Max Bell favors Michael Concepcion for the TDE Connect.
Hellfyre Club is one of the strongest and most necessary branches of the hip hop tree. The natural and logical outgrowth of Project Blowed, much of their roster has weathered the calms and storms of the ever fluctuating indie rap landscape for years, refusing to break or wither away while sharpening, adapting, and evolving. And their newest additions are as intelligent and skilled as they are reverent towards their antecedents for marking and paving the path. All in the camp rap like hip barbarian librarians, referencing weighty tomes and wrecking microphones. Banging left field beats soundtrack their lyrical onslaught. Their barbs delivered over breakfast scones, and seemingly friendly blunts are laced with Walter White’s ricin.
As a prelude to what promises to be a fruitful 2014, Hellfyre Club’s released Dorner vs. Tookie, a seventeen-track compilation featuring songs from everyone on the label. In regards to the title, I don’t pretend to have more than a cursory knowledge of the lives and exploits of Chris Dorner and Stanley Tookie Williams. Thus, I’ll let one of Busdriver’s tweets tell it: “Dorner vs. Tookie is Straight Out of Compton for awkward fly niggas.”
The mixtape begins with Taurus Scott’s “Bounce,” a song you’re likely to hear ricocheting off the rattling walls of the Airliner during Low End Theory. The chopped “bounce” vocal sample and the skittering hi-hats smack of Salva’s slaps, but the 8-bit bloops, blips and sirens are what set Scott apart. At the end of the day though, distinguishing between two trap productions is a lot like taking the Pepsi Challenge: you drink both, make a caffeinated bounce or two, and everyone wins.
“DVT” is “Wener Herzog” roided up, expanded, more ominous, and more CNN than it is TCM. It’s battle raps with a political gut punch instead of comic, cinephile potshots. Here Rheteric Ramirez lampoons those who think they know anything about life on the other side of Pico simply because they’ve listened to a rap record. Think the cutting, self-aware wit of Junot Diaz compressed and compacted to match the beat and the rhyme scheme. And because Busdriver is Busdriver, there’s nowhere else you’ll hear about the physical toll twerking takes on ratchet hoes put as eloquently as, “ratchet hoes do tableaus till they suffer from back spasms.”
Open Mike Eagle’s “Qualifiers” is still as powerful and poignant as when he first debuted the song in a Laundromat. This is grown man rap turned quasi-lullaby for those struggling with the daily demands of fatherhood and rappers approaching middle age. It’s as soothing and melodic as it is wise, the crooning admission that no assertion of mic supremacy is certain, no matter how many rappers sometimes, kind of claim otherwise. It’s a mosaic made with the fragments of an inherently fractured, yet ever-present rap paradigm.
On “Pet Alligators” Nocan and Busdriver take a page from Action Bronson’s book, if in title only. Though the track samples Shai’s “If I Ever Fall in Love,” it’s not a love song. This is two rappers rappers indulging in the fantasy of having ten thousand haters and exotic pets.
Nocando’s opening lines are delivered so casually you’re apt to take them for granted: “My spirit animal is a rich nigga / Your spirit animal is a bitch nigga.” But you shouldn’t. His words have been whittled from decades spent crushing parking lot ciphers, words we should appreciate for their sheer directness and comedic weight. Busdriver continues the hilarity: “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes / cause look at them, they’re all open toed / And you talk like your balls are frozen cold / And you listen to Paul Oakenfold.” Together, Nocan and Busdriver are the closest rap analogue to Key and Peele. There’s a bunch of laughs, but also a chance that you might reevaluate your opinions about a thing or two. And, if you don’t like old issues of Wizard magazine or ponder the difficulty of finding a giraffe leash, then you’re just another hater.
Though it’s towards the latter end of the tape, “Manchester” serves as the thesis for Dorner vs Tookie. It’s an anti-crew anthem as endearing as it is exclusionary and reactionary. This is comfort food for those tired of hearing the letters YCMB and the words Maybach Music. Milo tempers Thomas Pynchon allusions and Marxist philosophies with self-deprecating lines about seeking jobs in the classifieds. He also handles partial hook duties, politely telling other rappers that he and the Hellfyre crew don’t “give a fuck” about them. Nocando is at his most raw and emotionally exposed. Here you’ll find words from the mind of a man holed up in his studio into the wee hours of the morning, reflecting on his life, his relationships, his vices, and finishing moves in Mortal Kombat. Budsriver’s singing throughout (“I know, I know you want to tell me about your crew”) is weary and worn, as though he’s spent too much of his life listening to rappers talk about “movements” and “lifestyles.” “Manchester” is the document of group of rappers fed up with all the masturbatory “crew love,” one that seeks to tear the Instagram filtered facade to shreds.
There are more tracks worth discussing, but I’ll leave some surprises. And when you do listen, remember that though Dorner vs. Tookie is a sampler, a preview of what’s to come, it’s not a random series of half-done sketches. These are thoughtful, fully fleshed out songs. You’re not going to find a collection of songs with men this intelligent rapping over soundscapes this dense, emotive, and interesting anywhere else. Hellfyre Club doesn’t make smart art rap simply for the sake of doing so. Versus everything and everyone else in rap, there was never another option.