TJ Love is a dyed-in-the-wool, professional hip-hop head. In this column, he offers his opinion on Portland rap releases from the past few weeks. Warning: takes can be hot.
Jon Belz, Ghost Dog/Loud Pack
Jon Belz has an affinity for using sports metaphors, and there's one thing he and fellow Portland up-and-comer CJ McCollum have in common: They both came out of nowhere to kill shit in their 2015-16 campaigns. Belz has released high-quality material at breakneck speed, and his latest salvos have a throwback feel of sorts. Belz' Ghost Dog EP, produced entirely by DaiN, is quick and to the point, just a small taste of what's to come from their pairing. DaiN's production harkens back to J Dilla circa Slum Village's Trinity, bass-heavy with an insistent melodic thump and hypnotic, laid-back vibes on the keys, with the occasional judicious twist of Filthy McNasty. On soundscapes like this, it's entirely within the realm of possibility that Belz has some Royce da 5″9 in his DNA. The pen game is consistently on point and his swagger is undeniable, especially in the arrogant, matter-of-fact way he delivers his punchlines. Intentional or no, Ghost Dog sounds like a Detroit record, which is a good thing.
Like Belz, Trox is another local son done good, quickly rising through the ranks to become one of the biggest producers in the West Coast underground. Between him and Belz their address book is deep, and they utilized it to the fullest for their collaborative Loud Pack project. Guest shots on the mic include the likes of Illmaculate, Serge Severe, Donte Thomas, Tope, Mic Capes and Hanif, the artist formerly known as Luck-One. Belz is his usual ill self and his cohorts are more than up to the task of helping reiterate that spitters in the 503 are not to be slept on. For his part, Trox exhibits an absurd, Steph Curry-like range as a producer, with tracks that wouldn't be out of place in the RZA, Diamond D, DJ Quik or Black Milk discographies, and that ability to do it all—and do it well—is ultimately his calling card. Champions of Pacific Northwest hip-hop couldn't ask for a better representative than the ambitious Loud Pack. It delivers the goods.
Ugly Tarantino, Obsidian Kings in a Reign of Ashes
Ugly Tarantino is one of the more polished acts in PDX, and their Obsidian Kings In A Reign of Ashes mixtape is a further indication of how serious they take the craft. It's never amateur hour with these cats. The new joint is only five tracks long, but they make the most of it with two original songs and three freestyles over production originally crafted for Czarface, Ice Cube and Hodgy Beats. It goes without saying that those joints are nice, as any MC worth his salt given the chance to rap over those beats is going to do work. "Outerhaven," one of the tracks they didn't finish in time to make their debut LP, is quintessential Ugly Tarantino—relaxed delivery, potent wordplay, and insightful commentary over contemplative boom-bap provided by Antitune. "Cosby Pills" isn't about Bill Cosby, it's a treatise on the onslaught of ignorance proliferating society collectively desensitizing and dumbing everybody down. Producer Tito Sanchez's pensive piano tinkling on top of shuffling drums and understated bass licks are the perfect backdrop for the tag-team chorus: "Chasing for the bill/Take fiends for the kill/Middle finger anthem for the slander do it, no chill/Penning with the raw skills/Ugly out the killing field/Running, running, running, if you're dumbing like a Cosby pill." Kenneth Masters and Gums have undeniable chemistry and clearly bring out the best in one another. As a duo they're sharp, witty, humorous and have a dope aesthetic that's been planned out laboriously from the beginning. This type of quality only comes from individuals who have put in their 10,000 hours. It's not an accident.
Ton Jungir, The Formula
The Formula is a nice little instrumental project from Ton Jungir, in-house producer for the Renaissance Coalition. Jungir excels at crate digging—maddeningly so. I sat and listened to this album front to back for hours on end, laboring to find the source material for the soulful samples on the stellar tracks "Hood Love," "combmyhair" and "Magic Bullet," to almost no avail. In the interest of not committing the cardinal sin of dry-snitching, I'm not going to share my findings, but to any fan of music period should have a healthy appreciation for the Jungirs of the world. His ability to find extremely obscure songs most of the world has never heard of and flip 'em is almost MF Doom-like. The first 20 seconds of "Wise Words" are sublime. It's the type of beat you immediately want to hear somebody with skills rap over. Instead, it segues into an Gucci Mane interview that sets the stage for "Internet Love"—a brilliant mashup of Gucci's "Pillz" and Zapp and Roger's "Computer Love."
Met Diggy, Life Is A Trip
Repping Eugene, Met Diggy is a veteran of the Pacific Northwest hip-hop scene. Far from an also-ran, he's opened shows for big names such as Wale, Freestyle Fellowship, Bone Thugs N Harmony and Atmosphere. Life Is A Trip is his first solo album after releasing two full lengths with Eugene-based group Genius Pro. The producer-MC is supremely confident and for good reason: He's quite capable on the mic. His bars are solid, he's got the ability to change deliveries and cadences without sounding forced or devolving into struggle raps. His production leaves something to be desired, however. Some of the beats on this project sound like knockoff G-Unit productions—generic West Coast beats from the previous decade. That's forgivable, though. Standout tracks include the introspective "When I'm Gone," "Life Is A Trip" and "Fam Counting On Me" featuring Marv Ellis. Life Is A Trip is above average for a solo artist making their debut, and with some better beats Met Diggy should make that leap on the next go-round.
Theory Hazit, The Vape Tape
Last and certainly not least is Theory Hazit and his building-crushing beat tape The Vape Tape. Portland has never been known as a hip-hop hotbed, but there's some elite talent around these parts, and this new project should solidify Theory Hazit among the upper echelon. Calling it just a "beat tape" seems almost an injustice, as the erstwhile Christian rapper puts in the type of work on the boards that would make Dennis Rodman proud. Things get off to an auspicious start with "whipitgood," a bass-heavy head-nodder with extraterrestrial synth effects and tinkling keys. Theory Hazit gets his b-boy Bruce Lee steez on with "westernahh," featuring menacing low-end accompanied by combative horns conjuring memories of the theme from Enter The Dragon and "Run Fay Run" from the Kill Bill soundtrack. Hazit's been compared favorably to Kanye West, which is understandable, as "loveme" sounds like a College Dropout outtake: cascading staccato drums, funky bass licks and a near-chipmunk pitch soul sample. It's hard to go wrong with an "Impeach The President" sample, and "pianosanctuary" is a downtempo, neo-soul type take on one of the most legendary templates in hip-hop. The Vape Tape is a smack upside the head for those that wrote off Theory Hazit because he's a Christian rapper (my dumbass did), and on the production tip he's as nice as anybody around.