Hip-hop ain't dead, baby. Don't fret. Things are looking up.
OK, Vancouver hip hop collective Sweatshop Union is a little beaten down by the realities of the music business, by the state of hip hop, by the modern age as a whole - but when Colin McCue, a.k.a. Dusty Melo, saw L.A. rap crew Odd Future perform SXSW (South by Southwest music festival) two weeks ago, he found the embers of a once raging and radiant fire poked and ready to fan out. This new crop of hip-hoppers might just save a struggling art form.
"They seem genuinely excited about it and they're branding their own sound and image, which for the last five years you haven't really seen," says Melo.
"It has been that stereotype that's been popping up over and over again. It's been basically the same song with a different artist's name tagged on to it."
For their part, the Sweatshop Union has been resisting that stereotype and doing their part to save hip-hop from slumping permanently in the trashcans of our memory banks.
"We've always kind of strived to try and have our own sound and have our own thing going on, and now to see that there are more groups popping up like that, it makes us feel that maybe this is the time where pop culture and major media is ready for that," says Melo.
Formed in 2000 by Vancouver MCs Melo, Dirty Circus, Pigeon Hole and Innocent Bystander, the Union has spent last 10 years delivering a dose of bona fide West Coast hip-hop, devoid of gangsterisms or misogyny.
They've stayed true to hip-hop as art with thoughtful, intelligent rhymes and a steady blast of slick, original beats, earning a prominent spot atop Vancouver's indie hip-hop scene.
Relative to its metal, punk or indie rock scenes, there isn't a whole lot of competition to weed the wheat from the chaff and any MC or collective with a fist full of talent could reign supreme in this town. Everyone else is more or less blacklisted.
"People will ask, 'What do you do?' 'I make music,'" Melo says. "'Oh what kind of music?' 'Oh, hip hop.' And you can instantly see their brain like throwing me into that stereotype like, 'This guy's a douche bag.'"
Douche bags they are not. The Union's 2002 debut single, "The Truth We Speak," set aside making the bling and traded it for the sincerity and optimism that laid out the musical blueprints of what was to come. They've earned critical praise and have a steady local following. They've performed with Jurassic 5, Blackalicious and De La Soul. They've released six albums, not to mention a slew of solo releases from the various Union members, and yet mainstream success has eluded them. Much of this has to do with their inability to master the fine art of marketing.
"Marketing is like an art," Melo says. "If you want to be an artist you have to master marketing as an art and it's like, when does it stop?" he asks, a little bemused. "Is there ever going to come a day when we focus on making music or whatever your art is?"
Their latest release, The Bill Murray EP , reflects this frustration over the games we play as a society to finagle some peace of mind or maybe even a little happiness. While their previous work has been marked by an incessant, even naïve, optimism about the state of the world and its future, Bill Murray toils with a newfound cynicism.
"On this album, we've been through the ringer and realized everything that we've done in the past, although it may have impacted some individuals, it's almost like it's all for nothing," Melo says. "At this point it's about sitting back and talking about the reality of it."
This armchair review of the world suits them well, however, and Bill Murray shows the collective coming into their own as performers. Front to back it's their most consistent effort to date and the critical reviews have reflected that.
The production is as spacey as the star-glistening album cover and the lyrics provide a bird's-eye view of a dysfunctional society, with the album plays like a Greek tragedy narrated by gods from their perch in the cosmos.
But before plodding off into supreme pessimism they offer a characteristic glimmer of hope at the end with "John Lennon," quoting the Beatle's "Instant Karma" to assure whoever's listening that despite the smog and dysfunction, we still do all shine on.
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