I genuinely can’t remember the last time I heard a good label compilation album. This art seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent years, which I view as a travesty. I could lay the blame for this at the feet of internet streaming and the age of the playlist, but what’s the point. As a young, fanatical hip-hop digger, like many others I was put on to some of my most enduring artists through these label showcases. Old Project Blowed and Def Jux tapes created not only a prime selection of the best its roster had to offer, but also a feel for specific scene at the specific point in time. Mello Music Group has gone some way towards rectifying the situation with their new compilation, Bushido. Mello’s lineup is a definitive who’s who of current underground hip-hop, within the sub-category of “left-field”. While most of the artists do lean this way, the sounds stay the right side of harsh and aurally challenging, which is to say not at all.
There will always be something appealing about a crew album like this, with the whole team forming like Voltron to create a joint statement of intent. For this particular statement, the team in question happens to boast Open Mike Eagle, Quelle Chris, Homeboy Sandman, Oddisee, L’Orange and plenty more. Mello Music Group seems to have monopolised the esoteric rap market, a lucrative demographic indeed. The aforementioned artists all drop pure heat on Bushido, unconstrained by theme and tone, two inconveniences which invariably come with making a solo album. “Bushido”, incidentally, is an old samurai term roughly translated as “way of the warrior”, which pays tongue in cheek yet deadly serious tribute to hip-hop’s deep-rooted Eastern obsession.
Quelle Chris gets things started with Alchemist on production providing his usual understated brew of ambient surf rap on opening track “Iron Steel Samurai”. Guitar distortion screeches over a bubble-gum bassline and muted kicks while Chris disperses his usual array of witticisms and quotables. Proclaiming himself “Highly understated too, the most underrated of the rated few”, Quelle Chris casually cuts a braggadocious swathe through the fog, peppering 80s film references and current meme fodder throughout to hedge his bets. As the opening track, “Iron Steel Samurai” acts as a scene-setter for the film about to commence, which is the analogy I am choosing to use.
Open Mike Eagle’s contribution, “Gold Gloves”, steps up the pace in purposeful style. The Lasso’s warm, bubbling instrumental drives the track through lazy tropical plains and all Mike has to do is ride the beat to the finish line and throw in some ruminations on revenge, chi and sci-fi along the way. Open Mike Eagle duly obliges.
“Y'all remember me?
Can't forget the snap
Thought I took a L
I came to give it back
My name is on the paint
Here because you called
What is your complaint?”
The album is given a jalapeño up the exhaust by duo Marlowe’s “One of the Last”, a decidedly more Golden Age hip-hop effort. L’Orange’s thudding drums, rattling bass and funky guitar licks provide the perfect backdrop for rapper Solemn Brigham’s explosive entrance, so he rattles off some rapid-fire triplets and shows defiance in the shadow of past setbacks. When this track kicks into gear, you start to realise that the album is following the classic mixtape format laid out in High Fidelity.
True to this theory, the next track, Homeboy Sandman’s “Yours Truly”, cools it off a notch. Over a minimalist, synth-laden Kensaye Russell production, Homeboy Sandman laments daily struggles and mental health concerns individually and in his relationship, laying everything bare and passing responsibility to the listener. He has the uncanny ability to take a complicated subject and boil it down to its bare essence with wit and eloquence.
“Aside from God and love I never had shit
All my best shit be my sad shit”
“Gwan B Ok” is another highly effective change of pace, The Lasso returning with Zackey Force Funk, whose name should give at least a vague sense of the direction we’re going. A shimmering slab of modern synth funk gives a timely break from some of the previous intensity. Zackey freaks out the melody and rasps life-affirming mantras earnest enough to melt any façade. When the simple, often-used refrain “It’s gon’ be OK” drifts in, you believe it, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Hip-hop isn’t all nihilism and narcissism, it’s important to remember that.
Bushido takes a detour to trap territory for the song “Black Rock” and gives some shine to criminally overlooked underground street rappers Joell Ortiz and Stalley, as well as to up-and-coming Nashville talent Namir Blade. Namir steals the show with his effortless style, which nonchalantly switches at the snap of a finger and gets more unhinged and emotive as the verse unravels. Ortiz and Stalley both earn their cheques, providing the requisite amount of gruff crack talk. It’s hard to say whether this means we will one day see more gold teeth than backpacks at Mello Music events, but there’s no reason people can’t have both.
West Coast legend Murs appears on “Turnt Garveyite”, a sinister affair where scattered drums and seismic bass drops are punctuated by pointed commentary on racial disparities, material wealth, gang-banging, and oppressive systems built on exploitation. The title of the song, a wry contradiction, sneaks a little humour into the weighty subject matter, without causing it to lose any impact. For every two bars Murs drops, he gives us quotes from a variety of sources to back up his points, which I found very useful. The most sage-like wisdom comes from a quote made by the prophet Mike Tyson: “Everybody got a plan ‘til they get punched in the face”. The inflammatory rhetoric and confrontational attitude of the track take a good picture, if one was needed, of the unrest fermenting in America and the potential landscape when it reaches boiling point.
The classic hip-hop sound is prominently featured on tracks throughout the album, with varying degrees of success. The righteous anger of Skyzoo’s “Ta-Henisi the Vocals” and Apollo Brown’s “Black Man” hit all the right cues and give the dusty beats the classic polemical thrust they dwserve. Duelling Experts’ “Outlast”, however, sounds trite and generic, the beat seeming to be a Statik Selectah reject somehow recovered from his recycle bin. The track “Zero Fux” is a particular disappointment, especially given the stellar line-up, including Kool Keith and B-Real. The track indulges in all of hip-hop’s worst vices, awkward boasts and questionable lyrics aplenty. To hear seasoned veterans sound so uninspired is disheartening. Two men in their fifties chanting “We give zero fucks” doesn’t portray the authenticity and originality one might have hoped for.
Despite a couple of missteps, the album is surprisingly cohesive for a collection of songs in so many sub-genres by so many different artists. In many ways, it lives up to the “Cruel Summer of backpack rap” comparison that I just coined. The versatility and artistic scope of the artists involved with the label point to a prodigious future to build on their already impressive legacy. Hip-hop will always have weirdoes and people who want to listen to weirdoes. Eccentric, idiosyncratic hip-hop hasn’t traditionally found an abundance of love in a sea of Maseratis and MAGA hats, but that could be changing. The platforms labels like Mello are providing to these types of artists are helping them grow and reach new audiences, aiming for more widespread acceptance. And even if they don’t get it, does it matter?
Buy the album here.