By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
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By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
The fresh-faced youngsters who adorn the cover of the Wize Guyz' latest full-length album, '85, are illustrated versions of the rappers Lojik and Dextro as children, and their faces express the same sentiments as their lyrics: pride, determination, the spirit of a bygone era. A reference to the year they both were born, the title continues in the same vein as the duo's previous '80s Babies mixtape releases, evoking a mindfulness of hip hop's early years.
"The art form of hip hop is definitely growing and developing, and I think that's a great thing, but I also feel like it's getting away from its roots and what has really inspired people," says Dextro. "The era we came up in, we were able to witness the golden era of hip hop. Some of the greatest songs, some of the most innovative and mind-moving songs, are from that era, and that's really inspired us in the music we make."
Both Lojik and Dextro grew up writing poetry and brought that literary bent to the musical sphere when they met each other and began working on material together for their debut album, 2008's Mill City. Since then, they've gelled as a team to the point where their styles meet and they are better able to write as a unit, and '85's major strength is the duo's shared insightful vision, its sense of being filtered through a single lens. The album has a feel that bucks trends and focuses on the core elements that built hip hop as an art form, with special attention to strong lyricism and sample-based beats. The sound is pure boom-bap, complete with scratch choruses, heavy horns, and driving drums, but each track seems chosen specifically to leave space for the words and messages to come through clearly. These are bangers focused on lyrics as opposed to beats that attempt to camouflage poor writing. The group's main drive is, indeed, to create a full, cohesive album that can stand up to multiple front-to-back listens, and to say something with enough substance to reveal new layers with each. They're critical of the single-oriented and ultimately disposable nature of the music that characterizes the current rap landscape, and strive toward something that gives them the same feelings they used to get from listening to records growing up.
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"We just want to show people our influence and what we fell in love with," says Lojik, and Dextro concurs: "Let's get back to the essence of what this music is about and let's try to reach people, do something innovative and creative, and expand things a little bit."
Indeed, the throwback vibe never comes off as stale or stuck, and Wize Guyz bring back an element of steadfast positivity that can be sorely lacking in the modern hip-hop world. It is this positivity that really imbues their nostalgic approach with a sense of freshness and purpose. On "Heavenly," the pair describe their experiences with lost loves not with spiteful viciousness nor bitter resentment but with a spirit of fond reminiscence. The track has a dark, downtempo beat that repeats a sung sample of the word "heavenly," a sonic juxtaposition that inspired lyrics concerning a failed relationship told from a position of appreciation ("I miss it all but we'll never be strangers/Love never dies/When time flies, it only changes"), a nuanced tone that many rappers from any era have had difficulty expressing. Similar themes, like keeping your cool as the world around you grows more difficult ("The Dawn Part 2") and equating hard work with good luck ("Destiny"), can be found all over the album, and the soundtrack generally incorporates classic loops and hard snares to drive the points home.
"I really feel like that's one thing we have going for us in Minnesota, the fact that listeners are in tune with songs, concepts, and lyrics, and trying to listen to music with substance," says Dextro, who was initially reticent about rap music because of the negative themes that seemed to dominate the genre. Upon discovering similarities between his poetry and hip-hop verse, he felt able to write in that style without succumbing to the tropes that were problematic. "I love our scene, to be honest with you, because some of our peers out here, some of our friends, they have the same mentality that we have," he enthuses.
There is an audience for this brand of golden-age hip hop that you might be hard-pressed to find in other scenes, thanks largely to the grassroots growth of the music and the lack of major labels looking to sign local trend-hoppers—and the Wize Guyz are able to mine this old-school sound without sounding worn-out.