A few weeks ago, I watched a college student’s presentation on hip-hop and digital media. It focused on a few underground artists such as J Dilla and Nujabes, the student (my classmate) ultimately reaching the conclusion that most underground hip-hop is avant-garde by nature of being non-commercial. The comment sparked a pretty interesting debate with a teaching assistant, who disagreed, stating that J Dilla and Nujabes were more mainstream than he gave them credit for. As a bystander, I could only reach the conclusion that neither assessment was right or wrong. For while avant-garde strains loom large within the underground, the line between the mainstream and the underground has never been as blurred as it is now.
That said, there’s been an emergence of sorts of a DIY culture in hip-hop, with Los Angeles’ Odd Future as its epicenter. On the other side of the country and the aesthetic spectrum, you have the A$AP Crew, based in New York, with their glittery and boastful beats. But head down south to Miami and you’ll find the relatively unknown (though certainly on the rise) Raider Klan, led by A$AP affiliate SpaceGhostPurrp. SGP is a bit of a mystery, described by some outlets as a cosmic cousin of Odd Future. And the comparison isn’t that far off — Raider Klan shares a similar penchant for underground hip-hop sounds, artful aesthetics and skateboarding.
On first listen, Mysterious Phonk might turn some listeners away due to the nature of its slow-moving, ethereal and sometimes discordant beats. The production on here is dark and minimal at best, which makes it a fitting release for the 4AD label (home to similarly chilling acts like This Mortal Coil and Scott Walker), which has a fairly tenuous connection to hip-hop outside of M/A/R/R/S’s “Pump Up the Volume.” Each song draws the listener in with its haunting and dark production, a tone that carries on throughout its 14 tracks, travelling deeper into a harrowing and lonely place. SGP plays it solo on this album — the beats are strictly his own and he seems to be comfortable with keeping the guest list to a minimum. The lyrical content never strays too far beyond nihilism, intoxication or sexual conquest, but SGP’s rapping ability more than makes up for any shortcomings in originality.
Mysterious Phonk in its own artful and indirect way harkens back to the dark organic sound of hip-hop in the ’90s, and SpaceGhostPurrp is carrying the sound of East Coast hip-hop into the future. Destined to fly under the radar this summer, Phonk should nonetheless be piping through some headphones during late night strolls down empty streets on hot summer nights.