When it comes to the local movement, it’s very easy to pigeonhole yourself into one category of local. We get caught up in the phrase “local food” because it’s perhaps the most obvious–and tangible. But when it comes to local music, I often get a bad taste in my mouth. The term “local band” has the connotations like loud, disorderly, and crappy quality, while limiting one’s expectations–but there is one specific band that tears this notion to shreds with a blend of confrontational, raw hip-hop laced with big guitars and bass. They’re called The Goonies and they’ve gotten some press since dropping their newest album. Here’s an official long format review of the band’s new album, Too–direct from the Guru.
Hip-hop has for many years been my bread and butter. It’s the music and spirit I credit with allowing me to grow in so many ways. It’s a genre full of anger, pain, and confrontation but one brimming with positive messages of self-empowerment, which are often disguised as something else–and almost always misunderstood. It’s a genre that causes discomfort by discrediting the dominant worldview while striking out at modernism, imperialism, and racial roles as a whole. Hip-hop is also a veritable crucible of creativity and shield to hold up to all the bullshit life throws at us. When you hear most top 40 so-called hip-hop songs, it’s easy to write the genre off–but the rich tradition of lyricists like Rakim, Erik B, and other greats lives on. I’m talking about Das Racist, Danny Brown, Mr. Exquire, Despot, El-P, Ab-soul, Action Bronson, the Stones Throw Records roster, Kendrick Lamar, Madvillian, Quasimoto, Odd Future, Captain Murphy/Flying Lotus, and a hundred others I’m always listening to while I write. I rely on my own two ears to inform my music reviews–nothing else.
Syracuse is rich with local bands but when it comes to hip-hop that’s worth a listen, things are a bit sparse. When it comes to local hip-hop shows, Syracuse is devoid. While bands playing rock covers generally get the opportunities, hip-hop just doesn’t have sway in ‘Cuse. That’s why we have to outsource to get our hip-hop fix for the most part. Syracuse is small and can’t support the standard “rapper” career–that’s just how it is and nothing’s changing that. None of that matters when it comes to The Goonies. Illumination (Langston Masingale) and Clam Weezy (Peter Cappelli) aren’t local rappers, they’re two dynamic MCs backed up by world-class musicians and live instrumentation. They also produce their own beats, which are miles ahead of many national acts and assembled from actual live drum recordings. The end result is a heavy mix of hard-hitting, super clean beats that borrow from all over rock, blues, and funk. In a live setting, the guitars scream and drums slam over vicious, raw lyricism. Girls dance on tables and speakers. If you’ve seen them live, I don’t have to explain how wild The Goonies get. Let’s talk about their second studio album Too.
Too represents over five years of work and was primarily recorded in Syracuse and mastered in Saugerties, NY. A few different studios (Clambake Studio, studioDOG Productions, Narrative Audio Studio, Groove Yard Studio) appear in the album notes and most are Upstate NY based. Just glancing at the album notes reveals that Langston Masingale (Illumination) is the primary recording engineer and also that both MCs are multi-instrumentalists. Together they play over five instruments in addition to rapping. They also sing the hooks. That makes The Goonies’ leadership compelling, but backed up by talented musicians like drummer Kinyatta King and guitarist Adam Fisher (among others), the result is something very special. This might be a spoiler, but Too is a phenomenal piece of work that isn’t framed to the limits of the “local band.” This is an album that stands up to–and even blows away–the average big label hip-hop release. A combination of real musical know-how, subtle mastering and engineering plus rapid-fire lyricism and classic songwriting makes Too a total package that deserves to be on steady rotation in your car and on your iPod. I’ve made it straight through about eight times and am still noticing subtleties, amazing punchlines, and something so incredibly dense that it demands critical listening. There’s also an entire conscious rap element going on–but instead of focusing on societal ills, Too focuses more upon what’s hurting hip-hop as an art. By simply exposing listeners to a clever blend of lyricism over killer blues and rock instrumentation, The Goonies draw out what’s lacking on the average hip-hop release. That intangible feeling called soul.
