When ex-Just Blaze proteges, Kidz in the Hall released their debut album, School Was My Hustle on the newly revived Rawkus Records, I didn't listen to it for a variety of reasons. Chief among them was the “Ivy League Rap” label critics ascribed to the duo of Nawledge and Double-O. Still scarred from having heard Brown grad MC Paul Barman, I figured Ivy League Rappers were the last thing the world needed, besides something seemed corny about Kidz in the Hall's insistence on trumpeting their Penn degrees and posing for their album cover in letterman's jackets.* And by all accounts, their debut seemed stuck in the “conscious” neo-Native Tongues albatross that has flapped over indie rap since Rawkus' first-go-around. To say nothing of the fact that one of the Kidz' had the audacity to bestow himself with a rap name as openly condescending as Nawledge.
But that was two years ago, an eternity in rap time. In the interim, something people persist on calling “hipster rap” has come into vogue, an inane classification that Kidz in the Hall have roundly rejected (like the Supreme Court and prior restraint.) But no matter how vehemently they deny such labels, there's a bit of truth to them, as the retro-aesthetic dominates the very funny and very good video for “Drivin' Down the Block,” the jump-off single from The In Crowd, the Kidz' new record slated to drop next week on Duckdown Records. **
Separated from the video, the song itself is good, if not overly familiar. Flipping the “Drivin' Down the Block” vocal sample from the Masta Ace classic, “Born to Roll,” interpolating the hook from “Elevators,” and shouting out The Low End Theory tape in their deck, the Kidz wear their influences on their sleeves. Meanwhile, Double-O's minimalist and menacing beat consciously apes the numb coked-out vibe the Neptunes cooked up for “Grindin,” with a little of the Cool Kids' 808 fetishization thrown into the mix. But in fact, it's the Ethan Lader-directed video that makes the song really stand out, with the pair hilariously mugging in whiteface and salmon-colored 70s suits, looking less like rappers and more like goofy used car salesmen that just stepped out of a Cal Worthington commercial.
Were it not for the power of their Rolodex, or more likely, the phone numbers in their Sidekicks/Blackberries/iPhones, “Drivin' Down the Block,” would probably have already been largely forgotten by the time I'm writing these words. Instead, the Kidz in the Hall have released a pair of remixes that rank as some of my favorite rap songs made this year. The first of the bunch, released two weeks ago, assembled a line-up of rappers that I assume was stolen from a bloggers wet dream***, with Pusha-T, Bun B and the Cool Kids taking turns decimating the track. Had Weezy gotten involved, things may have gotten ugly (both figuratively and literally.) It's an awesome line-up but one that's certainly odd considering none of the six rappers would seem to have anything in common, other than a love of candy painted cars, weed and Tribe Called Quest, which on second thought, should be more than enough.
As for the raps, The Cool Kids and The Kidz in the Hall hold their own, but Bun B and Pusha steal the show. In particular, the Neptunes-lite beat seems tailor-made for the Clipse's better half, who is fast becoming the Inspectah Deck of this decade, the sort of rapper who can murder 16 bars better than anyone else but lacks the ideas to sustain an album. Meanwhile, Bun sounds completely in his element, letting with the beat's woozy hydraulic hop mesh perfectly with his slow Southern sneer.
But El-P's remix might be my favorite of the bunch. At a loss for words, Eskay of Nah Right described it as El-P “doing what he does.” Which is inverting the song from a ideal summertime bass-heavy anthem to a paranoid mindfuck of wailing sirens, extraterrestrial keyboards and lyrics about riots, fascist cops, and the nagging notion of death. It's flat-out amazing if not a tad predictable, with El-P's idea of driving down the block taking on ominous Orwellion proportions. At this point regardless of what kind of idea you throw to El, he'll make music that sounds unearthed from a drab Second World dystopia. The guy must be a riot at dinner parties. Ultimately, whether or not the Kidz in the Hall turn into great rappers or not, they've managed to kick-start their careers with one of the most exciting trio of songs released this year. Moreover, you can't help but respect how savvy and intelligent of a decision it was to enlist some of the most talented people in hip-hop to help them achieve it. Maybe that “Ivy League Rap” label was accurate after all.
* Though Dartmouth open mic nights are reputed to be something fierce, a totally expected development considering the school's mascot is “The Big Green.”
** Before signing to Duckdown, Buckshot reportedly handed the Kidz a shotgun and forced them to take target practice on their backpacks.
***Involving Natalie Portman, Justice and filthy sexual acts revolving around the name: Ed Banger.