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Since the beginning of recorded music, there has been one constant: record labels. For the most part, they come and go, especially on the independent scene. Labels like Sun Records, Sub-Pop and Metal Blade have all shaped different genres in music, and have even heralded changing trends. Some of these labels live on for an extended period of time and some are absorbed by major labels.
Unfortunately, the shelf life for most indie labels is very brief, and Christian Hip Hop is not immune to that particular business truth. In the past 20 years, labels like Frontline, Grapetree, Reserved Records and Uprok were well respected, but have since gone the way of the dodo. They've been succeeded by labels like Reach Records and Illect. However, since the 90s, one record label* has continued to thrive and provide solid hip hop with a spiritual message: Syntax Records.
Formed in 1997 by Steve and Tim Trudeau, Syntax Records has brought us albums by such luminaries as Pigeon John (as well as the rest of the LA Symphony crew), Adeem, Braille, RedCloud, Othello, and Sackcloth Fashion, among others. In addition, Syntax has released a number of compilation albums, such as Fashion Expo, Wages of Syntax and the Night Owls series. Syntax has recently updated the latter series with the new release, Night Owls 5: Bird Flu.
This compilation of 18 tracks, as have so many of the previous Night Owls albums, includes a mixture of tracks from well known names (Braille, Rhema Soul, Kaboose, Cookbook) and artists that I wasn't familiar with (Jupiter 7, Citizen Aim, Praverb the Wise). As I listened, I was struck by the extremely high quality of every track. From an objective stand point, every track sounds good. They're all well recorded and well mixed. From a subjective point of view, I felt like every track brought something good to the table. Somewhat obviously, I expected good stuff from the tracks with known quantities. I have to admit that I was a bit caught off guard by the tracks by the artists I wasn't familiar with. “Basics” by Jupiter 7 features excellent lyricism over a track with a very cool flute loop. “A Beautiful Thing” by Phynite is a terrific love letter to Hip Hop, that features really crisp drums and a funky bass line. “As Just Cause Cries” by Citizen Aim (R.I.P.) is a haunting song with a beat that reminded me of the beat from “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. Some seriously great songs from unsung emcees who will hopefully start getting some more recognition.
Some of the other standout tracks include “Fite Nite” by RedCloud, Braille and Kaboose, an energetic track including a very funky beat, and a cool extended boxing/fighting theme. “Least Resistance” features Max One rhyming introspectively over what sounds like a very cool harpsichord sample. “Insomniac” features some very cool samples and anyone who is familiar with LA Symphony's oeuvre will happily recognize Cookbook's flow and great wordplay.
Anyone who's read my previous reviews probably knows that I love when albums have a cohesion running through them. I'm willing to relax that on a compilation, but was pleasantly surprised to find that tracks five and six, “Get Right” by Kaboose and “Family Tree” by Motion Plus, both feature deep lyrics over fantastic sounding drums combined with some jazzy samples (a very cool saxophone on the Kaboose track, and a nice jazzy piano on “Family Tree”). The similarity creates a two track motif that shows that thought was put into the order of the tracks on the album.
In most compilations, there's a certain amount of chaff that you have to deal with in order to get the wheat. I can happily say that it's not really the case with this project. As you listen, you'll notice that care was taken to choose great tracks, and it certainly creates a great listening experience. So, stay up late, and become a Night Owl. You'll thank yourself in the morning.
*Yes, I know that Gotee is still around, and has been around longer than Syntax, but they're not specifcally a hip hop label, and never have been. After all, their initial lineup included an alt rock band (Johnny Q. Public), a reggae band (Christafari) and a female R&B group (Out of Eden) in addition to GRITS. In addition, they've become just as well known for bands like House of Heroes and Relient K as they have for hip hop artists like John Reuben and Grits.
1. Bird Flu Intro
2. Back When – Rhema Soul
3. As Just Cause Cries – Citizen Aim
4. The Dream – La Guardia
5. Get Right – Kaboose
6. Family Tree – Motion Plus
7. Insomniac – Cookbook
8. Basics – Jupiter 7
9. Earthquake Music – Michael Mannaseh
10. Least Resistance – Max One
11. A Beautiful Thing – Phynite
12. Fite Nite – Braille, Kaboose and RedCloud
13. At It Again – Sundance, Nomis and Jeremiah Bonds
14. Words – Man of War
15. Relying on God – Praverb the Wyse
16. Static for Dinner – Braille
17. This Road – BillyBo
18. My Position – Freddie Bruno, RedCloud and Jeremiah Bonds