a living man, that the brain can take what you sending into it and live.
The Black Ark and its music made people stars. Junior Murvin, The Congos, Marley and The Wailers, Max Romeo, The Heptones, Augustus Pablo, Wings (yes, Paul McCartney’s Wings) and so many more cut tracks behind its dark doors.
But, in classic Perry style, he covered every surface of The Ark with unintelligible imagery and prose and proceeded to burn it down. Perry insisted that it was infested with “unclean spirits” (frequent unwanted patrons and visitors), and burnt the studio to cleanse himself of his sins.
Too much stress in Jamaica, all the time. Everybody want money, everybody want paid. Everyone got problem and want me to solve their problem. Nobody gave me anything, people just took everything. Everybody take this, and take that. So the atmosphere in the Black Ark studio was changing; it wasn’t like it used to be. Then I decided to make a sacrifice as the energy wasn’t good anymore.
There is some dispute about when the fire actually occurred. It was sometime between 1979-1983. Some say it was a construction accident. Others say it was to avoid greedy gangsters getting a cut, but no matter how or when the studio actually burnt down, its destruction ended the most important creative period in the history of reggae and dub music.
But while The Ark is dead, its music survives, and thank God, for it is some of the most addictive, impressive, and delightfully insane music there is.
Ben’s Top 10
These are 10 just ten examples of the genius marriage that was Perry and his Black Ark. Listen to Ben’s picks on this Spotify playlist: In the Dust: Top 10 Songs from the Black Ark
Bob Marley and The Wailers – Small Axe
This song is all about tone. Perry deftly renders this song into a soft, rounded transcendence. Marley and The Wailers do the rest.
Bob Marley and The Wailers – Duppy Conqueror
“Bow. Bow. Ba-Bow. Bow-Ba-Bow-Bow.”
Yes, me friend.
The Upsetters – Return of Django
Good God Almighty, the brass! This groove is so deep and funky I have to believe it was written for the soul purpose of dubbing, but that’s not to say that the original won’t rock every bone out of your body. Grab a really, really big glass of rum and dance with someone, anyone.
The Upsetters – People Funny Boy
The infamous baby: one particularly impressive example of Perry’s work with samples. Notice the baby seems to wail on beat, syncopating the rhythm, funking everything up into a sort of sly, groovy lean? That’s why he’s the master.
The Upsetters – I Am The Upsetter
The lead guitar, incessant but hardly obnoxious rim-shots, and Perry’s masterful vocal pattern all collide to establish a solid, cutting rocksteady beat that, for my dime, typifies the best qualities a top-notch reggae rhythm section can bring to a track.
Junior Murvin – Police and Thieves
Eli Cash, anyone? Maybe The Clash rings a bell? Big money says virtually everyone has already heard this song at least once, but for me a million times wouldn’t be enough. Junior Murvin’s voice is like a bubble bath, and the way Perry EQs and modulates the hi-hats on all of Murvin’s material is, as a drummer, what I will always hear when someone says “reggae”.
The Congos – Don’t Blame It On I
The best vocal group in the history of reggae. There. I said it. Listen to this song, go buy Heart of the Congos (also produced by Perry at Black Ark) and if you still don’t agree, come find me. Rob knows where I live.
Max Romeo – Public Enemy Number One
Max Romeo, perhaps more than any of these artists, is someone I wish could include at least ten times on his own. He isn’t as instantly infectious as the others on this list, but that’s not why I love him. His tracks are sleepers, burrowing ever-deeper, without attracting much, if any, attention, until they grow large enough to eclipse tracks you initially thought were obvious, eternal standouts. Often revolving around the subject of Satan and his influence on the Jamaican people, Romeo’s music establishes itself as some of the most substantial material to ever emerge from The Black Ark.
Augustus Pablo – Hot & Cold
Augustus Pablo is, to many, the king of roots reggae. Recording almost exclusively instrumental dubs, and pioneering the use of the melodica, Pablo’s mysterious and silky style exhibits an intense focus not often seen in the work of the characteristically loose roots period. And the Mayor of Portlandia loves him.
The Upsetters – Life Is Not Easy Dub
The only Upsetter dub on the list features the fake saxophone-cow. Exploring the cacophonous, unfathomably dense depths of Perry’s dub oeuvre is something one should wait to do until after fully digesting the singles.
You might just lose your mind. Or find it.
Written by Ben Brundage