Beneath the Underdogby Ts'eliso Monaheng / 30.11.2010
Charles Mingus was ‘The Angry Man of Jazz’. An accomplished double bassist, composer, and bandleader, he was also a very fine pianist – one of the best ever. Despite his chops, Mingus always felt like an outsider, possibly due to his mixed race, but mostly out of his refusal to stay in the boundaries of ‘jazz’ – always pushing the reach of his music. His fiercely offbeat autobiography, ‘Beneath the Underdog’, explores the many faces of the man behind the double-bass.
Local rapper Mingus (alias X the 24th Letter) identifies with the undeniable genius. Especially the independent, fiery temperament that got the bassist fired by Duke Ellington. Asked about the motivation behind the title of his debut CD Beneath the Underdog – “I’m a Prime Example”, the rapper states categorically. “I’m in the same league as the best of ’em, yet somehow still manage to get overlooked.” A bravado the original Mingus would’ve liked.
Indeed, Mingus rolls with the best of Cape Town’s hip-hop elite. He’s even responsible – along with partners Akio and Raiko – for bringing reputable names in the underground hip hop circuit to South Africa, the most recent being Blu and Exile whose Beneath the Clouds is essential listening. DJ Babu, Akil (former Jurassic 5 member), and People Under The Stairs’ visits to these shores can all be partly attributed to him.
While many of his contemporaries were glad to get signed to a label, Mingus opted not to, citing “full creative control” as the mitigating factor for not inking a deal. “I wanted to try out everything on my own, from choosing which producers to work with, right through to the packaging and art direction,” he says. But these days the “independent route” is increasingly used as an excuse for laziness. It’s become synonymous locally with a mentality that delivers sub-par hip hop product while attempting to retain some level of credibility.
Mingus sets all those concerns aside on Beneath the Underdog. It kicks off with “Salutations” which sets a righteous tone, with its lush production (courtesy of Boston-based Alegory) and Mingus’ effortless flow. The opening lines:
“Ladies and gents/about to set it, it’s the vet/
mastered the art of spittin’ while the whole world slept”
convey the situation. He’s been around for a while. His word-wizardry is ready for anything.
The album exhibits a more confident Mingus stepping up. I quizzed him about the Writers Block era – the critically acclaimed (at least in the Cape Town hip hop circuit) EP in 2005.
“Going back to that period and listening to my lyrics, even I can hear a definite improvement!”
It’s true, too. There’s a moving ode to the murdered Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko:
“I said I write what I like/ like Steve Biko, for the people I inspire what’s right/
get you grooving to the music when I’m shining the light/
I’m shining the light, an ill rhyme on the mic.”
Mingus is all about memorable rhymes, thought-provoking concepts, and good beats. Beneath the Underdog is coherent and fully realised. It sets Mingus apart in a scene churning out half-hearted “club bangers” that sound more like a passing street parade. This guy is tapping into something real. A highlight is the “The Better of Us” along with ex-Writers Block member Konfab:
“Holding on to the mic like [its] soul resides in a tomb…
pop music will stop producing prostitutes and look
to hip-hop for clues, we house the destitute…”
Brilliantly produced by Saturn, the song proves he’s one of Cape Town’s most underrated hip hop producers. It’s not all underground excellence, though. Mingus’ ability to rhyme so effortlessly can make it seem like he’s only half trying, like 50cent. “Paying Homage”, production-wise, sounds like a DJ Premier impersonation gone haywire. But the shortfalls are few and far between.
Mingus the rapper may not be on the level of his muse, Charles Mingus, (who is these days?) – but they do share an ability to surprise. Beneath the Underdog is exceptional in how its creator manages to combine very lyrical streams of hip hop with jazzy beats that maintain listenability.
True to the spirit of independence, Mingus has made his album available via the Rhythm Music Store. Physical copies are available at reputable Cape Town outlets such as Mabu Vinyl, Shelflife, and the African Music Store.
Check for Mingus on Myspace, and you can follow him on Twitter @mingusx24th.