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Sol Ace, Passion Hunger Sacrifice

30 Jul, 2014 Alex Henderson


For those who know a lot about the history of hip-hop, Long Island, NY has a lot of credibility.  It was Long Island (or as many MCs have called it over the years, “Strong Island”) that, back in the 1980s, gave us Public Enemy (one of the best, most important political rap groups of all time), EPMD, De La Soul (who were quite influential in alternative rap) and Eric B. & Rakim.  And the 1990s gave us the likes of Craig Mack, Keith Murray and R.A. the Rugged Man, among others.  So Long Island, be it Nassau County or Suffolk County, is a good place to be representing if one is a rapper.  And in 2014, Hempstead native Sol Ace represents Long Island in a recognizably East Coast way on The Sol Ace EP: Passion, Hunger, Sacrifice.


This CD isn’t really an EP: it is a full-length album that lasts an hour and has 17 tracks altogether.  And it is an album that is easily recognizable as hip-hop from the Northeastern Corridor.  Listening to “2 Step,” “What’s Good,” “The Sacrifice” or “Blow Up,” one hears a straight-up East Coast b-boy style.  There are many regional variations in modern hip-hop, from the Dirty South school found in the southern states to all the rappers out in California.  But the approach on The Sol Ace EP: Passion, Hunger, Sacrifice is pure New York City b-boy.  From Sol Ace’s rapping style/flow to his infectious beats, the northeastern b-boy aesthetic is alive and well on tracks like “Eye on the Prize,” “Rhyme No More” and “The Love Song.”  And Sol Ace isn’t afraid to deliver lyrics that have substance.


Modern hip-hop is full of cartoonish artists who spend all their time rapping about “bitches and hoes and Alizé” and offer a steady diet of decadence, materialism and hedonism.  Instead of keeping it real, they are keeping it in the fantasy realm and favor pure escapism.  But Sol Ace, on the other hand, doesn’t shy away from meaningful lyrics.  A serious, introspective tone prevails on “Eyes on the Prize,” “Memoirs of a Teenager,” “Daydreamin’/PHS” and “Since U Been Gone” as well as on “The Sacrifice” and “Love and Hip-Hop.”  Sol Ace, for the most part, is clearly going for substance, not frivolity.


On “Tales of a Thug,” Sol Ace raps about a subject that MCs have been addressing ever since Grandmaster Flash & the Furious  Five recorded “The Message” for Sugar Hill Records back in 1982: thug life.  There are different ways to rap about thug life: West Coast gangsta rappers like Ice-T, N.W.A, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Above the Law and DJ Quik rapped about it in the first person, whereas “The Message,” Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde’s “Fast Life” from 1984 and the Fat Boys’ “Don’t Be Stupid” from 1985 took the third-person approach.  And the third-person approach is what Sol Ace takes on “Tales of a Thug,” which is a cautionary tale about urban crime and violence.  On “Tales of a Thug,” things end badly for someone living the thug life just as they did 32 years ago on “The Message” or 30 years ago on “Fast Life.”  The message of “Tales of a Thug”: crime doesn’t pay, although it’s easy to get caught up in it if one lives in the ‘hood.


One thing hip-hop fans have learned over the years is that no city, area or region can expect to dominate hip-hop forever.  If one area is turning out a lot of successful rappers today, that doesn’t mean that it will be just as hot tomorrow.  But when an area has given us as many major-league MCs as Long Island has given us, one cannot help but root for the area.  And Sol Ace represents Long Island with solid results on The Sol Ace EP: Passion, Hunger, Sacrifice.


Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5




Dre Mazzenga, “Do Me Right” (Single)

20 Jun, 2014 Alex Henderson


Time has been kind to 1960s R&B.  Reissues of old Motown and Stax recordings are attracting their share of younger listeners (not just aging Baby Boomers), neo-soul artists are combining hip-hop with 1960s and 1970s influences, and the Top 40 world has its share of young female singers with an obvious affection for 1960s soul (especially in the U.K.).  Originally from Upstate New York and now living in Austin, Texas, singer/songwriter Dre Mazzenga is not British or Welsh but inspires stylistic comparisons to Duffy, Joss Stone, the late Amy Winehouse and other 1960s soul-obsessed U.K. singers who have emerged in the 21st Century.  Duffy, Stone and Winehouse have often been compared to Dusty Springfield or Janis Joplin stylistically, and such comparisons are also appropriate on Mazzenga’s “Do Me Right” (a warm, likable, medium-tempo original that has both pop-rock appeal and a strong 1960s soul influence).  “Do Me Right” is not the work of a hardcore soul purist, but rather, brings together soul and pop-rock in a way that recalls Springfield and Joplin and is not unlike what Duffy, Stone or Winehouse have done more recently.

