May 17, 2016
Released On November 22, 2011
Released By Doomtree Records
It feels weird to be trying to summarize an album that I have listened to so obsessively for years. When I first got it, as part of a preorder at the tail-end of 2011, I listened to it, and only it, for about a week straight. Every minute of it has something worth examining. There’s the overall theme of living your life independent of rulers and boundaries, to start with. Then there’s the interesting recurrence of Dessa’s verses going into Mike Mictlan’s, a whiplash-inducing shift from scholar to ruffian.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Doomtree is a rap collective that has had many members. It is currently made up of 5 MC’s (P.O.S, Mike Mictlan, Cecil Otter, Sims, and Dessa) and 2 DJ’s (Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger).
Until No Kings, Doomtree’s group releases had been more like collections of collaborations than a consolidated group project. They would put together songs featuring between 1 and 5 MC’s which would be recorded piecemeal and then compiled into a release. With No Kings, they decided that they wanted something more cohesive and so they set a released date for November, then went up to a cabin to make the record with the deadline looming (this tactic isn’t something they necessarily recommend). What resulted was their strongest collective release up until that point.
I think of the album as existing in 3 distinct sections:
2. “Little Mercy” through “String Theory.” This section is the centerpiece of the project. It contains what I think of as the two Dessa-centric songs (“Little Mercy” and “String Theory”) as well as her kicking off their most impressive single, “The Grand Experiment,” with what may very well be her most impressive verse, encapsulating the time period from the Big Bang through the dawn of man in a single verse. Take that Barenaked Ladies!
3. “Team The Best Team” through “Fresh New Trash“. This section is the more experimental part of the album. Explorations about the apocalypse on “Own Yours” are thematically appropriate for this section and the final track of the album, “Fresh New Trash,” is perhaps my favorite Doomtree track of all time, not ending on a downbeat and serving as the catalyst for my endless relistens.
There’s so much more to say about the album, but I don’t want to monopolize the newsletter even more than I already have! Enjoy!
From left to right: Sims, P.O.S, Paper Tiger, Dessa, Lazerbeak, Mike Mictlan, & Cecil Otter
So I thought I’d take this opportunity to educate on why rap-rock is so often done terribly wrong, and why most rap dudes don’t really mess with it. It’s all in the production. Rock is melody driven. Rap is drum/rhythm driven. Rap is about space and timing. Rock is way too noisy. The reason rap even exists is because pioneering DJ’s of the South Bronx in the 1970’s figured out that their constituency wanted the stripped down funk of “the break” (hip-hop’s term for a drum solo or minimal breakdown) instead of the all the other instrumental clutter throughout the rest of the song. DJ’s would then buy two copies of the same record so that they could manually loop “the break” over and over to keep the party going. This is why the programmed drums of rap music are so much more punchy and pronounced than in rock. Rap drums have to knock (like on “Punch-Out” or “The Grand Experiment“), whereas the thump of the drums often gets lost in the mix on rock records (see “Bangarang“). Luckily for Doomtree, the group is obviously aware of these genre-specific cues, and are able to walk the fine line between the funk and the farce. They’re certainly more than proficient on the mic — lyrical acrobats, actually. The key to why No Kings works so well is that the group has found the musical balance where the instrumentation doesn’t overpower the MC’s. There’s room for them to breathe, and to show their skills, which is the whole point of rap in the first place.
Much like in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis musicians must feel the need to hold themselves to a higher level of quality. Like…oh, you want to tell people you’re from the Twin Cities? Better step up your game! Doomtree are shortlisted on a number of “North Star State bands you need to hear” lists that always include the likes of Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, and of course, Prince. On first listen (at work where it can be hard to really digest music), I really didn’t like what I heard. I was dreading coming up with enough words. But, like I said some weeks ago, if you just sit down with a record and some decent headphones, you might just hear the reason for all the hype. There’s a lot of love here but the Public Enemy-esk “Punch-Out” is my standout track. Somehow the track “Savion Glover” off False Hopes jumped into my playlist. The song contains some Fugazi references, which isn’t a surprise if you’re familiar with Wugazi. Maybe this was just some sort of Spotify big brother data mining tactit to keep me listening to Doomtree? It worked.
