Sunday, August 14, 2022

Grand Killa Brycon

This is the first in a series of posts I considered calling LLoSH 2, or The Living Legacy of Sacred Hoop 2, Week, referring to this recent video, but which will not be focusing on anymore works of Luke Sick and/ or Vrse Murphy, per se.  I've certainly been doing that a lot here over the years.  Instead, this time, I want to explore the many other interesting artists within their Bay area collective.  I decided against the title, though, because it doesn't feel right to imply these guys necessarily owe so much to SH for their own musical existence.  After all, one of the MCs we're going to be examining today actually predates even the earliest Hoop tapes.  ...Plus, we all know there's no way I'm going to get this wrapped up in anywhere near a week's time.  🤣

Now for Day 1, we're going to be looking at five recent albums by Brycon, who regular readers should recognize as the production half of Grand Killa Con.  Yes, there's a lot more to his body of work than his collaborations with Luke that I've been narrowly focusing on.  In fact, while I had first heard of Brycon when the debut Grand Killa Con album came out in 2013, he's been around for way longer than that, working with North Carolina's GFE (Granola Funk Express), and putting out his own albums at least as early as 2003's Grainy Music with DJ Equal.  This dude goes way back with a storied career (I've previously covered a single of his with rapper J-Eazy in 2014), so the following is by no means the complete catalog, just a sampling of his latest releases.

Brutalism is an entirely instrumental EP released in November, 2020.  Yes, entirely... even though you'll see several guests featured in the track-listing, like Chris Keys, Adeyemi & The Genie, these are musicians, not rappers or singers.  The only voices you'll here are well-placed vocal samples (if you're paying attention, track five actually proves to be a humorous send up of Jennifer Schulte).  And now I'm not a big sample spotter guy, but I've been listening to Hip-Hop long enough to be able to tell you when we're listening to the "Before I Let Go" or "Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll" basslines for the millionth time.  And apart from the opening track, which utilizes the same breakbeat as Gangstarr's "Beyond Comprehension," every sound on here was fresh to me.  Besides, you could do a lot worse than reusing a little bit of classic Gangstarr; and I think the fun here is how he slowly transforms that beat into new things throughout the track, because by the end of the under two minute track, we couldn't be any further removed from the original groove.

As you guys know, I'm not a huge instrumental head, but this is calm, smooth album that manages to never get stagnant, mixing chunky samples with subtle live instrumentation ("Only Child" features some live sax, for example, but he never goes for a blistering spotlight-stealing solo) proving Brycon an undeniable talent.  So, if you're like me, that means you want to hurry up now and hear him with some vocalists.

So next, let's take a look at Can't Stay Perched All the Time, a full length LP by Equipto and Brycon, released this past January.  Equipto's the guy I mentioned above who predates The Hoop, famously as a member of San Francisco's Bored Stiff (along with another MC I've covered here a couple of times, White Mic).  And he flows like a long established, calm cat with nothing to prove; there's nothing more west coast OG than him literally rapping lessons on "the never endin' journey" of rolling a proper spliff, which proceeds to seamlessly drift in and out of tangents, angrily indicting weed culture. "Folks that never smoked tryin' to brand it.  Cannabis is big business, so I wiggle with my spliff lit, mad at this industry, too; there ain't no difference.  Can't enjoy it, the culture get exploited, and they act like it's a favor when they offer you employment.  Split the crutch and crumble up the ball paper.  Put some tobacco with that weed, man, stop hatin'.  It's all about the taste of the blend sativa, and then it's exports what I recommend. If you're smokin' with a friend, then don't rush 'em.  Too many spliffs in one day can feel like a concussion.  But keep rollin' 'till you master it."

But it's not all smokers' talk.  This album, both lyrically and instrumentally, is a rich tapestry of life's regrets and stubborn optimism.  "I live my life different now.  My old buddy asked me if I still be gettin' down, funny but I didn't smile."  Brycon's samples and Equipto's voice share the creaky, world-weary tone of veterans who know all to well how to kill, but have nothing left to prove.  Though there are still surprises.  Often, love songs and Hip-Hop's energy winds up pulling in opposite directions, but despite a send-up to the corny, staple love raps of the 80s as an intro, "Take the Hint" proves to be one of the rare relationship raps that really works as a Hip-Hop head-nodder in the tradition of "Looking At the Front Door," "Bonita Applebum" and "Passing Me By," albeit with a modern day, internet culture twist.  There are a couple interludes on the album, but they're kinda dope, too.  The title track is one that has Brycon playing with an LP for training your parakeet to speak, which reminded me of the great "Sons of 3rd Bass" finale, where Sam Sever mixes up those instructional ventriloquism records... "throw that weak joke, throw that weak joke, throw that weak joke OUT!"  Guests include fellow members of The Watershed, who we'll come to in a moment, and Phesto of Souls of Mischief, which isn't too surprising, since he's collab'd with members of Hiero a number of times, including recording a full-length album with Opio.  And everybody involved pulls together and winds up speaking with one voice in the end.

Okay, now let's about those Watershed guys I mentioned.  The Watershed is more of a broader collective than a particular group, Brycon's larger Hip-Hop family, a la The Gang Starr Posse with Group Home and all those other satellite rappers included.  In this case, the crew consists of Brycon, Equipto, Monk HTS & Old Soul Kollective (MC Pauze, Professa Gabel, & producer Baghead).  And Don't Forget You're Welcome is their second and latest album together, released in January, 2021.  "Been Here Before" is a stand-out track that feels like a prequel to "Take the Hint" in all the best ways.  And "Wants & Needs" lays a driving horn loop under some strong, socially conscious verses: "what's the difference between your wants and the shit you need?  How much self indulgence 'till it gets to greed?  What's the difference between me and you?"

