Review Summary: You know, this just might have been a classic.
A couple of Brick City graffiti artists, “Artifacts” are also one of the East Coast’s most deeply buried hip-hop gems. Their style is celebratory of the culture that surrounds their music, art, dance and other means of expression and their rapping skills rival the best. “Between A Rock and A Hard Place” is the duo’s debut, arguably their finest effort and is instantly catchy. While at certain times vocally awkward and a bit tedious, the album forgoes the typical quality of sound that two broke boyz who stole your Cadillac can record. The two poeticized the Hip-Hop lifestyle with effrontery and experience, and created an ideal representation of 1990’s Newark street-life.
The pair no longer make music together, but their undaunted spirit still thrives. This record features a lot of much deserved recognition in the lyrics for the “Four Elements” of hip-hop culture (breaking, graffiti, DJing, and Mic Controlling), as did most of their material. With such a gloomy atmosphere, “Between A Rock and A Hard Place” is heavy on the poverty stricken street imagery you’ll picture through both the nearly flawless rapping and ground-pounding rhythms. But when it comes to rappers like “Artifacts”, writing comes first.
The lyrical subjects cover things like marijuana smoking, graffiti, rapping, guns (typically used as a metaphor for rapping technique, such as on “Flexi Wit Da Tech(nique)” and “Heavy Ammunition”), among other things relevant to the American hip-hop culture that gave the streets of Newark and New York a definitive pulse in the nineties. The attractive thing about these generic topics is the rapper’s ability to make them interesting through wordplay, and I’d be damned if I didn’t hear great examples of such prowess on this record:
”I lower da boom when I do the cipher dance/With naps and saggy pants as I romance the plants
I take puffs on stuff, rough enough to give a buzz/To my cuz even though he don’t touch the stuff
See this blunt in my front, some say might stink/But yo the skunk helps me think
They’ll rap about weed-smoking, maybe spit some graffiti nostalgia:
I burn my name up quick like a Thai stick/As red as my eyes get, I still rocks the fly ***
Back with some ultra flat black catchin’ wreck in a sec/Wet paint ain’t *** when I’m on the set
And possibly the two most world-famous aspects of hip-hop, break-dancing and Disc Jockeying:
Breakin’ was my thing, I used to spin the back/I never thought I’d spin the wax with tracks to make your hands clap
There’s so much more where that came from. The lyrics are undoubtedly the best part of the record next to those cheaply made but insanely danceable beats with a signature melody that makes each song recognizable. The beats and the vocals intertwine liquidly; that professional rhythm and the dense lyrical output make for something some may call a classic. From the relaxing horns on “Whayback” and “Wrong Side of the Tracks”, to Redman’s chorus on “Cummin’ Thru Ya ***in’ Block”, to the fact that every aspect of hip-hop culture was acknowledged with joyful reminiscence on this record, I’m tempted to make such a claim myself.
“Between A Rock and A Hard Place” isn’t perfect, like everything. Sometimes the vocals are simply not understandable due to nasal delivery and poor enunciation. I guarantee that unless you’re lucky enough to have obtained some kind of supersonic-hearing powers, you’ll get totally lost in the thick jungles of lyrics that both make and break this record. And while the beats can be funky as hell, they can also put a coked up ADHD case to sleep at times. The album is a bit short, so these beats won’t last too
long but it sure seems like they do when you’re being pummeled with a non-stop barrage of raps.
Despite all that this rock-solid display of rap isn’t one to overlook. Artifacts were unfortunately, for the most part forgotten about (by a majority of rap fans) since the Illmatic/Ready To Die era came to a close – as were many talented street poets. They enjoyed a bit of Billboard justice, but ultimately, if you ask about Artifacts these days you’ll be directed to the nearest Natural History Museum. So I propose this fine example of East Coast Hip-Hop to you reader, as an essential recommendation for anybody.