On the 1st Day Of Christmas… “Christmas On Death Row” (album review)

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Hip hop and Christmas aren’t strangers. Run DMC’sChristmas in Hollis” even made the cut for the holiday compilation album A Very Special Christmas. Rapper Cee Lo Green dropped a seasonal disc, Cee Lo Green’s Magical Moment. DMC kept their track family friendly, and Cee Lo opted for a soulful take. Enter Christmas On Death Row. No, this isn’t an amalgamation of criminals bursting into joyous carols. Rather, Death Row in the title refers to the well-established rap record label which features notable artists such as West Coast legend Snoop Dogg.

Christmas On Death Row features original holiday tunes by a collection of the unlikeliest of folks. Snoop Dogg and the late Nate Dogg spit a West Coast Xmas ditty, “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto.” The funky bassline sets the tone for the entire album. Nate Dogg’s baritone hook actually could fit on a mainstream track, but the references to weed which proceed from (surprise, surprise) Snoop remove any illusions that this is a traditional holiday album. Directly following the comedic “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto” is Danny Boy’s poignant “The Christmas Song.” I guess the producers deemed Snoop’s nasally drawl too sacrilegious for such a revered holiday favorite. Running down the tracklist, the ratio of classic Christmas hits and original hip hop tracks is pretty even.

While recognizable seasonal songs by Death Row crooners are enjoyable, the true standouts and reasons to bump Christmas On Death Row are the ghetto inspired tracks. They’re unique and manage to deliver seemingly honest messages. The Dogg Pound roc the mic on “I Wish,” with a chorus of “I wish I had love.” Verses present traditionally rap content, such as shout outs to recently deceased homies and admittances of dopage. Danny Boy reappears on “Peaceful Christmas,” and Michel’le provides an emotive “Silver Bells.” Thankfully, after these covers “Christmas in the Ghetto” steers the album back towards the holiday-themed Chronic. Again, the eggnog and indo play prominent themes, and hearing gangstafied Christmas tunes pleasantly mixes up the festivities. If you’re into alternate leaves of green, you’ll likely appreciate this West Coast rap take on Christmas.

As previously mentioned, the traditional tracks, though well done, feel like filler. They’re worth listening to, but everyone’s heard these songs more times than they’d like to recall. That’s not to say that the iterations found on Christmas On Death Row pale in comparison to their urban counterparts. Nate Dogg lends much appreciated appearances on several tracks. Much like Cee Lo Green, his booming voice feels natural rapping or spitting seasonal lyrics. He can hang with the funkiest of hip hop beats and schmooze with slowed down, expressive instrumental.

Christmas On Death Row offers an entertaining and unusual West Coast funk-soul-holiday fusion. Though the combination may sound incompatible, it works surprisingly well just like the sweet-salty M&M trail mixes. If you’re a hip hop head, definitely add this to the collection, though be mindful of tracks to skip if you’re among a more conservative crowd.

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On the 7th Day of Christmas… “Silent Nightclub” — Richard Cheese (album review)

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Richard Cheese may not be a household name, though after this review you’ll likely plow through his entire discography quicker than a one horse open sleigh. A comedic singer, he performs lounge and swing style takes on top 40 hits. Hitting play sucks you into a portal, transporting listeners into a Vegas cocktail bar complete with martini and halfway unbuttoned silk shirt.

Amid Cheese’s extensive catalog is an aptly titled Silent Nightclub. As the name suggests, the album is an amalgamation of “holiday” hits. A quick glance at the tracklist and the brow furrows in confusion. Only five of the 15 total songs are traditional Christmas tunes. The other 10 are mainly pop hits which slightly relate to the holidays. And most of the time the connection is more of a stretch than the Grinch shimmying down a narrow brick chimney. Cheese opens with Dead Kennedys’ punk anthem “Holiday in Cambodia,” presumably because it contains the word holiday. He does however, use jingle bells and a Christmas melody to provide a festive ambiance.

Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” follows up “Holiday in Cambodia,” a hilarious reference to the Virgin Mary. Conservative religious folks may be offended, but one listen to the disc and it’s obvious Cheese isn’t meant to be taken seriously. Cleverly, he includes “Like a Virgin” and unless you’re quick to ponder the non-commercial aspects of Christmas, the reason for inclusion may pass you by like Santa skipping the naughty kid on your block. Cheese also includes “Ice, Ice Baby,” “Imagine,” “Naughty Girl,” “The Trees,” “I Melt With You,” and finishes on an appropriate note with “Holidae Inn.” His choices are undeniably unique for a Christmas CD, and you’ll be gnawing the candy cane in your martini in no time.

