"We are not underground artists. We have no desire to be underground," declares Truth Be Told, MC from the rap trio the Tribe and Big Cats!, during our interview at Waterbury Studios.
[jump] His statement brings me back to high school, when "underground" rap was touted as "real" rap, and artists and fans took careful steps to avoid the trappings of the "mainstream." At the time, independent was often defined in opposition to what was on MTV, and underground rap listeners were quick to let you know the parameters of their love of the music. "I love rap, but not that stuff you hear on the radio," was a phrase that was often bandied around by "true school" fans, which was sort of unfortunate for listeners like myself, as I enjoyed both Atmosphere and Cash Money but felt like I had to ally myself with one versus the other.
Thankfully, this dichotomy is changing in the days of failing major labels and unsigned internet celebrities, and even the Minneapolis scene, once characterized mostly by the emo-rap that initially drew national attention, has lately been broadening its sound. The Tribe and Big Cats! are a prime example. The fact that they do not wish to adhere to strict guidelines of how independent rap is supposed to sound helps make their debut album, Forward Thinkers, Movers, Shakers, live up to its name. There's equal parts respect for hip-hop's traditional methods and efforts to progress, all couched in the desire to make you nod your head and shake your ass.
The rejection of the term "underground" comes from the group's desire to be heard, and appreciated, by as many people as possible. In their press release for the album, the Tribe and Big Cats! call it "'real hip-hop' without the elitism," and "party rap that doesn't have to be a guilty pleasure." DJ Pete is as quick to be annoyed by rap groups stuck in nostalgia, as he is to extol deceased turntabalist pioneer Roc Raida. Big Cats! holds equal reverence for DJ Shadow as he does for Bangladesh, the producer behind Lil Wayne's smash hit "A Milli." Truth Be Told advises rappers to listen to a steady sonic diet of themselves (of course), Big Daddy Kane, and Ice Rod; he goes on to say that "if you can't rap after that, you should learn to play trumpet or something, because rapping is not for you."
You can hear the group breaking down the idea of split camps in hip-hop on the record, at times bluntly in the lyrics, like on the hook of "Roll Out!" ("Fuck that / Indie rap / Fuck that / Major label / All I want is Jordans and some money on the table"), but also more subtly in the attitude with which they approach songwriting. Forward Thinkers, Movers, Shakers succeeds in its attempt to appeal to a wide audience of rap fans without alienating anyone. Truth Be Told weaves between a number of themes smoothly and seemingly effortlessly, armed with a wit and verve that gives every song humor, poignancy and energy. The album balances songs about weed ("Blunt Raps"), stealing your girl ("TacosNetflixHuluWater"), and being the shit with heavier and more introspective material, with a consistency that reflects the group's love of rap's many shades.
Truth Be Told laces his laid-back but punchy rhymes over some truly excellent instrumentals, provided by the other two-thirds of the group. Big Cats! and DJ Pete's beats are awash in synths, soul samples and drum slaps, and are clearly inspired by a wide range of influences, yet maintain a cohesive and original sound. In Minneapolis's thriving community of rap producers, Big Cats! and DJ Pete prove themselves as standouts. There are plenty of moments throughout the album where the lush instrumentals get space to breathe, and every beat feels rich and full. In addition to the local notables on the album, including Toki Wright, Brandon Allday of Big Quarters, and singer Alicia Steele, the trio also reached out to guests Phil Da Agony, Planet Asia and Abstract Rude from the West Coast for some additional verses. The final track, "Get It Movin," rounds out the album with an anthemic chorus from Ben Peterson of Sing It Loud that seems to have burrowed into my brain.
There are plenty of moments that will stick with listeners of all predispositions, but it's especially powerful for those like myself, who simply love great rap. It's exciting to hear an album that is decidedly not constrained by the mainstream versus underground dynamic, and the Tribe and Big Cats! blur that line intentionally and effectively.