Look Ma, no Fruityloops! or, Thinking Man's Hip Hop
I have to confess straight away that I'm generally not a great fan of Hip Hop as a genre. Whether you are or not, I can only urge you to give The Amazing Assaf's album Explicit Lifestyles at least one listen. It certainly blew me away. Released in 2000, The Amazing Assaf's debut album makes you forget all your preconceptions about contemporary Hip Hop. There's not even the merest hint of "Fruityloops" or any other kind of loops for that matter, no sequencers, samples, drum machines or the like, instead, real instruments and nothing but, played by real human musicians - predominantly by the Amazing Assaf himself. Not only that, but Explicit Lifestyles even gives you real grooves, too. And some pretty cool grooves at that. If all that wasn't enough, the lyrics can actually be clearly, distinctly and easily understood, and moreover are of rare quality and do not solely depend on explicit profanities. (There are a few of those too, but nothing excessive.)
The Amazing Assaf and Explicit Lifestyles takes Hip Hop and turns the genre upside down and inside out, with some amazing results. Blending originality with creativity and inventiveness, and replacing mere gimmick and effect for its own sake with real musicianship, ideas and a sense of adventure, The Amazing Assaf almost completely redefines Hip Hop, fusing it with elements of funk and Latin, and is one of the very few artists in this sphere who can stake a legitimate claim on the genre as a legitimate, serious musical art form. With Explicit Lifestyles, Assaf not only presents a "thinking man's" kind of Hip Hop, but music that is just that - music, good music, rather than a series of effects and gimmicks that merely "sound cool". Music that has something to say and does so articulately, music that is eminently listenable-to, and music that is cool.
Long acknowledged as London's premier popular percussionist and also a busy session drummer as well as now also featuring with world jazz supergroup Daphna Sadeh And The Voyagers, you'd expect The Amazing Assaf's drum tracks to be tight and inventive. And Explicit Lifestyles most decidedly won't disappoint. The drumming/percussion alone would be worth listening to on its own. Laid back and cool, strong jazz influences are clearly evident in Assaf's percussion style, as are those of some classic rock. The latter influences in particular are also clearly discernable in the lyrics and backing vocal arrangements, particularly of Frank Zappa.
The album opens as it means - and succeeds - to go on, with a strong, attention-grabbing track, Explicit. Great swinging groove, superb percussion, strong lyrics. It's A Hip Hop Thang has all the spontaneity of a live jam. A short segue, Nasty Poetry, leads on to Bitchbusters, a firmly tongue-in-cheek number, like much of the material. It would be hard to find a weak track on Explicit Lifestyles, it's a thoroughly consistent album with lots of wit and style. There's always something fresh and original and even surprising, all the way through from the opener to the closer, Quality. And the latter's title also sums up this album very nicely. Most of the tracks are by The Amazing Assaf himself, some in collaboration with Limmie Snell, with one Limmie Snell original.
London's NME was not exaggerating when it described The Amazing Assaf as a Hip Hop genius. Listen to this album and hear for yourself. The "Amazing" epithet is indeed most appropriate for this, well, amazing percussion phenomenon. In 2003, he won the World Music category of the Unisong songwriting competition with Hip Hop Hoo Rai, as well as being a semi-finalist in the MOBO Unsung competition. Explicit Lifestyles caused a lot of excitement in the British music press, and it's easy to see, or rather hear, why. In the wasteland that generally is contemporary popular music, a wasteland of on the one hand manufactured-by-committee boy or girl bands with assembly-line "steaming piles of pooh" songs and on the other hand usually equally talentless unimaginative bedroom studio loop'n'sequencer wonders, The Amazing Assaf is a refreshing wind, an oasis of real talent, imagination and musicianship.
Currently putting the finishing touches to his third album, The Amazing Assaf usually also maintains a busy gig schedule with his band consisting of Assaf himself on lead vocals, percussion and guitar, Theo Scipio on bass guitar and backing vocals, ace multi-instrumentalist Koby Israelite on drums, and Limmie Snell on beatbox, lead and backing vocals. They can usually be heard in all the top London Hip Hop clubs and other great venues mainly in and around the London area, so keep a look-out! AA = unmissable!
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