Pete Miser's 'Radio Free Brooklyn'
Peter Miser leaves a lot of clues. The CD cover is a grimy Polaroid of some corner in some funky old neighborhood somewhere in - where else? Brooklyn. The photo is crudely mounted on a cardboard square and held by masking tape. His name is at the top, written in pencil. The record's name is stenciled on the picture in drippy white spray paint. This is part of classic Hip-Hop culture's street level ethos, but one also indebted to the West Coast DIY ethos (he originally comes from Portland, OR, and after ruling over there, decided to come to NY, Hip-Hop's Mecca).
The CD booklet is a collage of pictures and obscura like fortune cookie fortunes, labels, and - are you sitting down? - lyrics. He wants you to read what he has to say. The centerfold is a recreation of classic, old Hip-Hop culture-style graffiti art, a form rooted in the grass and asphalt of Brooklyn itself. This is not just aping a "back in the day" nostalgia (like the way rappers valorize the rancid pimp image - niggaz please!). It is taking a cue from the traditions of Black music and makin' like a Jazz or Blues player; use the old school for context, styles and form to make your vibrant own thang.
He leaves musical clues, too. Like the pop and crackle of old records playing grooves. Like having a sampled record meld into an original groove and the piano hook becomes a tasty solo, riding out with that soulful wail rap has been waiting for since Run D MC rocked "King of Rock." In place of skits are ambient sounds of the streets.
At a time when Rap has become a caricature, a satanic Step 'n' Fetchit routine with the usual witlessly expressed sex, violence, materialism screed, he chooses to be thoughtful and original. Not only that, this Afro-Asian one-man gang is not afraid to call a spade a spade.
"Discontent Is The First Step In The Progress Of A Man Or A Nation."
The above quote comes from a fortune cookie fortune and appears next to a Polaroid picture of the artist, a sign that Pete Miser is not just on a low budget or hailing back to the pre-Hype Williams/Puffy era, but that, like the great KRS1, is here to drop some knowledge and challenge the status quo. Hip-Hop is in a world of hurt. Even more than Rock, with it's various saviors, and Jazz, which is always in a renaissance, Hip-Hop culture and Rap music are infused with what is known in various cultures and the "Star Wars" films as the force.
Like in the Lucas film, Pete Miser goes back in time and studies from a master in order to have some kinda a basis for what he's creating. In this case, it's the Busy Bee, Treacherous Three-style old school rap that's used as a source of inspiration, and the emphasis on humorous battle rhymes. The first cut, "Bring It To The Masses," starts with a scratchy old school rap - no sample is credited so one assumes it's Pete -
"Take your old school records off the shelf / because I'm here to introduce myself / Hello, hello, hello, what's up? Guaranteed to benefit your spiritual health because I rock the spot like no one else"
- then goes into a Rap that blends old school battle rhymes and braggadocio -
"I hold you responsible for your own actions / Fuck around and get your face wrecked like Michael Jackson / Not a has been but not a rookie neither / Got an off beat style to make you dance or have a seizure/"
- with sly observations on the state of the world delivered in an off hand style, over beats that are fresh but with the sound, bounce, and swing of classic old school hip hop:
"The whole world's runnin' down like a battery . . . a sign . . . says "God's coming" / And all you pushers and cops better start tunning / 'Cause when she arrives she's gonna be pissed as hell / . . . In these changing times I find it strange that still sane watching the world gone mad /"
There you have a template for the whole Pete Miser steelo, I mean style. Immediately on the title cut, the next one, he flips the script with a posse cut using rappers Blowout and Farrah Burns. After the sounds of an explosion, heavy breathing, and a voice softly chanting "There's no place like home," the song kicks in with a Wu Tang Clan style beat and a dissonant, anxious piano riff. Then the sci-fi Company Flow rap-story unfolds with scenes from various apocalypses, now and in the future: a nuclear war scenario with Pete coming from the subway to see singed landscapes and burning body parts; Blowout, paralyzed, crawling, his body burned all over "due to this harsh government," and Farrah wondering, at the end of this world, what to do:
"Should I drop to my knees Lord and repent? / Or was I sent to spread the word through these vents we call Radio Free Brooklyn?"
Rappers always talk about how much they struggle. The form is always about the mythic quest to new life and glory, like 50 Cent's "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." Gangstarr did a song called "R.O.C.K.'in The Planet." But no one to my knowledge has done a rap on this subject with as much sensitivity and reflection as Pete does on "Endure." It's a love song, but one to a fellow warrior in the rap game and music business, and touches on the sentiments a true artist has as he or she deals in this commercial world of dog battle dog:
"And it's a long time coming but it still ain't here / And it's a glorious future but it still ain't clear / And I feel anticipation but it still ain't fear / So I'm gonna keep on buildin' 'til they lend an ear / . . . You got your record deal but you're still the same / Seems like struggle is the name of the game / But at the end of the party I'm still glad I came / See the fame ain't the reason for the rhymes I write / . . . But when I walk down the street without a friend in sight / It's the rhymes on my mind that make it seem alright."
