Social Memory Complex's battle is upHill. That is, their existence is a reflection of what it means to be making rap music in a predominantly indie rock town, a town like Chapel Hill. SMC gigged locally for several months before releasing a wax single, True Light, last year. This, their nine-track Prequel EP, not only makes it easier to get inside the Complex fully, but it also makes a starter's case for a fledgling hip-hop community with bigger aspirations.
Indeed, Social Memory Complex talks about life in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, as full of hilarious detail as it may be. Check the trivia: Above Modest's productions, lyrics from MCs Staj Prezence and TrizComplex offer images from across town, like women wearing all black in case of the apocalypse or the really big shows at the Cat's Cradle.
Rappers in the "Paris of the Piedmont," listening to deep hip-hop cuts instead of doing the boho at Weaver Street Market? "I can't afford to laugh down on society like all these rich white kids/ Consequence is just too big/ I'm already stuck behind the counter at the coffee bar/ Servin' hippy fucks with guitars," they rhyme at one point. Compared to Chapel Hillians Kaze and Spectac, who dug directly into self-reflection and their roots, and living dead's nihilism, the SMC cats go way out into Philip K. Dick's proto-cyberpunk fear-scape. There's a telling segment from "Fantastic Machines": "Worst case scenario: All of a sudden, Armageddon's downloaded with the press of an escape button." The Complex agrees with old Bill Burroughs that "A paranoid is someone who knows the facts."
It's hard to ignore the cover, too, which looks like Appetite for Destruction cover artist Robert Williams getting a science-fiction novel cover commission. The art symbolizes the paranoid, futuristic thought here, like Doctor Octagon's surreal narratives. Political-minded outcries for change—those call-outs so overdone in independent hip hop today—pop up occasionally, too.
But, among these observational snapshots, other jewels shine: "Fantastic Machines" uses a grimy groove and some old-style sampling to great effect, and the growling "Sirens" rambles like a squad car with axle trouble. And Modest's concise production here should push him out of the well-kept secret category: Just behind the main beat of a cut, he's prone to float a scratchy undercurrent, adding a foreboding tone or a bit of drama to the proceedings. While Social Memory Complex remain "conscious" (as reggae folk would say), here, they're testing their skills and exploring their own identities as Americans and Chapel Hill rappers.
Social Memory Complex plays Wetlands Thursday, Feb. 8 at 10 p.m. with Common Ground, Heavy Contact and MindsOne. Tickets are $6.