Amusingly, though predictably, even the holiday tracks aren’t exactly straightforward. The version of “Jingle Bells” on Silent Nightclub features animal noises rather than the actual lyrics. This album by no means seeks to replace the original versions of your holiday favorites. “Last Xmas” is actually only 18 seconds long, and Cheese explains the shortened Wham cover by proclaiming “…that song sucks.” Sorry Wham fans. Take your problem up with Richie. As the sole original track “Christmas In Las Vegas” paints an entertaining portrait of Vegas with a twist. Rudolph bets on red and the Wise Men roll sevens. Cheese exploits both Christmas and Las Vegas clichés, stuffing both into a witty stocking.

Silent Nightclub serves up a hearty, creative dose of mildly, though carefully and astutely selected tracks. Additionally, Cheese’s mock-serious, sleazy delivery packs a ramshackle sled of laughs. Try not to keep from bursting into fits of giggles while the artist woof-woof-woofs in tune to “Jingle Bells,” double-times through “Christmastime is Here,” or jollily bounces down John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Just like spiking eggnog spices up the holiday merriment, Richard Cheese’s Silent Nightclub is sure to get the Christmas party popping.

On the 8th Day of Christmas… “Afroman’s A Colt 45 Christmas” (Review)

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You’ve probably heard of Afroman, but I’ll wager you haven’t been exposed to his holiday album, A Colt 45 Christmas. Chances are you may be familiar with his hilarious stoner tales “Because I Got High” and “Crazy Rap” (contrary to what your friends tell you, the track is NOT named “Colt 45”). As such, you may be so inclined to believe that this is a fictitious album, as Afroman is the last artist who’d be expected to kick it Christmas style. But this is all too real, and much funnier than anyone wants to confess.

A Colt 45 Christmas belongs to the category of albums you don’t want to admit enjoying, but can’t help bursting into fits of uncontrollable laughter. While “Colt 45” in the title may initially be misleading, keep in mind Afroman refers to malt liquor, not a firearm. If this further confuses you, just look at the track list. ‘fro initiates the festivities with “Deck My Balls.” As the title suggests, the song is set to “Deck the Halls.” It’s a holiday melody full of drinking, weed, and of course sex. The entire disc consists of these parodies, all of which are vile but tear-jerking laughter inducing.

Afroman raps primarily about weed and alcohol, and judging from the way he completely trails off in “The 12 J’s of Christmas,” he very well may have recorded the album under many influences. Unlike the holiday albums I’ve reviewed thus far, A Colt 45 Christmas is not suitable for a family get together. Unless, of course, you’re like me and relish in the prospect of keeping relatives at bay. At the beginning of “Afroman is Coming to Town,” Afroman chronicles smacking your grandma’s dentures out. He proceeds to discuss a certain sexual favor from said grandmother which I will not explain. Undoubtedly she was better off being run over by a reindeer.

All 11 tracks are laugh out loud funny, though you wouldn’t want to listen with anyone else. Easily offended readers may want to pass this indescribably strange album. Afroman brings his off-beat humor to the Christmas season in a way only Afroman could pull off. While the lyrics aren’t always the most appropriate, they’re undeniably creative, and the instrumentals are quite well produced and underrated. Having seen Afro in concert several times, I can attest to his proficiency on the guitar. Should you cop A Colt 45 Christmas? If you can stomach the raunchy, sure to insult lyrics, then yes. Just don’t pop this in the family stereo.

Ivan Ives: “Stranger” but still familiar

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I’ve been an Ivan Ives fan ever since hearing his track “Got It.” The golden age beat, witty word play, and Big Lebowski references convinced me to pick up the entire “Iconoclast” album. After hearing Ives’ collaboration with legendary lung-buster Percee P, “Kill ‘Em,” I snagged “Newspeak.” Flash forward to 2013, and Ives is thankfully still spitting. Like any true artist, he’s switched up his style enough to remain fresh while preserving his individuality. His 2013 album “Stranger,” as the name implies captures a mature, introspective, and thoughtful vibe.

Before “Stranger” dropped, Ives released the single “8mm” produced by RJD2. Featuring RJD2’s recognizable sound, the traditional kicks and snares are accompanied by movie reel whirs. Ives uses the metaphor of an 8mm video camera in romanticizing his recollection of a relationship: “I’m doomed to sleep alone in this bed we bought together/But at least I’ll remember us forever.” Follow-up song “Insomniac” featuring Aaron Marsh on a Thom Yorke-worthy hook of “I close my eyes/Never gonna leave this world like this/I fall away/Never gonna leave this world like this,” contrasts RJD2’s instrumental with a traditionally modern hip hop beat. Instead of the sepia-tone invocations of “8mm,” “Insomniac” provides a subdued backdrop. Further developing this are Ivan Ives’ lines such as “I’ve ruined my real name/I’ve ruined my fake name/Because I had to do things I never wanted to do/Out of desperation, out of character/I’m sorry, I never meant to fail you.”

The album oscillates between these two styles, offering more traditionally underground beats and indie/electronic hip hop. “Stranger” therefore relies on Ives’ lyricism to serve as the unifying gel. And it works. Unlike CDs cobbled together to sell singles, this is a disc to be experienced as a whole, to provide an atmosphere and setting. Even the cover art alludes to the pensive portrait painted uncovered by pushing play. Memory is a key concept on “Stranger,” particularly the idea of fluidity and change. “Death of a Salesman” finds Blueprint dropping a few verses on priorities in youth and the consequences as an adult.