Saying that Mazzenga has some things in common with Winehouse is not to say that she sounds exactly like her.  Mazzenga favors a sweet vocal style, whereas’ Winehouse’s singing was gruff and raspy (which is also how Joplin sounded).  But in terms of melody, “Do Me Right”’s retro blend of pop-rock and 1960s-minded soul would not have been out of place on one of Winehouse’s albums.

So if singers like Mazzenga have been especially popular in the U.K. in recent years, does that mean she needs to move to London or Manchester?  No, not necessarily.  Her adopted home of Austin is great for roots music whether it’s blues, honky tonk, alternative country, roots rock/Americana or Mexican norteño.  And “Do Me Right” is enjoyably rootsy.  “Do Me Right” gives the impression that Mazzenga has spent a lot of time listening to 1960s soul icons like Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Carla Thomas (the singers who Joplin and Springfield listened to back then).  In fact, Mazzenga’s EP (which is also called Do Me Right) contains a cover of the late Barbara Acklin’s 1968 hit “Love Makes a Woman.”  And Austin is a good place for someone with that type of musical outlook.

This pleasing single makes one anxious to check out the rest of Mazzenga’s EP.
Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5

Godson, Chilled Coffee

30 May, 2014 Alex Henderson

Electronica comes in many different forms.  At one end of the spectrum is techno, which is known for being abrasive, forceful and harsh.  But chillout and downtempo, on the other hand, show how lush and melodic electronica can be.  So there are a wide variety of options where electronica is concerned, and on Chilled Coffee, the 21-year-old producer/composer Aaron Johnson, a.k.a. Godson, operates on the more musical side of electronica.  Instrumentals like “Chocolate/Love,” “Scene One” and “Taste of Heaven” are funky and hip-hop-influenced, but they are also ethereal, laid-back and dreamy.  The harshness of techno is nowhere to be found on this album, which is melodic from start to finish.  Even the edgiest parts of Chilled Coffee (“Who Won?” and “Voodoo,” for example) have a strong sense of melody and underscore the fact that California native Godson would rather enchant than confront.

Since the 1980s, hip-hop has been enormously influential not only because of the rappers themselves, but also, because of hip-hop’s producers and deejays.  The beat of hip-hop has been influential in everything from neo-soul to alternative rock to Indian bhangra music, and this album is a perfect example of how hip-hop can influence instrumental electronica.  The beats and production techniques of hip-hop are clearly a strong influence on Godson’s club-friendly grooves.

Most of the time, the hip-hop influence on Chilled Coffee asserts itself rhythmically rather than with actual rapping.  But the most obvious exception to that rule is “Higher,” which favors a jazzy alternative rap approach and is the most overtly vocal-minded tune on the album.  Over the years, the term alternative rap has been used to describe jazzy MCs such as De La Soul, Kuf Knotz, Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip, the Roots, Pete Miser and the Pharcyde, among many others.  And that is the type of rapping that prevails on “Higher,” which fits in nicely with the funky yet smooth vibe that Godson is going for on Chilled Coffee.  The rapping on “Higher” is not incendiary, angry or in-your-face, and that is the type of rapping one generally associates with Digable Planets, Pete Miser or the Philadelphia-based Kuf Knotz.  Alternative rap fans would do well to check “Higher” out.

For the most part, however, Chilled Coffee is an instrumental electronica album, not an album of alternative rap.  Godson incorporates scattered vocal soundbites on some of the selections, including “Who Won?” and the title track.  But even with the soundbites, those tunes are essentially instrumentals.  And whether Godson is using actual rapping on “Higher,” incorporating sporadic soundbites on “Who Won?” and the title track or offering an instrumental that doesn’t incorporate soundbites, Chilled Coffee has a certain continuity and maintains its funky yet mellow aesthetic.

A wide variety of music adheres to a standard chorus/verse/chorus/verse structure.  But in many different types of electronica recordings, that approach is not used.  The producer establishes a groove or a beat and sticks to that groove without thinking about verses or choruses or a traditional song structure.  One can hear that approach in everything from drum ‘n’ bass and trance to chillout, downtempo and trip-hop, and it’s an approach that serves Godson well on “His Gift,” “Voodoo” and other tunes on this release.  Godson’s grooves are catchy and would work well in a club that typically plays a lot of chillout, downtempo or trip-hop recordings.

Saying that Chilled Coffee is not one of the more noisy or confrontational electronica recordings of 2014 is not to say that there is anything wrong with an abrasive or dissonant approach, only that Godson is operating in a very different area of electronic club music.  And for those who have a taste for club-friendly electronica of the chillout, downtempo or trip-hop variety, Chilled Coffee is not a bad listen at all.

Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5


The Gravel Project, The Gravel Project

01 Apr, 2014 Alex Henderson

The blues circuit has diversified considerably over the years.  At blues-oriented gatherings of the 2010s, it is easy to find plenty of non-purist musicians who have been influenced by rock, soul/funk and/or jazz as much as they have been influenced by the blues.  Anyone who goes to a blues festival in 2014 expecting everyone to adhere to a traditional 12-bar blues structure is likely to be disappointed.  The thing to look for on today’s blues circuit is the feeling of the blues rather than a rigidly purist aesthetic, and that feeling is very much in evidence on this self-titled 2014 release by the Gravel Project.

Led by Boston-based singer, guitarist and songwriter Andrew Gravel, the Gravel Project do not pretend to be blues purists by any means.  This album has as much to do with funk-rock and roots rock as it does with blues-rock, and Andrew Gravel clearly is not the type of staunch blues traditionalist who is going to make sure that everything he writes and performs has 12 bars.  Nonetheless, Gravel brings a lot of blues feeling to his performances, and he favors a rootsy outlook whether he is performing original material or offering likable covers of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie” and The Cure’s “Close to Me.”  Except for those two covers, everything on this album was written or co-written by Gravel.  And that includes “Lost,” “Dollar Bill” and “Soul Now” as well as “Jam Today,” “Blues for LA,” “When I Get Back Home,” “In the Moonlight,” “Not the One” and “Your Song.”   The Gravel Project’s “Your Song” should not to be confused with Elton John’s 1970 smash, although there are plenty of direct or indirect influences from the 1970s on this album (including the Allman Brothers, Steve Miller, the Grateful Dead and The Band).   Andrew Gravel’s material recalls a time when many blues-rockers and roots rockers were being influenced by the 1970s funk and soul they were hearing on R&B stations.

The Gravel Project’s album is fairly unpredictable.   Roots rock and Americana fans can easily get into “Not the One,” “Jam Today” and the country-tinged “In the Moonlight,” while the funk/soul influence asserts itself on “Lost,” “Close to Me,” “When I Get Back Home” and the sociopolitical “Dollar Bill” (which is a commentary on greed and income inequality).   “Lost,” “Close to Me,” “When I Get Back Home” and “Dollar Bill” are not funky in the totally gutbucket way that Parliament/Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, Tower of Power, the Ohio Players and the late Rick James were funky back in the 1970s, but they are funky in a way that unites rock, funk and blues elements with enjoyable, earthy results.

The Gravel Project (which Andrew Gravel founded in 2010) has had some lineup changes along the way, and the musicians who join him on this release include, among others, bassists Brad Barrett and Vaughn Braithwaite.   Andrew Gravel (formerly of the band Entrain) is clearly the one in the driver’s seat: in addition to singing and writing or co-writing nine selections, he produced this album.  And his production style is warm and organic rather than overly slick and processed, which is a definite plus given the rootsy, down-home approach he is going for.   This album sounds well-produced, but it does not sound overproduced.  Adding to that warm feeling are Bernie Grundman (who mastered the album) and John Keane (who handled the mixing in Athens, Georgia and is known for his work with the Indigo Girls and REM, among others).   Grundman and Keane obviously understand where Gravel is coming from musically, and both of them do their part to give this album its natural, organic, old-school sound.

