December 31, 2017

My Gut Reaction: DJ Muggs and Meyhem Lauren - Gems From The Equinox (October 27, 2017)

The last review of 2017 goes to a project that came out of nowhere for me (during my "break", I also opted out of paying attention to any promotional e-mails I received, so when I randomly came across info for today's topic online I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised), one that I ultimately enjoyed much more than I thought I would: the return of the DJ Muggs Vs. series of albums, today's post being for his Meyhem Lauren collaboration, Gems From The Equinox.

So you already know how this write-up will end. Click on the link and buy the fucking thing, please. Or keep reading, that's fine.

The last time Lawrence Muggerud appeared on the blog, it was for his brief-but-aggravating residency in the world of dubstep. The man was bored by hip hop and wanted to challenge himself in order to stave off complacency. I get it: doing the same thing day after day gets really fucking old. (See: my use of "break" above.) And sitting around collecting royalty checks for Cypress Hill albums and House of Pain's "Jump Around" would have been taking the easy way out. But while his treks into trip-hop throughout his career (both with his solo effort Dust and his work in the group Cross My Heart Hope To Die) was seen as shruggable larks, his attempt to gain club spins were laughable and, at least in my case, really fucking awful. But at least he tried something new, which I don't believe I gave him enough credit for in my write-up, since I was pretty upset at the whole thing at the time of writing.

Muggs took a break from the public eye after the dubstepping fiasco, popping up two years later as an ancilarry member of the South African rap group-slash-art installation Die Antwoord, contributing production work under the pseudonym The Black Goat. Because I tend to complain about Die Antwoord every time I hear their stuff in the club (I used to bitch about them on Twitter a lot when I was drunk), I haven't bothered to track any of his work down, but something about that collaboration must have set off a spark, because Muggs revived his Soul Assassins brand full force in 2017, with Gems From The Equinox his first full-length project in years. He's even credited as The Black Goat in the liner notes, which definitely means something, especially as this project was self-released on his own Soul Assassins label.

I know it seems like I'm focusing on DJ Muggs more than his collaborator, Queens-bred rapper Meyhem Lauren, but that's for a very good reason: Meyhem Lauren doesn't have a Wikipedia page. This is fucking insane to me: the man has some high-profile cameos under his belt and a number of albums of his own. He's one of Action Bronson's best friends, for fuck's sake: he's mentioned a ton in Bronson's companion book to his Viceland show Fuck, That's Delicious. I get that he's not signed to a major label like his BFF is, but that shouldn't really matter. Lauren's the kind of guy you call on for a solid verse that recalls classic New York 1990s-era rap with modern-day sensibilities and references. This trait makes him a perfect foil for Muggerud's dusted-out production.

Gems From The Equinox (the title of which was borrowed from a book from British occultist and noted hyper-racist Alester Crowley) is a brief trek through the version of Queens that exists only in the mind of Meyhem Lauren. Its beats were culled from the many years of work Muggs has put in throughout the years, just like the rest of the Vs. series featuring the likes of GZA/Genius, Sick Jacken, Ill Bill, and Planet Asia. (My understanding is that Muggerud's planned collaboration with Inspectah Deck ultimately never happened, which goes against the other tales I've heard, because Deck was never available: however, Muggs had a bunch of beats ready to go, and some of those instrumentals ultimately found their way onto all of the projects in the series, including the subject of today's post.) The guest list is limited to New York-based artists who share Lauren's point of view, save for one A-list player that you'll see below. And Muggs seemed to have clearly enjoyed his full-time return to our chosen genre, hamming it up in all of the videos released for the project thus far. Gems From The Equinox should introduce Meyhem Lauren to a wider audience, and his hardcore fans will be satisfied to know that he is more than capable of holding his own when the opportunity arises.


1. CAMEL CRUSH
After an intro that sounds like sampled film dialogue but, from what I understand, is comprised of snippets from a voicemail Meyhem received from a friend who left the country to avoid prosecution for some kind of criminal act, the harsh buzz of Muggerud’s production kicks in, with a slow-paced drum beat paired with fuzzy distortion. For his part, Lauren sounds as though he’s lived with the beat his entire adult life, delivering his “Camel Crush” verse with a combination of veteran weariness and a matter-of-fact attitude: it’s a foregone conclusion that he’s going to win, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try to explain every step to you, James Bond villain-style, before your time comes. Anyway, not a bad way to kick things off.

2. STREET RELIGION (FEAT. ROC MARCIANO)
The first single from Gems From The Equinox does a good job of ushering listeners into the world Lauren and Muggs have created, as “Street Religion” rides the same The Five Stairsteps “Danger, She's A Stranger" sample OutKast used to help open ATLiens (with “Two Dope Boyz (In A Cadillac)”) so hard that I wondered aloud on Twitter if the duo were thinking about considering to approach Big Boi for an official remix. (Still waiting for a response, Meyhem.) It’s the most accessible entry point I’ve heard in a while on an underground hip hop effort, but that isn’t to say that this sounds mainstream in the least, because it really doesn’t. Our host spits his aggressive New Yorker boasts-n-bullshit (“Friends become foes, foes become alliances / Gold bars get stashed inside appliances”), while guest star Roc Marciano, who I famously don’t really care for, does fine, I guess, with his cold, apathetic flow clashing nicely with the Muggs instrumental. For whatever reason, Roc Marcy gets more screen time than the ostensible star attraction: perhaps “Street Religion” was originally intended for the long-rumored DJ Muggs / Roc Marciano collaborative album Kaos? I thought this track was merely alright when I first heard it, but it has since grown on me, so.

3. SHEA STADIUM (FEAT. ACTION BRONSON)
A short-and-sweet entry in the ever-growing catalog of Meyhem Lauren and Action Bronson, whose first appearance three tracks into Gems From The Equinox shows an incredible amount of restraint on DJ Muggs’ part. These two don’t exactly have the chemistry of Raekwon and Ghostface Killah (and I didn’t jump to that comparison because of Bronson, whose flow doesn’t really sound all that much like Pretty Toney’s to me anymore), but “Shea Stadium” sounds alright, more because of Muggerud’s string-based loop that keeps listeners on edge throughout the less-than-two-minutes it takes to burn through this song. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, which is all one can really ask for.

4. HASHASHIN (FEAT. CONWAY)
Borrows its title from the DJ Muggs / Planet Asia collaboration Pain Language, but given Muggerud’s Soul Assassins collective, I’m sure he found that song title too clever to not use twice. “Hashashin” features Meyhem and one of the Interweb’s favorite newer artists, current Shady Records seat filler Conway the Machine, a dude who I know you two have wanted me to write about more, and while the blog going on an extra-long hiatus that I’m still trying to work through coincided with the rise of Conway and his brother, Westside Gunn, that was just a case of happenstance, I swear. Although it doesn’t really help that I have listened to maybe two-and-a-half songs that feature either brother in any capacity throughout the past two years. Anyway. DJ Muggs produces a powerful dusted loop that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Cypress Hill project, and both verses are decent, even though Conway’s performance and general delivery didn’t quite sell me. But that’s why I don’t run my own label. Yet.

5. AQUATIC VIOLENCE (FEAT. MR. MUTHAFUCKIN’ EXQUIRE & SEAN PRICE)
“Hashashin” ended with another snippet from the voicemail, which leads into “Aquatic Violence”, whose instrumental brought up memories of an Operation: Doomsday-era MF DOOM, which I intend as a compliment. The inclusion of Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire makes me think that this is one of the tracks Muggs had been sitting on since 2013: he sounds a bit dated, but otherwise fine (I still like the dude). Lauren spits alongside his New York brethren with precision, which was nice. But the late Sean Price, whose posthumous catalog is approaching 2Pac’s in sheer volume alone, steals the show, reminding the listeners what we’re all missing out on. Kind of a downer way to end the paragraph, but at least the track was pretty good.

6. 151
The first outright misstep on Gems From The Equinox. Muggs provides a distortion-heavy instrumental that is more noisy than artistic, and while Meyhem Lauren does an admirable job of adapting his flow to meet the tempo, it has the adverse effect of sounding exactly like Coolio, which is now an image that I cannot erase from my head, and now you can’t either, you’re welcome. Hearing the background music for the voicemail snippet during the skit that follows is the oasis in this gangsta’s paradise.

7. WAR DRUMS (FEAT. HOLOGRAM & BENNY THE BUTCHER)
Now that I’m overthinking it, a lot of the DJ Muggs beats on Gems From The Equinox seem indebted, or at least strongly influenced by, ol’ Danny Metalface. “War Drums”, which isn’t especially militant in its sound, finds Lauren joined by Hologram (who opens the track) and Benny the Butcher (who closes with a fascinating performance that brought back memories of 1990’s hip hop for me) over a loop that would literally smother a mumble rapper in their sleep. Our host sounds alright himself, although I can’t remember much about what he said: the horn sample played throughout vetoed the man every few bars. Moving on…

8. SZECHUAN PEPPERCORNS (FEAT. ACTION BRONSON & HOLOGRAM)
Bronsolini makes his second appearance of the evening with a terrible opening verse that combines his standard misogynistic bars with bizarre commentary on his own story, an experiment that made me want to shit this shit off and throw my phone at the closest wall. Although Action Bronson handles the first verse for dolo, Hologram’s contribution features interruptions from both of his coworkers, which disrupt the flow and leaves the listener so distracted that Lauren’s unheralded performance (which fades out before the song ends, which, GRRRRR…) flies through without registering at all. And my fucking God, how long was that voicemail?

