Friends tell me that Detroit might be America’s most beautifully ugly city, saying urban decay and civic despair live among exquisite structures of grace, beauty and peace. It’s an ironic dichotomy that has produced some of music’s greatest movements and luminaries, such as the 1960s Motown sound and the iconic J-Dilla, among many others. Most recently, the Motor City has been a hotbed for underground hip-hop, as fans and pundits classify the city as the next one to go to for consistent talent, much like Atlanta or Miami. But unlike the snap and bass of the southern sound, there’s a certain grunge within Detroit hip-hop that directly correlates with the city’s aesthetics and disposition, aided perhaps by a national recession that eliminated thousands of jobs and decimated the once-reliable automotive industry. In many ways then, it sounds like Gas Mask, the debut album from The Left, is a recorded culmination of those simmering frustrations, as Journalist 103 and producer Apollo Brown’s remarkably gritty opus captures the mood of Detroit without being overly narrative or autobiographical. Instead, the duo captures the city’s unrelenting tenacity with stark honesty and sullen sonic brilliance, making Gas Mask a top contender for hip-hop’s album of the year.
Both Journalist and Apollo are products of Motown’s underground hip-hop scene, so this project shouldn’t surprise those who’ve followed these artists through the years. While closely aligned, they progressed toward Gas Mask from divergent paths. Journalist, a methodical MC with thirteen years of experience, might be known best for his role as one-half of the Mountain Climbaz. Apollo, who began producing in 1996, grew up on Journey and The Carpenters before he eventually found solace in Nas, Black Moon and Gang Starr. Given their differences, it is difficult to believe that The Left was born after two weeks of discussing possible collaborations. From its eerie, colorless artwork to its seamless beats-and-rhymes synergy, Gas Mask has the “all-in” feel of a gusto-grabbing group on its way out the door, not coming in. The dusty soul samples crackle under the intense drum whip of Apollo’s ominous soundtrack, and Journalist handles it all with the hunger of an ambitious zealot and grace of a grizzled rap veteran. Ultimately, the duo forces its way into the conversation of best hip-hop acts, with a no-frills concoction reminiscent of yesteryear.
On “Gas Mask,” for instance, the MC brutally attacks the instrumental in ways that could satisfy nostalgic hip-hop listeners. Here, Journalist raps: “… Right now, it’s a real sickness/An epidemic of gimmicks that’s being spread through your sound system.” That conspiracy theory is not new, as fans of old school hip-hop stand firmly on their figurative corners, clamoring for the past and clutching “The End is Near” signs as Soulja Boy and Waka Flocka pass by. Therefore, a song like “Battle Axe,” with its intergalactic boom bap, is treatment for the deprived (“I do this all the time, you’re barely a hype man/Who the fuck you think you scarin’, wearin’ them tight pants.”)
With the endless stream of music bombarding our ears, Gas Mask seemingly crept in under the radar, adding to its mystique while showcasing a flair for traditional promotion practices. Ironically, another contender for 2010’s best hip-hop album also came from Detroit, as Black Milk’s Album Of The Year lived up to its title’s lofty expectations. But while Milk’s celebratory project used live instruments and flirted with salsa, psych-rock and Afrobeat, The Left’s approach is more direct, providing a straightforward recording that resonates deeper within the culture. As a Maryland resident, I consider The Diamond District’s In The Ruff to be the soundtrack of this region, with its political undertone and references to our landmarks and lifestyle. If I were asked to document the unrest within Detroit, The Left’s Gas Mask would be the backdrop. Journalist 103 and Apollo Brown have created a beautifully ugly masterpiece that seethes with urgency and raises the bar considerably for their peers at home and beyond.