Smart hip-hop, the kind you rarely hear

The Baltimore Sun

It took the firing of Don Imus to focus mainstream media's attention on the poisonous misogynistic lyrics and glorification of all things obscene and stupid riddling commercial hip-hop.

But for more than a decade, progressive black folks (including yours truly) have been discussing and writing about the issue. A depressingly long chain of rappers has called sistas everywhere much worse than "nappy-headed hos," the infamous reference Imus made to the Rutgers female basketball team.

In all the controversy, I kept reminding a few unenlightened friends and colleagues that the "hip-hop" in constant rotation on mainstream radio and TV channels such as BET and MTV largely represents the flattest, most unimaginative segment of the genre. Unfortunately, it is that part of the culture -- the side that perpetuates the scariest, most warped images of blackness -- generating the most dough. So we're inundated with that mess.

However, there are numerous hip-hop artists out there on the grind, producing smart, substantive music rich with humor and sharp insight. Some of them actually have beautiful things to say about black women.

Case in point: Lifesavas. The rap trio from Portland, Ore., (of all places) released its long-awaited sophomore album this week, the brilliant Gutterfly. It's the follow-up to the group's acclaimed 2003 debut, Spirit in Stone.

"For us, the albums are reflections of us as people," says MC Vursatyl, Lifesavas' available mouthpiece. "Those images that are portrayed by mainstream hip-hop and mainstream media aren't us, ya dig. ... Our priority is making classic music. It's not about the money. If it was about the money for us, we would have quit a long time ago," he says with a chuckle.

The group's second release on the indie label Quannum Projects, Gutterfly is a concept album. Sort of. It plays like a soundtrack to an imaginary long-lost blaxploitation film about three slick crime fighters on the funky streets of the fictional Razorblade City.

"We had been watching a lot of old blaxploitation films, like Superfly and The Mack," Vursatyl explains, "and we came up with this idea to develop a soundtrack that told a story. It was kind of a good way to break us out of a box."

He, his rhyme partner Jumbo and DJ Rev. Shines took their time cooking the concept -- nearly three years.

"We wanted to make songs that you could dig without having to understand the concept of the album," says Vursatyl, who last week was relaxing in his hometown of Portland. "We recorded 50 to 60 songs, trying to maintain the theme and tell the story."

The 16 cuts, including a hidden bonus track, that ultimately made the album extend the politically minded, De La Soul-influenced style Lifesavas established on Spirit in Stone. But this time, the group displays more lyrical versatility against a fluid, often melodic musical backdrop. Gutterfly pulses with cleverly spliced soul samples and urgent drum tracks, overlaid with thick layers of live instrumentation -- jazzy horns and syncopated strings.

"With this record, we bounced off of each other more," Vursatyl says. "I play a little piano, you know. And we brought in the horns and the strings to get that old, rich Barry White-like sound. Even some of the songs feel like minimovies."

Although the songs don't advance the plot much (the sporadic "Scenes," or snippets of dialogue, help push the back story along), the album still hangs together well. Lyrically, Lifesavas offers uplifting, keep-your-head-up anthems, including the insistent "Shine Language" and the hard-hitting "Freedom Walk," featuring Dead Prez and Vernon Reid of Living Colour. The latter boasts such lines as "Erase that shame/Show 'em you love being black."

To enrich the organic funk and forward-thinking hip-hop on Gutterfly, Lifesavas invited such illustrious guests as George Clinton, Fishbone, Camp Lo, Butterfly from Digable Planets and the woefully underrated '80s jazz-funk artist Don Blackman.

"We wanted those guests on there to show our range of influences," Vursatyl says. "Cats like George Clinton and Don Blackman already laid out what we're trying to do in hip-hop."

Lifesavas represents the smarter part of the genre, the side that's fully aware of the rich black musical legacy on which it stands.

"Black people are so much more than the images you see in mainstream hip-hop," Vursatyl says. "It's about balance, man; it's about restoring that balance. Right now, hip-hop is so homogenized. But there are a lot of cats doing much more than what you hear on the radio."

A thoughtful album such as Gutterfly is a rewarding example.

To hear clips from Lifesavas' album, go to

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