Busdriver, Nocando, Open Mike Eagle, and Milo; these are the four rappers currently at the center of the Los Angeles-based Hellfyre Club. As past experience has shown, great things can happen whenever more than one of these guys gets on the same beat. So it was welcome news when it was announced Hellfyre Club would cap off 2013 with a collaborative mixtape.
Dorner Vs. Tookie delivers 17 tracks that cover a lot of ground. Each of the central four rappers gets a solo track or two, and they team up in a variety of different combinations on most of the rest of the tape. Nocando and Busdriver trade verses on “Pet Alligators”; Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle on “Degrassi Picture Day”; and Open Mike, Busdriver, and Milo show up on “All Pastel Everything”. Dorner Vs. Tookie also features more limited appearances from L.A.-based rappers Rheteric Ramirez, Kail, VerBS, and Jeremiah Jae; one instrumental by beatmaker Taurus Scott; and a contribution from the Kenny Segal and Self Jupiter project, The Kleenrz. The mixtape works well as a cohesive set of songs and it’s a nice showcase for the shared artistic vision and camaraderie that are evident among the group, but it also serves as an interesting study in contrasts.
Open Mike Eagle is the closest thing Hellfyre Club has to a rap everyman. He has a laid-back, melodic delivery; his lyrics are sprinkled with mundane and personal details; and he can be refreshingly self-deprecating and incredibly funny. On “Degrassi Picture Day”, which first appeared earlier this year on the Sir Rockabye EP, Eagle neatly conjures up a nostalgic and goofy portrait of awkward youth, with tongue-in-cheek verses about that annual grade-school ritual, picture day. It’s hard not to smile when Open Mike delivers lines like: “Photo lady flirting with me ’cuz she need a smile/ Yeah, she think she a pal of mine/ What she don’t know is that she gon’ be my valentine”, or: “Stop in the hall, check my corduroys/ They playing Whitney Houston for the booooooyys.” Eagle’s “Qualifiers”, another Dorner Vs. Tookie standout with a great instrumental by Portland’s Taco Neck, is a quiet, understated song about the day-to-day that is mostly absent traditional hip-hop boasts or flash. Open Mike raps about wiping his son’s ass and playing Words With Friends, and the song’s hook is a charming mantra of (semi-) modesty: “We the best, mostly/ Sometimes the freshest rhymers/ We the tightest, kind of/ Respect my qualifiers.”
Nocando, Hellfyre Club’s founder and leader, is probably the most traditional rapper of the bunch. His delivery is more aggressive, and unlike Eagle, he’ll regularly drop lines like “I just got head from my lady friend” (on the hook for “Fabian Cortez”), or “eat a dick ’til you dudes choke” (from “DVT”). Nocando’s lyrics—especially on Dorner and Tits N’ Explosions from earlier this year—tend toward the emotionally hardened and bleak. On the standout track, “Manchester”, Nocan raps over an effective beat by Super: “In 2012 I was a rapper, a rapper-rapper for rappers/ In 2013 I’m a man that stands before you battered, tattered, and fractured.” And here he is on his Sango-produced solo cut, “Give a Fuck”: “Riding fixie through the city with that little hipster slut/ She got no hopes, she got no dreams/ She got no goals, all she got is the scene/ Yeah, it’s like staring in the mirror/ I’ll get seven years of bad luck if I break her heart.” While Nocando and Open Mike Eagle are quite different in some ways, their music shares a similar weight and sense of urgency, which I imagine comes from where both rappers are at in their lives.
Milo, a philosophy major from Maine by way of Wisconsin, is about a decade younger than Open Mike and Nocando. As a rapper, he’s closer in spirit to Open Mike (indeed, he often cites Eagle as a big influence). He has an easy, reserved delivery, and his lyrics tend to alternate between quotidian observations and more thought-provoking matters. He brings a different perspective due to his younger age. For example, on the Busdriver remix of Sacramento band Tera Melos’s “Snake Lake”, Milo rhymes about acne pills and playing dodge ball in gym class. Unlike Open Mike Eagle’s lyrics on “Degrassi Picture Day”, Milo’s reflections feel less nostalgic and more urgent; like the scars from his teenage years are still fresh.
Busdriver, Hellfyre’s elder statesman, shows up the most times of anybody on Dorner Vs. Tookie. The 35-year-old has always struck me as a sound artist first and foremost. His spirited, cartoon-like delivery rarely connects on an emotional or an intellectual level, but when he’s at his best, his sing-song vocal gymnastics can take a song to the next level. On Dorner he sounds strongest on the funky, kinetic Kenny Segal-produced “Pet Alligators” with Nocando; the pace and mood of the beat fit his style perfectly, while he fares less well on a more subdued, level track like “Degrassi”.
There are some solid moments from the other rappers on Dorner Vs. Tookie, too, but at least one of the main four appears on all but a handful of tracks. The accompanying press copy for the mixtape notes that it is intended as “a benchmark in [Hellfyre Club’s] ever-evolving sound.” The album does indeed provide a good taste of the range these guys are capable of, and of the individual personalities that make up the group. The press notes also state that Dorner is meant as “a precursor to upcoming solo efforts from everyone in Hellfyre.”
So what should we expect to hear in 2014? A new Mike Eagle full-length? (Probably.) Nocando’s long-awaited Jimmy the Burnout? (Hopefully.) Whatever we get, it’s safe to predict that it will be worth hearing. Hellfyre Club is one of the most vital groups out there right now; they are the best (mostly), and (sometimes) the freshest rhymers.
4 out of 5
You can buy/download DVT on Bandcamp.