Smile Politely

Heath McNease captures rapture

Health McNease. The Gun Show. 7 Spin Music.

It took me ten years of craving rap music before I started finding recordings that could scratch my hip-hop itch. I need rap that is like, I don’t know, 1972 David Bowie with dope beats and improbable samples. My rap has to be non-violent, non-misogynist, book-smart, winkingly sly and funny, gently self-deprecating, musical, disturbing and sharp, but not necessarily all that “street.” Even the Beastie Boys aren’t tongue-in-cheek enough for me.

For a few years, I was able to feast on the sprawl of collaborators whose core comprises Dan the Automator (the Barney Rosset of rap), Kool Keith (the William S. Burroughs of rap), Prince Paul (the — uh — George Pimpton — oops, I meant Plimpton — of rap?), Kutmaster Kurt, Motion Man, Princess Superstar, and, well, the list is long, because team efforts are the norm. [1] Absolute platinum: bands like Handsome Boy Modeling School, Deltron 3030 [2], Lovage (Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By).

Everything was good for a couple years.

But, in 2006, when I went to the Highdive to see Dan the Automator spin, and the great artist turned out to be an overblown pimp for Bacardi, I saw that maybe it was time to move on. I’m not even sure what Dan has automated lately…

Heath McNease appears on the cover of his new album, The Gun Show, as an enigma. Is he all cool dressed up in workout clothes …  or … are those tube socks, sweatband, Velcro-sneaks, and Richard-Simmons-era-aqua-colored workout clothes as dorky as they look? I am weak on urban fashion. Well, I thought it deserved a listen, just to find out.

My oh my, the disc is fly!

The CD might be framed as what they call “nerdcore.” [3] What would be less “street” than a song about Frodo (“Nerd Out”)? And how could a song about Frodo be actually tough and kick-ass? But it is. I don’t even like Tolkien. But I like McNease.

But don’t assume that this is novelty rap or silly goofing (like the cool but shallow nerdcore pioneer MC Frontalot). The Gun Show is full of pain, and its humor only brings out the emotional depth in sharper relief. “Makeshift Doxology” is the most heartbreaking song I’ve heard all year.

The Gun Show comes with a bonus disc that has softer, more humorless and religious-leaning material, but I don’t need it. Disc one is enough to get me through the winter.

Those who don’t like rap claim that it all sounds the same. But to those for whom the language lives, rap frees words from music, giving voice to phrasing, emotion, and techniques unavailable in any other genre. McNease is fresh, and, in the most I-need-to-jump-up-and-down way, leaves me free to get my geek on. Less street, more cul-de-sac.

“Brush the dirt off of my shoulder… I’m good enough smart enough and doggone it people like me.” Thank you, Heath. I like you.

[1]  And who are these people anyway? These guys drive a rock scholar nuts. They use myriad heteronyms, specialize in odd recordings on unknown labels, and, just to make record store searches impossible, their one-off bandsspell “The” as “Thee,” “Das,” “Da,” and so on.  How do you alphabetize or categorize this stuff? I mean, if you think about it, “Dr. Dooom” should be filed under “DR” instead of “DO” because he is decidedly not a real doctor, but Dr. Dooom is actually Kool Keith, who is either named “Kool” or is so cool that he’s “kool”… You can get to know the records, but the musicians, admirably, manage to maintain their mystique.

[2] With his rap opera set in the year 3030, was Del the Funky Homosapien trying to one-up Dr. Octagon, who was still stuck in the year 3000?

[3] The record company seems to want to frame this disc as Christian rap, which is a solid marketing concept, but does a disservice to the album whose spiritual tendencies are comfortably buried.

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