Hip-hop has been on my mind a lot lately. The story I did earlier this month on Charlotte rapper Deniro Farrar got me thinking about where hip-hop is heading, especially locally. Then there was the three day history lesson/nostalgia trip that began with DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist's tribute to Afrika Bambaataa, which explored hip-hop's origins through its forefather's record collection. The next night I was reminded of my own introduction to rap via Funk Fest where some of its earliest purveyors Salt n' Pepa and LL Cool J provided a childhood musical flashback ("Going Back to Cali!").
Outkast's Friday night Funk Fest set was a reminder of how universally far reaching hip-hop came from those early years to the point where Outkast ruled pop radio. The entire practice of categorizing music attempts to marginalize hip-hop, but when Doug E. Fresh blasts through a couple decades worth of hits it’s a reminder that hip-hop is some of the most universal music out there. And as stylistic borders continue to breakdown, genre-hopping music that blurs these lines reflects more accurately how people actually listen to and enjoy music. Not by genre, but personal preference and quality (I guess we still have some devout metalheads, goths, purists, and punks, but the average listeners tastes aren't that limited).
So to close out a month rich-in-hip-hop, here comes "Graves," an eclectic, versatile, yet cohesive new album by Charlotte rapper Stranger Day (pictured). Like Farrar and our own Mr. Invisible (whose Justin Aswell appears on "Graves"), musically the Joel Khouri-produced album often builds on futuristic, textured, ambient, beat-driven tracks (as well as rock, blues, and soul) that have as much in common with indie-rock and electronic music as what we think of as "mainstream."
Stranger Day celebrates the album's release tonight at Neighborhood Theatre.
With a delivery that embraces his Southerness, rapper Shane Coble (aka Stranger Day) often hones in on what it's like to be a product of the modern South - the push and pull of open-minded, forward thinking youth in an area that holds fast to its conservative roots. The line "Never held on to a Bible, but I've held on to a rifle" is probably true for a lot of younger people in the South and simultaneously encompasses what both liberals and conservatives think is wrong with youth in the South.
On that same track, "Sea Full of Lions," he writes of his love/hate relationship with the city ("I love where I'm from/But why do I stay in town/Because I hate this ******* city/But I love who I’m around"). I think this is a struggle a lot of Charlotte artists deal with - the struggle to leave for opportunities in other more arts and entertainment-focused cities verses the human ties that bind (veteran rapper Supastition, who I covered this summer, left Charlotte for Atlanta - not just for music, but for a day job).
"Graves" illustrates these human ties as well as the strength of our music community through a number of local and regional guest musicians. When rappers (especially lesser known ones) stack their albums with famous guests I get the impression that it's a marketing ploy to build exposure and play on known names. The guests on "Graves" aren't famous though. Yet they are some of the most active and talented musicians in town and their input feels like true collaboration. Getting back to that Southern identity theme, Jams F. Kennedy's brilliantly relatable closing spot on the NC-themed "Thunder Road" for instance simultaneously skewers Carolina stereotypes while honoring them.
By bringing musicians from a variety of styles into the fold, Coble not only expands the scope of the record but reveals what else these artists are capable of beyond their own bands. Alex Kastanas and Ally Hoffmann, for instance, bring more than just hook singing to their respective roles. They infuse those tracks with their identities as well. It's great to hear Kastanas, who plays live frequently but still seems to be getting started as an opening act live, step up in the studio. She has an incredible, unique voice and brings bluesy soulful sass to "Process." Ally Hoffmann (formerly of rock band Center of the Sun) brings an ethereal presence to "Razor Blades." Terrence Richard, who's known for fitful howls and shouts in Junior Astronomers, turns in a soulful, laid back vocal on "Trade Standoff" but still sounds very much like himself.
"Graves" does step out of the trippy, electronic mode several times. "God Shaped Hole" creates a sort of electronic goth hip-hop hybrid with Charlotte's Little Bull Lee's assist. "Please Tell 'Em" rides on gnarly Hill Country blues. The slide rubs grittily against metallic resonator guitar which creates a parallel to lyrics that describe the similarly opposing relationship between a carefree, party-minded lifestyle and authority.
Coble addresses authority and corruption (which comes up more than once) directly on "Raw For Profit" ("What’s the price tag on your conscious?"). Given everything from Ferguson to NC politics, his lyrics are often timely and he touches on those ideas throughout.
Musically he flips from the Southern swagger of "Please Tell `Em" to citified synth on "Death is A Killer" then grows ever darker on the stark "Hi Fives for Low Lifes" and winds up in complete party mode with the Elevator Jay and Lotta-aided closer "All In Together Now." The often dark album ends on a colorful up note and showcases Charlotte emcees bonded by the party and the scene with Scott Weaver (BabyShaker) added a punchy trumpet line.
It's not often an album is considered in the context of what's going on locally and nationally in a musical sense, as well as a broader social one. But with all that's going on in Charlotte hip-hop now, maybe we're nearing a place of national consideration.
Stranger Day's album release concert tonight at Neighborhood Theatre will feature many of the guests on the album, so it should be a rare showcase for all sorts of Charlotte talent. Admission is free before 11 p.m. and $5 after that.
(Tintype photo by Jeff Howlett)