It’s not often something genuinely original and forward thinking comes along in Hip Hop, a genre so often defined by it’s nineties nostalgia and intentionally throwback sounds, but over recent years UK label High Focus has been the place to find exactly that. From Edward Scissortongue’s stark visions of Better Luck Next Life to Fliptrix’s mellow garage influenced vibers such as The Essence and Been Here Before, it’s a label not only different from it’s contemporaries, but also with plenty of variety within it.
Recently encouraging their roster to team up to form super group LP projects, Leaf Dog, BVA and Illinformed’s Brothers of the Stone album had barely had time to sink in when the next installment in the High Focus saga dropped last Monday. A collaboration between sharp tongued lyricists Dabbla and Jam Baxter, with boards wizard Ghosttown on the production, it’s an electronic infused medley of metallic beats and lightning fast flows for twelve tracks of modern hip hop that’s like nothing you’ve heard before.
Ghosttown’s beats stray a long way from your traditional MPC based sample loops, utilizing bouncing electronic synths, tribal drum patterns and plenty of whooping and screaming vocal samples, and yet rarely go too deep into the trap/dubstep sound for a style that’s incredibly original and yet still wont leave hip hop heads feeling out of their depth (although the purists should definitely leave their snobberies at the play button). Although some beats, such as Dabbla’s solo track Badman, toe the line in terms of my taste, using a clapping snare and trap like drums alongside whoops and pitched down vocals, they’re in the large minority and, due to the lyricism featured and the quality of the tracks around them, are easily forgiven. Dabbla’s bars are so heavy in terms of vocal percussion and have such an intense rhythm of their own that it’s easy to instead focus on that.
The dark, squelching bass of tracks such as Arcade contrasts with the lighter sounds of Velvet Swamp with it’s more organic bassline and melodic twinkles for a collection of beats that’s varied while generally defined by a busy aesthetic that gives your ears plenty to get stuck into. In fact, they often stop short of the cluttered line only through careful composition and considered progression, something that is a key element in the success of many of the album’s tracks. Jam Baxter’s solo track Ever, for example, starts as one of the most minimal beats before adding a fast repeated key note as Baxter’s flow speeds up to crescendo’s before cutting suddenly back to square one. In this way, the vocals and beat combine to add structure to a track that’s otherwise a single verse with no hook to break it up.
In terms of lyrics, Baxter and Dabbla have long been two of my favourite UK MCs and high expectations definitely aren’t disappointed on this album. They both have the rare knack of crafting incredibly rhythmic, skippy flows without ever sacrificing the content within and have unreal ammounts of swagger in their delivery. Dabbla’s more real world content perfectly balances Baxter’s sway towards the abstract which creates the nice effect of making Baxter’s verses more easily decipherable due to the context Dabbla adds around them. Other than the aforementioned solo tracks, of which they each have one, they feature together throughout, sometimes adopting a traditional ‘verse, chorus, verse’ structure to take half the track each, such as over the cymbal heavy beat of Fatman with it’s dancefloor destroying bass filled pitched down vocal hook. More often than not however, they blend seamlessly into one entity as they weave in and out of each other with a few bars each, something particularly apparent in the chest puffing, MC demolishing, lyrics of Kneedeep.
With two MC’s of their caliber and unique styles, vocal features are thankfully kept few and far between in order to let them fully craft their own soundscape. However, Velvet Swamp does see two of their High Focus compadres, Dirty Dike and Edward Scissortongue, drop in to add their stamp with two heavy verses that blend into the albums vibe while also effectively merging it with each of their styles for yet another unstoppable posse cut from the Contact Play team. Vocalist Parly B also features on the final track Every Manor (Remix) which finishes things off with a bang as his dancehall tinged vocals split up Dabbla and Baxter’s pounding verses over one of my favourite beats, a smooth yet heavy blend of high pitched synths and rumbling bass polished off by accordians and barking dogs.
It’s an album that undoubtedly treads new territory for UK Hip Hop, and yet does it with such a brutal style and pin point execution that it would prove hard for even the most backwards cats not to go with it. Ghosttown’s beats are mastered to perfection and bounce so hard that heads simply can’t not nod, while Baxter and Dabbla once again prove they’re two of the illest lyricists about with fifty minutes of microphone mastery. Catchy hooks juxtapose almost unrepeatable tongue twisting flows while mind bending metaphors sit alongside to the point boldness for a style that, as recently proved at Boomtown, can both tear apart live shows while also giving you something a bit more to think about when in the comforts of your own home. As with all High Focus offerings, perfect adlibs and vocal mastering add the final touch of quality, something often overlooked but that they seem to work seamlessly into their flows and production to raise tracks up yet another level. We’re in an exciting time for Hip Hop on this island and ambitious collaborations like this sum up exactly why, so I’m definitely looking forward to what the future holds. In the mean time though, this gives us more than enough to get stuck into. Go grab it either in CD or Vinyl format from the High Focus web store.
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