Due to the fact that I am constantly buying music off the clearance rack, I come into contact with a lot of ridiculously obscure hip-hop. Yet wether I just bought an album from Portland Oregon’s, Cool Nutz, or North Carolina’s, Jozeemo, the vast majority of the time, I am willing to make that purchase because I am at least minimally familiar with the artist. I may have read their names in blogs or articles, heard them featured on other MC’s songs, or just have the knowledge that they are affiliated with other rappers or producers that I like. With that said, it is very rare that I make a purchase in which I know absolutely nothing about a single person involved in the project. Yet the disc I’m going to talk about today is one of those rare occurrences.
One might ask: what would convince you to spend money on a musician or group that you have never once heard of? Was it their album artwork? Was it the name of the album? Was it the group’s name? In this case the answer to all of those questions was no. The High Decibels’ 2008 self titled debut has standard hip-hop artwork, lacks a title, and the group’s name is average at best. What made me exert the energy to actually examine the disc beyond a split second glance, was an ugly white sticker covering up at least 1/3 of the album’s cover. On that sticker was the following description of the CD:
“Packed with two MC’s, rockin’ blues riffs, bass, and drums, the High Decibels of Oakland, CA hit you with straight up classic, old school hip hop alongside palpable subject matter. Reminiscent of late-80’s Delicious Vinyl 12’s, Run DMC, and the Beastie Boys, frontman Duke the Bossman and Chief, with guitarist KC Booker perform as a live hip hop band, boombox in hand. Their sounds are fresh, simple, and endlessly catchy. West Oakland, stand up!”
While I know that you need to always take a record label’s description of their own artists with a grain of salt, that short write-up was appealing to me on multiple levels. First of all as I have said on numerous occasions, I love to support local art, and the members of this group are from a part of Oakland very close to where I grew up. Additionally, in this day and age, up and coming artists from The Bay with “palpable subject matter” is a rare find. Finally, I really liked the fact that they described themselves as a live hip-hop band. As record sales go down, live performance becomes much more important to an artist’s career. Thus I’ve been predicting that the ability to seamlessly perform with live bands is soon going to be the difference maker for many hip-hop acts. Take The Roots for example. By no means is their music more suited for live performance than that of their peers, or is Black Thought an MC that has stage presence or a lyrical cadence that stuns audience members, but due to the fact that they perform with one of the most talented bands in America, regardless of genre, The Roots stand strong as one of, if not the most entertaining hip-hop shows on earth. Now the bay already has a pretty good live hip-hop band in the Crown City Rockers, but as a concert producer by day, I am constantly trying to find artists that can tear down a stage, and this description sparked a sense of hope and excitement that I may have found someone new, local, and capable of doing just that.
The High Decibels – Miss Cindy (Produced by KC Booker and Kelleth Chinn)
While a lot of MC’s and producers claim the Blues as a major source of inspiration, it’s frequently not as easy to pick up on as the influences of other genres such as Jazz or Soul. Yet unlike any of their peers, The High Decibels make The Blues the focal point of their music. Instead of digging through samples or using a bunch of synthesizers, producer KC Booker limits each track to one guitar, one bass, and drums. The result is a simple, yet original sounding musical landscape that combines blues riffs and hip-hop percussion. While there is a part of me that wants to praise The High Decibels for taking the risk and using a unique approach to their music, the rest of me is disappointed in the end result. The instrumentals are upbeat, fun, and complete (there is a bridge to practically every song), yet extremely commercial sounding. You could close your eyes and pick any track, and it would fit perfectly in an advertisement for Ford’s newest SUV. Additionally, there is no diversity in the music. Every beat seems to convey the same mood, and every song sounds the same. While this is far from unheard of in rap, in this case it’s exceptionally disappointing because the album is only 32 minutes long. If your record sounds repetitive and redundant, and it’s less than the half the length of practically everyone else’s album, you are clearly doing something wrong.
The High Decibels – Crash With No Cushion (Produced by KC Booker and Kelleth Chinn)
While KC Booker at least has a unique characteristic to his beats, lyrically Duke the Bossman and Chief bring nothing new to the table. To their credit both MC’s have good energy and a strong sense of confidence, but on the other hand their flow is straight forward, without variation, and their subject matter is anything but creative. Yet the biggest problem is that almost every verse on the album does not exceed 8 bars. For someone who does not regularly listen to rap this might only be slightly noticeable, but for all of us long term fans, it’s common knowledge that 16 bars is the absolute bare minimum verse length. While there is no way to know whether the MC’s made a conscious decision to use abbreviated verses, or wether KC Booker’s beats only allowed for 8 bars, the bottom line is that 8 bars is just not enough time for a rapper to express his point of view, experiment, showcase his talent, or just get in the zone. Combine that with the fact that within the 8 bars neither MC spits a rhyme that stands out or is worth remembering, and it gives each song the feeling that the verses exist solely for the purpose of building up the chorus. Speaking of which, the hooks are where The High Decibels succeed most as a group. They may be simple, but they’re creative, memorable, and unlike most rap choruses, not too corny.
The High Decibels – No Peace In The Streets (Produced by KC Booker and Kelleth Chinn)
The High Decibels deserve to be recognized as one of the only groups of their kind. I’ve never heard anyone else in hip-hop musically base every track around The Blues. Unfortunately the music lacks the emotional content, personal reflection, comedy, and entertainment value that allowed both The Blues and Hip-Hop to at one point become the most popular music in the country. Yet there is a part of me that strongly thinks that this is the type of group that should not be completely judged until seen live. After a long night of slugging beers, they seem like they would be really fucking fun to see perform at a small bar or club, or even better a house party. Additionally, they show enough promise that I would be hesitant to completely write them off. While the music on this disc is without depth and repetitive, it has enough good vibes too it that it leads me to believe that if all three artists, especially the MC’s, develop their game some more, they could become a group that’s worth checking out. Just maybe not at full price.