What to make of Mike Ladd? He’s been called “the Tom Waits of hip-hop”, and been likened to the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, and Bad Brains, as well as Common and Mos Def. He’s taught English at a number of colleges, including Boston University; he’s also a published poet who’s been stage-hardened in the oven called the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe slam. He’s gone on record against floss-based rappers (his “Infesticons” project), the prison system (the No More Prisons album), and capitalism (every interview, like, ever). He’s also well-respected, having collaborated with the coolest crews around, including Company Flow and all those dudes.
So he’s kind of an underground superhero. But he’s never broken through with his own projects. Last year’s solo joint Welcome to the Afterfuture and the Gun Hill Road by the Infesticons failed to capitalize on the small success of 1997’s Easy Listening for Armageddon. He’s apparently working on a huge one for 2002 called Negrophilia. In the meantime, he’s offering up this EP to “tide us over”.
Granted, I’m not a big fan of EPs. I understand why artists put them out, but I’m long past the days of wanting to buy them. For me, it’s full-blown album-length artistic statement or nothing. But they’re okay for getting a little sample of music without a major financial (or emotional) commitment. They’re also great for reviews that keep an artist’s name in front of the public. So here’s a good critical quote about Vernacular Homocide:
“Mike Ladd is one hell of a kickin’ poet on the microphone. His weird freaky beats and rock-funk-punk background put him at the forefront of experimental underground hip-hop”.
Now as for you, the consumer: is picking up this EP worth it at all? That depends. Here’s the scorecard: out of seven tracks, two are actual hip-hop tracks, two are techno-ambient-rock instrumentals, one is a soulful funk-folk ballad, one is an experimental noise piece, and one is a one-minute poem. The latter two are the least successful tracks on the record. “Northampton” is apparently about water, but the cartoonishly sped-up vocals are just annoying, and serve to undercut the sturm-und-drang industrial backing track and the subject matter, rendering it unlistenable to me. And “Song for Moms” would probably work really well on the stage but falls flat on disc.
But those are the only missteps here. The pieces on which Ladd raps prove his skills as both composer and vocalist. “Foxwoods”, the opener, is a three-minute riff on how life is a huge gamble: “Dog-track mystics infiltrate / My traits and fill my intuition / So I’m trifecting / All my future chips are slippin’ / From the table / Stable-hands flip winners / Cradle plans, beginners / This game is long gone”. The next song, “MLMM” is a great lumbering satirical beast featuring the hilarious Majesticon chant of “No one makes money like Mike Ladd makes money!” (better if you know how much he hates people who say that for real) set to a sludge-rock beat and gospel backing vocals. The ballad is sweet, and the two instrumentals show that his musical vision is deep and wide. I especially dig “Music for Tanks”, which incorporates horns and heavy orchestral sounds to create a glitchy masterpiece.
Overall, this EP is pretty out there. It’s not as insane as Divine Styler’s 1991 careericide freakout Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light (one of my favorite records ever), but it’s further out than, say, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein and a lot of other recent stuff that scares other folks. What Vernacular Homocide does is firmly establish who Mike Ladd is, and prime the pump for Negrophilia, which I will be awaiting with baited breath. But as far as this EP goes, you’ll have to decide if five tracks of dopeness and two of horribleness are worth it for you.