Sunday, 9 July 2017

Album Review: Ciaran Mac - Rainy Daze

Ciaran Mac has been an SSU favourite for a while, but he hasn't released a full project since his 2014 EP Took Your Time. Hannah Westwater checks out the long awaited follow-up...

Ciaran Mac - Rainy Daze
Buy/Listen Here

You’d be forgiven for thinking this can’t possibly be Ciaran Mac’s solo full length debut – a few blinks around Scottish hip hop and he’s everywhere. Whether it’s his work with Rory O’B, hyped live shows or word on the street that he’s the Glasgow hip hop's freshest voice, Ciaran has earned his place at the heart of the community. Having made his name on the circuit, 'Rainy Daze' serves as a reminder why all eyes should be on him.

Ciaran’s flows are the focal point of this release and he isn't stopping for breath. On opener Gimme a Second, he unapologetically takes shots at the “parasitic fantasists” of Scottish hip hop over an old school beat. Impressively, he strikes a balance between boom bap bravado and a quiet confidence that he can back it up.

'Rainy Daze' is a playground for Ciaran’s often relentless flow, demonstrating a real affinity for rhythm which, no, isn’t a rap inevitability. At times it risks being to the detriment of his lyrical skill – he really runs rings around many of his peers with metaphors and smart rhymes, but some of his best moments as a wordsmith struggle for air beneath flows so uncompromising. With a little development, though, it’s clear that he’ll easily establish a middle ground which allows equal spotlight for all of his skills as an emcee. And there are definitely shades of that on the album, with Let Em Be a well-judged moment of calm that adds valuable dimension to the release.

Most of the beats are sophisticated but fairly straightforward (a scan down the tracklist reveals a handful of the scene’s production gems) and the record is all the better for it. Ciaran’s no-nonsense strain of rap is well suited to tracks that compliment but don’t distract. But make no mistake: there’s no lack of ambition here, and this effort sonically demonstrates Ciaran won’t be restrained by a scene that can be difficult to step out of.

Munity, featuring words and production from Big Shamu, is a particular highlight. A sitar-like motif swirls throughout as both emcees go back and forth, making for one of the album's most addictive moments. But track two, Bag of Rations, is Ciaran’s mission statement. He's not kidding when he drops rhymes like “I like to spit so when I’m coming up with something sick I’m making sure that every word is hitting like a tonne of bricks”. He shouts out the hip hop community, a heartfelt moment of gratitude which may have seemed out of place coming out the mouths of other rappers – but there’s an authenticity to the entirety of the album that helps it fit right in.

To many it was inevitable Ciaran Mac’s first full length would be one of, if not the, best of the year thus far, but that doesn’t detract from his achievement. On 'Rainy Daze', he erodes any doubts left kicking around and does a good job of making sure you believe every word he says.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Album Review: G-Mo - Cause I Can

Coatbridge rapper G-Mo is best known for his off-the wall battle performances. But Jonathan Rimmer finds he's got more in his locker than one might expect...

G-Mo - Cause I Can EP
Listen/Buy Here 

Even though Coatbridge's G-Mo is relatively new to hip hop, anyone with even a passing interest in the Scottish scene will have inevitably encountered him over the past few years. He's a conspicuous presence at gigs and battle events, always on hand to jump in and freestyle at any given open mic or cypher.

The loud-mouthed emcee's erratic battle performances at Breaking the Barrier have made it difficult to gauge his potential. When G-Mo's on he's on, full of clever rhymes and witty punchlines, but he's the first to admit maintaining a drunkenly boisterous persona has its obvious side effects.

It's therefore a surprise to hear G-Mo so poised on 'Cause I Can', the most thorough collection of tracks he's put out. He's just as blunt and funny as you'd expect, but anyone expecting Ol' Dirty Bastard-esque theatrics will be taken aback. Whereas he has a tendency to slur and sound disjointed in a live environment, G-Mo brings a degree of professionalism to the EP.

This manifests itself most obviously on opening track DSF, which is also the clear highlight. He bounces around comfortably on an Ill-Az beat, switching up flows and varying his rhyming patterns. Even the vocal hook ("drink til' it's done / smoke til' my lips burn / fuck til' my hips hurt / that's the life that I live") is delivered with clarity.

Okay, so the subjects he tackles are hardly groundbreaking, but G-Mo proves himself a solid rapper throughout. From the jazz-inflected You Like This Shit to group cut Woman, his bars are tightly structured and technically sound. He also has an intrinsic understanding of how to spit his material, using cadence to better communicate the message of each track.

Keeping in mind the title, the EP's main deficiencies derive from trying too much if anything. 'Cause I Can' feels more like a mixtape due to the sheer number of styles and samples on show. Gaze takes snippets from Daughter's Amsterdam, Fuck G-Mo uses AC/DC's Back in Black, and Yellow features an annoying hook about traffic lights. Most confusingly, Here To Stay essentially starts with 30 seconds from a classical piano piece for no discernible reason.

There are other issues that perhaps stem from lack of experience: he overuses ad-libs a tad, the vocal mixing isn't as strong on the tail end of the project, and though Butterflies' sentiment is nice, the ode to his girlfriend only proves he can't sing well. 

These odd moments tend to come over as endearing rather than irritating, though. G-Mo possesses a natural charisma that is too often missing from the Scottish scene. While he's slightly scatterbrained in the songwriting department, he clearly has a strong grasp of what makes for a good hip hop track. His trademark antics make for an entertaining spectacle live, but 'Cause I Can' shows he has the potential to be far more consistent. 

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Irn Brz Rap Battles @ SWG3: Live Review, Video Highlights and Interviews

ABOVE: SSU capture some highlights and interview each of the performers post battle

In terms attracting wider UK talent, Andrew Mackenzie's Irn Brz is the leading Scottish rap battle league at the moment. Last year's debut card featured Don't Flop leading lights Cojay and Chris Leese. Friday's one year birthday event featured Don't Flop leading lights Bobby Rex and J Dillon. Not a bad return, all in all.

Despite energetic performances from Mistah Bohze and Delivery Room between battles, there was an oddly subdued atmosphere to proceedings. The length of the event was one factor, with a chunk of the crowd heading home mid-way through the night. But there was also a series of chokes and stumbles from the battlers themselves, which didn't help morale.

Manchester's Bobby Rex suffered the most damning memory slip during his headline battle with Mackenzie. After a typically confrontational first round, his second and third rounds sucked the life out the room as he fluffed his lines and attempted to ring a pal to steer himself back on track. Mackenzie flipped by commenting that he'd "already used a phone a friend and now wanted to ask the audience". Irrespective of everything else, the former King of the Ronalds champion clearly had the performance of the night.

Photo: Derek MacKay
Of the two English emcees, J Dillon had the better night. Although not a vintage performance, his pun-based humour and wry observations caused some big laughs. His opponent Scott Earley had the home advantage, though, and arguably edged the clash with hilarious local references and performance antics.

Veteran Wee D split opinion in his battle with relative newcomer Acre. His jokes targeting Acre's ethnicity and religion were perhaps misconstrued given his clarifications (see the video interview above), but they still struck the wrong tone in the room. Acre's content and delivery was mostly solid, especially given it was his Glasgow debut, but he was massively let down by lengthy chokes in his first and third rounds.

Zee and MC Lean was another tricky bout to call. Zee's wordplay-oriented material was mostly slept on, but his jokes about Lean's weight were received better. His experience also saw him through in the third round, where he freestyled the majority of his bars. MC Lean's style was less sophisticated but also more cutting, and he already has strong projection and crowd control. The decision ultimately went his way but will inevitably be up for debate when it drops online.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Multimedia Report: Break Even Showcase @ Flying Duck June 21

Photo: Adam Cheshire
One key issue for Glasgow-based emcees over the years has been the lack of regular and accessible hip hop nights. Rap-focused nights geared towards newcomers tend to be held sporadically and there's a lack of opportunities for artists to showcase their skills.

However, Extra Seconds Events' Johnny Cypher has secured a bi-monthly spot for hip hop at The Flying Duck. The first event on Wednesday featured a variety of well-known acts, such as T3xtur3 and Ill Papa Giraffe.

But most notable was the fluidity of the acts on display. Johnny Cypher, himself a poet and rapper with Futurology, booked a diverse range of acts, even bringing together emcees and spoken word acts for an open-mic midway through the night.

SSU's Jonathan Rimmer put together a short mobile package on the night and chat to Cypher about the new project. 

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Album Review: Togo Fam - The Family Album

Representing the exciting Glasgow label Subfriction Records, Togo Fam is a new crew featuring a mix of veterans and up-and-comers. Editor Jonathan Rimmer reviews their debut record. (Side note: all revenue from the album is being donated to Drumchapel Food Bank).

Togo Fam - The Family Album
Buy/Listen Here

Crew albums aren't common in Scottish hip hop. Veterans in the scene will tell you it can be hard enough getting a couple of emcees to link up for verses, let alone several for a full length project. But, as their name suggests, Glasgow collective Togo Fam are a tight knit bunch with a unified sense of purpose. 

However, there's immediately a lot to get your head around. The crew is composed of seven members (or nine if you go by their updated Facebook page), variously described as rappers, producers and designers. There's a mix of experience in the form of Nity Gritz and names SSU is less familiar with such as Woze.

