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Reviews: The Smile Rays, Junk Science, & Unified School District

by Travis on December 11, 2007

Smile Rays – Smilin’ On You(Rawkus, 2007)
Buy At Amazon

1. By Design Three
2. Taste Like Chicken
3. Smilin’ On You
4. Funky Wombat
5. Almost There feat The AB’s
6. Serious Bidness
7. Trust
8. Trippin’ feat Willie Evans Jr.
9. Lonely Room
10. The Funk Is Back

About a year ago, with some time on my hands, I decided to pay a visit to some of the musical groups that had added me on myspace. Most of the time, if someone requests me as a friend, I just add them and move on, forgetting all about it. With time to kill though, I figured I’d actually check out some of the music. That’s how I discovered the Jacksonville, Florida trio, The Smile Rays. Consisting of an MC, Therapy of The AB’s fame, crooner Da*sey and Batsauce on the beats, the music I heard immediately grabbed me. From that moment on (that was 2006), I’ve been constantly following their progress. I has happy to hear that they made the Rawkus 50, the promotional tool being spearheaded by legendary hip hop label, Rawkus Records. By being included into the group of 50, it meant an album from the group, something I’d been anticipating since discovering the group. Needless to say, when the group released it’s digital album “Smilin’ On You”, I was happy to have it be my first ever digital purchase. Was it worth the wait and breaking my promise to myself of never buying a digital album? Yes!

Coming in at ten tracks, “Smilin’ On You” adheres to the rule of “keep it short and sweet”. The first track, By Design Three, leads things off lovely. Using a fairly familiar break to set things off, the track is a perfect example of what to expect from the rest of the album. Therapy is very strong MC, something that might have been overlooked on the talented but slept on ’05 release “…And Now” from The AB’s (then known as Asamov). He displays his raw, “in your face” rhyme style on the second track, Taste Like Chicken. As Therapy gives a lyrical ass beating, Da*sey calms the situation down with soulful chorus that might be a little goofy, but it sure does sound good. The song is a good contrast of raw hardcore hip hop and beautiful singing that shows that a “hard” rap song can having singing as well. The best song of the batch may just be the Akrobatik assisted title track, Smilin’ On You, both for it’s lyrical performance from Akrobatik and Therapy and the dirty, smellin’, funky beat conjured up by Batsauce. Using a nice sax sample and some booming drums coupled with something not heard much in hip hop, scratching, the beat is really something great for the ears.

Coming with only ten tracks, there is not much room for error and there isn’t much wrong with the album in terms of mistakes. A couple songs such as Funky Wombat may not be in the same class as the cream of the crop tracks, but this is a very solid release that is both fluid in nature and listenable all the way through from start to finish. I was disappointed that one of my favorite songs from their myspace page, Cest’ La Vie, was not included on the project. I will eagerly awaiting future releases from The Smile Rays and am even considering shelling out the extra dough for their import album “Party Place”, this group is just that good in my eyes. You definitely will be seeing this again in the near future as one of my favorite albums of the year.

Rating 4 out 5

Junk Science – Gran’Dad’s Nerve Tonic (Embedded Music/Def Jux, 2007)

01. Slojo
02. Pop Rocks (Extended Disco Edit)
03. Do It Easy

04. Words From the Pedro (featuring Cool Calm Pete)
05. Woodchucks (featuring Loer Velocity)
06. Glasshouse (featuring MC K-Swift & Cavalier)
07. Whatever’s Classico

08. Jerry McGuire
09. Hey! (featuring Scott Thorough)
10. That Being Said (featuring Iller Than Theirs)
11. Third-Person Stealth

12. Slouctro
13. The Effects Of the Nerve Tonic
14. Do It Easy (Daedelus Remix)
15. Tellin Lies (featuring Krayo)

Press Stuff:

Junk Science is Baje One on the mic and DJ Snafu on the beats. Simple. These two young gentlemen met in high school in Brooklyn in the mid-nineties (when Baje One stole a handful of tapes from Snafu’s backpack, including a cassette containing original beats that were “dope”) and started making lots of “not-that-good-but-definitely-interesting” music together on half-days and weekends. Not that much happened between then and 2003-ish. At that point, they moved in together and started working on their debut album, Feeding Einstein, “an intelligent blend of DJ Snafu’s dusty collages and Baje One’s thoughtful commentary.”

