Beneath the Underdog

Ask any jazz head of their favourite jazz musician and the name Charles Mingus is very unlikely to pop up. Sure, names such as Parker, Davis, and Ellington will appear as recurring features on everyone’s list, but one will be lucky to have ‘The Angry Man of Jazz‘ featuring. Yet Mingus had a chance to play with the best of them during his lifetime; Parker, Armstrong, Ellington, Davis…these are but some of the greats with whom Charles Mingus was on an equal footing.

 An accomplished bassist, composer, and bandleader, he was also equally adept at the piano, and could have arguably made a career out of playing the instrument. Yes, he was that good! Yet, despite his incredible skill and compositional genius, Mingus always felt as though he was somewhat of an outsider. Perhaps this was due to his mixed origin, or his refusal to conform to labels such as ‘jazz’ in reference to his music. His autobiography, ‘Beneath the Underdog‘, explores the many faces of the man behind the double-bass.

Rapper Mingus (alias X the 24th Letter) is not afraid to declare his admiration for the man who, although long gone and belonging to an era before ours, typifies all that the former aims to accomplish. Maybe not so much the double-bass wizardry and notoriety for a fiery temperament (the jazz musician Mingus got fired by Duke Ellington for his temper) as for the undeniable genius that he possessed.

Asked about the motivation behind the title of his debut album ‘Beneath the Underdog‘ -‘Prime Example‘, a prequel of sorts, was offered as  a free download two years ago –  the rapper states categorically that ‘I am in the same league as the best of ’em, yet somehow still manage to get overlooked’.

 Indeed, Mingus has been known to roll with the best of Cape Town’s hip-hop elite. Hell, he is even responsible – along with partners Akio and Raiko – for bringing reputable names in the underground hip-hop circuit to South Africa, the most recent being Blu and Exile whose ‘Beneath the clouds‘ effort was a pleasant and well-received surprise in the global hip-hop community. DJ Babu, Akil (former Jurassic 5 member), and People Under The Stairs’ exploits to these shores can be partly attributed to him.

But it is the music, his music in particular, in which we are most interested. He talks about the album’s creation process thus: ‘I wanted to try out everything on my own, from choosing which producers to work with, right through to the packaging and art direction’. While some of his South African-based peers are very glad to get signed to a label, Mingus opted not to, citing ‘full creative control’ as the primary motivating factor.

 Fair enough, even though reasons such as that one, along with the oft-abused ‘independent route’ are increasingly being used as substitutes for laziness and lack of motivation to work hard at one’s craft and deliver an above-par product.

To myself at least, ‘independent’ should be a synonym for ‘I have got a point to prove’; independent artists should strive towards absolute perfection, leaving no contact/friend-of-a-friend unused in order to secure a steady footing within the burgeoning scene that is South African-produced hip-hop.

Beneath the underdog‘, a twelve-track offering, kicks off with ‘Salutations‘. This introductory note sets a tone for the rest of the album; it builds anticipation in the listener’s mind with its lush production (courtesy of Boston-based Alegory) as well as Mingus’ effortless flow. A good listener, one who connects immediately with the music, can tell from this on-set that Mingus is not trying too hard to impress. It is as though he is aware of his lyrical prowess, using the song to rather assert that which is already clearly obvious – at least to the keen observer/listener. The opening lines:

‘ladies and gents/about to set it, it’s the vet/

 mastered the art of spittin’ while the whole world slept’

convey his feelings exactly; he has been around for a while, and his technique – his word-wizardry if you may – has been developing in all that time.

The album exhibits a more confident Mingus stepping to the helm, microphone in the right hand, left arm in the air. I quizzed him with regards to how he feels about his earlier exploits with Writers Block, a group of like-minded emcees formed in 2004 who released a critically-acclaimed (at least in the Cape Town hip-hop circuit) EP in 2005. To this he replied: ‘going back to that period and listening to my lyrics, even I can hear a definite improvement’. And improved he has!

Subsequent offerings on the album include ‘I write what I like‘, an ode of sorts to the Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko. Thus goes the chorus:

‘I said I write what I like/ like Steve Biko, for the people I inspire what’s right/

get you grooving to the music when I’m shining the light/

I’m shining the light, an ill rhyme on the mic’.

Mingus is about the memorable rhymes, thought-provoking concepts, and good beats. Luckily for this listener, all three are provided in equal measure throughout the album. Alegory provides the musical accompaniment on ‘I write..’, and returns for the third and final time on ‘Prime example’, a song which always manages to get a good crowd reaction when Mingus performs it.

Despite a varying selection of producers – there are six in total – ‘Beneath the underdog‘ defies clutter, managing to sound like a coherent effort as opposed to a collection of songs disguised as an album. This is a definite plus in an artform which is increasingly churning out half-hearted, pretentious ‘club bangers’ that end up sounding more like a street parade in a hollow dimension as opposed to well-rounded and honest masterpieces.

The better of us‘ sees fellow Writers Block member Konfab waxing lyrical about:

‘holding on to the mic like [its] soul resides in a tomb…

pop music will stop producing prostitutes and look

to hip-hop for clues, we house the destitute..’.

One truly needs to hear Konfab in order to appreciate the man’s dexterity when it comes to writing and reciting lyrics. The song is but one of the four produced by Saturn, arguably one of Cape Town’s most underrated hip-hop producer.

Apart from Konfab, other features on the album include Mprvs on ‘Ceremonial masters‘, Akil and Metabolism (another Writers Block member) on ‘No strings’, as well as Camo (5th Floor) and Ill Skillz on ‘Paying homage‘.

Mingus’ ability to rhyme effortlessly serves as his downfall on some songs. ‘Eternal life‘ with Henry Bowers left me feeling as though he would have put in more effort into the structure of his flow, as does his aforementioned endeavor with Konfab.

Paying homage‘, production-wise, sounds like a DJ Premier impersonation gone hay-wire. Mingus tells me that the producer, Yahgonism, is heavily influenced by Premo; the straight-biting demeanour of the beat manages to leave me unimpressed. It is perhaps the most musically divergent track on the whole album. However, the song is salvaged by Mingus, as well as partners in rhyme Camo, Uno, and Jimmy Flexx. Mingus pays his respects to:

‘turntablists, verbalists, spray-painting kids, graffiti vandal[ists]/ battling activists’.

Hip-hop!

While the album does have its shortfalls, they are few and far between. Mingus might not have an output comparable to his muse Charles Mingus, but they do share the uncanny ability to surprise when the situation calls for it. At their best, they both are excellent; Mingus the rapper’s worst is [arguably] comparable to an average emcee’s best. So, even though not entirely impressive, his off-beat moments are not bad either.

Beneath the underdog’ is exceptional in how its creator manages to combine very lyrical streams of hip-hop along with jazzy beats, yet still maintain listenability.

On how he managed to put the whole project together, Mingus says: ‘some of the producers I have not met physically. They heard the tunes I put up on Myspace and just sent me the music’. True to the spirit of independence as well as sublime forward-thinking aptitude, Mingus has made his album available via the rhythmonline music store. Physical copies are available at reputable Cape Town outlets such as Mabu Vinyl, Shelflife, and the African Music Store.

 Check for Mingus on his Myspace, and follow him on twitter .

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