The album is 87 minutes long at 29 tracks, with multiple skits and styles on show. On top of that, there are feature verse from Physiks, Ciaran Mac and others. Considering the number of heads in the group, you'd think they'd have a good editor.

That said, they make use of the running time reasonably well. With crews this size it's easy for individual rappers to get lost amidst the web of similar accents and flows, but Togo Fam are discerning in how verses are distributed across the album. Each emcee has a moment to shine, adding colour and personality to each cut.

For example, slick rhymer Big Shamu puts a marker down by steamrollering his way through early album highlight Heads Up. RDS accomplishes something similar on the track Charles Manson with his distinctive stream of multisyllabics. Combinations are important too: Kid Robotik's aggression and Orry Caren's more consciously monotone delivery make for a brilliant contrast on Prestige.

Production-wise, it's harder to work out who to credit for what, but there is a clear split on the album between traditional piano-based boom bap loops and more trap-influenced beats. In principle there's nothing wrong with this, especially considering the sheer length of this LP, but the sequencing just feels off.

In fact, the latter style isn't introduced until tracks eight and eleven (Zonin and Hatin), catching the listener off guard with tinny hi-hats and dramatic sub-bass. The emcees at least adjust accordingly, with Kid Robotik particularly adept at switching to a double time flow. But they're still unnecessary detours that would have fitted in more comfortably on a separate project.

That's not to say the crew's more experimental moments aren't successful. Sampling dubstep legend Burial is considered heresy by some, but the track Movin pulls it off well. Too Many is another standout as guest emcees Spee 69 and Upfront spit venomously over syncopated brass, bringing back the album's momentum as it starts to drift.

And there clearly are moments when 'The Family Album' does drift, partly because the crew are keen to pack as much into the record as they possibly can. Togo Fam's boundless creativity make that easy to forgive, especially considering the level of competency in the rhymes department. They could have trimmed more fat, but this is still a remarkably impressive showing.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Live Review: Temple of Hip Hop Sessions @ Box, Glasgow, June 9

Photos: Laura Docherty
DJ and producer Steg G is a monumental figure in the Scottish hip hop scene. Not only does he invest time running workshops across the city, but he is also one of the only people to actively promote local talent via his weekly Temple of Hip Hop show on Sunny Govan Radio. 

It's therefore unsurprising that respected names would travel from across the country to perform at a free fundraising event for the station, which also operates as a charity for young and vulnerable people. 
Although it's a humid summer night, a mix of hip hop heads and passing locals pack out the clammy Box pub on Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street. 

Opening act K9 Kev & Rory O'B travel all the way from Oban to play alongside Steg, who serves as DJ for each of the five acts performing tonight. Fresh off a heroic festival performance, they seem a tad ill suited to the more intimate setting. Their folk-influenced beats fail to cut through the venue's poor acoustics, but they make up for it with a mix of self-effacing humour and geeky charm.

Local emcee Empress might be the least experienced rapper on the bill, but she possesses a confidence and natural delivery that makes her set one of the highlights. She's slightly limited by the fact she primarily raps over 90s boom bap instrumentals from classic Wu-Tang Clan and Big Pun tracks. 

However, she has such a strong flow and grasp of how to construct rhyme schemes it doesn't overly matter. In a scene where women are underrepresented and misogyny is still prevalent, it's refreshing to see her boss the stage with consummate ease.

Edinburgh-based Conscious Route knows how to make his presence known, too. After steamrollering through a selection of his 'Conscious' material, he slots on a luchador mask for his other persona Stutter Jack. Think an English MF Doom with a taste for reggae and you're on the right path.

But it's hometown veteran Loki who makes the biggest impact. As he takes to the stage there's an observable difference, and the crowd are transfixed by his absorbing social narratives – at least until he snaps them out of it with a trademark political rant.

Regardless, he brings clarity, experience and a selection of beats that just places him a cut above his peers. The majority of tracks he performs are mostly from his lyrically dense new album 'Trigger Warning', but raps them fluidly as his older material.

Despite officially launching his new record 'What is Happiness?', headliner Wee D's casual demeanour suggests he's about as inebriated as half the crowd at this point. He causes a mini-ruckus, going 'taps aff' by the climax of his set and inviting the crowd on stage.   

There's also a serious side, though. Many of the tracks from the album deal directly with mental health, which he communicates through stories rather than preachy messaging. Dedicating one piano-laden track to 'the fathers in the room', he keeps the room on side and ends the night in a surprisingly touching manner.

In fact, given the diversity on show, positivity and community spirit are about all the the five billed acts have in common. For all hip hop can be portrayed as overly confrontational, it has the potential to make for an incredibly unifying spectacle  especially when Steg G is involved.