In early 2005, they caught Scion’s attention when they won the car company’s NextUp Song Contest with their track “Roads,” a victory by popular vote which earned them a marketing deal that included a fully
funded and fly music video directed by
ANDREW GURA (Madlib, MF DOOM, Nas etc.) The success of their video and the quality of their then-finished debut LP in turn grabbed the attention of DJ Ese, the man behind Brooklyn’s EMBEDDED RECORDS, who released Feeding Einstein in November of 2005 to critical acclaim. Now they’re famous. That was easy.

Their sophomore record, Gran’Dad’s Nerve Tonic, is due out in October on Embedded Music / Definitive Jux. The album is pure Junk Science; a clever patchwork of tightly conceptual tracks woven together by the theme of the Tonic itself and the duo’s signature, intentionally dusty, lo-fi sound. According to emcee Baje One, “It’s not a record about alcohol or alcoholism per se, as much as the record itself is the drink that me and Snafu needed and couldn’t find anywhere on the shelves.” In promotion of the record, and in keeping with Junk Science and (Embedded CEO) DJ Ese’s love of beer, the three have teamed up with up-and-coming Brooklyn brewery Six Points Craft Ales to create a limited-release brew to coincide with the release of the album. The beer will be available in a limited bottling and on tap in bars and restaurants around NYC.

And now, some FUN facts about Junk Science:

– Baje One and DJ Snafu are both members of Brooklyn’s oft-celebrated crew: NUCLEAR FAMILY
- Baje and Snaf share the same birthday, March 15th, which is coincidentally also THE IDES OF MARCH, the date in 44 BC which marks the assasination of Julius Caesar. Perhaps one day Baje One will kill Snafu or vice versa. Only time will tell.
- Both members share a love for video games, craft beers, and intelligent stupidity.

From the groups myspace

Sometimes it’s who you roll with when it comes to getting your music heard. For the New York group, Junk Science, rollin’ with the right label might be just what they needed to get their music out to the masses. Baje One and Snafu, who make up Junk Science, have teamed up with indie hip hop giant, Def Jux to release their sophomore debut, “Gran’Dad’s Nerve Tonic”, which they hope gets more play than their excellent 2005 debut “Feeding Einstein”. That LP was the introduction of the group to the masses and contained dusty beats that I’ve seen adequately described as “lo-fi”, crafted by group producer Snafu. It also introduces the laid back and deep but simple flow of MC Baje One. While he doesn’t switch up his tone nor his flow all that much, it’s strong enough that it doesn’t distract from the overall product of “Feeding Einstein”. It was an album that won me over, even though I was two years late on it. With “Gran’Dad’s…” release, it was one easily one of my eagerly awaited releases of the year. Naturally, one has to wonder if it will live up to the anticipation, or take the route of so many “highly anticipated” releases and fall flat on its face.

You have to love any album that immediately starts off with a movie sample from “Weird Science”, one of my personal favorites from my prepubescent years. It’s right then that the tone for the whole album is set on the intro/lead off track, “Slojo”. Snafu’s dusty, muffled drums kick in and give the listener their first of their self-described “lo-fi” sound. No doubt, the production of the project really ties the album together to make a very fluid, yet tightly woven concept album. The group’s first single from the album, “Pop Rocks (Extended Disco Edition)” uses a familiar drum break as it’s back bone, then with keys and strings sprinkled over the top, and some nicely added movie samples (more “Weird Science”) and you have a tasty treat that, hopefully, doesn’t make your mouth feel weird. “Do It Easy” uses a laid back beat, like a lot of them are, that employs more luscious keys that tempts the listener to close their eyes and take a magical journey supplied by the “Nerve Tonic”. Snafu also uses a well placed Rakim sample that adds to the track. The beat for “Hey” is different in that it provokes a little more adrenaline in the listeners body as Snafu conjures up a little faster track that also lights a fire under Baje One’s underside as he speeds things up on the mic as well.

