The first rap CD I owned was Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.  There are probably many other people who can say the same thing—even after I qualify that statement by saying I was a preppy high school kid growing up in an upper-middle class suburb at the time.  I had signed up for the BMG Music Service (12 CDs for the price of 1!) and wanted to use my membership to branch out from the music I had been accustomed to hearing on the radio (e.g., Matchbox Twenty).  Some time earlier I had flipped through the pages of a Rolling Stone and remembered reading that The Chronic was considered a masterpiece of west coast hip-hop.  I didn’t even know what “chronic” meant, but I thought that the album cover looked cool.  (Neither did I know that it was adapted from the logo for Zig-Zag rolling papers.)

When I received my copy of The Chronic in the mail and listened to it on my headphones, I was surprised by my response to what I heard.  On the surface, the lyrics of gang violence, drug use, and misogyny did not reflect—and, in fact, were completely contrary to—my lifestyle and morals.  At the same time, something about their expression attracted me at a deeper level.   It seemed that if one made a conscious decision to claim as one’s own even the most objectionable walk of life, one could transform it into art.  Critics who have made similar observations have written of a kindred spirit between the seemingly unrelated genres of gangster rap and punk rock.

Now, this is a review of All the Things by Dual Core, right?  My anecdote about The Chronic is intended to draw both a similarity and contrast to All The Things, a hip-hop record in the style known as nerdcore.  Like gangsta rap, nerdcore takes activities with negative or marginal social connotations—hacking, computer programming, role-playing games, comic book collecting—and turns them into badges to be worn with pride.  On that note, I don’t think I need to explain how nerdcore’s lyrical content differs from that of The Chronic.

Although the contrast might seem like a given, All The Things demonstrates more than ever that Dual Core will not accept any distinctions between nerdcore and “real” hip-hop.   All The Things is the fifth album produced by Dual Core, a duo consisting of int eighty, an emcee and software programmer from Cincinnati, and c64, a beat maker and graphic designer from England, who collaborate together via the Internet.  Their roots are squarely in nerdcore, beginning with their first release, Zero One, a promising debut that introduced listeners to int eighty’s no-nonsense flow and c64’s talent for composition.  It appears in retrospect that they were only testing the waters with that album: they followed it with two bonafide nerdcore classics, Lost Reality and Next Level.  Those releases came at the rate of one per year, whereas three years passed between Next Level and All The Things.

What has always made Dual Core—and in particular, int eighty—stand out to me among other legitimate nerdcore acts is their passion for the art of hip-hop.  While other skilled peers such as Random, Ytcracker, and MC Lars can hold their own verbally, I can’t help but think that they remain self-conscious of themselves as geeks who are rapping, even if they only play on that theme intentionally for humor.  I don’t get that feeling at all when I listen to int eighty.

However, I feel the need to apply the critical lens when I write about the title track of this album, All The Things.  Keeping in mind that the overall thrust of the album is a transition from nerdcore to hip-hop proper, it wouldn’t surprise me if the foreshortening of the chorus—“Hack all the things!”—in the title was a conscious choice.  I find that a good move.  What bothers me is the other half of the chorus, the insistent, repetitive command to “Drink all the booze” (“Drink all the booze, hack all the things!”).  Even considering that this track was inspired by the giddy atmosphere of a tech convention, I don’t think this type of “anthem” is the right direction for Dual Core.  I would never accuse int eighty of “trying too hard”—hip-hop needs artists like him who give 100%—but I do think the concept here is forced, and that he’s fronting just a little bit.  Although it’s not a bad song, Dual Core can do better than make an attempt at a crossover hit.

And they do do better.  Dangerous Ways is the high point of the album, and to me it represents the true direction that Dual Core should strive toward.  C64’s beat uses a vocal sample that int eighty sounds fantastic over—especially during his second verse, which meshes with the beat so well that it becomes hypnotic.  int eighty’s imaginative storytelling relates a war-torn future in which computer hackers control the balance:  “These are armies, not introverted smart kids / fighting for the future, leaving smart grids hard hit.”  In the chorus, int eighty’s cry of “This is hostile!” (pronounced: hah-style!) is convincing, and the song as a whole achieves what I think Dual Core set out for: to create an aggressive, high-quality sound that unifies hip-hop and geek culture.

A major difference between All The Things and past Dual Core albums is the increased number of “battle tracks”—songs without an obvious theme or storyline that mostly serve to flaunt int eighty’s delivery, which has become speedier.  Of these, the best is Go Figure, featuring More or Les, Ghettosocks, and Timbuktu.  c64 creates a menacing beat out of reverberating percussion sounds while int eighty boasts:

 

We heard you like rap—we came back with a better sound
Kids make noise, we make waves they couldn’t fathom
They micromanage while we split the atom

 

The remainder of the battle tracks—Back to Me, Fear and Chaos, The One (featuring Tribe One), Farewell, and Last Writes are all solid.  Yet what I find even more impressive are the two tracks in which int eighty raps with a relaxed style, Drifter and No Time. Drifter is the intro to the album and features int eighty’s intricate rhyme schemes over a beat led by a countrified guitar:

 

This goes out to my people everywhere
Who in suffering, endured more than their fair share
The other kids at school made fun of what you wear
Gym class, picked last, and never the best player
The resistor, it’s the, drifter, mister
inter-rupt eighty, just the descriptor

 

No Time, featuring Dale Chase, is possibly the smoothest cut that Dual Core has ever released, with a piano melody that wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid-’90s Jay Z or Common album.

Finally, I see the relative lack of story-based songs—Hear Them Talking, Staring at the Last Star, and Running (featuring Remington Forbes and Blueprint)—as a reflection of Dual Core’s focus on hip-hop and away from token geek identities.  There are no tracks on All The Things dedicated to topics such as Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, or Counterstrike like on prior albums.  What we have here are weightier issues of child abuse (Hear Them Talking), breakups (Staring at the Last Star), and the decision to pursue art over a dead-end day job (Running).  Remington Forbes and Blueprint make fine companions to int eighty on the latter track, with Blueprint delivering the memorable line, “My corporate experience at best was a disjointed mess.”

All The Things is an exciting album for followers of Dual Core, who have likely given it repeated spins by now since its August 2012 release.  (Better that this review comes late than never!)  This fifth entry in the group’s catalog clearly shows both how much Dual Core have progressed and how much potential they still have.  It may not be the album that gets them the respect outside of nerdcore circles that they deserve, but it seems like that day is not far off.  Like my relationship to The Chronic, there are people with minimal connections to geek culture who are paying attention to and supporting Dual Core.  All The Things puts its best foot forward and meets the world of hip-hop more than halfway; let’s hope that more heads out there will open up and listen.

Reviewed by John Koch

 

At a glance:

All The Things by Dual Core (int eighty and c64)

Hip-hop/Nerdcore
August 2012
13 tracks
Runtime: 64:25
MP3 available on iTunes, Amazon, and other major outlets; CD available on Bandcamp.com

All The Things by Dual Core


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