Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What They Said: Looking back at ECP's No Free Lunch Mixtape 1 year later


EnglishClass Project’s No Free Lunch is both a mixtape and an album and better than most of both. The West Coast Avengers and I have a saying, “everybody nerdcore now”. More so than just a snarky dig at the broader mainstream culture turning onto nerd content these days, what we mean by that is much new art, including that which we make, is about the other art we grew up on. Influence has always been part of the artistic cycle, from the beginning of time, but the modern era has seen this become explicit in a way reflective of “nerd culture” in the sense of people being experts of things they are fans of.

ECP are hip-hop nerds. They know what a hip-hop album should sound like, they know the classics. They know what kind of skits and outros they like on rap albums, they know what impresses them about rappers, they know what they like in beats and what sounds professional to them. Even the references on the record make it sound like it’s all a sequel to “Rap: The Movie”, when CL Hos drops references to “Jerome’s Niece” as if there’s no one listening to the record who hasn’t heard “One Love” by Nas.
They are here to give you what you need, in its purest most expert form. They are, to quote their lead single “marvelous at the art of this”. Oddio is the most straight-ahead MC in the crew but even his schemes, flow and lyrics are clever, tightly executed, top flight MC shit. Thesis is the guns-blazing dirty genius of the squad, bringing his Eminem-influenced Whittier-originated hysterics through the lens of a pop culture geek madman. CL Hos has a deep voice and smooth flow that delivers his killer west coast chilled but still highly cerebral lyrics, each verse impossibly topping his last one. Finally Adversity is the accent king- a jack of all trades MC who can sing choruses, rip 16s, rap in a southern or reggae accent, and low-key keep up with all of Thesis’ frenetic intensity as well as Hos’ masterful rap assassinations. Oddio holds the record together with his profesh rap styles, recording, mixing and engineering studio work. Guests like MaiSelph bring boom-bap mastery and flavor on time every time.

About a year ago, Gad Zooks talked about how this mixtape checks off all the boxes of a classic hip-hop record and he’s totally right. That said, lately as I listen to the collection I can’t help but think how different it is from the hardcore 90’s boom-bap rap albums that influenced its creation.
I’ve noticed as aggressive as the raps are, the vocab and the intellectuality are both products of a culture that values intellectual rap more than it did in the 90s (yeah I said it) and the result of a lexiconical arms race that indie artists have happily embraced in the last 15 years or so. Consider ECP as Marlon Wayans in Don’t Be A Menace, aiming a torpedo at that ass, asking “Do. We. Have. A. PROBLEM??”

More than that, songs like Roll Model, which discusses an attractive lover who rolls up blunts, are how ECP talks about women, not Adversity’s proliferate shouts of “bitches” and “pussies” which are clearly instances of him talking about other men and sucker MCs. The crown jewel on my point is the post-modern warm piano inflected boom-bappery of “What They Say” which was the song that introduced me to ECP. I had heard Thesis and was amazed to learn in those days that he had not one but two crews plus full of people of comparable talent. “What They Say” has ECP discussing existential ennui, working class struggle, thoughts of suicide and just plain old melancholy. As much as I love their mastery of golden era hip-hop, it’s these instances of their minds stretching beyond the normal that impress me to the point of never forgetting just how special this squad is.

So Zooks was totally right to say they made a classic hip-hop album, but I would argue that balancing classic hip-hop style with their lyrical and emotional innovation is a big part of why No Free Lunch, 1 year later, is still looking well on its way to classic status.

Tristan "Tanjint Wiggy" Acker is a staff writer for JooseBoxx, youth hip-hop writing instructor with CHORDS Enrichment Youth program (chordseyp.org) and member of the Inland Empire nerdcore hip-hop group the West Coast Avengers. Catch more of their work at westcoastavengers.com, follow Tristan on Twitter @Tanjint or e-mail him at tristanacker@gmail.com.