Baje One is more a very accomplished MC, with a quirky and dry sense of humor on the mic, something that is sorely missing from hip hop these days. This is evident on “Jerry McGuire”, a track that any disgruntled employee should play after a shitty day of work. Baje One lays down the 10 steps of how to quit your job, aka “50 Way’s To Leave Your Lover”…

“Ten, you go to lunch when you’ve been working so hard Then catch a flight to Puerto Rico and send them a post card ….You vile bastards, this is just to let you know I took a shit in the filing cabinet Now file that, NOW FILE THAT, Under I, for I quit!” - “Jerry McGuire”

But in the sarcasm and goofiness, there is tid bits of seriousness hidden in there. On the aforementioned “Slojo”, Baje One spits:

“….We dodged the draft, jumped the gun. Tell Mister Bush to send his fuckin’ son. Life is way to precious for that….” - “Slojo”

The best lyrical performance though comes in the form of “Third-Person Stealth”. Baje One takes a stab at te
lling a story, in the form of a prison escape. In the true nature of Def Jux, I’m sure there is some underlying meaning to the whole thing, but Baje One does a nice job of painting the picture in the listeners mind. One can see a jail break being played out in his head as Baje One tells the story. It’s also one of the few songs from the album that doesn’t include a chorus. One thing Junk Science is good at and also one of the few “commercial” aspects to their music is their use of strong choruses. The duo uses somewhat sing song choruses in a lot of the songs found on the album. “Woodchucks” is a great example of this, with it’s chorus that gets stuck in the listeners subconscious that you end up singing it at inappropriate times (like waiting for a job interview). The listener just can’t help screaming out “I’m going to quit my jooooob!”, on “Jerry McGuire”. The crew is great at creating strong, memorable choruses, which makes their somewhat “hard to digest” sound more palatable for some listeners.

What could be considered as one of their greatest strengths by some, might be seen as the album’s weakness by others. The uniformed and cohesive sound might wear on some listeners. There is not a lot of switch up in tone, tempo from both the beats and the vocals on the majority of the tracks. There is a fine line between “monotonous” and a “sound” in today’s hip hop music. One might complain there is too many albums out there that have no direction or cohesiveness (such as myself), while a lot of listeners don’t have the attention spans to appreciate an album that is well tied together, “Gran’Dad’s Nerve Tonic” might suffer in the eyes of some listeners in that department.

Other tracks just don’t live up to the quality of some of the better tracks on the album. There are several unmemorable songs such as “Slouctro”, which sounds like you’ve already heard earlier on the album. Then of course, there is the Def Jux “x-factor”. As with a lot of the labels projects they’ve been associated with, this isn’t an album that you can just sit down and not think. Some might not “get it”, which isn’t a bad thing in this listeners mind, but it might distract from the overall listening experience for others.

After many listening sessions with this album, I’ve personally become very “comfortable” with “Gran’Dad’s Nerve Tonic”. While it’s not the greatest album I’ve heard this past year, it’s one that I can appreciate the sense of humor and the creativity of. It provides a sound that, if your down with, just links the whole project together and is a nice follow up to their debut. It might not be for some of those that are less appreciative of uniqueness.

Rating 3.75 out of 5.0

Unified School District – Broke Down Palace (Self Released, 2007)

1. Waste Knot
2. Brokedown Palace
3. …Sleepwalking
4. Punch Face Drunk
5. Sum Columns
6. Saing Sweet Words
7. All Is Not Lost
8. This Revolting Revolution
9. Anti Audience Attack
10. Exit Theme
11. Action Figures
12. Nobodys Here
13. Radio Hate Us
14. No Left Time
15. Screamers
16. Want Knot

**Trav’s Note: This might come off corny as hell, but after writing five reviews the past few days, I wanted to try something different. Honestly, writing reviews bores me to tears, although I don’t mind doing them. This is half fiction/half actual events, based on true characters and actions….**

“Man, what’s this shit?” Alex says, holding up a copy of “Brokedown Palace”, a new album from an Oakland crew.
“Some group that sent me a copy of their CD, Unified School District or something like that”, I replied as I let up off the clutch and start to drive off.
“Is it any good?” my compadre asks, as he starts to load the disc into my cheap ass car’s stereo system.
“Shit if I know, I haven’t listened to it yet”.

After a short intro talking about orgies, making Alex snicker to himself slightly, the album’s title track kicks in. A simplistic beat fills the car, rattling my Rad Shack speakers ever so slightly.
“Who did the beats,” I ask while trying to concentrate on the icy road in front of me.
“Some dude named Ecto One”, Alex replies back to me as he starts to wrinkle his noise a bit,
“Man, this MC sounds like a cartoon character or something. Who the fuck calls themselves Super Ugly? That’s your moms nickname”.
“Fuck you”, I snarl back at him.

My head is starting to nod a bit as I’m starting to feel the groove a bit. My boy Alex isn’t so sure about it though. The beat encompasses the bare bones sound of hip hop that came from the late 80’s and early 90’s, something that is very fond to my heart and mind. The MC, Super Ugly, does have a distinctive voice, which takes some getting used to at first. Although I’m not totally sure I like his vocal tone, his flow and rhyme skills are more than adequate. He does command your attention on the mic, which goes good with the simplistic beat.

