erasing clouds

Melodic Scribes, Se Formo

review by ben rubenstein

When my roommate was accepted to medical school, he was a lot of things at once. Happy, yes. Drunk, immediately. Passed out, inevitably. Relieved, of course, that his father could die with a smile on his face. But perhaps most of all, he was nervous. Not so much because of the insane amount of work ahead of him, because that was something Gabe had been anticipating since being a 12-year old who was a little too trigger-happy with his middle fingers. No, he was nervous because he had been accepted into the University of Illinois, which has two campuses to which incoming medical students can be sent: Chicago, and…Champaign. Now, for those not from Illinois (which I am not, but I'm a quick learner), Champaign is not regarded as the most exhilarating town in the state. Apart from the university (and often within the school's artificially lit dorm-room closets), the city boasts a bustling agriculture industry and not much else. As my roommate prepared for his future, he wanted a gritty, urban experience that would allow him to deal with any situation that might arise, not one filled with extracting pitchfork tines from unfortunate bodily recesses. Fortunately for him, Gabe had a couple of ins. First, his father is a well-respected cardiologist in Chicago, and he has Hispanic heritage. This, of course, he had to prove, because most people, particularly admissions officials, are not inclined to believe that a red-haired kid with an affinity for Jack-and-cokes surpassed only by his undying admiration of Charles Barkley could have a drop of South American blood in him. However, his family did indeed come from Argentina, transplanted there for religious and social reasons many years before. So, thanks to the University's staunch commitment to diversity, Gabe was able to finagle his way into a spot in Chicago, and was assured that he would remain there throughout his three years of medical training. Upon hearing about this victory of multiculturalism, I was relieved, for him as well as me, because I needed a roommate and he needed to not be lynched for whatever misunderstandings might occur in Southern Illinois due to his occasional late-night meanderings and somewhat limited English vocabulary.

But I realize now that I might have been wrong about the downstate metropolis of Champaign, as I take in the sounds of the Melodic Scribes, the University of Illinois' celebrated hip-hop group. I see what Gabe has missed by not getting on the highway and taking the short 3-hour drive to pop the top on that bubbly town. Judging from the group's intriguing subject matter, there may indeed be more to talk about than how the corn crop is holding up; in fact, aided by the Scribes' lyrical sensibilities, Gabe might just have overcome his famed ESL status in a matter of weeks. But seriously, the trio of former Fighting Illini inarguably pack a punch on their debut album, Se Formo.

The album opens with the Latin-tinged title track, as MCs Pinan (Neil Dasgupta) and Wuk (Ryan Wukovitz) trade surprisingly confident rhymes over Mar-Mar (Martin Daniel)'s beats and scratches. The song immediately conjures up an old-school feel, something like a slightly more serious Ugly Duckling, or, going back to their predecessors, the Beastie Boys.

So I think I've got the Melodic Scribes figured out - wasn't hard, what else would three white boys from Southern Illinois sound like? But the next track, "The Grimey," featuring antimatter, is decidedly less upbeat, favoring bursts of late night back alley saxophone laid over muted strings and muffled drums. Forgive me, but I never would have imagined that this group could evoke such a familiar sense of urban detachment. This unnerving feeling continues on the soulful "Night Wraps". Featuring the delectable melody of Caroline Yohanan, presumably another Big Ten product, the track benefits from a mesmerizing guitar that builds anticipation and melancholy at the same time, something like an upcoming Red Sox-Yankees series. There's the East Coast bias again, but still, a compliment.

"Acoustic Pugilists", featuring antimatter and katastrophe, is easily my favorite track, blending the group's obvious preference for hornplay (hopefully not a new sexual fad) with lyrical stabs at greatness coming from every angle. The song opens with what sounds like a Louis Armstrong presiding over a French Quarter funeral, before settling into a militaristic drum pattern complemented by the four rappers. While none of the MCs has quite mastered the art of vocal rhythm, or delves into any particularly deep issues, each has certainly figured out a way to work within his means. And Mar-Mar ensures that they all will have infinitely tight grooves to create over, as he is the most consistent performer on the album. For example, on "Downstate" (featuring katastrophe), the MCs come across as over-eager college students professing their regional pride, a role which, thankfully, they don't play often on the album. But Mar-Mar makes the song enjoyable with his head-nodding guitar and hand-clap beat.

The futuristic distress of "Y6K" makes me think there's something in the water down in Champaign. Sci-fi influence in hip-hop is nothing new, and while conspiracy theories abound in the underground from the Anti-Pop Consortium to Immortal Technique, the Scribes' apocalyptic vision is particularly spooky. Maybe it's because of the somewhat dated breakfast burrito I took a chance on today, but I get a distinct sense of uneasiness as I listen to this track. For that, I crown it a resounding success.

This album never quite reaches the sound I was hoping for, though my expectations may have been a bit high considering the likely budget constrictions. There's absolutely potential here, and I can promise that I would indeed be the jealous hanger-on friend handing out promos at shows if I had decided to go to school down south. Sure, there may not be a whole lot separating the Melodic Scribes from the many other young voices trying to be heard in underground hip-hop. But the bright spots on this album show that, contrary to what some big-city snobs might think, there is ample fodder for musical poetry even in the deepest pockets of the Midwest.

Issue 27, October 2004

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds