Ill Bill – The Grimy Awards
Fat Beats Records: 2013
Blame it on my California bias, but one of the most underrated and underappreciated cliques in hip-hop is the Soul Assassins. Cypress Hill’s West Coast adaptation of the East Coast’s grimy, hardcore style attracted similarly-minded artists from Los Angeles to New York. From La Coka Nostra to Dilated Peoples, Psycho Realm, and the rest of the associated acts, the collective is a potent cocktail of West Coast gangsta rap, East Coast boom-bap, Latin music, rock, and funk with an unrelenting edge. While watching Sick Jacken stage a fake gangland-style execution during a Psycho Realm concert, my friend remarked, “They must be from L.A. This would scare the shit out of people in San Francisco.”
That gritty atmosphere certainly helped New Yorker Ill Bill feel right at home with the rest of La Coka Nostra and the Soul Assassins family. The producer lineup for his new album The Grimy Awards (Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and Large Professor among them) is a ‘90s fanboy’s wet dream. Do you remember when rap beats were punctuated with scratching and vocal samples from classic rap tracks? Pepperidge Farm and Ill Bill remember. Ill Bill uses The Grimy Awards as his personal lifetime achievement award ceremony (The Billies? The Grimies?) to honor and work with his musical influences, with “Acceptance Speech” imagining him at a podium customarily thanking family, fans, influences and collaborators. It’s a touching alternative to the album’s tougher, dark alley moments where Ill Bill thrives. You don’t listen to Ill Bill for rainbows and puppies like you don’t listen to Drake while weightlifting.
Following the joyous “Acceptance Speech’’ is a fall down the rabbit hole: songs about the Unabomber, the apocalypse, glorification of violence (of which Ill Bill is unashamed), the tough NY streets, and a really shitty acid trip. Ill Bill’s bad trip included “hot corpse masturbation” instead of cool stuff like unicorns serving cotton candy. The only other time I’ve given sympathy for a trip was when my buddy delivered pizza to a police station while tripping balls. This is Ill Bill’s Wonderland, where only the strong survive and you’re always wandering into the wrong neighborhood at midnight. The threats are all around; the government, shooters, backstabbers, and the Devil are just waiting for you to slip up. This environment spawned a rap fanatic from New York who dropped out of high school and grew to be Ill Bill. It’s the universe in which El-P operates, who produced and rapped on “Severed Heads of State” as he recreates the guitar riffs and impeccable chemistry between him and Ill Bill that made “Simian Drugs” a gutter classic.
As dark as Ill Bill and his world can be, he’s just another rap fan at heart. His rugged delivery is well-suited for the production he chooses, a mixture of what DJ Muggs was making for the first three Cypress Hill albums and Gang Starr. The tracks that don’t go down the rabbit hole are tributes to his influences, including the Primo tribute “World Premier.” Given hip-hop’s contentious nature, it’s nice to hear artists say nice things about each other in meaningful verse and not just in a basic shout-out. And just think, we’re 20 years away from reverential ballads about 2 Chainz and how Mike Will made it. There might not be any glowing tributes to Ill Bill two decades from now, but it won’t be for a lack of skill or passion. Ill Bill falls under the “not for everybody” category, home to Tech N9ne and Andre Nickatina. It’s tough when a rapper who raps well, picks great beats, and puts together a good project isn’t for everybody, but I don’t think he minds as long as he churns out more projects like this one.