I’m not the first one, and I hope I won’t be the last, to point out how intractably linked hip-hop and punk rock are. Both genres evolved around the same time in urban centers in the US and UK, where people were suffering through the devastation of deindustrialization, and therefore an exponential increase in poverty and decrease in material stability. Both genres are associated with salient critics of power structures. Both came into fruition without industry support and were often (at least until very recently) denigrated for a perceived lack of “musicality” by critics writing from the vantage point of the middle-class milieu.
The practitioners and pioneers of both genres walked the same streets, went to the same clubs, and knew and were known by a lot of the same people back in the ’70s and ’80s. And if you need further proof of the overlap and intermingling of the two, you can look to the career of the Beastie Boys, who started out as a hardcore band before becoming boundary-defying, hip-hop icons, all without changing the name of their group.
While these connections are obvious, divisions and prejudices within the wider culture played out at the street level of these scenes and effected their development over the past four decades. While white punks could transition to rap, it was very rare for a black musician to accomplish the inverse. For instance, Ice T has tried for over thirty years to get people to take his band Body Count seriously, and it’s only within in the last five that people been willing to give him his due. Further, black musicians often do not feel welcome or included in punk scenes, and they often feel as though they are treated with token nicety when interacting with white rock fans, when they are acknowledged at all. And then there is the fact that as recently as four years ago rock fans were melting down and pitching online tantrums over Lil Uzi Vert making appearances in the pit at a Lorna Shore show, and rappers and their wives being seen in public wearing merch from hardcore bands, including Kim Kardashian’s infamous studded Disclose jacket incident. I honestly wish I could make this shit up.
There are precious few who are able to cut through all the bullshit that continues to sequester rock and rap scenes into separate and (at least from the rock side of things) antagonistic camps. One such hero is Justin Mayer, a Philadelphia-based producer whose project Old City uses guitar samples and other clips from classic punk songs to create beats for his collaborator, rapper and wordsmith Tre Marsh aka Tr38cho to drop rhymes over. It’s amazing to see someone encounter a riff like the reverby downstroke that anchors the Dead Kennedy’s “Poice Truck,” or the leadoff chord from Black Flag’s “Six Pack,” and hear the same potential in it that A Tribe called Quest heard in a Billy Brooks trumpet solo, or that J Dilla heard in Minnie Ripperton’s “Inside My Love.”
On his self-titled EP under the Old City name, shock-fire riffs enter Justin’s brain as raw material and then exit through the forge of his artistic vision as the bricks and steel, raw materials with which to erect grand monuments of conscious dissent and playful animus. The top-line guitar riff of “Two Drunk To Fuck” is combined with a funky breakbeat which Tre dances atop while lobbing alternating jabs and hooks to win a decisive victory in a bout with haters and presumptuous nay-sayers. “Get Sued” sees Tre sparing and conspiring with felling rapper Olmec is a perception-altering haze of reefer vapor, ripped up and shaggy R’nB beats, and a toxic splash of riffs from Green Day’s “Brain Stew. ”
As I’m sure you’ll gather from “Get Sued,” Tre is perfectly capable of snaring and holding your attention with his full-loaded flow and biting perception of his observations, but when his bars really click are when they are stacked up against, and positioned in direct conversation with, those of other musicians. Not just in the form of vertical slabs of sound, incised from punk songs, but with people he could theoretically share a recording booth with. Specifically, Murs’s contribution to “Sixers” (which samples Black Flag’s “Six Pack”) is ecstatic and one of the high points of the album.
Murs feature on “Sixers” glides on the groove of the track like a pro-surfer cutting through spindrift, giving the track a shot of personality that helps bring out the funky quality of the underlying chord progression and builds unstoppable momentum which Tre is then able to tag in on and ide with enough speed to coast through a mosh part and over the finish line with the aid of a few taciturn remarks on parental oversharing and cosplaying anarchists. As much as Tre is able to hold his own in these collabs, there are definitely times worth noting when the guests completely steal the spotlight. One such example can be found on “Class Act” where Justin and Tre wisely takes a back seat to allow Melissa ‘Winter’ Hurley of War on Women’s gnashing flow to clap back over the head-banging, skatepunk inspired groove of the beat in order to take big, bloody bites out of the presumed privilege and wrongful assumptions of those who believe that the space and accommodations of a rock show are meant for them and them alone.
What Old City is doing is really inspiring. It combines elements and influences of musical traditions that owe their origins to the same places and time, made by people who felt an analogous sense of dissatisfaction, but who have been artificially segregated into superficial categories by the powers at be. There is no benefit to anyone in maintaining these oppressive conditions though. I think if there is a lesson from Old City’s self-titled EP it’s that separating like things makes about as much sense as putting a hammer to your thumb or a bullet in your foot. Coming together to make beautiful (or in this case, bad ass) music together is an old idea, but it’s still a good one. I’m glad to see Old City putting a fresh, and much-needed, spin on it.