Drop the needle on "No Good," the new 12-inch from Seattle's Vitamin D and a preview of his solo album due this fall, and you'll find a triple threat: a skilled beatmaker with serious turntable skills and a pointed lyricist. "It makes me want to say that's it/I'm rappin' about pimpin' with 808 beats but the underground will hate me," he raps on a track riddled with enough samples and scratches to push the musty scent of thrift-store record sleeves through your speakers. It's a position that ties Vitamin D, born Derrick Brown, to West Coast underground hip-hop style of a socially conscious message and a sample-based, "true-school" approach to music production. All of which have made him a key player in the national recognition of Seattle hip-hop.
The DJ behind MC Wordsayer and local group Source of Labor, who after almost a decade at the forefront of Seattle hip-hop are winding down with their final shows this spring, Brown is set to gather national attention along with fellow Seattle producer Jake One for crafting the beats and background for Fourth Dimensional Rocketships Going Up (Quannum Projects), the solo debut of Blackalicious' MC, the Gift of Gab due out May 11. Brown has worked with an impressive list of artists coast-to-coast, from De La Soul and Busta Rhymes to Chali 2na (Jurassic 5) and Abstract Rude in the past, but this is the first album he's been involved in from the ground up. As with many Northwest collaborations, it's a project that comes as the result of Wordsayer's (aka Jonathan Moore) long-standing efforts to connect Seattle's hip-hop community to the national scene through both his music and his artist management company, Jasiri Media. ("No Good," for instance, is on Rhymesayers Entertainment, the Minneapolis label co-owned by Slug of recent MTV 2 favorites Atmosphere.)
"Wordsayer did some tour managing for us and we built our relationship," Gab recalls of how he was introduced to Vitamin D and Jake One. "He had Vitamin and Jake's beats and let me listen to them, and I was buggin' out. At first, it was just like, 'Yeah, I'm going to write to a couple of these beats.' I rolled out there and the whole album was recorded in Seattle at Vitamin D's crib."
The result of his time in Vitamin D's studio, the Pharmacy, lifts Gab off the intricately layered sound that built a legion of fans behind the Bay-area group. Gone is the humor of DJ Chief Xcel's samples and the Gothic experimentation of tracks like DJ Shadow's "Cliff Hanger," from Blackalicious' 2000 debut, Nia, as well as the wah-wahed future-soul and extensive guest lists of classics like "Brainwashers" and "Purest Love," off the 2002 follow-up, Blazing Arrow. "I know that there may be people it will throw off because they're used to me rhyming over other beats," Gab admits. "But I didn't want to make a Blazing Arrow or Nia part two. I wanted to be more concentrated."
It's a goal Vitamin D and Jake One hit dead on. Their tracks are stripped to the basics—a beat to nod your head to, melodic fills to add warmth, and bass speed bumps to sway your knees and hips. Though you'll catch Brown throwing down a collage of vocal samples and scratches on his own cuts like "No Good" and the B-side "Touch the Sky" ("I'm a DJ, I like to hear scratching," he says), on FDRGU his presence is more discreet. It's the perfect launch pad for Gab's lightning-quick delivery and seemingly limitless breath control, and it focuses your full attention on the socially conscious message of his lyrics and MC skills rather than what's going on around them.
From the gospel-like hand-clap beat and kalimba of "Way of the Light," featuring VURSATYL of Portland's Lifesavas and Brown's father, Herman Brown, on guitar, to "Just Because," the closing battle track that ducks and weaves like a prizefighter cocked and waiting for his opening to deliver the knockout—which Gab does time and time again as he belts out in the chorus, "just because the shit feels good"—Brown sets Gab up to show an impressive range of versatility. The cold piano plinks and whispers of "The Writz," a sparse play on Taco's 1982 re-lick of the 1930s musical hit, "Puttin' on the Ritz," back hard-edged lyrics like "A rapper's head is just an emblem on my wall/I'd like to welcome MCs inside of my melodical monster's ball/Yes, yes, y'all." Immediately following it, Gab jumps the other end of the spectrum with "To Know You," one of the tracks that tackles his shot at "mood songs," with soft keyboards and guitars filling the space around a crisp snare break for a close feel that matches a narrative of complete spiritual and physical devotion to a woman.
"He'll kind of shock and amaze you," Brown says of Gab's lyrical moves on the mike. "After listening to the album, Gab definitely brings something new that nobody else has brought to my beats." Along with the ability to start you thinking one way and end up somewhere completely different at the end of a song, what's new here is Gab's use of track behind him as an accent rather than anchor. "Evolution" eases you into the rhythm, then steam-rollers ahead with seemingly no regard for anything but the idea he's pushing, which finishes right on cue for Vitamin's beat to slap you across the cheek as if to say, "Got that?"
"We've built a body of work that's solid," Moore says of the role Source of Labor, Brown, and Jake One have played in Northwest hip-hop's evolution. "I don't think people looked to Seattle with a disrespect in the past, they might have just overlooked Seattle." That solidity can be clearly heard in FDRGU. And as Vitamin D's hot streak is demonstrating, the long-due respect should be arriving any minute now.