9. REDRUM
Meyhem’s boy sure is proud of violently attacking that dude on the train, huh? “Redrum”’s instrumental is too jaunty for a song called “Redrum”, but at least Lauren sounds like he’s in full control of his instrument, his verses exuding a confidence that’s been missing from the last few tracks. It helps that Muggs gives his collaborator a faster pace to work with, forcing Meyhem to keep his bars focused and concise, speaking only the most necessary of boasts. But even though it appears as though “Redrum” was meant to be a companion piece to the next song, nothing here prepares the listener for what’s to come.

10. MURDER RAP
Oh my fucking God. I fucking loved this shit. DJ Muggs turns in his best production work in fucking years with “Murder Rap”, with a beat that appropriates the immediacy of the Bomb Squad’s work, the most aggressive Eric B. & Rakim tracks, and post-Ice Cube N.W.A. all at once. Meyhem Lauren meets the bar set exceptionally high by Muggs with a deft performance where he sounds excited and almost out of breath, as though he literally just murdered someone and jumped into the booth immediately afterward, fully aware that the feds were surrounding the building. This shit was just bonkers: there’s little wonder why Muggs cited “Murder Rap” as his favorite track off of Gems From The Equinox in a recent interview. Worth the price of admission all by itself.

11. TENSION (FEAT. ACTION BRONSON & B-REAL)
I get that he’s BFF’s with Meyhem Lauren, but I really don’t think Action Bronson added anything of value with any of his contributions to Gems From The Equinox (although “Shea Stadium” still manages to be okay otherwise). On “Tension”, he spits a whole lot of nonsense that at least doesn’t devolve into a “Szechuan Peppercorns”-level of incompetence, but still isn’t necessary. And it doesn’t matter how Lauren does on here (for the record, *shrug*), because all you want to hear on “Tension” is the resolution of this voicemail narrative. Oh, and the reunion of B-Real and DJ Muggs. The nasally one closes out the project with a final verse that reminds listeners that Cypress Hill hasn’t ever technically went away and could return to the game at any point. Not a terrible way to close things down.

The digital deluxe edition of Gems From The Equinox includes the following bonus tracks.

12. PSYCHEDELIC RELIC
The music on here is dope as shit. The kids still say “dope”, right? Anyway, Muggs gives Lauren a trippy background layered over some hard drums, and its slower pace forces our host to course-correct, which results in a flow that is just a teensy bit awkward, but the man manages to pull it off. There’s no way that “Psychedelic Relic” would have fit into the regular program, but it’s still worth hearing, especially as the hook lends itself to an origin story about the project as a whole. Nice!

13. NORTHERN BLVD. (FEAT. HOLOGRAM)
This bonus track, however, doesn’t really work for me. Meyhem Lauren’s lyrics, primarily focusing on fleeing the cops, aren’t bad (although guest star Hologram traffics in clich├ęs – “Call me “son” ‘cause I shine like one”? Really? It’s almost 2018!). But DJ Muggs outright fails his young charge with a meandering, minimal instrumental that wishes it could approach sinister-ish when it grows up. Belongs on the cutting-room floor. Yeah, I said it.

The physical release of the deluxe version of Gems From The Equinox, curiously enough, also includes two bonus tracks, but entirely different ones than what I just discussed. I don’t know yet how I feel about this, except to say that you two should expect a re-release with all four bonus songs, along with probably some other extra stuff, within the next twelve months. Calling it now.

12. CHAMPION STYLE
Definitely wouldn’t have fit on the album proper, as Muggerud provides a chill (for him, anyway), relaxed, soulful instrumental that Meyhem Lauren seems fully comfortable over. His hook is far too wordy to be great, but the rest of his boasts-n-bullshit are worth listening to at least the once. Not bad.

13. FROZEN ANGELS
(While I found “Champion Style” on YouTube, I had no such luck with “Frozen Angels”. If any of the readers have heard it and/or can hook me up, leave your thoughts in the comments.)

