If I have one regret, it’s never having visited a Fat Beats record store before its untimely demise in September. For us music junkies, those hallowed halls in Los Angeles and New York were our own personal Mecca, a place where fans and DJs could find the most obscure records, revisit their respective neighborhoods and claim ownership over songs no one else has heard. In August, my Potholes colleague Craig Jenkins penned an exceptional column on the store closings, saying that we’re all responsible for the fall, especially since so many of us illegally download the music we once paid for. He was absolutely correct. However, it seems as if Koncept, formerly employed by Fat Beats in New York, is doing his best to keep the store’s memory alive, as evidenced by Playing Life, with its brutal honesty, driving rhythms and intricate sample loops. Ultimately, Koncept’s album doesn’t play at all; it’s a direct reflection of Fat Beats’ legacy and a return to the vinyl warped days of New York City’s boom bap hip-hop.
If the 1980s were the jovial years of hip-hop, the 1990s were much more serious, as the culture ascended to previously unreachable heights of commercial relevance and suffered with a nagging inferiority complex caused by years of being labeled a “fad.” In the ’80s specifically, hip-hop luminaries carried torches of artistic freedom in hopes of spreading their messages to the somewhat deaf ears of the musical masses. A decade later, the listening public finally caught on to the lucrative genre, even if rappers appeared uncomfortable at times with its newfound exposure and descended into periods of self loathing. Koncept, one-fourth of the Brown Bag All Stars emcee crew, successfully marries the two decades on Playing Life, combining the playfully sarcastic mindset of the ’80s with the moody and disgruntled complexities of the ’90s. While each song on this efficient, 12-song recording is straightforward, the messages are delivered with a nonchalant haze that shines a bright light onto the inner workings of a Queens native, not especially thrilled with the idea of a day job. “I’m a broke motherfucker, sick of working for a paycheck/Too broke to pay rent, there’s only one day left,” Koncept says bluntly on “The Game”, which finds the artist candidly assessing his place within the cluttered music industry.
The album’s next song, the driving “Keeping On”, tackles the same topic as its predecessor. Here, Koncept raps: “They told me get my life in tact, but where’s that really coming from/Always up for questioning, how long will I remain a bum.” That type of working man mentality is the essence of Playing Life, which teeters between hopeful idealism and seething dejection. In one moment, Koncept encourages you to follow your dreams, while chastising himself the next moment about goals he has yet to achieve. Still, it’s not all about the grind. On the Wu-Tang influenced “Add It Up”, the artist tackles the difficulties of love with the usual sap that accompanies such a topic. “You Knew”, with its soulful vocal loops and subtle drums, is a coming of age tale about dealing with romance.
In some ways, the closing of Fat Beats represents an unsettling transition in hip-hop to a future we’re unwilling to face. Many of us want the genre to return to its roots and erase recent history, but ultimately, there is no going back. Koncept should be commended for his dedication to our melodic yesteryear, while also keeping his sound relevant to the current soundscape. Sure, the physical buildings have closed, but Playing Life proves there’s still an active heartbeat within the culture.