Aside from the never-ending Lil Wayne downloads and minute-by-minute beef updates, the best thing about hip-hop blogs is reading the kind of scathing takedowns that can come only from the most dedicated fans. Bill O'Reilly's got nothing on the cranks at Oh Word, whose jokey forgery of a Cam'ron notebook--complete with a seventh grade-stoner-style drawing of his dream car, the "Camborghini"--was gleefully reposted by pretty much every hip-hop site on the Internet. The blog's standards are painfully high, and its reviews regularly set new benchmarks for hilarious cruelty. Maybe one in 20 is positive, and even then the praise is usually qualified. So last month, when it posted a gushing review of a new album from a Chicago MC I'd never heard of that quoted an entire verse and referred to him as the "real deal," I clicked the link to download the music. Best decision I made all week.
Bless 1, the MC in question, made his first appearance on the site--really, his first appearance anywhere outside his block on the west side, unless you count a couple open mikes--in March 2006. He won an Oh Word contest organized in tribute to producer J Dilla, who'd died the month before, with a rap over J's track "Another Batch." His prize was two J Dilla T-shirts. "They done shrunk on me and everything," Bless says, "but I still rock them around the house."
Bless's contest entry was his first cut to see any kind of release anywhere--Oh Word made it available for download. One reviewer called it "beautiful rapping," and I can't disagree. His writing even holds up on the page: "Some wonder why it's hard to see the stars at night / But it's easy to see former hoop stars kissing the pipe / Former lives they snatched quarters off backboards / Now they're reduced to begging for quarters in front of stores."
The track also caught the ear of a producer in Paris named Powell, who got in touch with Bless through MySpace and started flooding his inbox with beats. The two still haven't met--they've collaborated exclusively via e-mail and phone--but almost all the beats on Bless's album, Starving Artist, are Powell's work. Thick with dusty samples, the tracks recall J Dilla's fractured funk--they'd probably upstage most rappers. But it's hard to take your ears off Bless 1.
"Initially, it was Bless 1's lyrics that caught my attention," says Oh Word contributor Fresh. I e-mailed him asking for a comment or two about Bless, and he hit me back with six paragraphs. "The way he filled his rhymes with all of these little details about Chicago made me feel like I really knew the city, despite the fact that I'm a kid from Jersey who's never made it outside of O'Hare." This really is one of the best things about Bless's lyrics: "It seems like only yesterday I was riding bikes / Popping wheelies, lips sticky from Italian ice," he raps in "Never Give Up." "Ghetto child in the city where the wind's strong / And men roam with their alligator skins on."
Bless's portrait of the hood is richer than the simplistic, crime-focused view that popular gangsta rappers have beaten into the ground. "I been in some of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago," he says. "And to be truthful, the majority of people in the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods are working people. You can't go to a real bad block and say, 'Everybody's a drug dealer, everybody's a convict.'" Too many trap rappers, he complains, try to hide behind claims of objectivity. "They say, 'I'm just reporting on what's going on in the hood,' or whatever, but there's more things going on in the hood. They're almost as bad as the media."
When Bless does address drugs, he doesn't glamorize--his lyrics would better describe the bleak world of The Wire. "Up north, gays be blowing whistles at their festivals / Out west, felons be tucking pistols by their testicles," he raps in "We." "In less than 30 seconds you cop in dirty vestibules / Get your brains fried like oily vegetables." "We need to paint a better picture for ourselves," he says. "I used to always be against the fact that music influences the youth or whatever, but I see grammar school kids putting foil in they mouth to act like they have platinum teeth."
Born and raised on the west side, Bless 1--real name Aaron Brown, age 29--has been writing lyrics and freestyling in ciphers since his sophomore year at Whitney Young. That was about the time he gave up on his first artistic endeavor. "I really wanted to be a graffiti artist," he says. "But the best graffiti artists at school were the Asian guys and the Hispanics, and they were showing me their art notebooks, and I'm looking at mine, and I didn't think this was for me."
Though his friends have been into his rapping from the beginning, Bless only recently started feeling comfortable with his talent--it wasn't till shortly before the J Dilla contest that he made his first home recordings. "They're my close friends," he says. "I'll go through an old rhyme notebook from high school and I'm like, 'This is garbage.' And they was praising it, like, 'You always been dope.' Naw, truthfully I've only been dope for the past year."
During that year he's made a fan out of at least one well-placed person in the Chicago hip-hop business, but it hasn't gotten him any exposure. He went to the WGCI studios during an open demo-listening session, hoping to get his stuff on the air, and played a few tracks for a music staffer. "The girl's bopping her head," he says, "and she says, 'Man, this really sounds good.' And I'm getting my hopes up. But she's like, 'You sound like Common. So why should I play your album when we're already playing Common?' They have no problem playing songs that sound like each other all day long, but I guess they have a limit on the so-called conscious rap."
There's no physical pressing of Starving Artist--Bless has posted it online and occasionally burns CD-Rs to sell hand-to-hand. You can hear a few tracks on his MySpace page or download the whole thing for free from Sendspace by following the links at Oh Word (ohword.com/blog, search for "starving"). He's working full-time to promote the album, obviously not a moneymaking proposition--for now he's staying at his girlfriend's place. He hopes to stir up enough buzz around Starving Artist to land a record contract, and he's making plans to play his first proper gigs.
He's also hitting the street with those burned discs, despite his mixed feelings about the hustle. "It's kinda like, I'm on my corner slinging my CDs, and I really want you to love my music more than me just being a vagabond on the street begging for money," he says. "What's the difference? 'I don't even like the album, but here's some money. Stay up.' I want you to feel the music. I don't want any pity dollars."
It's not like I don't wish him the best, but some part of me hopes success comes slow. I don't know what Bless 1 might sound like flush, but I do know he's amazing when he's hungry.
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