Heiruspecs: Small Steps
Hip hop played mainly or entirely on traditional musical instruments is a concept with auspicious genes, from go-go to the Minutemen. (Dabblers include the Beasties, the Fugees, and Outkast.) So why is the idea going precisely nowhere as a genre? The sole masterwork attributable to "real live" hip-hop standard-bearers the Roots remains their collaboration with an R&B visionary, D'Angelo, on whose Voodoo they played backup. And in their best stuff with Common, the group plays riffs and melodies that can be found on old records--which sort of defeats the purpose of having a "real live" band in the first place.
The problem with band rap may be cultural: MCs rarely join bands and even more rarely form them. (Our own "real live" local groundbreakers Phull Surkle and Casino Royale were a merger of discrete units rather than a spontaneous birth.) This may also explain why St. Paul's horn-infused Heiruspecs remain an oddity that only gains in novelty as they accumulate experience and exposure. Rapper Felix's panicky, door-knocking flow is still the insistent shout of a man who has had to struggle to be heard over his band. But it's his band--he cofounded it with bassist Sean McPherson and others at St. Paul Central High School in 1997. And with Small Steps, the group's second studio album, Heiruspecs have managed a creative equilibrium that feels like something new in hip hop. Not only does the riffage never sound like a pale substitute for samples (the musicians manage the rap-rock feat of imitating neither Anthrax nor the Weather Report), but the riffage and rappage interact as if both had been mustered in the same room, at the same moment.
Check out the jazzy singsong of "Meters," an ode to the cabbie's eternal hustle, in which Felix purports to find "a little piece of self" rather than "peace of mind." The melancholy keyboard chatter just barely offsets the sheer ebullience of McPherson's effortlessly funky bassline. And "Work" is just as bracing for the lock-step lope of its chorus: "I want to quit my job/In order to work more." Only a guest appearance by Slug, on "In Regrets," feels like work for the listener and musicians, but that track's inspirational weirdness--the wedding of a repetitive, off-kilter bassline to a repetitive, off-kilter rhyme scheme--seems a band-wide effort, too. United they swing, united they fall off.
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