Status Ain't Hood

Hemlock Ernst, The Little Indie-Rap Side Project That Could

Samuel T. Herring looks like the dad in a ’50s sitcom. He sings in a stately baritone-blues quaver that sometimes unpredictably lurches into death-metal growl territory. He dances like an unusually balletic hardcore frontman who has been cast as the lead for a Tennessee Williams play. There is absolutely nothing about Samuel T. Herring, save perhaps his obvious charisma and his comfort onstage, that might lead you to believe that he would be any good at making rap music. And yet Samuel T. Herring is very good at making rap music. I’d call him the best rapping indie rock frontman in history if that didn’t look like a terrible putdown. “Rapping indie rock frontman” is not a category. Samuel T. Herring is in a class of one.

Herring has been rapping since before he was singing. When he was a teenager in North Carolina, he and his friends would battle each other. It wasn’t until years later, in college, that Herring and some friends started the band Art Lord & The Self Portraits. That band eventually evolved into Future Islands. They figured out their own evocative, synthy churn and spent years playing the DIY circuit. They released great records and put out great live shows. Eventually, they graduated, moving to 4AD and blowing up after a particularly stunning Letterman performance made the rounds on blogs like this one. These days, Future Islands can play a big festival stage whenever they want.

In Baltimore — where Herring is based, and where I’m from — indie rock kids have been making rap music for a long time. I haven’t lived in Baltimore in many years; I moved out shortly before Herring moved in. But when I was there, there was a whole little mini-scene of kids who’d make their own beats and do shows at DIY spaces, playing with local indie rock bands. (At least one of them, Height Keech, is still making music now; I can vividly remember seeing that guy rapping over a Stooges sample at a street fair. Keech and Herring have recorded together as recently as this past summer.) Herring is a famous guy who’s part of an extremely un-famous local lineage. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he raps. But I was. I still sort of am.

I heard about Samuel T. Herring’s Hemlock Ernst alias around the same time that Future Islands went on Letterman and blew up in 2014. The live videos I saw of him rapping were sort of shocking in their competence. And over the next few years, Herring showed just how seriously he took it. He made songs with Madlib, with Milo, with Open Mike Eagle. (He also made songs with rap-associated producers like Gangrene and Clams Casino, but he was singing on those songs, not rapping.) And he consistently impressed.

Last week, Herring released Back To The House, the first proper Hemlock Ernst album. It’s a full-length collaboration with the LA producer Kenny Segal, the same person who teamed up with billy woods to make the outright masterpiece Hiding Places earlier this year. It’s a hell of a pairing. On Hiding Places, Segal’s beats were knowingly awkward — noisy bricks of synthetic skronk that perfectly offset billy woods’ tense, apocalyptic expressionism. But Back To The Woods is different. Musically, it’s warm and hazy, fully of easy-loping live instrumentation. There’s more guitar on the album than there is on most Future Islands records.

Heard at album length, Herring turns out to be a pretty fascinating rapper. His delivery is loose and conversational, and it glides easily into singing pretty often. (Herring sounds so good singing over indie-rap beats that I almost wish he’s make an album of just that.) Herring is perfectly capable of locking into a beat, but he’s also able to sort of expound over it, lazily circling it. This could’ve easily been a glaring embarrassment of a record, a rock singer out of his depth. And sometimes, there is a bit of awkwardness. (Herring remains awfully fond of ’90s-ass slang: “pop the coochie,” “schwag blunts.”) But there’s an unforced grace to the album that’s awfully impressive.

It would be really interesting if Herring rapped, concretely and specifically, about what it’s like to be an unexpectedly successful indie rock singer. Sometimes, he at least broaches the subject. At least a few lines on the album — “Tension in my neck / Cuz no pension with cassettes / Work to get the check / Check work to get respect” — seem to refer to the DIY-musician grind. Most of the time, though, Herring is rapping about trying to be a decent, happy person. And that’s interesting, too.

Herring raps in an elliptical, poetic sort of way. He looks inward: “In the retrospect of 31 years / There’s not much left for reasoning here.” He gets loose and abstract: “Find myself in the street, to hear the horns decay / And silence breathes into empty space / And breathes into place / And bleeds for them passed away.” Sometimes, he’s frustrated about being misinterpreted: “My platelets lie in the page’s lines / They try and make assumptions blind / But you don’t have to read between the lines / Just read the fucking lines.” (Also: “Critics overthink the truth in pain / They want persona, but it’s the construct of a weak game.” Well, shit. He got me.) Sometimes, Herring just plays around with word-sounds, leaving meaning behind entirely: “Dune bassoon typhoon swoon.” Sometimes, he’s even funny; I’m pretty sure there’s a joke about how he looks like Eugene Levy in there.

The best moments on Back At The House are the most universal ones. On the album closer “Less Unsettled,” Herring raps about what it’s like to see a friend die too young. That’s maybe one of the most explored subjects in rap history, and it still hits home because none of us know how to deal with it when that happens. A song like that shows that Herring is using rap music to sort his feelings out, which is something that, I’d say, most rappers do.

In a great many ways — its meditative whump, its therapy-talk catharsis, its insularity, its occasional clumsiness — Back At The House reminds me of the records that the members of the Anticon crew were putting out around the turn of the century. Herring would’ve done fine in a crew like that. Maybe he still will. Back At The House is coming out on the Maine-based indie Ruby Yacht. Label boss Rory Ferreira — who rapped for years under the name Milo and who currently records as R.A.P. Ferreira — has built a whole crew, also called Ruby Yacht, around himself recently. Last month, Ruby Yacht released 37 GEMS, their first crew album.

Ferreira himself leads 37 GEMS team. Elucid, another longtime indie-rap figure and Ferreira’s partner in the group Nostrum Grocers, is also involved. Kenny Segal is a member. Hemlock Ernst is not. But within the album’s hazy, kaleidoscopic home-recorded beats and allusion-heavy, extremely considered bars, he’d be right at home. Samuel T. Herring is probably too busy to join a little-heard indie-rap collective. But if he wanted to, he’s certainly qualified. And judging by Back At The House, he might want to.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Snowsa – “Spend”
If you’re going to use those oppressively contemplative Radiohead pianos on a rap song, this is how you should do it. You should make that shit slap. Snowsa comes from New Haven, Connecticut. She’s got one kinda-hit with Young M.A, and she’s on one Lykke Li remix with Lil Baby. And her music moves.

2. Bandgang Lonnie Bands & ShittyBoyz – “Simba”
There is something deliriously, ignorantly perfect in the act of rapping about scamming over an unclearable “Circle Of Life” sample. ShittyBoyz BabyTron will put in shell in your back — Michelangelo.

3. Luh Soldier – “NAW FR” (Feat. NLE Choppa)
NLE Choppa is ridiculously prolific, and if you spend enough time looking at WorldStar, you will notice that he is not even a tiny bit picky about who he raps with. He has a whole lot of songs with a whole lot of questionable talents. Luh Soldier, a 20-year-old Alabama rapper with a powerfully expressionless bark, is not one of them. That guy can rap, and they make a strong pair.

4. Musa Reems – “Zombies” (Feat. Mick Jenkins)
When that bass kicks in? My head might’ve actually physically jerked back. That’s the kind of bass that you can feel in your ventricles.

5. ALLBLACK & Offset Jim – “Got That Fire”
In the Bay Area, they’re still going in over beats that sound like circa-’98 Cash Money shit. God bless them for it.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO