The world of hip-hop has come a long way in the last few decades. Once called a `fad’ and ignored by the Grammys (not to mention the old guard of music in general), rap and hip-hop contain so many subgenres and have become such a patchwork quilt of styles that they have nearly become the mainstream. Early on, no one had to convince me that there was power and importance in rap music. I loved everything about the culture from breakdancing to breakbeats, Breakin’ to Beat Street. I knew that KRS-One and Chuck D. were not only prophets but also poets. Rappers like Kool Moe Dee and Eazy-E introduced me to completely different cultures. De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest let me know that hip-hop, to bite from Walt Whitman, could contain multitudes. But somewhere I either lost my way, or the world of hip-hop left me. I think that probably the blame needs to be shared. The braggadocio ran rampant, the infighting became too hard to swallow, and I couldn’t connect with gangsta rap the way I could with personal and political messages. I couldn’t care less about what was better hip-hop, East Coast or West Coast; I didn’t like either. That aversion continued well into recent times. I couldn’t get the fascination with Eminem or the herky-jerkiness of Missy Elliott. Thankfully, a friend of mine introduced me to Sage Francis.
Since listening to Personal Journals, I’ve been able to slowly immerse myself back into the world of hip-hop, like delicately dipping oneself into a Jacuzzi, filling in the gaps in history, like the airpockets that fill up your swimsuit. Through this reintroduction, I’ve been able to discover that great hip-hop is alive and well, and mostly underground. Aside from Sage, I learned about Slug and Murs, Astronautalis, Eyedea & Abilities and, of course, the Anticon crew. Beatmaster Jel is one of the founders of the Anticon label and with his trusty SP-1200 by his side has made some of the best underground hip-hop in recent years. This Oakland by way of Chicago sonic craftsman has since collaborated with the likes of Mike Patton, Atmosphere, Beck and the aforementioned Sage Francis. Eight years after his first collaborative album release, Jel finally strikes out on his own (not counting his SP-1200 tribute, 10 Seconds) and bridges the gap between the political fury of the rap I knew and loved, and the aural mastery of such groundbreaking DJs as Shadow and Spooky.
Soft Money achieves multiple goals. Not only does it pay homage to the world of hip-hop with its beats and samples, or continue to break new ground with sonic soundscapes that could stand alongside some of the indie rock buzz bands, it also solidifies Jel as not only a DJ, but also a rapper. “To Buy a Car,” the first song off of the album, features Jel as MC, rapping about the evils of rampant consumerism, and using the phrase `for what it’s worth’ to represent wasted purchases rather than Stephen Stills’ Vietnam war protest phrase. “All Day Breakfast” then alternately lulls and shocks just as successfully as DJ Shadow in his Endtroducing heyday. Dosh, also of Anticon, provides the eerie sound of the Rhodes in “No Solution.” One of the true standouts on the album comes with “All Around” featuring the atmospheric and billowy vocals of Steffi Böhm of Ms. John Soda and Couch, rivaling such acts as Portishead and Stereolab in the delicate electronic category, but Jel provides her with a new and menacing background beat. “Soft Money, Dry Bones” is Jel’s second vocal attempt and he scores yet again. He is also helped in “WMD,” another politically charged number with guest rapping by Wise Intelligent of Poor Righteous Teachers. Both tracks are so charged with anger, frustration, cynicism and intelligence that I wish one of them were used in the Jarhead trailer in place of “Jesus Walks.”
There is no doubt in my mind that various tracks on Soft Money will end up on people’s mixes and iPods. Each spin of the album as a whole can provide listeners with different favorites and new discoveries. While “To Buy a Car” capture my attention the first time around, “Sweet Cream In It,” with its Cream-like guitar samples nabbed me the second time, and the head nodding electronics of “Know You Don’t” had me bouncing the third. The labelname Anticon is short for anticonformist, and nothing exemplifies the true spirit of the name as much as Jel’s exquisite debut, Soft Money.