Geordie hip-hop crew the Verbal Terrorists’ Small Axe brings forthright radical messages to agitate, educate and entertain. Tom Jennings goes with the flow.
Axes to Grind. Music review – Tom Jennings
Waxing and waning over the decades, UK hip-hop has never seemed sure of its ambitions or its place in youth culture and popular music. Parochially defensive about the movement’s stateside origins, its adherents typically affect an elitist subcultural pose – which wider audiences disdain, instead dancing to crossovers with reggae and R&B or rave styles from jungle and garage to grime and dubstep. Nevertheless, rap’s inherent transgressiveness reliably generates genuinely resistive voices this side of the pond – including landmarks like Skinnyman’s Council Estate of Mind (2004) and consistent consciousness from such as Klashnekoff, Jehst and Braintax. Thankfully, straight-up revolutionary lyricism also no longer only comes with American accents (think Paris, Dead Prez, Immortal Technique), and Verbal Terrorists’ excellent debut Small Axe delivers just what it says on the tin – ‘Governmental advisory: seditious lyrics’ – with passion, panache and intelligence and some banging beats to boot.
On the grass-roots DIY tip with Tyneside label White Elephant, MCs Drop Dead Fred and Nobull, DJ Bigfoot and producers Mr Blazey and Burt combine blistering verbal barrages agin the bad global B-boys (Blair, Bush, Brown et al – for example: “Mr. ‘Witch Project’ sucking up to ‘Shrubbery’ / Democracy’s a farce and it’s daylight robbery”) – with deft denunciations of the consumer society’s destruction of lifeworlds for the benefit of the rich. Emphasis on the hassles of the modern urban environment (‘NE64 Life’, ‘Idle Hands’) dovetail with trends in national (‘Fuck Bovis’, ‘New Britain’) and international government (‘Kindness Is His Middle Name’, ‘Wealth of Nations’), with close attention to class conflict, collective struggle and communal culture (‘Heavy Affiliates’, ‘Hardcore’). Enunciative skill and dexterity shine throughout, offering political insight without arrogance or contrivance and allowing contrasting musical styles and guest slots to reflect eclectic influences without losing focus or direction.
The final cut, ‘Dance of the Money Men’, exemplifies the Verbal Terrorists’ stance as well as honouring Fred and Nobull’s backgrounds in left-wing families and networks. A simple drum break bolsters the Old Rope String Band’s folksy busking vibe – a fixture at North-East demos and festivals back in the day – with vitriolic anti-capitalism peppering the rabble-rousing chorus:
“Ching, ching, ching goes the beat that we dance to / Or left on welfare and never get a chance to / Work, work, work just to spend, spend, spend / Whilst we’re stuck in the crowd that watch the Dance of the Money Men. / We watch the dance of the money men, they cackle and they scream / We take a chance on the lottery, we love to buy the dream / But there is nothing at this rainbow’s end / There isn’t any crock of gold to spend.”
At the other end of the sonic spectrum, ‘Idle Hands’ wraps Burt’s classically soulful, guitar-picking sample around verses meditating on wasted lives coping with a terminally messed-up world:
“Driven to distraction in this city of sin / ’Cause we’re living trapped in by the grittiest things / We’re willing to be villains for the prettiest bling / But divven’t give in, just keep chilling with kin ... / I stay calm like the mood of the song / But I know I might blow ’cause my fuse isn’t strong / Me I elevate a thirsty and righteous man / ’Cause the devil makes work for these idle hands.”
Meanwhile, accomplished (if less memorable) instrumentals elsewhere foreground diagnoses of the causes – as in ‘Edukators’: “We’re after social equality, better global economy / Government’s a waste of space, from PM candidates to local authorities / Branded slaves to these total monopolies / With their vocal apologies to win voters’ majorities” – capped with snippets of political speeches, including Chomsky: “making corporations accountable would mean abolishing them”. And fortunately, since space here permits only hints of their sophisticated subtlety, the lyrics will soon be listed online – where you can already check selected tracks.*
If the group’s moniker conforms to the genre’s traditionally inflated claims to self-importance, the album title (invoking Bob Marley’s imagery of felling a ‘big tree’) shoulders a humbler role in the historical fight for freedom and equality – their embrace of diverse musics matching admirably non-sectarian support of various political campaigns and events (including the last Projectile Anarchist Festival in Newcastle). Nonetheless, crowd-pleasing generalities aside, expressions of what’s wrong with the world – however cleverly and convincingly articulated – would ideally embody portents of what could be done about it. Conversely, for example, seeming to support charismatic leaderships is as dodgy as demands for ‘nationalisation’ conjuring up the evils of state control and nationalism. Parroting (rather than remixing) the lowest common denominators of popular protest thus risks being mistaken as woolly liberals or, worse, allies of the authoritarian Left’s would-be dictators and bureaucratic manipulators who ordinary folk justifiably despise. Obviously these issues trouble us all, but hip-hop’s distinctive cultural paradigm does offer pathways through the impasse.
Yet despite notable achievements, Small Axe exhibits a somewhat monotonous vocal tone and rhythm – concentrating on static juxtaposition condensing symbol and metaphor merely to assert opinion. But the African-trickster and slave-resistance ancestry bequeaths greater potential – rap’s full rhetorical range wielding spoken word and musical backdrop dynamically for storytelling and confessional; humour lacing fury; inspiration beyond realism; nourishing heart and guts as well as brain. The MC’s many-layered calls then prompt corresponding depth and breadth in responses among audiences predisposed to puncture the pretensions of power in the dancehall’s carnivalesque celebration of momentary escape from mundane drudgery. Doubtless the Verbal Terrorists deploy such performative nuances in their rave and showcase gig appearances across the land (albeit restricted by techno’s manic beats-per-minute ratios!). So in future recordings I look forward to more personal touches anchored in lived experience rather than objective knowledge, along with a sense of how their practice strives to reconcile its contradictions to facilitate positive change. I’m confident these lads will go from strength to strength, but meantime this CD represents a valuable addition to anyone’s library – I’ll certainly be enjoying it on a regular basis.
* at www.myspace.com/verbalterrorists, where Small Axe is available via PayPal for £10 (£5 low/unwaged) + £2 p&p. Or get it by post from (and with cheques payable to) Joseph Turnbull, c/o Black Flame Books, 1a/1b Bolingbroke St, Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 5PH.
Music review published in Freedom[i], Vol. 70, No.1, January 2009.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: