When I was about 11, I started hearing songs like Newcleus‘s “Jam On It” and Grandmaster Melle Mel‘s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” on New York radio. A couple of years later, in 1986, I bought Run-DMC‘s Raising Hell. After that, I started listening to Public Enemy — I came on board with their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, and saw them live in 1988 after It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back came out — and NWA and Ice-T and Boogie Down Productions and Schoolly D and Big Daddy Kane. Hip-hop was never the majority of my listening, though, and it never struck me as a revolutionary sound. In the mid to late ’80s, there were so many other interesting things going on, from NYHC (Sick of It All, Breakdown, Judge, Gorilla Biscuits, Killing Time et al.) to thrash metal (Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Suicidal Tendencies) to industrial (Front 242, Ministry/Revolting Cocks, Godflesh, Skinny Puppy), plus I was already starting to explore jazz…rap was just one more sound. So while I kept listening through most of the ’90s and even the early ’00s — artists like DMX, Gang Starr, Wu-Tang Clan (and individual members: Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Ghostface, and Method Man), Mos Def, Jeru the Damaja, UGK (and Bun B) and New Kingdom made great records I still come back to — over time, it stopped speaking to me.
For a while, the last rapper I was still listening to seriously was Rick Ross, but eventually I lost interest in his music, too, and then I stopped paying attention to hip-hop almost entirely. So these days, it takes a lot for a hip-hop album to make it through to me. And my knowledge of the genre’s present-day landscape is basically nil. So when I praise a hip-hop album, it’s fair for the reader to assume that it’s because it speaks to me based on my particular tastes — that it’s old-school or out-of-time enough to reach a guy whose aesthetic is based on metal, industrial, and decades-old rap.
Amani, an up-and-coming Brooklyn rapper, has teamed up with King Vision Ultra for An Unknown Infinite, a 13-track, 42-minute album that has a back-alley, late-night, mole-people-in-the-subway-tunnels quality that’s pure New York. KVU is a solo project from Geng, who runs Purple Tape Pedigree, which seems to be more of an artistic collective than a traditional label. His own aesthetic is as attuned to hardcore and doom metal and noise as to ’90s East Coast hip-hop. That combination of sounds — Gang Starr meets Neurosis — filters out as low, ominous tracks that may not even have drums, sacrificing head-nodding beats for an intensity reminiscent of horror movie soundtracks. The occasional soft sounds, like the piano and flute on “Shaft in Africa,” are likely to have come from a guest producer. The looped bass lines rumble through tape hiss and distortion, and when there are drums, they’re frequently muffled and loose, the rhythm more of a suggestion than a taskmaster. In between tracks, prophets and revolutionaries offer monologues or snippets from lectures. Amani’s voice is declamatory; he sounds a little bit like Ghostface‘s former sidekick Trife Da God, but with a patient flow like Jeru the Damaja and a facility for piercing observations. He’s an angry social critic determined to make his way within a crooked, rigged system. On “Water” maassai, a woman with a biting anger all her own, adds her voice to the mix.
This album doesn’t rage, it seethes. It crawls along the ground, sneaking up on you when you’re not looking and then sliding into your ear and wrapping its coils around your brain and squeezing. I have no idea where it fits into contemporary hip-hop, and I don’t care. It reminds me of the grimy, harsh noise-rap of The Bug or albums on the WordSound label, and if that sounds good to you, then you should check it out.