Updated: May 5, 2020
by Mike Scarfo:
The Chicago-based hip-hop duo is making a whole lot of noise, in more ways than one.
For those that have listened to our show before, you know by now that my music taste since I was young is rooted mostly in hip-hop (listen to Episode 2 for our "Formative Albums", where Cody and I explain the albums we grew up on). Of course, I also branch out to other genres just like anyone else; I've often considered myself a "seasonal country listener", and from time-to-time I dive down rabbit holes of jazz, r&b/soul, and alternative rock. What I find really interesting as time goes on is the amount of sub-genres there are within certain genres, and to me hip-hop is THE prime example of this (jazz rap, boom bap, alternative hip-hop, gangsta rap, trap, just to name a few). The list quite literally goes on and on and lengthens by the year. Among it all, one sub-genre I am fascinated by as of late is experimental hip-hop. Denzel Curry and Danny Brown (two artists that made my Top Songs of 2019 list) along with JPEGMafia, Run the Jewels, and Death Grips are just a handful of hip-hop artists that are exploring more industrial, abrasive sounds while gaining popularity at a rapid rate. This type of music might be an acquired taste for some, but if done correctly, can be creative and flat out adrenaline-inducing.
When you consider the city of Chicago's hip-hop scene, two main sub-genres come to mind: sample-based gospel and drill (think of Chance and Kanye for the former, and guys like G Herbo and Lil Durk for the latter). So when the Chicago experimental hip-hop duo Angry Blackmen comprised of Quentin Branch and Brian Warren was brought to my attention, I wasn't sure what to expect. To address the name of the duo: its blunt, straight-forwardness certainly raises an eyebrow. But their name for all intents and purposes, is simply smoke and mirrors. Branch and Warren are much more than the "angry black men" that will "kick down your door" as they claim in their Drowning Pool sampled-track "Riot!". In fact, they often are quite the opposite, as they don't come off nearly as angry in their songs as one might expect. Themes of racial oppression, police brutality, and systemic violence are the driving force of their content, and it goes without saying that these are major issues that are present not only in Chicago, but throughout the entire nation. Yet, Branch and Warren take an informative approach, delivering rhymes that are meaningful and thought-provoking, while sounds of thick, heavy bass-lines and eccentric, sporadic synths provide contrast that will make anyone's ears perk up.
On tracks like the aforementioned "Riot!" we hear whiny synths reminiscent of a siren on top of a booming bass; the instrumental feels urgent and anxious. Both guys flow effortlessly over the unorthodox beat, Warren having the more passionate, aggressive delivery while Branch's is smoother and borderline melodic. The Drowning Pool "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor" sample works perfectly in tandem to the theme of the track as they both spit bars about the violence they've witnessed in Chicago and its affect on their psyche. Warren's response to seeing a dead body for the first time in 6th grade is chilling, "Now I'm all scared man, had a long day/Trapped in my room didn't know what to say/I had a tough time telling real from fake/Standing in the garden getting bit by the snakes". His commentary is all too real, as he depicts how boys in poverty-stricken areas can become numb to witnessing violent activity so frequently and at such a young age, and may even get roped into the behavior. Like any of us, he has a hard time trusting his peers and those around him; however, the stakes are much higher in this sense. This isn't a typical 6th grade "can you keep my crush a secret" type of trust. In detailing sentiments such as these in their music, they are reminding us of the larger problems at play that our nation continuously faces, and even tends to ignore.
Take another song like "Anarchy!" where again we hear a dark, haunting beat that is similar to an ominous horror movie; it is uncomfortably captivating. There are bars within the track that focus on the uneven opportunities for minorities set by systematic oppression. Even though they actually sound angrier on this one, they only heighten their aggression on certain words or syllables of bars to provide depth and emphasis. Clever lines such as "I am not your Batman/too broke to buy an Alfred" paint a picture of the need for a "hero" in these communities, but the broken system does not provide adequate opportunity to anyone from these communities to actually to do so. Because both Warren and Branch want to be voices for these issues is not the point; until the nation opens their eyes and educates themselves nothing will change. The track "Bullshit!" instrumentally showcases some electric guitars and hard rock influences, again paired with siren-like horns. The build of urgency in the instrumental parallels with the vocal delivery; both are subtle until the energy heightens with intense purpose. Stereotypes within the black community again present themselves lyrically in this track, highlighting prejudices by authority. That sonic progression only emphasizes their points in a creative way that is unique from their contemporaries.
Angry Blackmen provide their audience with noisy, textured, hard-hitting beats. Their maturity in addressing important thematic content in an educated and clever fashion should be a draw to anyone who enjoys contemporary experimental hip-hop with a message. I highly recommend their 2019 "Talkshit! - EP" available to stream on all platforms, and can't wait to see where these guys go from here. This is the kind of music that pushes boundaries and creates awareness that can evoke change.
Be sure to follow Angry Blackmen on Instagram for all their latest music, news, and show dates!