Bruce Cockburn first wondered "How many kids they've murdered" on the chorus to his 1984 protest song, "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," which attempted to pull back the veil of secrecy surrounding U.S. foreign policy in Central America. That same line is sampled for the chorus of MKEP's
"How Many," entirely divorced from the context of Cockburn's song. To hear Cockburn tunelessly croon about dead kids on a track that's devoted - like much of the EP - to the aggrandizement of the Mudkids and emcee Rusty Redenbacher, is to effectively neuter the sentiment behind the song, making a relatively effective protest tune into a one-line "Heal the World" type soundbyte. And for a band like the Mudkids that has been, at times, politically and socially engaged, the Cockburn sample is a reminder of just what's missing from MKEP
- a world outside of the Mudkids.
In a sense, the music departs from the public image of the Mudkids. Rusty has been a longtime cheerleader for local music, the kind of guy who affirms the work of others while advocating for his own. But on record, his rhymes are given over to a posturing that's endemic to hip-hop, and that would seem fatally narcissistic in other genres and media. On "The Plan," Rusty notes that he wants "Never to be thought of as anything less than a man... Respect I command." On "Shades," we get a messily masculine image - "Every release is seminal" - before a chorus that is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but still very much concerned with the emcee's public image: "Gimme my shades, I'm ready for my closeup... I check myself in the mirror, I'm fly." And it just goes on and on.
Sure, this kind of confrontational showmanship is the meat of the emcee battle, which may have its roots in playing the dozens. But what works well in a battle doesn't quite work on a record, where the imaginary opponent is the listener - and I'm one listener who bridles when someone brags endlessly about his or her work. Can't someone earn respect in the world of hip-hop without explicitly demanding it on every song? Maybe, for instance, by just doing the kind of work that earns respect? I think of hip-hop groups and artists that dare to self-deprecate (Atmosphere, Aesop Rock, A Tribe Called Quest), knowing that they won't lose the respect of listeners by being honest.
Not that the Mudkids are required to make a politically engaged record, but even their party music this time around is a little flat. "Ride" urges the listener to "Hop in the back, enjoy the ride," but we're moving awfully slow, loping along at a walking tempo against an odd soundtrack reminiscent of Chinese folk music. The tune lacks the forward momentum and lightness of the best driving songs.
One track on the EP, "Abraham," tells a story that's not about the Mudkids, namely the tale of actor Abraham Benrubi, whose rise to fame is witnessed by once-high school classmate Rusty. It's a well-told tribute, with skillful use of overlapping background vocals, and a funny passage about how the Samson-esque Benrubi avoided football coaches in order to focus on acting. While "Abraham" follows another traditional hip-hop narrative - making it big in Hollywood - it's also consistent with Rusty's hometown pride and belief in following one's bliss, regardless of how others might get in the way. It's a welcome respite from the rest of the record.
Elp-Mass's beats are generally clean and unobtrusive, giving the spotlight to the vocals on every track. Some vintage-sounding, tinny electronics are heard on "The Plan," but otherwise the music is composed of string or horn samples with a four-to-the-floor backbeat.
This EP is intended as a prelude to an upcoming LP by the Mudkids. One hopes that they're saving the best for the main event.