For those of us who work on the periphery of the music business, SXSW is a whole lot of fun, a great chance to see a whole mess of bands and catch up with friends we haven’t seen in a while. It’s also a complete blur, a time when everyone you know is dealing with some combination of bleary-eyed fatigue, brain-needling hangover, and/or general inebriation. It’s the sort of thing where you realize you’re unbelievably hungry at 4 a.m. because you’ve forgotten to eat anything in the last 12 hours. This year, I had a hell of a time organizing my friends to get a barbecue lunch down at Iron Works. And Queens rapper Meyhem Lauren made an entire album — one of the best rap albums of the year, as it happens. That is a pretty incredible feat.
Some background: Meyhem Lauren is a hulking Queens rapper with a husky marblemouth flow, one that evokes memories of the past few decades of hard-rock New York rap every time he opens his mouth, though he sometimes uses that flow to display a sneaky, weed-addled free-association style. He’s floated through the more traditionalist wings of New York’s underground rap circles for the past few years. When I saw Action Bronson at SXSW, Lauren was the hypeman — a massive barrel-chested presence who held the stage like a Japanese movie-monster, outsizing even the gargantuan Bronson. And while he was down in Austin, presumably playing a bunch of shows with Bronson, he (or his managers) found time to round up many of the sharpest talents on a suddenly-resurgent NY underground landscape to record a blunted party of a full-length. Harry Fraud, the rising New York producer responsible for French Montana’s city-conquering “Shot Caller,” and Tommy Mas, the man who produced all of Bronson’s great 2011 album Dr. Lecter, teamed up to supply all the production, and about 10 different dudes stop by to kick in guest verses, many of them showing up multiple times. Bronson is all over it, as you’d imagine, as is AG Da Coroner, a guy I’d never really noticed before. Heems, Riff Raff, Despot, Smoke DZA, and elder-statesman knucklehead types like Sean Price and Roc Marciano show up, too. And they recorded almost the entire thing in a hotel suite during the course of SXSW.
I love picturing the scene at these recording sessions: Dudes loading up on free breakfast down in the palatial Embassy Suites lobby, piling their plates high with sausage and biscuits before heading up to the room. Air choked with weed smoke. Everyone sitting around, shooting the shit, slowly working over their notebook pages. Everyone periodically shutting up so that someone can spit a finished verse. Everyone listening to that verse, looking back at what they’re working on, and realizing they need to come a little bit harder. Every once in a while, someone realizing that he’s supposed to be onstage somewhere in 20 minutes and jetting out the door. Nobody getting any sleep. I don’t know if the scene actually looked anything like that, but I like to imagine that it did.
Even if you know nothing about the circumstances of its creation, though, Respect The Fly Shit is still a serious achievement. Fraud and Mas are just ridiculously strong producers, and their styles complement each other. Both make psychedelic, zoned-out boom-bap that absorb bits of acid-rock guitar freakout or spaghetti-western soundtrack without compromising their fundamentalist knock. Nearly every track has a guest or three, and the songs generally don’t have anything resembling choruses, or if they do, the choruses sound just like more verses. And the many of the guests outdo themselves, coming up with compulsively quotable silliness that sounds both ridiculous and insanely cool at the same time. Das Racist’s Heems isn’t intimidated by his rap-lifer peers, and he remains in fine casual-goofball form throughout: “Matter splatter, Marshall Mathers / I’m a fucking legend, call me Dan Rather.” Riff Raff’s swag-rap absurdism turns out to be perfectly at home when he’s hanging out with all these New Yorkers: “All these haters are aggravating, but they suck like Life Savers / And I should have been a politician, possibly the mayor.” Bronson continues his insane run. The most impressive moment might come from AG Da Coroner, who uses the slow-rolling bassline of “Pan Seared Tilapia” to get all vividly dystopian: “Motherfuckers with no regards for your life and little hungry children that’ll kill ya for rice / Down Syndrome carriers, African midgets, full-blown AIDS babies born with no digits / Swine flu spreading through the air, cancer patients with no hair, chemotherapy stares with no glare.” And Lauren anchors it all with an unflappable tough-guy growl that gives weight and purpose to the whole thing, a player who controls the game even when he’s moving without the ball.
Respect the Fly Shit rockets by in about 40 minutes, and it has a couple of effective but way-too-nasty sex-rap tracks that it probably could’ve done without. Nobody really gets deep at any point. But it’s not a lightweight album; it’s a statement of collective cohesion, an image of a group of talented people who may just be realizing how talented they are. It sounds cool as fuck, and it’s the most compulsively listenable mixtape I’ve heard in months. I don’t know if Lauren and his associates timed the release to make sure that people had something to bang during their 4th of July barbecues, but if they did, that was smart. Because if you’re having a barbecue and you’re not playing this, you’re doing it wrong.
Download Respect The Fly Shit for free here.