The Gravel Project is well worth hearing if one holds blues-rock, roots rock and funk-rock in equally high regard.

Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5


Johnny Active, The Prelude

06 Mar, 2014 Alex Henderson

In the hip-hop world, different people have different views on exactly when it was that alternative rap started.  But certainly, 1987 (the year De La Soul was formed) could be cited as a starting point.  And the jazzy A Tribe Called Quest, another very influential alt-rap group, were not far behind.   Alternative rap, from Digable Planets to Pete Miser to Common to Kuf Knotz to the Roots, has long been known for its jazzy, artsy perspective; that was true in the late 1980s and early 1990s and is still true today.  And on 2013’s The Prelude, 20-year-old Canadian rapper Graydon Welbourn, a.k.a. Johnny Active, brings a strong alterna-rap perspective to the table and avoids many of the current hip-hop stereotypes.  The rapping style that Active (who is originally from Calgary, Alberta but moved to Toronto in 2012) favors on infectious grooves like “Night Sky,” “Michael Cera,” “On This Yacht (W.M.F.C.)” and “Won’t Ever Know” is smooth and jazz-flavored, not flamboyant or confrontational.   And the cartoonish odes to “bitches, hoes, gangstas, gats and blunts” that are so common in contemporary hip-hop are nowhere to be found on The Prelude.  Active’s approach is much more cerebral, and even at his edgiest, he steers clear of thuggish gangsta rap imagery.

The grooves on this 2013 release are funky, but Johnny Active’s beats are not the hard synthesizers of the Dirty South or the G-funk beats of the West Coast.  In fact, many of his jams have an ethereal, dreamy, floating type of sound.  That is true of “Mirage,” “Light Locked In It” and “Michael Cera” as well as “You’re Different” and the haunting “Night Sky.”  And the way in which synthesizers are employed on this album has a European flavor and has some chillout, downtempo and trip-hop appeal (chillout, downtempo and trip-hop operate on the smoother side of electronica).

Female singer Ciele contributes some background vocals on “Light Locked In It” and the title track, and her adult alternative-based vocal style adds to the ethereal ambiance that Active is going for on those selections.  Ciele has a vocal style that is right out of adult alternative; someone who fancies singer/songwriters like Sarah McLachlan, Dido, Tori Amos, Mary Fahl and Shawn Colvin could easily appreciate Ciele’s vocal style (which is feminine but not girly or cutesy).  Dido, of course, joined forces with Eminem on his 2000 hit “Stan” and brought a touch of adult alternative pop-rock to hardcore rap.  And those who hear Ciele performing on “Light Locked In It” and the title track might think of Dido’s contributions to “Stan” 13 years ago.  But Johnny Active, in 2013, is a very different type of rapper from Eminem, who is known for his alliance with Los Angeles-based gangsta rap superstar Dr. Dre and for his explicit, in-your-face lyrics.  Eminem is big on shock value, which is definitely not something that Active is going for in a big way on this album.  Although Active’s publicity bio cites Eminem and Dr. Dre as early influences, it is evident that he has since evolved and moved to a more alterna-rap place.

But even though The Prelude contains pop elements and some very clean-sounding synthesizers, this 2013 release certainly isn’t pop-minded in a Top 40 way.  There are some pop-rappers who sound like Justin Timberlake but with rapping in place of singing; however, that is not  what Active is going for on The Prelude.  No, Active keeps his rapping and his beats in the alternative rap vein.  Active’s musical heritage is not Vanilla Ice or Icy Blu, but it is definitely De La Soul, Digable Planets, Q-Tip, Common, Kuf Knotz, the Roots and Pete Miser.  Comparisons to those rappers are valid, but painting Active as a slick Top 40 artist who just happens to be rapping instead of singing would not be an accurate way to describe what he does on The Prelude.  Musically, he is much more sophisticated and left-of-center.

Johnny Active shows promise on The Prelude, and listeners who have a strong taste for jazzy alternative rap would do well to check him out.

Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5