Hip hop has always been an ideal vehicle of social commentary. Born in the black ghettos of large cities like New York and Los Angeles, it gave a voice to people from economically and socially marginalized communities who had otherwise been condemned to silence. Today it is a global culture; it has also been partly co-opted by the culture industry for ideological sanitization and commodification, lead by artists prone to glorifying the social and economic dynamics that created the adverse circumstances from which their genre was born.
Fortunately the underground is alive and well, still turning out quality tunes that have something to say, that entertain while they educate and that are fun to listen to all at the same time, even if those responsible get precious little of the recognition they deserve. This is true as much as anywhere where Bristol duo QELD, featuring Bob Savage (lyrics) and Jenre (lyrics/production), are concerned. Their long-brewing and long-awaited debut LP Kush Zombies is a combination of soulful, technically capable production and lyrics both insightful and acerbic.
Indeed, the marked sophistication both in terms of music production and lyrical content is the great strength of Kush Zombies; the laudible aversion of QELD to preachiness on the one hand lets the album stand alone as a musical release, and on the other makes it enjoyable to listen to as a political statement. Paradoxically this makes the conspicuously radical commentary more accessible and appealing. It takes an unusual amount of creative skill to be able to produce songs with titles like Oligarch Hit Squad and USSR that would work equally well as the soundtrack for a trip to the beach or to the picket line.
Musically, Kush Zombies is a hap tip to old school hip hop, and a great example of such. Think the kind of laid back guitar hits and cool, rolling bassline reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield’s Pusherman, a song that translated so well into Ice-T’s hip hop classic I’m Your Pusher. Is the south-west of England even even known for having a strong soul scene? Not as far as this writer knows. One assumes that if QELD were from the north, their geography might make their command of that sound less impressive, being common coin for the area. Tunes like We Can Go, with its breezy backing vocals and moderately upbeat bass, and So True, with its meditative, downbeat tone and jazzy brass samples, are real highlights in this respect.
Where the lyrical content is concerned, QELD pull of the rare trick of being able to manage a tenor that matches the tone of the music. Refreshingly, defiant humour characterizes Kush Zombies, rather than defiant anger as is common of many politicaly radical acts. At times the rhymes are laugh-out-loud hilarious, generating at the same moment a lingering pathos that speaks to the great issues of the day; in We Can Go, for example, Savage casually declares amidst a very laid back backing track, ‘This ain’t no Death Cab for Cutie / just QELD running death camps for bourgies,’ throwing in a pregnant grunt in the next beat for good measure. You can well imagine the pair sitting around brainstrorming lyrics, laughing their arses off at some of the material they come up with and running with it because it makes a good point: the bourgies have a lot to answer for.
In an interview with libcom.org in fact, Savage recalls spending a lot of time working on material with partner in crime Jenre for their own amusement. This carries inasmuch as Kush Zombies sounds like the blokes who made it don’t fully realize how good they are at what they do. All the better for us, because neither do they fall prey to the trap of getting lost up their own arses in the style of, say, Kanye West. Not do they parody themselves either by spouting dogma or affecting anger or cockney accents recalling ancient stereotypes of industrial workers for the sake of pandering to the converted. They don’t need to.
Kush Zombies is available for digital download and via mail order at https://qeld.bandcamp.com/.