Homegrown hip-hop

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Whether you believe Ermehn's claims that he's the first to drop a gangsta album in New Zealand doesn't matter. What's important is that local hip-hop is reclaiming its identity.

We can't deny we've heard our fair share of American accents emanating from Kiwi MCs in recent years, and seen local music videos designed to look as though they were made in LA. Ermehn's The Path of Blood is so distinctly New Zillund that at times it's almost as harrowing to listen to as Once Were Warriors was to watch.

The former patched gang member and one-time member of Otara Millionaires Club weaves tales of his hardknock life over savage beats, as if to paint his own audio documentary. To Ermehn, Otara represents "enemies, tinny houses, crack whores, drug dealers and thugs". But it also stands for strength, pride, love, friendship and family.

Silver & Gold is a sunny, Polynesian-flavoured redemption song that allows him to give the graphic insight into crime that is Bank Job; Bouncen is a straight-up "coconut" club banger. But while the cuts are diverse enough to keep things lively, there's a feeling that Ermehn's tough rhymes, delivered in a stark, NWA style, have come a few years too late.

The Ying Yang Twins, on the other hand, are finally finding their feet.

Though commercial success has largely eluded them, these dirty Southern party boys have always had a unique presence in hip-hop.

Their sound is booming, cinematic, original. On their fourth album, United States of Atlanta, they come on like a weird collision of Outkast and Wu Tang Clan.

The Twins are as daring with their rhymes as producer Collipark is with his beats. Live Again, featuring Maroon 5's Adam Levine might seem like a misguided attempt at a pop crossover but it's a surprisingly heartfelt collaboration about the life of a stripper.

Things get heated in the middle when they holler a sex trilogy that would make your mother's toes curl but Wait, its centrepiece, proves crunky minimalism hasn't had its day. The track is entirely whispered, like a naughty version of Drop It Like It's Hot.

The album isn't perfect - at 77 minutes it's far too long, and is weighed down by countless skits and slow tracks - but at least they use them to say something meaningful. Between the good-time anthems are comments on African-Americans' role in the military, the prison system and the effects of poverty.

If only Bizarre was as smart. As part of D12, he's the fat guy who provides the comic relief to Eminem's genius. Unless you're a prude or concerned for your impressionable young 'uns, it's hard not to warm to his warped, offensive fantasy.

But on his first solo album, Hannicap Circus, there's little to laugh about, unless you find paedophilia, drug abuse or misogynist sex funny. Seriously Bizarre, do you really think it's amusing to rap about doing dirty things to your 6-year-old niece on Let the Record Skip? That's the thing with shock tactics - sometimes they're shocking for a reason.

Throughout proceedings, Bizarre, who has never been a nimble rapper, makes his way around the words the same way he ambles around a stage - slowly and sloppily. The best songs on the album are those where he combines ludicrous ideas, such as Gospel Weed Song, in which he proclaims his love for the man upstairs and gives praise to good bud.

But even cameos by Eminem, Obie Trice, Outkast's Big Boi, Raphael Saadiq and D12 can't save this from being one long, dull insight into the life of a self-proclaimed psycho.

Finally, here's one that was released a while back but may have slipped under the radar. DJ T-Rock's Rock and Squash Techniques deserves all the attention it can get. It's rare that New Zealand gets the exclusive on international albums but that's the case for this one - thanks to new Auckland label Who Records.

bNet listeners will be familiar with lead single Mama Said (Wear You Out), which sounds like Moby caught in a hip-hop whirlwind. Elsewhere, fans of DJ Shadow and DJ Scruff will appreciate the low-key, rare groove affair that blends T-Rock's deft scratching skills with Atlanta producer Squashy's cocktail hour beats, honky-tonk country and even baroque.

It's testament to T-Rock's keen ear for samples (like the strange Sesame Street-style medical lesson on The Body Symphony) and knack for crazy cut-ups, that he's now working with Shadow. Unlike Shadow, however, the turntablism isn't the central feature of this warped mish-mash of styles. It's the deep, smooth retro vibe that give this its special quality.

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