Clam Weezy flows over the entire album with ease, bringing a little twang to Illumination’s raw, grounded style. It’s very difficult to compare either of these guys with anyone. I hear Zack de la Rocha (a-la Rage Against the Machine) in Clam Weezy’s voice. The twang I mentioned comes to the forefront when Weezy goes in hard, but unlike de la Rocha, The Goonies’ MC seems more versatile and flexes real finesse on some of the more sophisticated beats. Where Clam Weezy exudes a fast-paced, backpacker sophistication Illumination provides the heft. Both MCs work flawlessly together to the point where Weezy’s verses flow into Illumination’s and vice versa. Sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference but I think it’s a testament to the pair’s rap chemistry. Lyrical direction, song concepts, and themes are clear but require serious listening time. As I said, this is an incredibly dense album and if you’re like me, that’s the number one thing you look for. Even with its hook-driven tracks, the lyricism is up front and center. Illumination and Clam Weezy match the pure energy and brutality of the albums loudest guitars. There’s an underlying ferocity that follows them through the entire work to the very mellow end. Weezy actually sounds like he’s about to growl on the final song’s opening verse.
The beats on this thing are entirely organic feeling due to the live instruments and the arrangements feel so purposefully crafted. What’s the purpose? To highlight the rhymes but to also force you to realize the band side of The Goonies could be The Black Keys. I’m serious. From the carefully placed strings and horns, to the peerless bass lines, to the intense drums–it feels more Blakroc than garage band at any given time. The mixing and mastering is also great and as I listen on my studio headphones or sound system, it sounds as good as any big release in a way no local group has done. A listening session is a true pleasure as the vibe jumps from heavy blues rock of “Jean Michel Basquiat” to the chill, country psychedelia of the title track, “Too”. This thing is a game-changer that demands all local acts to step their game up–and do it fast. But maybe a better target is the slack-jawed garbage that only deludes the definition of real hip-hop. The Goonies ain’t havin’ it.
I’ve gotta talk about some specific tracks. I found the second half of the album to be the strongest, though it’s pretty consistent overall. Once you hit the fifth track, “Sting Tooth” you’ll experience the fury I’ve been describing. “Peacepipe” is an in-your-face weed song that skips the standard, chilled out vibe for a brutal, rock sound. “Ravenous” is another banger with one of my favorite punchlines of the albums 46 minute entirety (Illumination: Burn you to the ground like Amazon fields, ’cause I measure all my raps by the kiloton yield, bitch!). It’s also got one of the best beats on the entire album. The transitions between MCs are stunning and I love the chopped-and-screwed vocal elements and radio feedback. “Hard Days Rhyme” is interspersed with incredible guitar-work reminiscent of The Black Keys. It’s perhaps the most sophisticated sounding 3:31 on the album. For some reason the beat brings to mind some long lost RZA production. “Samplitis” brings back the b-boy sound with an old school approach. The beat is complex, sophisticated, and subtle in production with strings that are the gems of the track. The rhymes are tight and impressive–”Rap music seems hardly inspired, cause it ain’t about the real MCs, it’s about the worst liars.” But perhaps my favorite on the entire work is the album’s title track “Too”. After so much fire and aggression, “Too” kicks off with a psychedelic, ambient, Pink Floyd-esque vibe. The first 25 seconds create a divide from the rest of the album that calms listeners. Weezy opens with rhymes that seem to skip over the sparse beat. He sounds better here than any other place on Too. He sounds angry. Illumination kicks one of his best verses ever after Weezy concludes–multi-syllabic internal rhymes and more. Lyrics move effortlessly to the struggles of life to transcendentalism. It’s a trippy blend of psychedelia and reality provided by some incredible rapping. Clam Weezy: “Back to the the house, outside is outta bounds, life is war, and I’m livin’ like I’m outta rounds, we wrote the report up to live it down, if I stop treading water then I’m gonna drown, got a noun, but I’m outta verbs.”
You need to buy a copy of Too and really give it a listen. This is not ringtone rap, but a work that begs to be listened to as a whole. Weezy told me five years went into this thing and I believe it–it sounds more like a lifetime. It’s not only the finest example of Syracuse hip-hop, but by far the best release that’s ever come out of the area–in any genre. It’s really that good. The Goonies have much to say about what makes real hip-hop and Too leads by example. This is the kind of album that will at least challenge–if not change–you entire perception of rap, hip-hop, and music in general if you let it. I didn’t expect to find even half of what Too delivers.
It exudes a true love of words, fierce and vibrant creativity, pure musical skill and it’s a testament to the great creative and artistic potential of Syracuse. Too is so much more than just another album. If you don’t believe me go listen for yourself.
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