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    Tuesday, January 30, 2007

    Good clean fun: Clean Guns MP3s

    Photo by Ben Carter

    It's 1998—my friend Alex and I are listening to CD after CD. Jewel cases and upturned discs litter the floor all around us. We're taking turns at DJing, trying to one-up each other with every spin. And then at some point, he puts on Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, and I lose automatically. The level of wordplay, the raucous double entendres, the confident but relaxed flows of the two eponymous MCs, their overwhelming respect for the genre and their hunger for greatness all hit me at once. It blows the mind of the fifteen-year-old rap ignoramus I was back then, raised on top 40 radio and warmed-over alternative rock.

    It's been a long time since I've been able to go back to that distant, balmy afternoon. So much hip hop I've heard of late has been self-consciously slick, all presentation over substance. The stalwarts who cut their teeth on corners are too rich and too busy hanging with Chris Martin now to document real life. And only a depressingly select few up-and-comers can stretch their skills far enough to sustain a full-length LP worth hearing.

    Enter Clean Guns from South Philly, PA to remind me of why I fell in love with hip hop in the first place. Their new album, Sometimes There Is Trouble, is fresh and thrilling, rife with unexpected sounds and scintillating thoughts. The duo's members, lifelong friends Zilla Rocca and Nico the Beast, have clearly been deeply influenced by rap's greats, but they also add a lot of their own to the equation. Taking a little from Cannibal Ox and Company Flow (including their name from a "Simian D" lyric), mixing in a bit of Wu-Tang with some Heltah Skeltah, sprinkling on some Nas, Jay-Z, and Immortal Technique et al., they've distilled their influences' best elements and veered off from there.

    The album's opener, "Blast Off" is a terrific introduction to their sound, full of swagger and dynamic, nimble rapping. With its malevolent piano loop and menacing worldview, it's also the track that'd fit seamlessly on a Defintive Jux comp. After that, Clean Guns branch out further, seemingly intent on fulfilling their label Beat Garden's mission statement: "Many styles. Many styles." Over the course of twelve tracks, Zilla's production samples everything from Waking Life to Cesaria Evora, the Highlander soundtrack to a Polish classical string CD he checked out of the library. Their raps get cynical and raw, they get philosophical and funky, they get celebratory and sentimental. No matter what the mood they set or subject they broach, it works. There's not a weak song in the pack and not a moment of filler, a near-miracle by hip hop standards. At the moment, my favorites happen to be "These Words I Write" and the surprisingly affecting "Ode To The Dead," but all of it is straight-up quality.

    One of the most evident characteristics of Sometimes There Is Trouble is the immense love behind the project. Zilla and Nico got started around age fifteen (the magic age, it seems), making "bullshit cassettes on a karaoke machine." They've been honing their skills ever since, paying their dues and soaking up the riches of hip hop culture. And yet, even with the seriousness pervading much of their album, you can tell how much fun they're having too, what a passion this is and what a culmination of hard work these songs represent. Somewhere in America right now, there's a fifteen-year-old who thinks all rap is stale and bloated and materialistic like I once did. He needs to hear this album right away, but then again so do you.

    Pick up your copy of Sometimes There Is Trouble for an astoundingly worth-it eight bucks here.

    * MP3: "These Words I Write" - Clean Guns from Sometimes There Is Trouble
    * MP3: "Say Goodnight" - Clean Guns featuring So-S@y from Sometimes There Is Trouble [Buy it]
    * Band MySpace: Clean Guns

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