I had a feeling fellow contributor James would pick this album. He’s been obsessed with Doomtree ever since this album came out in 2011 and has constantly reminded me that this group (and the following solo efforts from Doomtree collective member Dessa) was something that I needed to listen to. He loves this group so much. But this is not James’ write up (you read that at the top). This section belongs to me, but I echo a lot of James’ statements. This week’s selection is the first Off Your Radar submission besides my own pick that I was actually familiar with. No Kings comes out of the gate like a hurricane and doesn’t slow down. It’s non-stop adrenaline until the end with “Bangarang” and “Beacon” being on repeat. It’s impossible not to feel energized while listening to this.
Mike Mictlan of Doomtree’s style immediately reminded me of the fast-talking-rapping of Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton and In The Heights). On a recent Another Round interview, Miranda mentioned that people say to him “I didn’t like hip-hop until Hamilton. What should I listen to next?” For those crossing from Broadway, No Kings is the perfect next step. It is accessible, catchy, smart, and non-threatening. There are elements of music that are familiar to non-rap fans, like jazz and hardcore; the lyrics are clear and easy to understand; and the level of political engagement, with anger directed towards targets such as Prop 8, the media, and a rigged system, is certainly appealing to new listeners. I wasn’t sure if so many people with different styles could form a cohesive record — for example, Odd Future’s output is essentially mixtapes with fractious groups within the collective (MellowHigh, The Internet) supplying individual tracks. The songs on No Kings don’t feature all members of Doomtree at once, but there are strong themes throughout the record itself, like helping others and learning from your mistakes. It feels like the work of a group of people who greatly respect each other and just love music.
A perfect introduction into the world of Doomtree with welcoming production and absolutely vitriolic lyrics. Also Har Mar Superstar is nuts in the video.
After listening to Doomtree’s No King the first time, it had me in a bit of a quandary and I felt I had to dig a deeper into Doomtree. Reading various things about them, the reoccurring theme about Doomtree is the word “collective” which is possibly the best description of this set of songs. It is not so much an album, rather a collection of songs that have a common denominator between each cog in the Doomtree machine. From the very outset there with the track “No Way,” there is the obvious sense of No Kings wanting to make a statement about the world as Doomtree see it. A vague correlation could be made between the social aspects of Rage Against The Machine with the lyrics “We got cracks in our armor / Got cracks in the ceiling / And this axe that we’re wielding will react when we’re feeling that” reminiscent of Zack De La Rocha at his finest. Highlights for me within this record are “Bangarang,” a scathing attack at popular music within the hip-hop genre: “All these rappers sound the same / Beats? Sound the same / Raps? Sound the same.” Something that could also be levelled at popular music in general. Then my favourite track on the record, “Little Mercy,” that has a mellow soulful back beat once again overlaid with vocals that make you realize there is more to the world than what is immediately around you — something that is an overriding theme throughout the record.
Matt Green (@happymad1986)
Fiery Orator Of Nostalgia
Let me set the stage: Saturday afternoon after a week of very little sleep. My wife is driving north on 95 with Google Maps chirping out directions to New York City periodically. I’m in the passenger seat, typing on my laptop, frantically trying to finish an article. No Kings is playing on the car stereo, adding a staccato energy to the whole scene. From the outside, we were just another car rolling down the highway. Inside, it was intense. And that’s what I find most compelling about Doomtree — the intensity. The perpetual motion. The fast-paced beats. Like the premise of Speed except with lyrics per minute instead of miles per hour. The momentum never relents in the same way it never relents for Run the Jewels, or for previous Off Your Radar artist Gang Starr. And with so many handoffs on No Kings — each track features at least two MCs — you never feel like you’re standing on solid ground. You have to keep moving to keep up, and I love the pace. Typing fast. Cars passing and getting passed. Words and miles flying by. I’m looking forward to getting to know the lyrics better, and I can’t wait to take the album on a run. Something tells me I’ll end up setting a personal record or two.
