Let’s take a moment to celebrate technology. Thirty years ago, when the early hip-hop records were being made, artists had to scrape together enough money to rent a studio. Beats were programmed on clunky drum machines. Early samples were made by literally looping reel-to-reel tapes or constantly cutting between two records. Once you got your song recorded you had to find someone to physically press the album, which cost money, and then find someone to sell it. Labels would do this for you, but a lot of early hip-hop was DIY, sold out of record stores, barbershops, at swap meets, or from the trunk of a car. The whole process was tied to physicallity. You had to physcially be together in the studio to collaborate, and listeners needed to find a physical copy of your music in order to hear it.
Fast forward to 2012. You can set up a decent home studio without having to spend a fortune. There are programs like Frooty Loops and Pro Tools that let bedroom producers do things that Grandmaster Flash and Eric B. could only dream of. A 17-year-old kid can become a famous producer by emailing his beats to rappers all over the world. People in completely different parts of the country can record an album together and release it themselves on Bandcamp. Anyone anywhere in the world with a computer and decent internet connection (which admittedly leaves out 70% of the population) can stream the music or download it.
Which brings us to “Oakland, Ohio,” a collaboration between Ohio rapper Vic Freeze and Bay Area production team Madd Caesar. They don’t share area codes or time zones, but with the magic of technology (including eight plane trips), they recorded and released an album together.
Madd Caesar is made up of Oakland producer Madd Hatter and San Francisco producer Nero Caesar. They’ve done a few albums and EPs together, and have developed a sound that combines heavy drums with leftfield samples. Album opener “Oakland, Ohio” combines banging drums and a synthesizer that sounds like a theremin. “Mind State” has a clicking beat and samples of voices looped backwards. “Slow Down” combines acoustic guitar, whining synths and snapping drums. “System” meshes rattling drums with a rhythmic piano loop that is reminiscent of something contemporary classical composer Steve Reich might have done. That contemporary classical feel is also present on “Hard Times,” which features Vic Freeze rapping over piano and strings:
“Twelve hour day
Little girls these shoes are not supposed to say
Your daddy went to work and I ain’t got paid today
Ignore my voicemail the streets is calling me”
The theme of struggling surfaces throughout the album. “Man Out of Time has a chorus of “So put your fist in the sky if you’re staying alive/One paycheck away from the poverty line.” Ohio has been hit hard by the recession and the steady loss of manufacturing jobs, and that reality is all over “Oakland, Ohio.” Freeze has a voice and delivery that reminded me of Jay-Z. He’s confident and unhurried, with skills that have been trained from years of recording and performing live. He’s backed up on the mic by Satellite High, Solis Cin, Paulie Rhyme, The Homey Nolte, Mic Danja, and Cyph4, all of whom hold their own and mix things up. Madd Caesar’s dynamic beats are the perfect compliment to Vic Freeze’s steady and measured rhymes.
Thirty years ago, Vic Freeze and Madd Caesar wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet, record, and get their music out there. Thanks to the technological advances since then, these indie artists are able to hone their craft, collaborate across the country, and put out eleven tracks of solid underground hip-hop.