Itâ€™s a bit challenging to analyze the current state of hip hop. As new artists emerge from the weathered woodwork of the past two decades, there is a serious lack of definition. In Los Angeles, we have to try to hear outside of the noisy clamor of L.A.â€™s burgeoning beat scene to pay mind to the other music out there. So when I was handed Chrome Lips, a mixtape produced by Chicago duo, Supreme Cuts, accompanied by Haleek Maul, a 16-year-old Barbadian rapper whom I had never heard of, I was not expecting it to answer my doubts regarding the genre. Yet, when I slid Chrome Lips into my car stereo on the way home from work one night, I was captivated by its foresight.
A teenager on a remote Carribean island and two young beat junkies from Chi-town that found each other on the internet? It seemed like a collaboration that could only have been formed by music geeks who met on World of Warcraft, but from the first cut it was apparent that these are not your typical SoundClouders. The first track, â€śThe Dummyâ€ť (featuring Deniro Ferrar) begins with the droniness of, to offer some context, Tyler the Creatorâ€™s â€śYonkers,â€ť but as the beat develops in the following seconds, you are dodging the drumfire of rapid snares and high-hats and explosive bass, and ducking the disturbing lyrics curving through them that could have only come from the darkest corners of a 16-year-oldâ€™s mind.
I listened on, enthralled. The next two tracks offered more of the same mood. Dark instrumentals with methodical percussion accompanied by the lyrics of a lonely little speck in a universe about to end. Sifting through the rest of the tape, the versatility of all of the artists involved was apparent. While the earlier tracks resemble a musical exorcism, the trio later offers lighter melodies that leave you feeling suspended in an ocean of swirling sealife. â€śM00N,â€ť presumably named for its sample of the King Crimson song â€śMoonchild,â€ť allows you to ignore the weight of the lyrical content with its spacey humming and slow echoing beat. â€śHoverboardâ€ť (featuring Squadda B) sounds like an urbanized Sigur Ros. Haleek molds his lyrics to a variety of moods expressed in the album, and as an MC he aggressively subverts the old-world rap norms. Any hint of an ego he may project in one bar is quickly assassinated in the next.
After trying to make sense of what had been invading my eardrums for three straight days, I had the pleasure of speaking with Austin and Mike of Supreme Cuts and Haleek Maul, though on separate occasions as we're strewn about three time zones. Haleek was having problems with his â€śMagic-Jackâ€ť in Barbados, something he later told me made him feel â€ślike stabbing thingsâ€ť (listen to â€śThe Dummyâ€ť and youâ€™ll understand), so we would have to talk another day. I spoke to Supreme Cuts first. If these guys donâ€™t become the major players they hope to be in rapâ€™s near future, they should probably write the book on it.
â€śThere are two really crazy scenes going on here (in Chicago), one being the rap scene. Thereâ€™s tons and tons of really crazy, awesome rappers popping up and getting signed,â€ť Austin explains. â€śBut then on the other side of the spectrum, but strangely close, there is like this new ambient take on electronic.â€ť
The group claims that they are trying to push the boundaries in a time when rap is being reinvented, and are doing so by tweaking their electronic, house-influenced style to better suit hip hop lyrics. Austin once described Chrome Lips as their â€śhella warped, twisted take on the state of hip hop today.â€ť I ask them to elaborate, something they are both eager to do.
â€śWeâ€™re trying to go through every genre, but Supreme Cuts is always gonna sound like us,â€ť Austin tells me. â€śItâ€™s just a totally different take on rap, but itâ€™s just as earnest because we all have been listening to rap since we were able to form memories. Thatâ€™s how Haleek sees it too, and heâ€™s gonna really push boundaries after this.â€ť
When asked about the current state of hip hop, the pair assures me that they are the best people to ask, but not if I want to get off the phone anytime soon. I give them the go ahead to explain. They claim hip-hop is in its â€śpunkâ€ť phase.
â€śIts 1977 right now, and Chicago is London!â€ť Mike yells into the static of the conference call. â€śThink about the 70â€™s and shit, bands like Yes and Rick Wakeman doing 14-minute fucking keyboard solos. So over indulgent, you know? And then in 1977, its like punk is here, and everyone is losing it over that, but itâ€™s so simple and primitive.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s not about technical skill anymore,â€ť Austin chimes in. â€śItâ€™s more about personality, who you are, and maybe aggression and, of course, aggressive beats. Every rapper that makes sense right now is subverting rapâ€™s past in a lot of ways. No one gives a fuck, and I think itâ€™s a beautiful thing.â€ť
Three days later I speak with Haleek Maul. He really doesnâ€™t give a fuck, about rap norms that is. Foolishly trying to visualize a teenage rapper who is amassing lots of hype and opportunities to work with damn near anyone he wants, I was taken by surprise when Haleek phoned into our office. He is humble, soft spoken and incredibly articulate. Having reached out to Supreme Cuts for a project on his own, he characterizes that almost stubborn tendency people have who are hell-bent on accomplishing their goals without taking handouts. At 16, he has his career cut out for him.
â€śMike and Austin are total big bro status,â€ť he says of Supreme Cuts. I ask him about his experience working with the duo so closely on Chrome Lips, in contrast to the more common, more impersonal method of a producer just sending out a beat package and leaving the to MC pick and choose what he likes.
â€śThatâ€™s boring. I know a lot of rappers that do that, and it just sounds like one personâ€™s style on top of another personâ€™s style.â€ť He continues, â€śI think thatâ€™s what a true collaboration is. You give someone a piece of you and they give you a piece of them, and then you meet in the middleâ€¦ Thatâ€™s very important in terms of having a group dynamic.â€ť
I go on to ask him about his style as an MC, and the source of his dark lyrics.
â€śI think my music is a reflection of the paranoid side of your mind,â€ť he says, before going off on a tangent about the projected self versus the reality of what is really going on in oneâ€™s head, and all that other stuff young people lament over. â€śItâ€™s the ultimate philosophical mind fuckâ€ť, he summarizes, something he admits is an ongoing theme in his music.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Haleekâ€™s style as an MC is his fearlessness to pay no mind to what one might expect of rap. â€śPost-rapâ€ť as he calls it (but admits he is not the first or only to do so) is a complete transformation of spoken hip hop. â€śYou used to say that rap is 16 bars, and that rap was boom-bap, and you used to hear that in rap music you had to be tough. You couldnâ€™t express yourself to a certain degree.â€ť
Haleek has no plans to move from the island closer to where the music is happening, but will stay put and craft his style in a studio in Barbados. â€śItâ€™s more conducive to working, being on the island really provokes a lot of thoughts for me,â€ť he says. If the remoteness of Barbados is where his unique style can continue to develop into something groundbreaking, perhaps more rappers and producers should work from solitude of tropical islandsâ€¦
In agreement with Supreme Cuts, Haleek told me this is not his â€śzenith,â€ť rather, this is the beginning. Both parties have assured me that future projects, whether done together or apart will be more concise with a clearer vision. Chrome Lips is meant more to throw out some lines and hook a fan base (which is growing rapidly), as well as more potential collaborators. If you like to download music but often feel bad for not buying the album, grab Chrome Lips by Supreme Cuts and Haleek Maul. Itâ€™s free of charge, free of guilt, and by the sound of it, these guys probably wonâ€™t give it up like this much longer.
Written by Aashiq Nazim