Death, Romance and The Color BLK
ne of Hip-Hop’s greatest sources of innovation has been the musicians and bands that DJs and producers have culled their samples from. Whether it be the early days of Disco, or the Jazz, Funk and Soul that help define the golden era’s sound, the original works of other artists have both served as inspiration and been integral in creating what is rap music, in all it’s various forms and facets. The beauty of this symbiotic relationship is that it allows for Hip-Hop to take on a variety of sounds while maintaining a direct connection to its roots. Where would rap music be without Clyde Stubble, Herb Alpert, Leon Haywood, The Meters, and countless others? This is of course a rhetorical question, and for those of you who never wondered where your favorite rap songs came from you probably still couldn’t give two fucks. Even with the advent of sample-free beat making, music is seldom (if ever) created in a vacuum, free from influence, and I’d bet my King’s jacket that even Pharrell and Lex Luger would point to a variety of influences that lead them to create their signature styles of music. The influence may change, but the process, in its purest sense, remains the same.
With Hip-Hop coming into its 40th year, the breadth of musical inspiration has become increasingly wider and more varied. While this eclecticism seems to be a natural extension of Hip-Hop’s core values, it is often met with mixed emotions and even disdain. Look no further than the schism that Kanye West’s Yeezus created amongst fans, artists and critics. Hip-Hop “purists,” uncomfortable with this new, darker sound seemed to immediately discount its worth because it didn’t “sound” like Hip-Hop. A fact which I find interesting because Wu Tang sounds about as similar to Kurtis Blow as Journey does to Nirvana and yet they’re both still umbrellaed as rock music. Critics (I use this word loosely) and music snobs (read: bloggers) were quick to declare that this sound was, in fact, not new at all and seemed to relish in exposing the variety of musicians and subgenres from which Kanye had pulled from to create his aesthetic. It was only the artists, who themselves are trying to push the boundaries of what is Hip-Hop, and non Hip-Hop heads that comprise the majority of the music-purchasing-public that seemed to enjoy this musical-left-hand into on coming traffic that was Yeezus.
It is in this brave new world of previously untapped musical influence that we find BLKHRTS. Yorissey, one of three MCs and the group’s producer, proudly declares the BLKHRTS’ sound as “Goth Hop.” I usually tend to shy away from such sub-general titling, but after listening to their most recent release, Death, Romance and The Color BLK, I’m inclined to agree. While “Goth Hop” itself is an inadequate descriptor, simply categorizing the BLKHRTS as another “Rap Rock” act does both a disservice to the signifier and the music that the group makes. Rock ‘n’ Roll has become too varied to simply throw “Rock” in front of a “Rap” act whose musical influences come from one of its many offshoots. Not to mention, the irreparable damage that Fred Durst and Limp Bizkit have done to the category. No longer do people think of Anthrax and Public Enemy when “Rap Rock” is invoked. Instead, they think of reversed red-fitteds and doing it all for the nookie. Yorissey proudly lists The Smiths, Morrissey (obviously), The Cure, Bauhaus, and NIN as his influences, and on Death, Romance and The Color BLK their presence is felt, but they are only half of the story. This is “Goth Hop”, but if you are looking for melancholy ballads, you should probably go revisit Drake’s Take Care.
The influence that Goth music has over the BLKHRTS sound is expressed as much in the world view that the group raps about, as it is in the music itself. Stigmata, the opening track of their most recent release, opens with guitars and drums reminiscent of Love and Rockets, slowly morphs into a thumping stomp that leads to a chorus that would make Trent Renzor smile. Lyrically, themes of sacrifice, moral ambiguity and the feeling of being an outsider are all present along with macabre Christian imagery. Stigmata sets the tone for the rest of Death, Romance and The Color BLK, and the themes presented continue to be pervasive throughout the rest of the album. It’s important to note that the Goth half of the BLKHRTS influence is just that, part of a whole. To be clear, this is Hip-Hop. Death, Romance and The Color BLK is beats and rhymes, and, while many of the songs are filled with haunted background vocals and ambient synthesizers, also present are Jeezy “What’s?!”, Lex Luger-esque fills, screwed vocals, and tales of ghetto life that are as far removed from Goth as Robert Smith is from the Trap. The drum programming, base lines, and vocal cadences are as sharp as swords that the Four Horsemen whom they often rap about wield. The other two MCs, King FOE and Karma, are both talented wordsmiths in their own rite. King FOE flows dance between deliberate punctuation and rapid fire flourishes verging on song at times as he raps about the darkness that he sees both within himself and the world which he inhabits. Karma completes the triangle, spitting his raps in an impeccably vicious double-time. Raspy-voiced and relentless, he is the group’s conflicted conscience.
The limits of the term “Goth Hop” become more apparent listening to the tracks BRK T M (Bark To Me) and Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. On BRK T M, BLKHRTS channel Iggy Pop. Sampling various pieces Pop’s I Wanna Be Your Dog, Yorissey creates an track that DMX would love to take a bite out of. This is a marriage of one of punk’s progenitors and contemporary rap music. Watch BLKHRTS live and this connection to Punk becomes even more evident. Yorrissey and King FOE are two of the most dynamic rappers I have ever seen rock a stage (Karma could not make the Seattle show); Their energy and stage antics owe more to Iggy Pop and Johnny Rotten than to Morissey or JAY Z. Tell Me Something I Don’t Know is another step removed from the Goth aesthetic. While the background guitars on the beat are reminiscent of The Cure, the lead guitar riff and sung chorus would sound for a home on new rock radio (much of which owes its sounds to some of these same musicians) than placed alongside Gene Loves Jezebel or The Sisters of Mercy. I mention this not to nitpick, but to point out that the musicality present on Death, Romance and The Color BLK is more dynamic than the label “Goth Hop” implies. But, then that’s the problem with labels, isn’t it? They aren’t ever quite expansive enough, are they? I will say though, that anybody who flips a Peter Murphy vocal sample (“She’s Into Parties”) on a Rack City-esque track about pulling your girl at a “porty” is doing a pretty damned good job of marrying two disparate worlds to create something different and refreshing that is still familiar in a Hip-Hop landscape that has become increasingly homogenized.