The underground hip hop scene in the UK has gone through something of a revival in the past few years. It's easy to assume this is a response to the world at large; turbulent times make for more turbulent music. That said, the world has always been a turbulent place, at least if you're reading the right newspapers (or perhaps more accurately, not reading the wrong ones) and there's never a shortage of issues to be explored in hip hop.
As artists resolve to release their art without the backing of major labels they have become more willing to discuss subjects that seemed missing before. Apex Zero follows in this tradition, bringing content that might be familiar to fans of artists like Immortal Technique, with a flow that tends to be fast-almost agitated-over atmospheric instrumentals imbued with darkness and subtlety.
Chaotic Revolt-released for the two year anniversary of the London Riots-shows Zero's intelligence. It starts with a flow cemented to the beat, that draws some inspiration from bouncy old school rhythms without sounding derivative: 'We live a chaotic revolt, robbery, murder and assault, we rebel as individuals waiting on a miracle, but freedom as reality is a dream that won't come, 'til we're organised and unified as one'. The track finishes with Apex using the beat to make some points about society and revolution, 'Revolution begins with social unrest and in-fighting then becomes large scale riots and fighting against the establishment and the oppressor. Then, if and only if, it gets organised correctly it becomes true revolution'.
It is substance and quality like the above, whether or not you agree with his revolutionary model, which separates the social commentary on this album from contrived works like Plan B's Ill Manors. Really, something like Ill Manors comes off as somewhat amateur, clichéd and short sighted in comparison. I guess the difference is that Apex sounds real and to take something from his socially conscious tracks doesn't involve having to ignore statements he's made in various newspapers and podcasts. Of course, it doesn't help that Plan B has a habit of referring to the working class as the 'underclass' but I digress. My point is, in a hip hop community that is starting to become saturated with disingenuous social commentary, here you'll not only find reality but something to challenge how you think.
Instrumentals are consistent throughout, with stands out being tracks like Power Source where a simple beat is held together by dark production and climbing string parts. Most of the beats have a similar vibe and tempo however this is no particular criticism. It creates a sense of unity in the album, although a more laid back delivery might benefit some tracks. Elsewhere the album takes samples from various sources like news interviews to great effect. It features some of the most unique examples amongst underground UK hip hop. Where other emcees have picked people like David Icke or Norman Finkelstein most of these samples will be familiar from half-remembered news broadcasts and live interviews the BBC never felt comfortable repeating. They are special in their anonymity-an anonymity reflected in the great mass of people this album positions itself to speak to, the people Plan B would probably call the 'underclass'. Samples might creep into the end of a track, unexpected but without fanfare. They are smooth transitions not soap box rants and their positioning on the album solidifies that.
It is still quite obvious that Apex Zero is a young and somewhat inexperienced emcee. That's fine; the rawness of Immortal Technique's Revolutionary Vol. 1 identifies him as a young, up and coming rapper and whilst it isn't strictly fair to compare this album to Technique's it does go some way to illustrate that music needn't be polished to a reflective shine, that hip hop can suffer from too much perfectionism, a piece can become sterile. This album is a time capsule, like the rawer, younger cousin of Lowkey's Soundtrack to the Struggle, and as such the areas which are less polished should remain so.
It isn't as if there's anything bad about the album, it's pretty solid, pretty consistent and generally avoids cliché. Although any emcee that talks extensively about revolution risks some level of self-parody. After all, if you were really a revolutionary, wouldn't you be camping out somewhere in the Lake District planning a raid against G4S or Lloyd's TSB? But that is a simplified view of the situation and politics in hip hop. While the themes and overarching content of the tracks tends to be of high quality, as with any emcee, individual lines can sometimes suffer, though again, there are no major oversights on Apex's part or anything that stands out as cringe worthy.
The album features tight schemes held together with a somewhat staccato flow. Almost all of the lyrics deal with social issues drawing reference from mythology and history. Apex spits like a man who cares and this remains evident throughout, in fact, the passion of his delivery holds some tracks together where the lyrics may falter slightly. Beats are dark and moody, developing slowly and Apex doesn't have a problem with writing longer tracks, something often unexplored in the hip hop genre. That said, fans of hip hop who view music simply as a form of 'entertainment' probably won't enjoy this album; it is far too provocative for a casual listen.
Release Date: 28th October
By: Andy Fletcher