Saturday, June 1, 2019

resonators 2019 - episode #017 - 'doom' by mood

So last month when I covered Slum Village, I made sure to highlight how much of that project was a springboard for legendary producer J. Dilla, who had started to pick up traction in a few years before but really launched into major cult prominence off of that project. And while that success would cascade down somewhat into the other members of Slum Village, both present and future, today we're going to be exploring a similar launch point in underground hip-hop, but one that time might have forgotten if you didn't know where to look.

So, it's 1997 in Cincinnati, a city which has never really been a hotbed for hip-hop in any era, but things are moving for an up-and-coming group called Three Below Zero, featuring rappers Main Flow and Donte and producer Jahson. More to the point, they've also got a connection to future big name producer Hi-Tek, who hit it up well with an up-and-coming Brooklyn MC named Talib Kweli, who we covered on an earlier episode of this show. They had released a few singles over the past couple of years - the one that tends to be recognized the most is 1996's 'Hustle On The Side', which is a pretty terrific forgotten gem in its own right - but they had changed their name and had ventured up to New York to record their debut which would be released in 1997... and depending who you talk to, is mostly known as the launch-pad for Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek, or is a forgotten underground classic in its own right... and it would take the group as a whole until 2011 to release a non-compilation follow-up. So okay, let's get into Doom, the debut album from Mood, and this is Resonators!

So I'll admit right now that this was the sort of project I was dreading a little a bit - not because this album is bad in the slightest, I'd argue in fact it's pretty good and generally feels more consistently likable than even the last album I covered here. But it is exactly the sort of album that has been outshone by the stars it introduced to the scene, because otherwise it feels like the sort of pretty good underground hip-hop release that would have dropped and been celebrated in 1997, but twenty years later just doesn't seem as revolutionary or special outside of that moment because dozens if not hundreds of MCs will have flooded the market with similar product.

And even then, going back to Doom now, I have to wonder what would make this album stand out beyond being a launch pad, because if you're looking at the conventional tones of the underground at the time, Doom is not too far afield. Dusty boom-bap drums with passing glances at A Tribe Called Quest but not enough to pick up the more intricate groove sections and taste for melody, spare samples nestled halfway into the mix but rarely driving the mix compared to the low-end and more than a few showing glances at similar acts like Jedi Mind Tricks and a few of the Wu-Tang affiliates, and of course it runs long with less than zero interest in anything close to a single. And if from that description you feel like you've already heard this album a half dozen times... well, there's a limit to how much I'll hold that against Mood given how it probably wasn't the norm at the time, but it certainly doesn't help many of these cuts stand out now. Now to Mood's credit, they did have a few considerable advantages on this project, the first being consistent production; yeah, a few vocal pickups might feel a little tinny, but outside of the melodies being consistently a little quieter and less interesting than the beats, they never sounded poorly blended or out of place, and there is a consistency in the gritty knock of the percussion and smart vocal blending that can make a longer listen tolerable. It does mean that a lot of the production can feel monochromatic and lacking a lot of distinctive flair - we'll come back to this - but you also don't get the blaring moments of annoyance or outright missteps that could compromise projects like this. Granted, if you pay attention you can tell Hi-Tek has a slightly better grasp on that blending than Jahson does, with a few unwelcome peaks creeping across a few cuts like 'Peace Infinity', but that's me nitpicking and I will say Jahson's a little more willing to focus on a hook or more propulsive groove, such as 'Peddlers Of Doom' or the slight Middle-Eastern touch on the melody of 'Secrets Of The Sand', or even sneaking that touch of horns onto 'Esoteric Manuscripts' and the thunderclaps splitting the subtle groove of 'Sacred Pt. 1'. That said, Hi-Tek does sneak in a sharper hook on 'Illuminated Sunlight', brings a lot of scratching off the piano and bass on 'Info For The Streets', slides the piano and faint vocal sample for the actual single 'Karma', brings up a scratchy funk sample with some good bass rollick on 'Industry Lies'.

But as I said, you're here to sink into the ambiance, the menace and ethereal danger coasting off gritty grooves and bars upon bars, with any moment where Talib steps up as a clear sign of a young, self-assured talent who had buckets of potential, but outside of slightly more wild and colourful delivery from Wu affiliate Sunz Of Man, most of the focus eventually will switch back to Main Flow and Donte, with Main Flow stepping up with a little more aggressive swagger and Donte a shade more higher-pitched nasal and almost reminiscent of Q-Tip at points. And here's the frustrating thing: in terms of consistent multisyllabic rhyming and technical skill, both of these two are really damn solid, and they have the aggression to hold their own - by any standard they are good MCs, and I do appreciate we're not really treading in the same territory as Jedi Mind Tricks, as there's a sharper conscious and grounded angle that does permeate the content beyond the pseudo-religious abstraction. But the most scathing indictment of these two is that they're kind of boring, ultra-competent but not all that interesting... and I was coming into this review looking to refute that assertion, but I can definitely hear a lack of distinctive individual personality between these two outside of their voices to make their verses stand out from each other, especially given as they don't really have much interplay. Let me ask this question: off this album alone, name a personal detail or note of challenging introspection that either Donte or Main Flow present. In fact, I'll go one further: name something in their lyrical style or structure or content that is unique to one of them and not the other. The closing track highlights them repping for Cincinnati, but even that isn't all that specific or detailed outside of their consistent quasi-esoteric brand of paranoia, a deeper grounding in religion, and hatred of a broken system - guest star Holmskillet probably does the most and even then it's not a lot. And that's not to excuse the moments that are less excusable but sadly expected for this brand of underground hip-hop, because not only do we get the homophobia on 'Tunnel Bound' - a shame because the juxtaposition of swearing off Satan and then faced with the corrupt system in the verses is potent - we get lines from Donte on 'Sacred Pt. 1' talking about vaccines giving black kids AIDS - seriously. Now to try and give him credit, that scene is at least prefaced with Donte talking about false and corrupt preachers who are selling lines and blaming tragedies on others, but the correlation is still being made, and it's jarring when you have Talib deliver his monologue on the back half of 'Peddlers Of Doom', which is probably one of my favourite songs here!

Now here's the exasperating thing: step away from that issue - and how they run into the Jedi Mind Tricks problem of a lot of esoteric references and language feeling strangely hollow without more of a grounded, human connection - my only larger issue is how some of these verses can start to run together in terms of their detail and content... but even that is a lesser factor once you start picking up on the details. And in the end, I can't deny that this is a good listen, and on flows and good production alone I'd argue it holds up. Again, there are flaws and like most projects of this era and sound it can absolutely drag - and it doesn't remotely surprise me that Mood only got one complete project off before Main Flow went solo across the 2000s and the group only reunited to release new music to mixed reviews in the 2010s - but I see this album's influence. While I've heard dozens of projects like it, it would fit into the upper tier of that group regardless, which is why I'm giving it a 7/10 and a recommendation as a mostly forgotten album from this era. It might be best known as an introduction, but in terms of setting that vibe, Mood certainly lived up to their name.

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