The next song, “…Sleepwalking”, starts to play. It has a sharp flute shrill as the beats alternative back bone, almost overpowering the drums. At first I’m not sure I like it or not, as it starts to be kind of repetitive, but just as starting thinking that, it disappears and the guitar loop plays on. The beat is again simplistic, but still a qualified head nodder. Again, Super Ugly takes a strong stance on the track. Some of the lyrics seem almost abstract in nature, but you can’t help to listen to the man spit. I look at Alex and he wrinkles his nose up.

“Man, you and that underground shit, I’m going to put some 50 in”, as he reaches for the CD case.
“Touch that eject button and I’ll break your hand. Besides, you know I don’t own no 50 Cent”, I say as I take a swig of OJ while sitting at a traffic light, waiting for it to change.
A familiar voice starts off “Punchfacedrunk”.
“Ain’t that that punk, Copywrite or some shit,” Alex says half surprised that there is a somewhat recognized MC on the project.
“Dude, kill that noise man, Copy’s an entertaining MC”, I say, although I’m a little surprised to hear someone of Copy’s stature on the project. I guess Unified School District isn’t some local group like I thought. Copy drops an entertaining verse over the weakest beat I’ve heard thus far on the project. It contains a keyboard based beat, that sounds somewhat familiar, but I can’t exactly place it.

Ecto One more than makes up for the minor mistep on the next song with a beautiful beat on “Sum Columns”. Strings and bells fill the car as we drive on. I look over at my boy and he is nodding along to the beat while looking out the window. I laugh and he looks at me, “Ah man, shit’s aight, nothin’ special though.” The beat in a way distracts from Super Ugly, but only because it’s so damn nice. I ain’t complaining though.

As we drive on, we let the CD play through the next few songs. Alex still mumbles every so often, complaining. I think a lot of his beef is with definite old-school feel to it. Being somewhat into the radio, jiggified shit, he isn’t feeling the release all that much. Since I’m more of an old “underground” head, I’m more open to the flashes of abstractism and the golden aged flavored beats. “This Revolting Revolution”, stands out, although I’m not particular sure why. A lot of this release is that way. You don’t really know what to think of it.

After listening to most of the album, we arrive at our destination and go on with our day. Alex curiously asks me to burn him a copy of the CD after work.
“I thought you didn’t liked that shit”, I say to him after he asks me.
“Man, I don’t know what it is, but I had some of that stuff stuck in my head all day”, he replies back.

Over the next couple weeks, I find myself listening more and more to “Brokedown Place”, not sure why I’m listening to it more and more or why I have some of the well crafted choruses stuck in my subconscious. I’m not sure if it’s Super Ugly’s commanding voice and his ability to make the listener hang on his every word. Maybe its Ecto One’s creative knack behind the boards. One such track that demonstrates Ecto One’s creativity is “Exit Theme”, which reminds me of one of my favorite producers, J-Zone. A constant string sample plays through out the track, a banjo maybe? It has Zone’s influence all over it and for the same reasons I like J-Zone’s music, is the same reason I’m feeling Ecto’s beats. They are often unorthodox and don’t follow the traditional rules of hip hop, but they are damn creative. He even uses a nice sample from the “Pump Up The Volume” movie of the 80’s, such as Zone used a lot of movie soundbites. Other Zone like beats come up on “Radio Hates Us”, that uses what sounds like an accordion, ala Zone early in his career. The true jewel of the song comes in the form of the “after track” beat. If I ever met Super Ugly, I’d beg him to make a song with that shit. It employs some traditional boom-bap drums over a sweet vocal sample that still gives me goose bumps every time I hear it.

Two weeks later, I’m over at Alex’s crib, playing some Madden. He pops in the album in his stereo, and puts on track 14, “Know Time Left”, which contains a nice guest appearance from Price Po of former Organized Konfusion fame.
“Haha, man, you like this now huh”, I say to him after Willie Parker of the Steelers runs past his Viking linebackers.
“Man, this shit is dope. I know I didn’t like it at first, but the more I listen to it, the better it gets. The shit really grows on you”.
“I know man, I know”, is all I can say as Super Ugly it talking about “Screeeeaaaam at the top of your lungs, for once, let loose, let loose”……….

Rating 3.5 out 5.0

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