Gangrene Get Weird On ‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose’

Son Raw deconstructs the new album from The Alchemist & Oh No, which focuses on Hip Hop’s aesthetic of the broken, invoking the genre's long tradition of B-Boy outcasts.
By    April 17, 2024

Album Cover via The Alchemist/Instagram

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Son Raw talks about it AND he lives it.

Hip-hop has a long tradition of B-Boy weirdos – acts that commit to the “real Hip Hop” shtick that so many others run into the ground… but then go far, far, far left with it. Ultramagnetic MCs probably weren’t the first (word to Just-Ice, Rammelzee, etc. etc.) but they were the most obvious example of the class of ’88, as Kool Keith constantly took his rhyme schemes and bars to strange new places, full of super-scientific lingo and sci-fi references. Acts that followed in Ultramag’s footsteps both toned that down (Large Professor’s nerdy but firmly rooted storytelling) and combined it to a harder, streetwise edge (Wu-Tang at their most dusted), but perhaps the true heirs to this tradition, the ones that took it the furthest during rap’s 90s golden age, were indie darlings Company Flow.

El, Jus and Len’s steez asked “what if Kool Keith had a noise punk edge?” and funcrushed that concept into an album that inspired thousands of nerdy rhymers to try to top them. Unfortunately, while most had the nerdy side down, few humans could match El-P’s paranoia, let alone Kool Keith’s singular brain patterns, and as Hip Hop culture became increasingly commodified, this sort of weirdo true school rap fell progressively out of fashion, bar one off oddities like Leak Bros. (It should be noted that weirdo rap more generally had quite the moment thanks to Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane’s late 00s come up, but that’s a mostly separate thing as far as I’m concerned).

Consider Gangrene, the decades long on-off collaboration between Californian beat architects Alchemist and Oh No, to be the heir to this noble tradition of dusted B-Boys. What started as a gimmick, a focus on the diseased and disgustingly filthy as a metaphor for crazy beats and rhymes, has since sharpened into an artistic philosophy for the group: whereas Alchemist’s solo career includes everything from thugged out Queens rap to purely experimental material and Oh No is a savvy cratedigger that signposts his sources into projects about Ethiopia and Turkey, Gangrene exists to make the normies uncomfortable. Particularly on their new album Heads I Win, Tails You Lose, the duo focus on Hip Hop’s aesthetic of the broken: breakbeats, awkwardly arranged samples, and rhymes that are essentially one long series of threats towards imaginary opps, delivered as flamboyantly and off beat as a 60s Free Jazz solo. In short, this is rap that actively mocks the very idea of popular success, made for a diehard audience of in-the-know heads.

This is most obvious in the album’s production, which is full of hard-hitting drums and so-off-it’s-on collages of competing sounds. Amidst this chaos, skits about infections collide with samples that sound like they were left to rot in canal after being jumped for their pumas and jewelry, standing in contrast to both the high gloss of the half dozen major label rappers currently catfighting as well as the politely experimental mid taking up space further underground.

To both producers’ credit, it’s nearly impossible to hear where one’s contributions end and the other’s begin without the album credits, as both subsume their personal ticks – worldbeat eclecticism for Oh No and timely drumlessness for Alc – in favor of a unified approach committed to the group’s M.O. Perhaps surprisingly from two “producer rappers” however, the rhymes are just as engaging. Oh No has always had the better vocal tone of the two, sounding like a hyped-up version of his brother Madlib that actually cares about rapping sans-pitch shifted alter ego, but Alchemist has more than grown into his own since the days of First Infantry. Throughout Heads I Win, he displays an impressive pep in his step, landing somewhere between Roc Marci and Kool G Rap flow wise, cramming his verses with as many words as possible without sounding like a Talib Kweli type.

As for the content, neither emcee is here to provide thoughtful political statements or profound emotional discourse. Heads I Win, Tails You Lose is all about shit talk extraordinaire: a roller coaster of off kilter rhymes delivered to make the other emcee (and thus listeners) bug out.

This sort of rhyming for its own sake can be exhausting in the hands of more ordinary emcees: think J Cole forever proclaiming his rap bonafides or your average mid 00s indie rap group trying to convince you of their realness. Thankfully, Oh No and Al know the secret to this music is the element of surprise and a sense of ludicrousness that takes the music from sanctimony to surrealism, whether that means Alchemist making absurd claims that he’s actually invisible or Oh No flipping the Inspector Gadget theme via New Jack Swing. Call it what it is: the rare album full of “rapping about rap” that reminds us why we all fell in love with the art form in the first place.

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