In September, Angel Diaz unloaded on the self-proclaimed real hip-hop fans. Writing for Complex Magazine in quasi-defense of Drake and Future's What a Time To Be Alive mixtape, Diaz lampooned "old head, super lyrical motherfuckers," or the subset of rap fans who believe hip-hop has lost its way. "Can't be listening to Talib Kweli rap off beat and Lupe Fiasco deep cuts at BBQs," wrote Diaz. "Come on, don't nobody wanna hear that shit all the fucking time."
If you've ever grouped yourself in with the stubborn sect Diaz blasted, Indie 500—a new collaborative venture and compilation between Kweli, Durham producer 9th Wonder, their respective squads and an all-star cadre of friends—arrives just in time. Diaz's divisive BBQ theory has slid quickly down a slippery slope, prompting intelligent debate from independent hip-hop watchdogs like Kweli and 9th. They've both clapped back on social media and in interviews. Here, at last, they let the music provide the rejoinder.
Kweli and 9th last worked in close proximity on Little Brother's 2007 album, Getback, as 9th was on his way out of the group. This reunion speaks more to crossbreeding than co-working, as Kweli lends his voice and the talent of his label, Javotti Media, to 9th's Jamla Records squad and Soul Council production roster. Kweli rhymes on almost every song here, but his lyrical contributions are understated; the four beats that 9th throws in aren't his most glowing, either. The album, then, is an exercise in custodial synergy, where young rappers and producers are allowed to cross paths and find the sparks. There are several.
The agitated protest bars of the Nottz-produced "Which Side Are You On" allow Missouri rapper and activist Tef Poe to profess: "I don't believe in no laws/I don't believe in your god/It's your block for my black freedom/Put a car bomb in your heart." And there are the imaginative word flurries of American-Brazilian rapper (and Kweli-championed) Niko Is, arriving over one of Khrysis' slow, wrenched compositions for "Technicolor Easels." Niko Is also spars well with cunning Jamla emcee GQ on "King Shit," and anchors in a gruff, convincing manner on "These Waters."
While Indie 500 is to be applauded for its effort in creating a space to push the agendas of 9th Wonder and Talib Kweli (and their artists, from Rapsody and GQ to MK Asante and Niko Is), its true muscle comes from joining a continuum of independent rap hustle. The leaders recruited real architects for the project, including Brother Ali, Planet Asia and the third leg of their Indie 500 trinity, Pharoahe Monch. But perhaps no one summarizes Indie 500's mission more than Slug of Atmosphere, who, in 1995, co-founded one of the most successful independent rap labels ever, the Minnesota-based Rhymesayers Entertainment.
On "Prego," his wisdom pierces: "If you were listening hard, then you'd be lifting your guard/Grew a couple fins, tried to swim with the sharks/The worth ain't based on if the dogs chase it/Bark 'til you bargain yourself out of the basement." With rhymes that celebratory, you'll be able to stack your BBQ playlist with whatever you damn well please.
Label: Jamla Records/Javotti Media
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pole position"