The warm emotions and the simmering drive to keep on keepin' are musically expressed by Fender Rhodes electric piano playing shimmering chords and reverb-laden drum beats. In true classic Hip-Hop form, the music fits the subject and lyrics more than a hand fits a glove; the music creates the atmosphere and setting.
The song "Toothbrush" is marked by a phat drum beat and a flute loop, a sly comment on the 2002 - 2003-cliche of that pan pipe loop. The melody here is also more militant and strident. His voice is clear and distinct compared to the generic gangsta drawl or annoying shout that most rappers have today. It strikes a balance between Guru of Gangstarr fame (the hard rhythming baritone sound of his voice) and Eminem's mocking tone and clever imagery. Like the best Rap, or any art form, he takes the subject of lost love and describes the emotions and distills the essence of the obsession and loss through abstract imagery and rhymes:
"Wish I could pull this out of my head/ leave it on the roadside for dead but instead there / It sits and festers messing with my cranial clump/ So it's against this back drop the mack mops floors with bunny slippers slippin' from my bedroom door / . . . Wake up one morning days later just to find / She's gone for good but still left shit behind and it reminds / Fuck you and your toothbrush."
As if writing, producing, vocalizing, and scratching isn't enough, he takes his independence a step further on "Tell Me Why," which features him bustin' it in an old tongue-twista speed rap style over a drum and bass groove that sports Bootsyesque wah wah bass and comes with a rhyme consisting of hard questions and at least one answer:
"I do believe I've seen my fair share of hard times and scandalous scenes / But a fella gotta keep them dreams or your ass is gonna wind up broke / And it ain't no joke . . ."
The essence of Pete Miser, the kid in the back of the class raising his hand because he knows the answer, the one who asks the hard questions, is found in the track "Got That." I've ranted before about the hell that is modern Pop music; about how real people, real feelings, real life are not to be found in a song on the radio. Reality has been replaced by fantasies of super model celebrity sex, Saddam Hussein levels of opulence, and cartoon violence staring P. Puff Diddy's white leisure suits. Pete delivers blows to this whole world of music with the cool precision of Roy Jones, Jr. breakin' down his opponent. Over an easy funk groove with a soulful groove he starts with the essence of a Hip-Hop: looking for vinyl gems at a record store:
"You caught me diggin' through crates I'm on a mission / Siftin' through old cuts like I was panning for gold dust / Mold must and mildew won't stop me when the fever's got me."
Then he gets to the point on the chorus:
"Got no Bentley or Rolls / But friends? I got that / Got no bitches and hoes / But love? I got that ? Got no full-length mink / But karma? I got that."
Showing his range of skills his raps fast on the verses and then lays in the cut with a slow flow like his fellows West Coasters like Ice Cube and Scarface. But as always it's the lyrics, stupid:
"I got Asian eyes and I got a Chinese dad / . . . I got a bad habit of jonesing for the things I never had / . . . fall to our knees / Beg please for . . . cheese from the powers that be / But a little girl said some words that I'll never forget . . . / "You get what you get and you don't get upset!" / I got an idea gettin' ain't all it's cracked up to be / . . . But some folks want every last bit of stuff they see/ Lust for things / Diamond encrusted things / Stuff that blings don't mean a thing to me / Never are the keys to happiness that they seem to be."
There are other gems on this CD where Pete shows production and composition skills that totally rule. "Just One Rhyme" is an old school party rap, with the music stripped down to a slow disco funk groove, Jam Master Jay scratching style, and Run DMC rhyme cadence. Indeed, the bridge takes Run DMC's distinctive "Sucka MC" groove for the bridge. "Teppei Was Too" goes in the other direction, with its stoned, blunt hittin' Chinese talker, Teppei, babbling Flava Fav style over a jazzy vibes created by live bass, drums, and Rhodes piano. "Rainy Day, Niteroi" is a Hip-Hop musique concrete piece with ambient street sounds, and a subtle DJ Premier-inspired groove.
Pete Miser has produced a record with little, if any, fat. It's phat. Song after song, from cut 1 to 19 is full of verbal gymnastics, dope beats, tasty samples, interesting narratives, and rhymes and images that come at the listener like cluster bombs of Rap joy. If you want to remember the times and the reasons why you were excited by Rap music and Hip-Hop culture, pick up on Pete. Yo, Miser is ill and gots mad skills, he's like the brother in The Matrix, handin' out the blue pills ... and it don't stop.
Keep it real by checking out the website at www.PeteMiser.com