Alternative rap music, one of those plastic labels journalists like to use to pigeon hole that which they don't understand, is privvy to the shortcomings of any other style of rap: record label branding, generic posturing, fickle fan followings. The avatar of the alternative rap universe would seem to be De La Soul, with subsequent offerings ranging from A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets (dope) to P. M. Dawn, Spearhead and MC Paul Barman (kinda ehh).
The set-up for alternative rap music is it doesn't necessarily conform to the street-approved brand of system-thumping, 'hood-credible hardcore rap. Alternative rap can be conscious, space-age, or outright weird.
Two albums released in the past two months have proven that, despite the whole "hip-hop is dead" amalgam promoted by Nas, Andre 3000 and the like, there is some creativity left in hip-hop.
Canadian rapper K-Os's new album "Atlantis- Hyms For Disco" and Los Angeles bohemian MC Busdriver's new album, "Roadkill Overcoat," are food for the famine. Each album takes the best elements of alternative rap and turns them into groove-heavy, lyrically challenging displays of where the music can go and, more importantly, grow.
K-Os is the more commercially viable of the two, yet he refuses any sort of cliches. On the song "Aquacity Boy" he defiantly pronounces a familiar mantra - "This ain't rock n' roll/ Cause the rap is in control." This while a sinister guitar riff and fuzzy drums, ala "Check Ya Head"-era Beastie Boys, bang along.
K-Os is a gifted vocalist, with a nasal voice that can channel Percy Sledge, like on the slow-burning "The Rain," or Morrissey, as on the new wave-y single "Sunday Morning." His singing is a bit thin, but endearing in that indie-rock sorta way. Where other alternative rap cats have fallen short on switching between rap and song (Mos Def, Q-Tip, and Andre 3000), K-Os finds a balance.
On the other hand, "Roadkill Overcoat" is a bit more advanced, a bit more abstract, a bit more hard to follow. Busdriver is a second-generation member of Project Blowed, the LA crew/movement founded by Freestyle Fellowship, a legendary underground crew who have pushed the boundaries of hip-hop to impressive heights.
Busdriver's steez is part Volume 10, the uncanny LA rapper who gave us the hip-hop classic "Pistol Grip Pump," and part Gift of Gab, the breathless rhyme slinger from Blackalicious. Add in some poignant new wave crooning and you've got one of the most unique voices in the game right now.
On the opening song "Casting Agents and Cowgirls," Busdriver rides a pulsing beat with manic glee, like a slightly demented circus announcer. The album is full of these sometimes cartoonish, but always engaging soundpieces. When he's not going for broke, he's experimenting on a synth-heavy banger like "Sun Shower." The song starts off like a mid-80s UK pop song, but Busdriver's mournful singing and shuttering lyrics gives it an updated bend.
On the moody "Mr. Mistake (Bested by the Whisper Chasm)," Busdriver manages to slow down the tempo without betraying his hyperactive flow. He also displays a song writer's lilt, with lyrics like: "I got people to disappoint/ I got mistakes to make/ How can you believe I'm not a waste of space."
What makes these two albums so distinct in the hip-hop market is they're written by song writers who aren't afraid to give their all. In the muddled hip-hop universe, it's a shame that these guys have to be referenced as an alternative, rather than viewed as the norm.