CD Review: Is Grayskul's Graymaker the Best Local Hip-Hop Release of the Year?

Terry Creighton
Graymaker comes out today via Taxidermy Records.
For all the talk about Grayskul's gothic sensibilities, the local hip-hop duo traffic in humor as much as they do horror. This is especially true of 2007's Bloody Radio. Whereas Onry Ozzborn and JFK's 2005 effort, Deadlivers, often revels in its eeriness, their follow-up saw them loosening up and having fun, as if playing in a haunted house. Tracks such as "Dope" and "Scarecrow" have a bite and a bounce. And even the brooding and deeply personal "Missing," about their misspent youths, deftly avoids the "Dear Diary" bear-trap with an almost mocking chorus. All in all, Bloody Radio is the musical equivalent of a Sam Raimi film.

With their latest release, however, Ozzborn, aka Count Draven, and JFK, aka Count Mangus, are up to something different. (Don't their aliases' kiddie cereal connotations seem purposeful? Somewhere, Count Chocula is cackling.) Titled Graymaker in partial homage to its producer, Chicago's Maker, the duo's sound has risen from its gargoyle crouch and sprung off into a brighter dimension. With considerable help from Maker (and his smart samples, including Bob Marley), Ozzborn and JFK have elevated the sinister quality of their previous discs. It makes for a surprisingly funky package, and possibly the best local hip-hop release of the year so far.

We hear the shift on the noir-ish horns that dribble across the face of opener "Mars Voltage." Soon, the horn takes a back seat to the breakbeat drums, as JFK and Ozzborn trade rhymes rife with cartoonish and bloody imagery--a reminder that this is still a Grayskul album. "We Android" is another stand-out. The beat evolves from a sleepy hum and kicks out a funky-soul-style guitar riff, which Ozzborn deftly rides, his delivery subtly shifting.

JFK is another matter. An outsized extension of his outsized personality, his style has always been the opposite of Ozzborn's. The perfect complement, in other words. Despite his high-octane and high-volume method, JFK steers clear of overpowering the production. Case in point: "Bread and the Wine." Over Maker's slow, jazz-infused arrangement, JFK mellows out while nevertheless maintaining a rapid velocity--a tricky balance.

Deeper into Graymaker we find the dancefloor-ready heat of "Deuce Deuce," the symphonic "In the Know," and the closer "Drapes," whose cathedral-organ-quality and lyrical nightmarescapes feel like a throwback to Grayskul's previous albums. But it's the only cut that doesn't cut a divergent path; and the role Maker played here cannot be overstated.

In a recent profile of Grayskul, Jonathan Cunningham rightly compared Graymaker to the DANGERDOOM albums, the collaboration between producer Danger Mouse and rapper MF Doom. And the possibility that Grayskul and Maker have just begun their work together is an exciting one for Seattle hip-hop: Graymaker is more comfortable in its skin and consistent in its quality than most any other '09 local release.

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