Other songs have interesting premises - like "Green Room" about all the things we don't get to see our artists go through before they get on stage, or "Broken Promises" about (amongst other things) meeting and being let disappointed by your favorite rappers - but lay a little too flat to draw you back for repeat listens.  There are also a surprising amount of sung choruses, which sometimes work and sometimes (particularly on "Pieces") feel overwrought and excessive.  Having a group of MCs spices things up with a variety of voices, but also makes this album feel a little slapped together with less focus than, say, the last two albums we just looked at.  For the most part this album rises and falls based on how catchy each track is, reminding me very much of the mid 90's west coast 4-track era where artists were putting out a whole ton of tapes, which was a treat for serious fans, but probably too much to sift through for casual listeners.

By the way, the last track, "Juana's Outro" is missing from the cassette's track-listing.  But don't worry, it is on the tape.

Now, sticking with The Watershed, Brycon has recently produced a solo album with Professa Gabel (not his first either) called Corner Booth just this February.  Gabel has the most distinctive voice in the Watershed; you were immediately alerted whenever it was his turn on the mic.  On his own, it might be a bit much... or maybe it's just that a lot of the lyrical content here leaves me nonplussed.  There's some kind of food-related theme running through this album I can't quite put my finger on, and Gabel's just kind of lazing around in this hackneyed rap character: "In seclusion I ponder, I don't really fear nothin' but removal of honor.  Coulda been a doctor but I think I'd rather be a movie star.  Smokin' weed from Cali while I'm strollin' by Juilliard.  I could spend money but I'd rather use true regard."  Like, okay.  "Shit, I said this before but you were doubtin' the man: we ain't livin' in the moment; it's reality planned.  But never mind that.  Out of town, waitin' on my ride back.  Bad one driving said she think of me and climax.  Is that right?  Think you might've told me that last night."  Actually, I'm finding this second example more amusing now that I'm typing it out.  But it all just comes off as too immature to ask me to sit and vibe with. 

That said, some of the production is really cooking.  "Mom & Pop's" is the kind of track you want to start over just as soon as it ends.  Guest MC Cyph4 really rides the rhythm smoothly on "Too Late."  In fact, there's an impressively slick feel to the whole album, but I just don't know what's going on with the lyrics.  Just look at his opening verse on the title track, "Sonic the Hedgehog.  If I ain't in the lab than I'm probably in restaurants.  My pen's sharp.  Baby wanna show me her stretch marks, and she ain't one to chat; she's just hoping the sex starts."  And no, there is no context for the Sonic reference; he just starts his verse cold like that.  There's something slightly Kaufmanesque about the whole project.  Are they having us on with this one?

Finally, we have Jeweler's Loop, the second album from Diamond Lung, the pairing of Brycon and Lightbulb, released in July, 2021.  Light's appeared on several projects I've covered here over the years, including Mutual Daps and a couple On Tilt tapes, but was probably most prominent for releasing a couple of EPs with DJ Eons One in 2015.  Jeweler's Loop opens strong with the Brycon's already anthemic instrumental "From the End of My Rope" being carried even further by Lightbulb's high energy and dynamic voice.  It's a momentum that can't possibly last for an entire album, but they try with consistently lush production and appearances by Dregs One and several of The Watershed guys.  And the last song, "Shoot 'Em All Down," ends things just as fresh as they started.

Things tend to get most interesting between those poles when Lightbulb talks about class, like on "Together Pt. 2" (part 1 was on their first album, When Did Everybody Learn To Fly?, though there "Together" seemed to be in reference to music keeping people together, and here it's about people struggling to keep their shit together economically) and "History," "Yo, y'all missed the signs that you solidly been knew: high rent and homelessness tied at the hip.  What's obvious is y'all are as sorry as shit, so we paid off your doorman and robbed ya.  Oh, this incongruous world gets harder yet to hide from.  They called for more cops and less fuckin' crime.  ...Hey, we should make rich folk pay for our doctors, and if they hold out, throw they ass in the stocks."  Songs where he's just rapping about rapping or spitting fantasy "printin' out money like an oil baron"-type game come off more as album filler, and maybe we would've better served with a killer EP than this perfectly respectable LP.  But hey, you can't really be mad at getting more songs for the same price, right?  And speaking of which, the CD and cassette (as opposed to what's available digitally) also feature an uncredited bonus track called "To the Front."

So Can't Stay Perched is the gem I'd recommend for pretty much anyone, followed by Jeweler's Loop, with Don't Forget Your Welcome and Brutalism reserved as second courses for those who fully enjoyed the first two and are eager for more.  And Corner Booth is certainly interesting, so if you're at all curious, it's at least worth giving it an investigative listen online.  All five were released as limited editions of 100 cassettes and a larger, unspecified run of CDs... plus, of course, digital.  There's also an extra-limited edition of 50 copies of Jeweler's Loop Instrumentals cassettes and 25 7"s.  And in the case of Brutalism, there's also a limited edition (150 copies) 7" single, which comes in a picture cover and features three of the songs from the EP.  As of this writing, almost all of these are still available, even the 7", though you might have to scour a dozen or so different Bandcamps to find 'em all.

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