If you like long-ass CD reviews
… throw your hands up high!
The patio at Peet’s on 20th and J is a perfect place to talk hip-hop. Well, except when Downtown James Brown is there. “I love your group! Aw, man, just say that Downtown James Brown thinks that your group … uh, what’s the name of your group?”
Oh, Jesus. They’re called Live Manikins. And can you please just do the 30-second remix of whatever James Brown tune you’re about to butcher—er, perform—so we can talk about their album?
DJB stands on the sidewalk flickering in and out of lucidity as passersby cross the street to avoid his song-and-panhandle.
So where were we? Yeah, Live Manikins—Still Life.
If it’s any indication, the album begins with their deejay. A classy move, considering many Sacramento groups have gone without turntables entirely, opting instead to forget that part of hip-hop history.
It’s a short intro, but it sets things up nicely for what’s to come.
“If you love hip-hop, put your hands up high! / If you wore Cross Colors, put your hands up high! / If you rock BKs, put your hands up high! / We out of this world; we out of this world.”
Huh? A party jam? Humor?
“If you still wear a pager, put your hands up high!”
Turns out, Still Life is full of emotion: humor, seriousness, melancholy and even some lovey-dovey sappiness. Ah, and that deejay.
“We don’t want to [play] music without paying homage to all the early musicians who did it before us,” says Self, who along with his brother Flavius, producer/emcee Runt Rock and emcee Linguistics hold their “backbone,” the deejay, in the highest regard.
“Damn, I think I’m gonna cry,” says DJ Rated R, laughing.
The streets are busy. DJB is rocking back and forth, smacking his palm on a mailbox across the street for the time being. A businessman sips on a latte and stares into his laptop. Rated R leans back into his chair, Self crosses his arms, Runt Rock looks into the sky, Flavius stares off into space and Linguistics gazes forward, hanging on to each of his crew’s words. But they’ve all got some form of a smile on their mugs.
“Smile every now and then,” says Flavius. “You can’t gangbang at breakfast.”
Still Life flaunts no typically Sacramento synth-heavy “West Coast bangers”; there are no clichéd cheap shots aimed at easy targets; no R&B songstress yelping about her titties—it’s just knee-slapping, farting-at-the-gym, having-a-good-cry, eating-ketchup-packets, old-school hip-hop. It’s fun.
A virgin listen to Still Life is akin to hearing A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory for the first time. Just when you think a song is at its peak, it pauses, then it peaks. “Don’t Tell Me,” for instance, carries a simple beat laced with a delicate Spanish-guitar loop that would be perfect for the lazy rhyme scheme of, say, an … Agustus thElefant, which is perfect, because Agustus strolls in on the third verse: “I don’t piss against the wind / I don’t listen to your friends / with shitty grins / I don’t follow any trends.”
Less organized tracks, seemingly formless, like “Conscious 8” or “L’Hungre,” feel late-Coltranesque in their frenetic instrumentation: percussion stabs, turntable cuts and lyrics that meander carelessly along the beat, allowing each emcee to create whatever melody they wish—no A/B-A/B rhyme scheme, just lyrical freedom. The individual sounds work together, albeit differently, to complete a whole.
“Synergy,” is the word the group uses to describe their rapport with one another, but the ultimate sound is nearly indescribable. OK, yeah, the CD dropped last summer, but if you don’t have it yet, go to www.cdbaby.com/cd/livemanikins and buy it.
DJB, master of the overstayed welcome, is back, twitching in his skin, obviously ready to burst into song.
“Live Manikins,” says Linguistics, reminding the chafed crooner again what the group is called.
“He doesn’t even know the name of our group!” says Self to the rest of his crew, obviously very amused. But DJB doesn’t skip a beat, “Hey man, I can’t remember shit—I’m just tryin’ to get Social Security!” Then he goes into a 30-second rendition of something James Brown-ish and takes his pay. “I don’t know what you doin’,” he says, pointing at the Live Manikins. “But you doin’ it!”