It’s the first time in a while that an artist I already listened to has come up on OYR, and I’m stoked that this time it’s Doomtree. To avoid misconceptions, I’ve actually never heard an album by this particular group — it’s P.O.S, the group’s founder, who was already a successful solo artist in his own right, who I’ve been a fan of in the past. His 2009 album Never Better won me over in a big way, and I’ve heard and enjoyed his 2012 followup We Don’t Even Live Here, but I didn’t realize until now that the next record he was involved with after Never Better was actually No Kings, the 2011 Doomtree release we’re considering this week. If anything, I feel like its mix of dark, gloomy beats, powerful rapped verses, and soulfully sung choruses and interludes is a natural followup to Never Better, even moreso than other P.O.S solo stuff I’ve heard. So yeah, I dig this record a lot. It’s hard to pick out highlights, simply because the entire thing has such a high across-the-board feel, but the hectic drumrolls that kick off “Punch-Out” remind me of the first P.O.S single I ever loved, “Drumroll” — and that can’t be a bad thing. The way the production incorporates straight-up rock n’ roll and even punk samples reminds me of nothing else I’ve heard so much as Death Grips’ 2011 debut, Exmilitary, which I also loved. P.O.S’s always-assured delivery is augmented well by Dessa, Sims, Cecil Otter, and the other rappers who appear here. In fact, some of the songs I like the most don’t even have verses from P.O.S. The fact that I don’t miss him when he takes a song off is more of a comment on how well his compatriots complement him than any dismissal of his work as disposable. Really, this is an album loaded with strengths and powerful performances from top to bottom. I sense an obsessive dive into this thing on my personal horizon — if I’m still rocking this album multiple times a day when next Sunday rolls around and it’s time to dive into the new OYR pick, I won’t be too surprised.
Thanks to this Off Your Radar collective, I am finally taking some time to listen to the Doomtree collective, which I’ve been hearing about for years. Shame on me, as from the first gritty chords of “No Way,” this is urgent music that demands your attention. On most songs, the beats ride a distinctive and original line between hip-hop and rock and there’s lots of distorted guitar-type sounds, with pumping bass and sweeping synths. Hints of EDM and dub add variety to the overall flow, with new nuances appearing with every listen. There’s also a multitude of voices, running a gamut from classic Chicago-style speed-rappers (Twista fans, you know who you are) to quirkier vocalists. There’s smart wordplay, some braggadocio, and even shades of poetry (“If only the stars were close enough we would paint them,” from “Bolt Cutter“) and a touch of the surreal. Not quite your average rap lyrics, but not totally out there, either. You also get the idea that everyone has each other’s backs, and ours, too, like a posse in your headphones. But that’s part of why I listen to hip-hop, to pull some confidence out of the ether, with beats and rhymes as the method of transmission. I love many varieties of hip-hop, from the filthy to the conscious, and Doomtree seem to occupy a unique spot on that spectrum. I plan to visit them there often.
Seven unique individuals with crazy personalities actually made a cohesive record? Unbelievable.
A few seconds into the first track, “No Way,” and I was actually expecting to hear a rock album, which says a lot about Doomtree’s success at building a work that sets new sonic expectations for a hip-hop record. No Kings infuses hip-hop with an unabashed mix of late ’90s big beat electro and trip-hop production with a smidge of alt rock. The tracks feel organically composed with instrumentation rather than becoming slaves to samples — upbeat, driving breaks underpinning dynamic arrangements make each track feel like a cohesive piece and not only a bed for the emcees. The vocals, no matter which collective member is on the mic, sit so comfortably amidst each sonic array, conveying a sense of unity and egolessness. They are adept at building density with an edge, even on the slower numbers. I get sucked into the flirtations with aggressive production and electronics while diving into soul feels — a feat reminiscent of groups like UNKLE and I hear a bit of Tricky-ness on “Little Mercy.” “String Theory” rollicks on like a heavier Digable Planets, super chill flow but with heightened energy. The single, “Bangarang” flagships their confidence as a “lost boys” community in carving out their own unique trajectory. No Kings delivers a vigorously balanced record with plenty of spunk and depth to give this hip-hop mosaic a wealth of replay value.
