Greg Grease grows up, smooths out

The one that we want
Tommy Ellis

"The album, for me, is my life and observing other people — either making the right decision because they know it's right, or making the wrong decision because it's the easier way out." That's Minneapolis rapper and producer Greg Grease talking about his first official LP, Cornbread, Pearl and G.

Grease says the title and concept of the record were influenced by the 1975 Laurence Fishburne urban drama Cornbread, Earl and Me: "The main character in the movie is facing an internal conflict, doing something you know is right versus something that's easy but you know is wrong."

It's an expansion on the profound introductory statement he made with last year's The Giving Tree. A longtime affiliate of the Usual Suspects crew, alongside I.B.E., Akrite, and DJ Just Nine, Grease creates contemplative rhymes and smoked-out grooves that were already standing out.

With Cornbread, the subject matter is heavier and more complex, and internal rhymes and tounge-twisting lyricism are at the center of Grease's schemes. It's a back-and-forth rumination on a world made dangerous by criminals and police alike, turned beautiful and ugly by the pursuit of material things, and maneuvered through with both community engagement and escapism.

Despite his natural grasp of the form, Grease only began rapping seriously at the suggestion of his friend and original Usual Suspects member Abdulle Elmi, a.k.a. Free-One. "We started doing shit in '05. At this point, I wasn't a rapper, I was only a producer. I always was the hype man, because I just wanted to be on stage, and Abdulle would always be like, 'Yo, you should rhyme,'" Greg recalls. "The whole time, I'm writing rhymes and not showing anybody. They were weak. At this point, I didn't have the confidence in myself, I didn't take myself seriously, so in order for me to build up the confidence to actually write the rhymes, I would write the most obscene rhymes. I would write ridiculous shit."

These initial grimy raps earned Greg his name, but his style gradually evolved toward the slick and seamless patterning of his recent output. Maintaining just enough understated harshness to bring character to his flow, Grease has sunk into his own voice and carries a rap with a unique approach.

The beats complement this by hitting hard at an elemental level that allows the vocals room to breathe. The kicks, snares, and bass bang the heaviest as sounds bleed in and out at the whim of the song's direction. With the exception of tracks from Mike Swoop and Musicians in Disguise, the album's production is split between Grease himself and Mike Frey.

"All the joints I produced are in a way produced by Mike. I would make a skeleton or he would make a skeleton and bring it to me, I'd record just to the skeleton and bring it to him, and we'd just make it crack. We'd just put mad crazy stuff on it, bend it and add instruments. Putting everything on steroids," says Grease, recalling the first track they worked on, "Summer Saturdays," an early pick for album title. "That's really where I decided it was gonna be an album. That track started as just a rhyme, just a verse, then Mike added stuff and I was like, holy shit, this is a song. That day I was like, Mike, you're doing my whole album with me."

Overall, the album began to move away from a summer theme, but the chilled vibe of that potential album still finds its way into feel-good tracks like "Flute Beat" and "I Still Love H.E.R." There's a definite struggle flowing through Cornbread, partly stemming from the tragic murder of Abdulle Elmi in Toronto earlier this year. His influence is certainly present in that Grease is rapping at all, and dealing with the difficulty of loss and senseless violence is a prevailing theme in the lyrics.

"For me, I vent in my music," says Grease. "I look at a lot of rap as just verses. I'm not trying to just make rap, I'm trying to be a songwriter. It's not how long it takes you to say it, it's all about what you're saying and how you're saying it."

The "how" is especially important on Cornbread, Pearl and G: Grease manages to vocalize both the difficult realities and the hopeful levity of everyday life with a single, masterful cadence. The lyrics never shy from tough talk, but the flows remain sublimely smooth.

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