Sunday, January 20, 2013

Labteknology #7

Here's somebody I haven't talked about on this blog yet! Labtekwon. And this here is the 7th volume in his Labteknology series of full-length albums, Da Helpless Won, self released on his own label, Omar Akbar Breakdance Music in 1996. It also says Piankhi 7 on there because that's an alias he sometimes uses (named for an Egyptian king)... the fact that there's a 7 in his name and that this is volume 7 is, I believe, just a coincidence. There's going to be lots of little explanations like that in this post, because Lab has a long, complex and relatively undocumented history. Part of that's just because he's from Baltimore, a hip-hop scene that hasn't tapped much into the mainstream. His first release was in 1993, though he once put out a compilation of earlier recordings dating as far back as 1986; and he's still active today. I think he comes in second only to Infinito 2017, in all of hip-hop, for the greatest number of truly obscure self-released albums... you have to become a sort of dedicated biographer if you want to attempt to catalog his daunting music career.

So let's just stick to this one tape. In an interview with an indie Baltimore vinyl site (I'd link it, but sadly the site's no longer with us), Labtekwon described his album this way: "'Da Helpless Won' is an exotic journey into some of the most avante garde and abstract styles of Hip Hop. This album is a classic representation of true school 21st century Hip Hop, literary genius combined with sonic surrealism. This is definitely an album for the sophisticated listener. From the inspirational spiritual thesis 'Big Kid' to the strange Taoist jewel 'Shakra Rocka,' 'Da Helpless Won' is the epitome of next level Hip Hop, a precedent for the poetic generation of postmodern Hip Hop emcees. This album is Hip Hop’s answer to Coltrane and Sun Ra." One thing I took from that interview is that this man is not shy about digging his own stuff!

This album originally came out on cassette only, but it was rereleased, with his other Labteknology albums, in 1999 on CD-R. It features one of the tracks from his 1995 12", I Am Here." Several of the songs from this album appeared on other releases as well... "Wasteland" and "Rivah" were included on a CSD 12" single in 1997 (CSD is Lab's crew). "Get Down" was featured on 3-2-1 Record's Connected compilation album... I think they had plans to release future albums by his as an artist on their roster, which never wound up happening. "Sands" was featured on his 2003 vinyl EP Hustlaz Guide To the Universe. And finally, "Speak On It" and "Big Kid" (again), appeared on Labtekwon's 2002 retrospective album, Song Of the Sovereign on Mush Records, who I think also intended that to be a lead in to releasing new music by him as a roster artist; but that also didn't happen.

So, even if you've never heard this album, there's a decent chance you may've heard at least one or two of its ten songs. I think it also shows that Labtekwon regarded the material he recorded at this point pretty highly, even compared to his other stuff (I should point out that the interview I quoted above spoke equally glowingly about all of his other albums, so we probably shouldn't read too much into his self admiration there, other than taking away that he's a conscious self promoter) and continually felt it was worth featuring. This is a period he was proud of.

And with good reason. Right from the jump, Lab hits with you with dynamically intelligent rhymes and boom-bap beats with trippy, creative instrumentation on top of it. Yeah, a lot of it sounds budget and even amateurish... the keyboard horns on "Wasteland" make Slick Rick's "The Ruler's Back" sound like it was recorded by The London Symphony Orchestra. But if you just accept that - whether it's quite true or not - however it sounds is exactly how it's supposed to sound, it results in a damned compelling listen. The energy of the production coupled with the "next level" vibe of his lyrics leave the low-fi origins way behind.

Not that all the lyrics are mind-blowingly impressive... the punchlines and similes go way overboard, with the constant grabs for cleverness (some successful, some not) drawing heavy-handed attention to themselves. Stilted lines like "you're confused like dykes in drag" abound. But, hey, this was the 90s, and everybody's favorite rappers fell into this trap. All you staunch 90's diehards who express absolute contempt for any hip-hop recorded after 1999 have to at least admit it's a good thing the kids today aren't forcing, "you couldn't be blessed if your name was Ah-choo[get it? like a sneeze]"-style quips into every other line. And, yes, that's a real quote from this tape.

But if you can stop wincing long enough to get past those, it's worth it. Because there's plenty of (genuinely) clever wordplay, twisting rhymes, and thoughtful, even mystical, lyrics. Lab makes tons of albums not because he found he could make more money the thinner he spread himself (I'm looking at you, Hiero and Living Legends cliques), but because he has a lot of things to say, and he's not going to compromise to avoid alienating anybody in the audience. He's defiantly challenging, which is either going to put you off or be a big part of his appeal. And I don't mean challenging in the sense of being impenetrably abstract and esoteric, like Dose One or early Aesop Rock; but in the unapologetic way he tackles tough subject matter and expresses his opinions like, "back in the 60s, blacks wasn't scared to start a riot."

This album isn't all Professor Griff territory, though. Labtekwon is clearly a battle MC at heart, with lots of skill flexing, pure hip-hop that anyone can enjoy. And for all the corny punchlines I took him to task for earlier, there's just as many that genuinely caught me by surprise and had me laughing like quickly spitting, "I sound freaky like squids mating." For all his yin-yang symbols and obscure historical references, this album is surprisingly accessible (except "Shakra Rocka;" that shit is a failed experiment like Divine Styler's second album). Whether he's being political or playful, I'm feeling it all. Labtekwon is more diverse than people give him credit for.

I never considered myself a huge fan of his back in the day; but the more I go back and revisit, the more I see him holding up better than most of his contemporaries. Dude's definitely been underrated for a long ass time, and I've certainly been as guilty of that as anyone. But in 2013, I'm really appreciating having this tape in my collection. 8)

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