Would it be unfair to think of Doomtree as Minneapolis’ equivalent to the Wu-Tang Clan? I think not. Doomtree is and is not a musical outfit. It’s an umbrella that the collective utilizes to showcase all of the efforts displayed in their creative outputs. No Kings is an interesting moment for them. After a bit of distance between their debut and this follow-up, a lot would change for the world of hip-hop. Mash-up culture was taking over. In 2011, the biggest hit would be a combination of the sounds of Fugazi and the lyricism of Wu-Tang Clan. In many ways, Wugazi would inform some of the bombastic attitudes found on No Kings. Songs like “Punch-Out” and “Bangarang” feel right at home with the sentiment. Enormous, anthemic beats and hooks that are littered with apocalyptic diatribes bound to every lyric. A tremendous amount of the production is due to the soundscapes created by Cecil Otter and Lazerbeak. The thing that drew me in with a lot of the rhythm patterns was the precise vision that each producer would bring to a song. “Beacon” has a particular cadence to how it knows when to pull back for a few instances to allow another element of the song to take the central focus. Whether it’s P.O.S or Otter or Sims, you never doubt for a second that you’ll be caught in a lyrical whirlwind that will leave you bobbing your head profoundly. Another element of Doomtree that resonates strongly with me is how there is just an enormous amount to explore within the collective. Even beyond the introduction to Doomtree through No Kings, I am left with this lingering desire to continue venturing through each of the respective artists featured on this release and everyone that works under the umbrella of Doomtree. Going back to the lyrical content, I mentioned how there is this feeling of a dreaded future world. A world blown to all hell and no longer resembling any part of the world we used to occupy. I don’t think this is a sentiment that is exclusive to the Midwest. I can imagine that when considering the winter landscape of Minnesota and how harsh those seasons can be; the world might feel a bit post-apocalyptic. A paralyzing cold that washed over every inhabitant and that sentiment might be a stimulating factor for Doomtree. In their hibernations, they throw themselves so far into each song. As a result, their musings might appear as a narrow balance between the cynicism of the cold and the desire to find warmth amidst all of the doomy terrain. Doomtree take this concept and elaborate on it throughout No Kings. And while the title of the record might suggest a lack of royalty, Doomtree seem to be champions of the hip-hop world and a welcome addition to my ever expanding musical repertoire.
So obviously at first, I really thought I was gonna be getting a straight up rock group here, so this a very happy surprise. I like that this opens with “everything is a construct” track, where everyone stays on topic. #NoKings. There is so much going on musically on “Bolt Cutter” that’s interesting; I really feel the way that the sonic lasers give way to sweet guitars and keys. “Bangarang” skits along on the basis of this loop that reminds of Sonic the Hedgehog. This whole thing kind of sounds like high definition music from a ’90s video game and I mean that in the best possible way. I wasn’t feeling this too much lyrically early on, but I didn’t even care because the production lit me up so much — this “Style Over Everything” line on “Punch-Out” kinda sums it up. “Little Mercy” has me with this “palm readers can’t work fists” moment. I like how this joint sounds beaten down, but still optimistic. Everyone’s bars go in here and Dessa is just a star. “This quiver in my lip / that’s where I keep my arrows.” God. Damn. Lyrically, the project grew on me throughout its runtime as I got to understand each rapper’s personality which is really freaking cool. Those personalities are all hella compatible, too — the whole clique sounds like a more uplifitng version of Slaughterhouse and I’m definitely here for it.
A week is just not enough time to immerse yourself in the world of Doomtree or any dense hip-hop record. Readers will recall we did cover Gang Starr in week two and honestly, I did feel qualified to speak on them in just a few short listens because the subtle and meticulous production allowed me to fully focus on the lyrical merit and grasp it in only a couple of listens. No Kings is a phenomenal record, make no mistake about it, but with the production operating at the same attention-grabbing level as the lyrics, it’s hard for me to pinpoint specific reasons why after only a few listens. This is compounded by my desire to give hip-hop more time for consideration knowing that I come into it as an outsider, no matter how many Pep Love lyrics I can rattle off the top of my head. I did not grow up on hip-hop and I do not consider it a core of my musical being today so I believe it’s necessary to give their work much more consideration, along with other genres like ambient and pure electronica. Still, even though I have no grand summaries to derive from this record, its quality is unmistakable from “No Way” all the way to “Fresh New Trash.” If I only heard the war of introspection and rage going on in “Bolt Cutter“, that’d be enough for me to instantly put the record on repeat for as long as I can and that’s just what I’m doing.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by Bombay Bicycle Club
Chosen By James Peart