You know I think Billy Bragg has a point. These capitalists, you know; Billy’s spent twenty years looking for ‘A New England,’ and the damn Americans have been hoarding one the whole time. Oh well, they have the Clintons to worry about.
Jokes and anti-fascism aside, Billy is just a more flamboyant example of a type of artist that’s been noticeably absent in contemporary rock- I don’t mean protest singers (God, no!), but bands that have an actual purpose, a statement, something they stand for. In an age where ‘gang mentality’ is defined less by what binds a group of musicians together and more by what colour bandana you wear, rock’s major players have made an art of the separation of politics from music. Bono may give great press conferences and Chris Martin has gleefully assumed the role of “the lad that writes the songs for famine relief,” but (and this isn’t necessarily a criticism), as musicians, their songs don’t really express a sense of morality or of social criticism, certainly not to a comparable degree.
Messiah J. & the Expert are different, and that’s neither the first nor the last time they’ll be described as thus. The twenty-somethin’ duo from South Dublin (represent) have a certain style that’s difficult to pin down, indeed half the fun is not knowing what exactly they are. At first glance, they bear a remarkable resemblance to another skinny bloke-baldy bloke pairing that made a name for themselves this year simply by offering the alternative
. You might have noticed Gnarls Barkley
’s recent success hasn’t been followed by the predicted glut of cheap knockoffs and soundalikes-
“Hello, Tom Chaplin of cathartic British piano geeks Keane, would you like to release a single on our label? Tell me, are you interested in international trade at all…”
- but there’s a very good reason. They can’t fu
cking find anyone. How about that for the state of modern music: the billion-dollar record industry can’t track down a half-decent hip-hop duo to even pretend
to be innovative anymore. They couldn't even track down Damon Albarn! The Bravery were much easier than this.
So why exactly have Messiah J. & the Expert had to release their second record Now This I Have To Hear
on their own local imprint? They have the sound, they have look (they even dress as scientists!), the album has produced two hit singles already and they have the backing of influential BBC DJ Steve Lamacq; this record should be tearing up the airwaves! Like St. Elsewhere
, it asks a number of questions, sonically, it has no intention of answering: is it hip hop? Is it rock? Is it soul, is it indie, is it pop? The beauty is in the tension, the “I can’t believe it just went there” and the “can I hear this on the radio?”
But, essentially, that’s where the similarities end; if St. Elsewhere
is Cee-Lo proving he can sing on top of anything
, Now This I Have To Hear
is Messiah J’s arrival as an emcee. Granted, he’s no Rakim, but it’s not that
sort of hip hop album; in fact, I’m not even sure I should be calling
it a hip hop album (but more on that later). Lyrically, Messiah J’s lyrics bear the mark of the likes of Morrissey
more than they do any particular emcee, and it’s no surprise to learn that he sharpened his wit listening to The Queen Is Dead
like all the rest of us. On the other hand, taking his cue from any number of alternative rappers (Sage Francis
and Aesop Rock
stick out), MJ actively rejects and tackles many of the standard hip hop clichés and, in a sense, turns them back on themselves.
Reacting against the misogyny, the glorification of negative stereotypes and shameless self-congratulation rife in contemporary mainstream rap, he’s (ironically, even) visibly proud of his own achievements. On ‘The Boys Have Had Enough’ he tosses out more memorable lines than most emcees do their entire careers, deriding people who blame their failure to succeed on circumstances beyond their control rather than their a lack of effort or ability. He taunts, “Spare me, spare me the excuses, I feel like I’ve been to an Aryan movement”
and spits, ”Dublin was a nightmare, Belfast was tough / Write a decent song and they might’ve gave a fuck.”
Musically, Now This I Have To Hear
is a little less confrontational. It’s all over the place, yes, but in a good way. Music man The Expert has one hell of a record collection, and this is reflected not just in his choice of samples (imagine if Moby met Ali Shaheed Muhammad and dual-mitosis ensued) but in terms of the live music, which was produced in-house (like Danger Mouse, his main weapon of choice is the synth.) While his beats are his beats are basic and not particularly dynamic, they lay the groundwork for the diverse range of sounds he lays on top, from the Dylan-esque acoustic strumming of opener ‘Domino Effect’ and the Johnny Marr-style electric guitars of the two tracks which follow it to the “Sibelius meets Jonny Greenwood inside a dive in Brooklyn” schtick of ‘When The Bull Gores The Matador’ and the Marxman
-tinged trip-hop of closer 'No Bagsies, No Keepsies' featuring Nina Hynes.
Lead single ‘Something Outta Nothing,’ while summing up the lyrical theme of the album, strikes the ideal sonic balance. Every attempt I’ve made online to find out about Leda Egri has been met with frustration and links to some Indian corporate executive or other, but damn can this girl sing. Though her actual running time on the track probably doesn’t exceed a minute of the allotted five, she steals the track, her sultry jazz-inflected tones comparing favourably to the best r&b singers Britain is producing lately. Did I mention it’s one of the best singles I’ve heard since ‘Common People’? It’s a denser single than it appears on first listen, with layered beats and a running commentary in the guise of a freeform saxophone solo playing the counterpoint to MJ’s playful and tuneful rhymes. At one point he declares, ”Glenn Medeiros and Bros, that’s where The Expert gets his hits from!”
On an album of standout tracks, you’ll have to excuse me for picking another single as the highlight, but it’s another one of those weird ‘Common People’ moments where it seems like retribution will follow anything less than a thorough dissection. ‘When The Bull Gores The Matador’ features one of the all-time greats, Brooklyn rapper and freestyle champion of the world (that may even be a real title), C-Rayz Walz. But get this- even he
can’t steal this track from The Expert!
A lyrical update of David & Goliath, Messiah J comes out of the blocks with the blood of the bourgeoisie on his teeth, spitting, This is for the little fish, sick of taking big fish crap”
before C-Rayz rushes in with an intensity that recalls Busta Rhymes’ “coming out” on A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Scenario,’ ending with a line that could be one intentional but could also be one of the great accidents of music, ”It’s gorgeous when the bull gorges the matador.”
Yet it’s all stitched together by the majestic string sweeps (think GZA’s ‘Publicity’) and a percussive horn motif that must be lifted from some (and I’m setting myself up for a fall here) late Romantic piece that I’d track down in its original form had it not received its true calling
I’m not often bowled over by a new release, much less one that falls outside my prescribed diet of glam rock glam rock glam rock, but Now This I Have To Hear
is quite possibly among the top three hip hop records in my collection. I’m always wary when critics or fans declare a piece of music or a musician to be remarkably innovative, so I won’t play up that aspect any more than I already have, but the ease and efficiency with which Messiah J and The Expert have brought these rarely reconciled influences together is
nothing short of remarkable. Now, at the risk of sounding like one of those idiot journalists who insists upon ending each piece with a short but emphatic statement: miss not this you.
Now This I Have To Hear
is only available physically in Ireland at the moment, however it is available to purchase on US iTunes as well as directly from the artist's site and selected online stores. For a full stream of 'When The Bull Gores The Matador,' click here: