Several years ago, the backpacker/ underground hip-hop crowd and the hardcore/ thugged-out street crowd occupied entirely different spaces on the hip-hop landscape. Time passed. Most folks got over silly allegiances, and now these same folks—all grown up now and more threatened by the approach of adulthood than musical strata—abandoned the abstractions of backpacker rap and the sensationalism of the goon life to begin raising families, paying mortgages and hating George W. Bush. Today, if you're between the ages of 25 and 40 and still doing stick-ups and drive-bys or walking around all night screaming "real hip hop" while donning a Jansport, you're probably a sociopath. You need help.
Fortunately, Chapel Hill rapper KAZE has long dodged these sorts of categorizations. Unfortunately, his tight rope has never translated into anything marketable. For the past decade, KAZE has headlined local shows, hit the chittlin' circuit several times, opened for major artists, and hosted weekly music showcases and beat battles. Hell, the guy even had a TV show. It's hard to imagine an emcee carrying NC's hip-hop flag for as long as KAZE has and never getting the proper recognition as this state's flagship artist.
It's even harder to imagine KAZE complaining about it. That's never been his gimmick. Actually, he's never even had a gimmick (remember the whole non-marketable thing?). On Block 2The Basement—KAZE's latest and part of Rawkus Records' plan to release 50 albums by 50 relative unknowns—tracks like "Real Life," "So Far" and a reggae-stamped "Black Man Worldwide" perpetuate the image of KAZE as hip hop's selfless lensman, directing the attention away from any personal woes by focusing on the broader malaises of this hip-hop generation. B2B's tone never strays too far from KAZE's scathing didacticism, save for moments like "You Call That Gangsta?" when his longtime associate, Young Flu—who dates back to KAZE's "SOUL DOJO" outfit—lends a jovial verse. But even at his loosest, KAZE sounds only minimally amiable. By spouting out a series of taunting grunt-raps, he often turns whole verses into disciplinary hearings. But this brash attitude—an a priori reaction to being underappreciated as one of North Cack's premier emcees—saves Block 2The Basement from becoming a 20-part series of spoken-word idylls. That is, KAZE preaches it so hard and passionately, he's hard to ignore.
While trying to bludgeon enlightenment and the spirit of proactivity into folks' psyche may not be the most effective way to sell a million records these days, it's a perfect reason why all community activists could benefit from a lesson or two in rap rhetoric. KAZE could certainly teach this course in agitprop. Having mastered the ability to blur the distinctions between the backpacker and the block-hugger, the academic and the hooligan, KAZE is hip hop's bilateral spokesman.
As an aside, his material speaks to the black experience. As the title infers, the poles between the proverbial "block" and the basement are merely the length of a staircase and a front lawn, the basement often functioning as a musical hideaway from the trouble that the "block" endows.