Local Music Group Takes You on an uplifting Ride on their First CD
By Reza Corinne Clifton
(This article originally appeared in the Providence American Newspaper)
For those of you who haven’t had a chance to listen to the CD yet, there are two ways to listen to “Everybody Dig”, the new full length album from RI-based hip hop-soul group, Riders Against the Storm. One way of listening is by simply unwrapping and opening the case, removing the disk, and inserting it into a player with no regard to the jacket and its details. The other way to enjoy it occurs after peeking at the jacket; you will listen to it, and unless you are in the car, you will clutch the case the entire time as you will be drawn to periodically glancing inside at the details in disbelief.
Everybody Dig is an astonishingly mature freshman album by Riders Against the Storm—the then two person team of Ghislaine Jean and Jonathan Mahone—with production assistance exclusively from multitalented musician Abdul Mateen and highly active RI- to NY-based producer Moon. It is a fourteen-track album that blends originally written hip hop, poetry and comedy with instrumentals dominated by the bass and a variety of percussion. It is also a multifaceted ode to righteousness, a healing guide for those ever afflicted by self-hatred, and a direct attack on the racist and misogynistic establishment that purges Black people of self-love.
How do such strong messages emerge on an album that does not date back to the 1970’s? Consider what you first hear upon pressing play: an adult male voice teaching a group of youth performance techniques as he invites them to participate on the album by chanting a chorus of Justice…Freedom. The third or fourth chant in and the album begins full force with instrumentals, melody, etc.; yet the simple humanity and tenderness of the brief “Intro” will remain on your brain as you listen.
These sometimes original, sometimes borrowed speaking moments interwoven throughout the CD provide listeners with a glimpse at the spiritual souls and social politics espoused by Jean and Mahone. Take “Hair Piece”, a poem written by Jean with a musical dénouement at the end: it is a chronology and biography of the pride and shame, abuse and embrace, and changing politics of Black women and hair. But with references to the classic “Coming to America” and to a string of beauty products that every black woman has used, bought, or actively rejected, it avoids being over-preachy, artistically untouchable, or belligerently militant. Instead, if you do not already know Jean, the moments of passion, despair, and comedy reveal a woman that anyone could truly sit with to seriously yet with familiarity discuss this common, sometimes mini sometimes large crisis.
With so much original material—every track was written, performed, and when needed, accompanied by Mahone and Jean—it nonetheless has to be noted that even the borrowed material demonstrate their deep-rooted devotion and dedication to heritage. Track number 6 for instance, “Mama Said” includes an interlude sampled from Afrika Bambaataa. Bambaataa is one of the godfathers of hip hop, a teacher and really a spiritual and cultural leader of a multi-decade movement in hip hop that repeatedly retransformed the sound and celebrated the African roots inherently borne to hip hop.
Unbreakable and essential roots to Africa was also a major theme of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican, Pan-African leader who, on a platform that included repatriation to Africa, self-improvement, and Black pride through his Universal Negro Improvement Association, is credited with the largest mass movement of Black people in American History. Commonly referenced and revered in reggae music—presumptively also because Garvey was Jamaican—Jean and Mahone do not miss an opportunity to introduce or reacquaint listeners to the words of this important, historical Black leader.
Yet focus not too heavily on the content and message lest we forget about the music. As I began suggesting before, the sound and production quality of the CD is impeccable. No need to worry, then about a drop in the vocals, overpowering instrumentals, or abrupt song ends.
And for those of us who can not get enough of the live music background—commonly associated with hip hop group The Roots—or those like my mother who often cannot get beyond the common-to-hip hop loop—playing the same few bars repeated over and over behind sometimes lively sometimes overly mellow rhyming—Riders’ sound is live, seemingly originating from a diverse stock of instruments, not a keyboard, computer, or manipulated old record. On song number 5, you hear percussion that sounds similar to the tympanis or specifically tuned bass drum, song number 6 is accompanied beautifully by a flute, and on song number 10, present is what sounds like water dripping, which could be a sound effect, but, knowing the integrity of the musicians, is probably an exotic percussion instrument.
Significant to those instrumentals and the vocals on this CD, as opposed to that of many other local hip hop albums—and why soul and funk are likely to be common adjectives when describing it—is the presence of melody, harmony, and, well, good sounds. The water droplet sounds on number 10 are not part of an abstract, where is the head bobbing rhythm epidemic taking over non-commercial hip hop. It is something added for musical diversity by experienced musicians.
And the vocals? Mahone is generally smooth and laid back with a style reminiscent of the Camp Lo guys, Blackaliscious fellows, or Digable Planet dudes—simple but ample note range, and slower pace. Other times he is passionate and persistent, sounding a bit like a Talib Kweli or Common when they are making important points. Yet it is Jean who will invariably make you feel it in the pitt of your stomach and effortlessly in your diaphragm.
An actress and performer as well as singer, Jean has doubtlessly mastered the art of intonation and manipulation by her voice, a skill we see in the black nationalist meets ghetto fabulous comedic skit “Willis and Tameka” and the Afro-centric empowered lesson—or review depending on whose listening—“Colors have meaning” spoken interlude. Nevertheless, this vocal chameleon prowess she displays is not limited to her speech.
Her emceeing style sprinkled throughout is infectious and at times rapid and staccato similar to the well-celebrated Busta Rhymes, and at other times languid and deliberate like Ursula Rucker, but it is really when she is singing that the listener is likely to be most taken. Jean moves effortlessly from a kind of reflective yet assertive style similar to Lauryn Hill’s—on the track “Mama Said”—to the alternating soft to emotionally emphatic you might hear on a Dionne Farris track (pick up the “Love Jones” soundtrack to see what I mean). There are even tracks or moments on some of the tracks when she plays with notes, pitch and delivery a little how trip hop performer Portishead might or similar to how older R&B voices might be altered or updated for a hip hop refrain or loop a la Kanye West. Mostly, though, Jean’s vocals are clear, flawless, and, quite frankly, addictive and infectious.
I could go on and on telling you about this CD, because let’s face it: one, I really love Riders’ take on hip hop, R&B, and message content; two, I know Mahone and Jean, and they are both these lovely people who fuse rare intelligence, spiritual virtue, and bold talent with social altruism and a prolific sense of community; and three, I had hoped to finish writing this review two weeks ago. You really simply must buy it yourself, though, to support this confluence of rare talent, globally appreciable rhythms and genuinely empowering lyrics.
To learn more about Riders Against The Storm and to purchase their CD, visit www.againstthestorm.com or call 401-952-8711. Reza Corinne Clifton is a community organizer for RI Children’s Crusade for Higher Education on a four year High School Reform project. She is also a freelance writer whose articles can be seen in “The Minority Family Perspective” the Providence American Newspaper and at www.rezaritesri.com. To contact Reza, email firstname.lastname@example.org.