THE LAST WORD: As I wrote above when I destroyed any incentive for you to read up to this point, Gems From The Equinox is a fine return to form for DJ Muggs and a great showcase for what Meyhem Lauren is capable of. I've never sat down with Lauren's solo efforts, but this project is so fascinating that it will have to be the natural next step. But as good as most of Meyhem's performances are on here, the true star is DJ Muggs, who proves to the hip hop community that he never truly left, turning in some of the finest production work of his career. I'm happy to see Gems From The Equinox appearing on so many readers' best-of lists: that's fully deserved, as this is possibly the best album I've heard all year (even though I've admittedly not listened to many new albums in 2017). If you're one of the two readers that hasn't heard this one yet, you should do so immediately. Even if you only hear "Murder Rap". That shit was fantastic. Here's hoping it doesn't take quite as long for Muggs to churn some more of this stuff out: even if his next project ends up being the so-long-overdue-that-nobody-cares-anymore Soul Assassins 3, I'll at least check for it now.

-Max

RELATED POSTS:
Not a ton of Meyhem Lauren on the blog yet, but you can catch up with DJ Muggs here.


18 comments:

  1. This is one of my favorite albums of 2017, at least in the same neighborhood as DAMN. or 4:44 – certainly the one I most listened to this year (though I liked "151," and disliked eXquire's verse, a bit more than you did). Kaos and the next Cypress Hill album are apparently to be released in the first half of 2018. As for "Frozen Angels:" The string-driven instrumental doesn't fit with the rest of the project, but the song is really fucking good in and of itself. It doesn't appear by itself on YouTube, but it's the last song in this video: https://youtu.be/-CWA8LiY_ZA?t=20m59s

    Minor post quibble: "Muggerud," without the "n," seems to be the correct spelling of Muggs' last name.

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    1. Took me a while, but that's been corrected. Thanks for pointing that out.

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  2. COMPLETELY FUCKING AGREE WITH MOST OF YOUR ASSESSMENTS HERE!

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  3. Glad you loved this. I definitely did. Now, I feel you’re ready for Meyhem Lauren’s other masterpiece: Silk Pyramids with Buckwild.

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    1. Let's not go nuts here: I think I made it pretty clear that what attracted me to this project was Muggs, not Meyhem. Give me a year at least.

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  4. This album’s the shit. Gutterfuck Alester Crowley, though.

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  5. Don’t tell me street religion doesn’t whet an appetite for a Muggs Marc album!

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    1. Marciano peaked with his UN shit. Now, he sounds like he’s comatose.

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    2. Marc peaked with his UN shit? That's a joke. You buttfuckers think Raekwon's flow is dope but hate on Roc. Silly.

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    3. The real joke is people like yourself still getting butthurt over an opinion on the internet! Grow the fuck up! And yes, I call Rae out as well when he’s narcoleptic on a record. Although I’m adamant he ain’t nearly as faulty as Marciano.

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  6. Just out of interest, Max, would you consider publishing your Spotify top 100 listened to songs of 2017 for our reading pleasure?

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    1. No, that's okay; the great majority of it wasn't hip hop in the least so it wouldn't really fit the purpose of the blog. Not saying I wouldn't consider it for the future, though.

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    2. You sound like a culture vulture. What type of comment is this? You run a rap blog but barely listen to it? You’re the Post Malone of blogging ! Do you have NON White friends? This comment is suspect.

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    3. The type of comment from a guy who listens to a lot more than just hip hop, and has always been upfront about it. I'd say "thanks for reading", but it's clear you've never paid attention to anything I've said on here.

      Eh, fuck it: Thanks for reading!

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  7. Max I won't lie I love you and if I would be honored to make love to you, but the Roc Marciano hate is just unfounded at this point. Sure you don't like his voice/flow, but lyrically can you at least give him some props? His lyrics are fuckin dope!

    Anyways, I feel like you're sleeping on Szechuan Peppercorns. I enjoyed that beat much more than Shea Stadium. I'd say I love 50% of this album, so I'm not sure I'd buy it, but it's definitely better than most albums this year. That Champion Style bonus track is pretty damn good, I would've thrown it on the album just because it's a great track imo.

    Good to have you back!

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    1. My issue with "Szechuan Peppercorns" was the lyrics, mainly Action Bronson's performance. It just irked me, and I never could get into that track.

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  8. Finally got round to listening to this following an additional reminder while catching up on some Podcasts (check Premium Pete's podcast featuring Meyhem and Muggs from late November).

    I really enjoyed the project, though I confess I spent half of it trying to work out what song the production for Street Religion was jacked from so thanks, Max.

    Muggs' production definitely shines on this, I loved the 'grimey' east coast style which has been generally missing from most of what I hear these days. I didn't see this as a 90's style album by any means but I appreciated the presentation and how it reminded me of a better time musically.

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  9. didn't love this nearly as much as you but meyhem had his moments, b-real was a nice surprise, and muggs was the definite star...he was on something with this production

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