Sach O: The 5 0′ Clock Shadowboxers-“The Slow Twilight”

Sach O wants YOU to listen to this album. I’ve enjoyed more Hip-Hop music in 2009 than any other year in recent memory and yet rap has never left me less surprised. It seems that everyone from...
By    July 16, 2009

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Sach O wants YOU to listen to this album.

I’ve enjoyed more Hip-Hop music in 2009 than any other year in recent memory and yet rap has never left me less surprised. It seems that everyone from returning veterans to hotly debated newcomers are bringing their A-Game to the table, but while creativity for creativity’s sake is encouraged, there’s nothing more taboo in the rap game right now than an uncalculated risk.

Blame the medium: the Internet is pumping more content at us than we can handle, so it’s only natural that we stick to our comfort zones, visiting blogs and listening to music pre-screened for our specific tastes. The problem with this groupthink is that the dominant rappers in these virtual sub-scenes become grotesque caricatures, representing freakish extremes for a niche audience. I’m a Slaughterhouse fan but their tracks are basically battle rap-porn. Drake? A focus grouped Ma$e distilling player clichés to their illogical conclusions. As for the Atlanta’s newest trapst- -…you know what, never mind, you get the point: surprising records are hard to come by when your social-network is invested in a very specific representation of musical perfection.

Amidst all of this, The Slow Twilight by the 5’O Clock Shadowboxers is a very surprising record.

For the record, I didn’t expect to like it. I’d previously described producer Douglas Martin’s Fresh Cherries from Yakima project as “Julian Koster meets Anticon,” which is sort of like saying a chick is “interesting” and never calling her back. As for MC Zilla Rocca, who the hell takes the time to listen to an unsigned unaffiliated white emcee? Throw in the fact that they were sampling indie rock (gimmick!) and mentioned the Atmosphere crowd as a potential fan base (hmm) and I definitely wasn’t sold on this album.

Yet the Slow Twilight stands as the most attention grabbing debut of 2009, defying the odds and avoiding every pitfall that could have afflicted it. Yes they sample indie rock but it isn’t the trendy sounds of Justice that they’re grabbing, it’s dead singer-songwriters over Al Green drums. Yes, Zilla Rocca rants about his life but he’s closer to Q-Tip on “Stressed Out” than Charles Hamilton catching a bad one. And yes, they’re defiantly underground at a time when even unsigned rappers dress like walking epileptic seizures but they bring good ideas, catchy hooks, and compelling stories to their tracks, all of which are more pop than brand-name gear.

The biggest surprise is Zilla Rocca. Painstakingly recorded over a year, The Slow Twilight is the sound of Zilla coming into his own as an emcee, with everything from his voice to his lyrics coming together. Making the most of Douglas Martin’s atmospheric production, the Philly emcee molds each of the debut’s beats into a proper song rather than yet another track to be shot off into the blogosphere. From the allegorical “Eric Lindros,” to the girlfriend piss-off “Stay Clean,” to a mid-album interlude reminiscing on Philly childhood, Zilla strives to avoid run-of-the-mill 4th wall breaking self-awareness, keeping the listener engrossed in the album. In other words, he’s not rapping about his Myspace views or Twitter replies. It all comes to a head on “High Noon”, a battle track that could very well be the year’s best rap record. Other highlights include the aggressive “Rabbit Season” with partner in rhyme Nico the Beast and opening mindfuck “No Resolution,” which sounds like the best idea the Bomb Squad never had.

Which isn’t to say that Douglas Martin’s production tends towards the multilayered collages preferred by PE; in fact the production on The Slow Twilight is more Puffy Combs than Hank Shocklee. Sampling choice sections from a record collection consisting of art-rock and classic breaks, Martin doesn’t attempt to out dig the next man; instead he loops his favorites and makes them his own. A reasonably knowledgeable indie fan could probably name all of the album’s major samples so it’s to Martin’s credit that the results never feel forced or uninspired. Instead, the production feels like a breath of fresh air, revitalizing rap production caught between yawn-inducing traditionalism and shiny synthesized dance music.

There’s still nothing more exciting in Hip-Hop than hearing a hungry young producer loop the records he grew up on and turning them into fresh beats: Douglas Martin understands that and he keeps the record firmly rooted in Hip-Hop rather than letting the experimental side of the equation take over. The results prove what a million blunt sessions with an iPod shuffle have suggested: Elliot Smith and Metric make for really dope beats.

In their press release, the Shadowboxers compare themselves to Atmosphere and Aesop Rock but that’s slightly misleading. What they actually sound like are Slug and Aesop Rock 10 YEARS AGO: smart, hungry and pushing the boundaries of what rap music could sound like without deviating away from a Hip-Hop centric worldview. The question is, does the Hip-Hop’s audience want in? These guys could easily go the Gym Class Heroes route, but I’d rather hear them trading beats and bars with Wale, Royce, Dres or Madlib than opening up for DJ AM’s audience of 18 year old white girls (though they might disagree with me on that count). Here’s hoping that fans listen up: the Shadowboxers bring grit, realism and an exciting new angle to Hip Hop at a time when you can tell what emcees sound like by what they wear.

Download:

ZIP: The 5 0′ Clock Shadowboxers-The Slow Twilight (Left-Click)

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