Hip Hop, like every other musical genre, is broken down into subgenres that can be loosely tied together by their affinity to the beats and rhymes that have drawn so many fans to the popular form of music. There’s radio Rap (think Lil Wayne), underground artists like Joey Bada$$, emcees that preach conscious Hip Hop like Brother Ali, and the creative genius types that are tough to categorize like Kanye West.
Then, in a class unto itself, there’s hardcore Hip Hop, a sect of the genre known for its aggressive, battle-like rhymes and heavy beats, both of which are intended to sound as menacing as the subgenre itself.
Ever since the late Guru of Gang Starr put Beantown’s hardcore scene on the map during Hip Hop’s Golden Age, the area has produced numerous hardcore acts, including Boston emcee Esoteric, who has dominated the underground for over a decade with his raw yet passionate sound.
Known for his work with producer 7L, Esoteric has taken his lyrical prowess to the beats of beatmaker Stu Bangas, whose rugged and rough productions are well-suited for Esoteric’s gruff-sounding vocals. The end result: Machete Mode—an album that will simultaneously have you scheming to rob a bank and preparing to go to war.
“I didn’t come for the case. I came for your boss. I came for Seamus,” says Robert De Niro in a clip from the 1998 spy thriller Ronin, the first of many pop culture samples included on the album. Who better than to kick off an album than the voice of The Godfather II’s Vito Corleone? The first track, titled “Attack” then proceeds to take off at breakneck speed, as Esoteric wastes little time letting the listener know about his reputation.
“I’m John Lennon combined with Spidey and Venom,” raps Esoteric over a dark piano line that races throughout the track, setting the tone for the duo’s project, yet shying away from both horrorcore and the type of cliché material found in many of the classic ‘90s hardcore tracks that detailed brutal killings rather than playful boasting.
Much like the rest of Machete Mode, “Attack” is filled with enough punchlines and battle raps to get an entire locker room hyped up; the song, and the majority of the album, isn’t meant for all-nighters spent studying for an exam—just make sure not to take the title of the third track, “Apprentice to Master (Study),” literally.
But what makes an album like this so impressive is that even though the majority of the songs have the same message, the wordplay throughout is creative enough to keep you from hitting the “next” button and the beats break the mold of the repetitive, albeit hard-hitting, rhythms that dominate the subgenre.
In addition to the standard drum kit loops and record scratching found throughout Hip Hop, Stu Bangas also introduces the sounds of guitars and pianos into the mix on “Attack,” followed by a terrifying set of strings on the album’s second song, “Repercussions,” which features legendary New York City underground emcee Ill Bill.
The sounds of electric keyboard notes can also be heard throughout, along with samples from The Departed and other TV shows and films that reinforce the theme of cocky villainy in the form of a string of verbal assaults that are only rarely interrupted by tracks such as “Wonder Why,” which allows Esoteric to reflect on his love affair with Hip Hop, his outlook on life and his struggles to follow his dreams, something rarely found in the hardcore subgenre.
While underground Hip Hop is notorious for its collaborations and networking, Machete Mode has a truly daunting list. Enlisting the help of five of his fellow Army of the Pharaohs members, Esoteric is joined by Apathy, Blacastan, Celph Titled, Planetary and Vinnie Paz, along with former member Reef the Lost Cauze. The album also features Joell Ortiz of Slaughterhouse on the track “Save Ya Breath,” while Madchild of Swollen Members tears “Bounty Hunters” apart. And of course, Boston’s most notorious athletes are given shoutouts, too.
In a day and age when artists like Drake receive the vast majority of the music world’s attention, Machete Mode is Esoteric and Stu Bangas’ way of sticking it to the man and providing those with a taste for Hip Hop’s raw underbelly with further proof that the subgenre is still alive and well.