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Edutainment: Jordan Selbo reviews El Guante

Categories: CD Review

El Guante's Haunted Studio Apartment
Review by Jordan Selbo

El Guante's Haunted Studio Apartment, the new disc being promoted at Friday's Blue Nile show and only available at shows until this summer, is a megaton bomb on local indie rap, bound to be the heaviest breath of fresh air hip hop heads will suck in all year. And it succeeds despite itself. Any other rapper who used such potentially pretentious setups as modeling their art conception on Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, dividing their album into three "sessions" (one of which is spoken word...usually a clear warning to stay away), and including about 80 minutes of lyrical and conceptual denseness would inevitably drown in surface-level coffee shop boho-isms.

Yet El Guante deftly swings from teacher to supreme lyricist to soul-searcher with aplomb and grace, creating KRS' beloved "edutainment" in the best sense of the word. The success is due in no small part to a number of crucial factors: first and foremost, the beats don't lose out to the lyrics, as several tracks are both melodic and thumping; second, the activist/rapper/poet/teacher has got so damn much to say that even this project's great length and density can hardly contain the wealth of fresh insight, emotion and information he seems capable of conveying; third, dude is nice on the mic, with superior flow and vocabulary; fourth, it's obvious that everything from song concepts to thematic tropes to sequencing has been carefully considered, so it isn't just a big bitter pill of truth telling but rather an intense but coherent journey through the mind of a sincere (and sincerely active) hip hopper (presently a rare species indeed).

Dispelling the empty platitudes of so-called revolutionary or progressive underground acts without falling for the same empty criticisms they also espouse, Guante goes further, revealing both the awesome responsibility an MC has to their listeners (all too often neglected entirely), as well as the potential power of a mic in the hands of someone with something to say. Which isn't to suggest that this will be enjoyable listening for all but the heaviest of rap fans (and perhaps the heaviest of urban strugglers/strivers) -- Guante's level of articulation and nuance will only be truly appreciated by those who understand and experience the conditions he's breaking down. “The rappers say he’s a poet/ he can’t rap, yo/ the poets say he’s a rapper/ he’s just an asshole.”

I’d say he’s a rare bird indeed, misunderstanding is a good sign of brilliance, and El Guante's Haunted Studio Apartment is just what these weary ears needed to get me through another spring and summer of otherwise (suddenly even more) inconsequential rap tunes.

As for the show itself:

El Guante's Haunted Release Party
March 14, 2008
The Blue Nile
Review by Jordan Selbo
Photo by Jeff Shaw

Better Than: Taking Jello shots with your gramma at your cousin's second prison release party

Rap shows around here have begun to feel like particularly-hostile fashion shows, with visiting MCs busting off their obligatory fix of four or five recognizable hits in rote succession and then fleeing the stage with a few tipsy Eden Prairie females, as the crowd struggles to regain hearing for the drive home. That's why Friday's low-key and familial jam down in the Seward area of Minneapolis felt both refreshing and unfamiliar. Refreshing to be sure, what with the Tru Ruts crew interacting warmly with each other and supporting their art with close fans (as well as not a small amount of Friday-night random bar crawlers); unfamiliar because the sense of community El Guante and his posse evoke, in everything from their crew-first attitude to their gentle pleadings to gather around stage to the catalog of songs regarding common struggle and suggestions for collective action. The small and casual but sonically well-equipped venue helped this feeling greatly, despite the fact that El Guante and his ilk have the star power and chemistry to fill a much larger forum.

guante
El Guante at a November performance.

Opening acts Chantz and See More Perspective kept the mic warm nicely in between DJ Fundamentalist mixing some 90s crowd pleasers. While the former gave off an infectious energy and suggested his age with goofy asides while belying it with noticeable displays of versatility, See More's vibe was almost too intense for the only half-warm crowd to take in. Spitting classical flows with a quick angry tongue over crisp beats, it was hard to digest but I'd be ready to hear him again any day. Third act Truthmaze, the self-proclaimed "Bambaata of Minneapolis," happened to be celebrating his 40th birthday, which was apparent with his brief but enjoyable set of mostly structured freestyles. While being sprung off the Jameson is no excuse for sloppiness, thankfully Maze's off the head charisma and off the wall flow kept his set entertaining and light, especially in contrast to what preceded and followed. The dude deftly switched from booming Reggaeton to on point beatboxing to Mos Def croons without losing a step, suggesting far greater potential with the proper venue and audience.

El Guante, the inconspicuous, soft-spoken and completely talented MC emigre from Madison is a small and valuable secret to only a few locals at this point. His talent as both an MC and spoken word artist, as well as his nuanced, unpalatable wisdom and unmarketable stances makes him one of our most exceptional (and dare I say 'authentic') forms of the so-called "underground MC" (an archetype he himself can't help lambasting on more than one occasion, ironically). The beats from the latest platter, soothing mixes of fresh corners and ethereal melodies, translated well live as eerie and crisp, while the seemingly-meek E.L. became very big vocally, throwing carefully-crafted raps out with momentum, effortlessly segueing into spoken word bleed outs.

It's a shame much of the crowd was more social than attentive, as the denseness of some of his better lines ("our mass graves are fresh to death") were undoubtedly lost, and the hypest the crowd got was when E.L. started rapping over Nas' thumper "Made You Look." The intensity of his rapper's rapper delivery awarded the true heads the most but might have been lost on the others. So while this CD release party only hinted at the brilliance of his newest project El Guante's Haunted Studio Apartment, it did show the potential of E.L. and his whole teams steez--eschewing the broad platitudes and solid but unremarkable skills typically pushed by local rap, in favor of a complex but ultimately unifying belief in self-accountability -awareness and -actualization, the power of collective action, and the boldness to be doper and more profound than even your own idols. Next time I just hope you can bring a friend or three and we can really get this place to a hype-level befitting Tru Ruts creative energy.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
Having largely missed the boat on the brief period of raptivism's heyday ('88-'91?) due to being born too late, my views on the power of rap to change minds are probably too idyllic (jokingly based largely off Can't Stop Won't Stop's revisionist history and photo stills from the "Fight the Power" video shoot), but I still haven't given up on the expectation that the best music has the power (nay, the duty) to open some eyes. Therefore there's a chance El Guante is a false prophet seen through my rose-colored sun blockers, but I seriously doubt his passionate brand of informed b-boyism is anything less than remarkable, even if its less than whole-heartedly palatable to the Friday night bar crowd looking more for action than information.

Random Detail: Old people at a rap show. They must've stumbled in accidentally, but it still made me uneasy.

By the way: Look for this up-and-coming crew in April, as they play host to both the legendary KRS-ONE and recently retired all-time dope trio the Alkaholiks. Let's just hope they don't upstage either show (or that the Blastmaster doesn't figure out their also hosting PM Dawn a few weeks after him)--with this much passionate talent, things could get ugly.
-- Jordan Selbo

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