The COVID-19 pandemic had an odd impact on the tri-state area's hip-hop scenes. Quarantines, shutdowns, and other prolonged disruptions kept New Jerseyans and New Yorkers at home or in defined pods, which, with the aid of technology, allowed for creative collaboration that otherwise might not have occurred. It is in this uncertain environment that Union City producer-composer JWords and Brooklyn rapper maassai found their footing as H31R.
They had first met back in 2017 when they were both booked, respectively, at Suzi Analogue's Never Normal label's NNECESSARY showcase in Brooklyn, sharing the indie rap centric lineup with a then-rising MIKE, among others. Each left with admiration for the other's set, separately intending to collaborate soon thereafter. "It felt like we were from the same universe," JWords recalls. "I was like, we're definitely same tribe and we should make things together," maassai adds about this initial encounter with one another's work.
Early on, the fruits of this burgeoning musical alliance appeared on each other's own solo projects, through the thunderous "MY NAME JACK?" off maassai's C0N$TRUCT!0N... and the technoid churner "All Caps" from JWords' Never Normal effort SÍN SÉNAL, for example. Before long, however, the solidification of their duo mode as H31R proved inevitable and unavoidable, just as the world was about to hit pause. "The pandemic came through and we kind of accelerated," JWords says.
In September 2020, some six months after the threat became evident and ubiquitous, H31R dropped their debut ve·loc·i·ty. Self-released digitally with a limited run of cassettes designed by GENG PTP, the impressive project tapped into the zeitgeist with its off-kilter electronics and insistent vocals somehow bonding cohesively. "Jen [aka JWords] has a way of making beats where, the way that it comes in, it's always going to fuck you up a little bit," maassai says. "Then when everything comes in, it's seamless, like that's what was being set up to happen."
Three years later, H31R are now poised to release their follow-up, HeadSpace, in November, this time with the record label Big Dada. Formerly home to Antipop Consortium and Wiley, the Ninja Tune affiliated imprint underwent a mission shift back in 2021 and is now "run by Black, POC & Minority Ethnic people for Black, POC & Minority Ethnic artists" and "[w]orking to amplify Black and racialised artists' voices." JWords initially connected with the label while producing for one of its signees, Brooklyn's Yaya Bey. While those particular tracks have yet to emerge, the experience incidentally opened the door there for H31R. "I never shopped an album before," JWords says for clarity. "We got signed and then wrote the album."
"It was easier for us to make things together, at this point, because we had already undergone going through the process of making a project," maassai says about approaching HeadSpace after the positive reception and internal satisfaction for ve·loc·i·ty. "So it's the thing of like, okay, how do we follow that?" From their perspective, they were effectively competing with themselves. "maassai's favorite catchphrase during the making of this new album was: we need another 'toxic behavior,'" JWords says with a laugh, referring to a ve·loc·i·ty standout. "But then you realize that you've grown and you realize that you can still make fire shit."
Based on HeadSpace's lead single "Backwards," it's safe to say they've fulfilled that realization. "For one, it is a bop, undeniably," maassai says. "It's a great way to ease people into what we're doing, because it's still super experimental–but it just slaps." Indeed, the track showcases some exceptional yet accessible rapping over a mélange of squelchy synths and snappy rhythms. As it turns out, "Backwards" is already a staple of their live set, having been written the very weekend after ve·loc·i·ty dropped. "That's the way that we both make music, based on what vibe we're in in the moment."
As for the rest of HeadSpace, which includes features from Quelle Chris and Semiratruth, each member came in looking to step things up in their respective roles. JWords expresses a meticulousness to her work ethic in play here, tweaking and editing along the way. "There was a couple of songs where there were just things off," she says of the process, in which she made further adjustments to her beats once the vocals were laid down. Sometimes, it was as straightforward as retroactively removing a bleep or bassline that didn't jibe with the track anymore. At the other end of the editorial spectrum, they excised at least one song altogether, for album aesthetic reasons. "It was not flowing properly. There are certain things that we do to make sure that it's cohesive, and we both feel comfortable with it."
Naturally, JWords' avant-garde production wouldn't work for just any emcee, but it's precisely that sound which drew maassai into her sonic space in the first place. "I'm not normally trying to get on beats that are not challenging, and so Jen definitely creates a space for me to really sharpen my pen," she says. "There were times when we were making the album where I was like, all right, I got to rap."
H31R's HeadSpace is out November 17th. Pre-order / pre-add it here.
In their heyday, NYC's homegrown Das Racist did a fine job of contextualizing South Asian culture in their beats and rhymes. So it's no surprise that Heems launched his new Veena Music label with this compelling project from the likeminded Lapgan. Drawing from a wide range of researched sonic sources, including Tamil cinema soundtracks and Bengali religious music, History represents the Chicago-based Indian producer's ongoing commitment to his craft. As with Dan The Automator's Kalyanji–Anandji remix set Bombay the Hard Way and Madlib's Beat Konducta Bollywood explorations, the sample origins will remain crate-dug secrets to many who hear it. Yet even the most craven trainspotter must marvel at the timelessness of what's been done with the material for this roughly half-hour long album. He weaves an enthralling groove on "The Unknown (apsara)," gives a G-funk twist to the shimmering "Mughal Shit," and applies rhythmic ruggedness around the bounce of "The Illest Raja." Later, he sticks the proverbial landing with the lean-paced "Under The Bodhi Tree" and the meditative ambient-esque closer "Oh, Pyar."
Open Mike Eagle, another triumph of ghetto engineering
For nearly a decade now, Open Mike Eagle albums have offered brilliance and wit to the independent rap audience. Every couple of years, the erstwhile Hellfyre Club emcee drops a project of substance like a thrown life preserver in a sea of lobbed stones. While not as quietly if devastatingly personal as 2020's Anime, Trauma and Divorce, his latest effort finds him tinkering with autobiography and the bounds of narrative. His sense of humor arrives early with the Quelle Chris-produced "I bled on stage at first ave," a lyrical flurry that spins Big Pun, feng shui, and his mother into its miasmatic mantra. He scribbles a snarky hip-hop CV on hotel stationary for "we should have made otherground a thing" into and says his peace with extreme prejudice on "mad enough to aim a pyramid at you." Backwoodz Studioz familiar Child Actor handles the bulk of the beats here, including the woozy "a new rap festival called falling loud" and the very literal "Dave said these are the liner notes," while Kenny Segal fortifies the cavernous boom bap posse cut "WFLD 32."
John Glacier & SURF GANG, JGSG
After dropping short yet impactful EPs with Matt OX and French rapper Serane, the 2023 mode for SURF GANG stays decidedly collaborative and multi-national on their latest effort. Evilgiane and Harrison of the seemingly amorphous NYC collective connects here with London's John Glacier, who brings a listless cool delivery to JGSG. Whether riding the piano-led trap of "WAIT FOR ME," the hypagonic drill of "FRIENDLY FIRE," or the feverish techno of "REGAL," her vocal presence is somewhere between rapping, singing, and speaking with an earnest monotone of detachment. "MINDMAP" moves at an oozing pace to match Glacier's murmured deliberations, while drumless closer "TELESCOPE" offers flashes of light through the melodic haze.