While Ives’ packs his usual insightful austere and wordplay, as well as top-notch production, the beauty of “Stranger” lies in the overall message. Rather than braggadocio, Ivan Ives offers reflection. Unlike the vast majority of records that overpopulate the airwaves, this is one rapper who doesn’t simply blab about over-indulgence. At the end of “On the Road,” he says “And fuck fame/It’s a damn stare-fest/I don’t care about fake outfits and who wearing best.” You have to respect an artist whose main priority is making music because that’s what they love as opposed to leveling up and gaining achievements.

If you’ve never experienced Ivan Ives, this is certainly an excellent starter album. Be warned though that any Ives disc is a gateway drug, and you’ll likely be jonesing for more of this rapper’s music. You can cop any of his releases from your favorite online distributor, or opt for IvanIves.com. This latter digital delivery method gives the artist maximum profit, and Ivan Ives is assuredly a hip hopper worth supporting. Also be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. A few weeks ago Ivan Ives was generous enough to give away a copy of “Stranger.” How can you not respect an artist with that much love for his fans? Enjoy your Tuesday Tunes, and happy Halloween week!

Apathy: The Alien Tongue

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Apathy made a name for himself as one of the heavyweights in underground hip hop. Today his music contains traces of former iteration, but he’s definitely switched up his game. Apathy even dropped the latter part of his former moniker. During the early 90’s he went by the name Apathy the Alien Tongue. Now it’s just Apathy. The Jedi Mind Tricks debut album “The Psycho-Social” features Apathy in his former iteration on a few tracks. In 2012 he dropped “The Alien Tongue,” an album of demos and unreleased material showcasing his early works, harking back to his Alien Tongue days. Definitely differing from his current catalog, it’s refreshingly rugged and offers an interesting look at the roots of a now underground legend.

If you’re familiar with Jedi Mind Tricks’ “The Amber Probe EP” and “The Psycho-Social,” you’ll likely have flashbacks while listening to “The Alien Tongue.” If the title isn’t a clue, cover art alone tips off listeners that they are in for an intergalactic ride. The astronaut boot beside a cassette tape on the moon compliments the disc’s contents. Beats are raw in a golden age fashion. Drum kicks are punchy, hi hats defined, and obscure, often dark, samples abound. “Galaxy Rays” kicks off the album with a howling sound, reminiscent of wind, and a voice moaning “Adventures in time and space…dimension X.” Adding to the sci-fi feel are references to flicks like Plan 9 From Outer Space on “Mic Warz” and Star Wars on “Alien Invasion.” Yet Apathy doesn’t simply deliver clever pop-culture infused punchlines. From his talk of tetrahedral physics on “Alien Invasion,” it’s clear he’s done his homework. The chorus finds the artist borrowing the Oompa-loompas chant. While the Willy Wonka tune elicits a chuckle, it isn’t goofy.

Dark Holy Chronicles” continues the rambling, supernatural themes which play prominently during the audio excursion. He raps, “I look up to the skies/And see a pair of eyes/That seem to paralyze/And hypnotize my mind.” Not only is his imagery vivid, but the complicated flow, and heavy use of internal rhyme schemes is mind-blowing. Apathy’s confident delivery keeps stride with the plodding beat behind. While the majority of the tracks contain sci-fi references, there are a few more traditional songs which add variety. “The Big Hurt” is classic storytelling and the featured artists Punchline, Wordsworth, A.L. Skills, Wiseguy and Gaston perform admirably. The track feels like a mic passing session in a back room.

Similarly, “We Can Get Down” is a comedic dis track. He calls out wack rappers with lines like “Fuck sippin’ 40’s and ice in your shorty’s jewelry/Most of y’all are broken as shit, you don’t fool me/So-called playa/Rockin’ fake alligator/Walking through the club disconnected cellular and pager.” Further on he says “I’m not saying I’m the man-well, yes I am/I would even be dope if I drove in a Trans Am/With my windows tinted cheap speakers bumping Def Lepperd.” The sentiment reflects the idea that rap is more than appearance, an underground tenant. Interestingly, he says “Now adays kids are all about Puffy and Wu.” For most hip hop fans, P. Diddy and Wu-Tang aren’t even on the same level. Looking back on this line it’s more comical than when Apathy composed it.

The final eight tracks are instrumentals. Like any good hip hop head, I found myself rapping along to the beat. Luckily for your sake and mine, I did not record my attempts at spontaneous lyric spewing. The included instrumentals are catchy, but not quite as strong as the rest of the album merely for the fact that Apathy’s vocals are absent. Overall, this is a fantastic throwback disc, a time machine to the 90’s. If you haven’t copped this one already, go grab it and make driving around this week more enjoyable.