Seven years ago, heavyweight Hip Hop producers Madlib and J Dilla joined forces as Jaylib, releasing the critically acclaimed Champion Sound. Featuring the two emcee/producers rhyming over each others’ beats, Champion Sound proved a sonic masterpiece grounded in a concept only a fan-boy could dream up.
Now, following from where 'Lib and Jay Dee left off, storied producer the Alchemist has teamed up with Stones Throw emcee/producer (and younger brother of Madlib) Oh No as Gangrene to release Gutter Water on Decon Records. As unlikely a duo as the video game-sampling Oxnard, California rhymer and the frequent Mobb Deep/Soul Assassins beatsmith is, the two California veterans strike an odd balance in their fusion of high-brow samples hard-knocking rhythms.
As emcees, Alchemist and Oh No do little to reinvent the wheel. Which is not to say that either is bad; on the contrary, Gutter Water is one of the most solid displays of microphone mastery for both parties. Oh No bounces over tracks with his off-kilter J Dilla-come-Redman flow, while Alc lays in the cut spitting multi-heavy bars, sounding like equal parts Prodigy and Evidence. While neither emcee is terribly expert in his craft, Oh and Alc keep the conversation blunted enough that it’s near impossible to dislike either of their performances.
What makes Alc and Oh a particularly convincing duo is their individual lyrical flairs. While Madlib and Jay Dee functioned on a similar lyrical plane as Jaylib, Alc and Oh maintain a stylistic equilibrium reminiscent of EPMD’s Erick and Parrish. Alchemist excels in his punch line delivery, spitting oddly hilarious barbs like “I stay high like the pussy of a giraffe is,” while Oh barks thugged-out threats with a stonewall authority. Songs like the raucous “Take Drugs,” “All Bad” and head nod-inducing “Boss Shit” find the duo lyrically dropkicking foes with unmatched expertise.
While Gutter Water is an artful exercise in braggadocio, the scarcity of conceptual cuts does prove somewhat of a letdown, with songs like “Ransom” ultimately belaboring the album’s point. When the project does venture outside the battle-rap realm, however, Oh and Alc show signs of pure lyrical brilliance. Alc ingeniously captures the stoner mentality on “Not High Enough,” while Oh is at his best on “Standing in the Shadows,” spinning a cinematically vivid tale of familial abuse and murder literally from the perspective of the fly on a wall with “A thousand eyes, watching all sides finna fall.”
The Alchemist and Oh No aren’t the only ones drinking the Gutter Water, though. A variety of underground vets join the duo on seven of the album’s fifteen tracks, including Roc C (“From Another Orbit”), Big Twins (“Not Leaving”) and the criminally underrated MED (“Breathing Down Yo Neck”). Chief among these collaborations is the album’s title track with the indelible Raekwon, on which the Chef and company spit “…bars of uranium” over Alc and DJ Muro’s thundering horns and sweeping strings. In addition, Guilty Simpson cold clock’s Alc’s sinister synths on “Brass Knuckle Rap,” while Alc and his “The Far Left” partners Evidence and Fashawn wreak havoc on Oh No’s frantic banger “Wassup Wassup.” The only misstep among these collaborations is “Get Into Some Gangster Shit,” which ultimately proves underwhelming despite solid verses from Oh and guest rhymer Planet Asia.
When it comes down to it, however, Gutter Water’s main appeal is the fantastic, speaker-blasting production. Yet where 'Lib and Dilla prided themselves on subtlety and simplicity, the Alchemist and Oh No strike an unnerving balance between Alc’s polished street bangers and Oh’s esoteric sampling, crafting. Throughout the album’s fifteen tracks, Al and Oh’s chemistry is so fluid that they keep the listener guessing as to who produced which track. Oh seemingly channels his inner Alchemist on tracks like “Take Drugs” and “All Bad,” making the latter of the two cuts sound like Alc’s 2004 Game/Prodigy banger “Dead Bodies” on PCP. Similarly, Alc deviates from his usual crisp production and delves into dirty and obscure sampling on the Middle Eastern-tinged single “Chain Swinging” and the stuttering “From Another Orbit.” Of course, certain tracks like Alc’s “Not High Enough” and Oh’s grandiose “Boss Shit” speak heavily to their trademark styles, but despite this, the two producers craft a sonic consistency on Gutter Water that few producers can achieve if they were to produce an entire LP on the dolo.
Although Gutter Water doesn’t quite ascend to the quality of its spiritual predecessor Champion Sound, the album is an unrelenting head banger that cleverly blends the best elements of California’s underground Hip Hop scene. Lyrical setbacks aside, Gangrene’s debut is an infectious combo of Alc’s Kevlar-tough street anthems and Oh’s musically off-kilter production.