Saturday, August 30, 2008

Kalibrate Me Utterly

We all know that mixtapes are pretty hit and miss. There's a tendency to cram in as much as possible, shoehorning in a formulaic panoply of styles in the hope that something might stick, either with the punter or any passing A&R man - so you get, typiquement, a club banger, a lurve song, something conscious, something old-skool, some sex rhymes, a life story cut, and *far too many* collaborations. So the story of UKHH releases has been one of the listener having to fairly carefully mine a 75-minute mush in order to extract enough nuggets of inspiration to justify the purchase. Given that we only get three score years and ten, life is simply too short. But a good couple of years after S.Kalibre's "High Kalibre Mixtape" first appeared, we find we're still returning to it. And that seems good enough reason in itself to give it the retrospective treatment we haven't yet afforded to anything else of the genre...

We first heard the Kent rhymester, we think, with his guest verse on "Envy", from Dap-C's "Character Building" album in '04. What struck us first, even amidst the novelty of a homespun Newcastle rapper's full-length, was simply how distinctive Kalibre's own accent was - south-east of england roughneck, no attempt to put on either Americanisms nor standard London patois - and at the time, that was even rarer than it is now. But there was also something refreshingly no-nonsense about the rhymes themselves, his contribution starting with a crisp "for fuck's sake...". And though he's popped up in quite a few places since - notably with his bars stealing the show on Dap-C's "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", in a trademark verse where Kalibre combines the usual brusque, don't-mess Medway straight-talking with due reverence for the higher messages of KRS One - there has not really been enough of him around. That's one of the reasons the High Kalibre mixtape was so welcome.

The mixtape is hosted by Blade, which is a pretty good sign. Blade is one of the homestyle rappers who managed to combine integrity with longevity in the game: when he made it, however fleetingly, onto Top Of The Pops, that meant far more to us than other alleged UK breakthroughs, like a tame Dizzee sell-out getting to number one. We always think of Blade in the video for "Ya Don't See The Signs", pushing the flash car and the dancing girls out of the way and sticking a metaphorical middle finger up at the major label madness all around (a afflicting, as it would turn out, his and Mark B's deal with Virgin). Returning to S.Kalibre, for what it's worth, you can see that he does the middle finger thing literally on the tape's cover: we thought for a second it might be reconstruction of the infamous photo of Johnny Cash doing the same thing. While it might not be original or endearing, it's a hint that like the man in black, he's not going to be indulging any fools gladly.

With Kalibre curt to a fault, and with beats anchored by the other half of Hard Livin', producer Mike S, this tape sustains interest over some 27 tracks. Opener "Medway Story" brings the gritty horror of the Medway towns to life: an acknowledgement there's always been much more to them than Dickensian tourist whimsy and Rochester Castle, very little of it pleasant. "S.K.A.L.I.B.R.E", is a belter, again immeasurably helped rather than hindered by the lack of sampled hooks or backing vocals as the MC simply glides across the rhythm to introduce himself. On "Real Rap" Kalibre, assisted by Genesis Elijah, has a crystal clear take on modern day rap's foothold on impressionable UK youth: "You probably only been rapping since you saw 8 mile / I bet 50's your favourite MC". "Ride On You Idiots" is another one for the haters: again, short, sweet, confident, convincing.

Although the guest spots tend to be pretty well chosen (only on the overlong "UK Army", which features a cast of frankly too many, does the collabo thing really get out of hand), the downside is that however competent, few of the tonsils-for-hire are as welcome as S.Kalibre's own less-than-dulcet tones, which are after all what we've paid for. The guest spots that get closest to matching him are from Stateside rappers Syndrome, Q-Unique and Sabotawj on "3 Faces of Death" and "Westside Connection", while Manage's contribution to "Freedom" sets off Kalibre's nicely.

Another mark of quality is that the tape doesn't fall off at the close: indeed, it picks up seriously renewed momentum with the penultimate tune "Words From The Kalibre", a two minute tour de force of straight rhyming style ("not even the Churchill dog gonna nod to your shit") before concluding with an equally strong outro, in which S.Kalibre turns the typical mixtape on its head by finishing (rather than starting) with an autobiographical song, a potted history of Hard Livin' that charts the ups and downs of his musical outings thus far.

Yeah, there are probably 3 or 4 tracks here we can live without. But given how mad impatient we usually are, you can take that as leaving one hell of a hit-rate. So a heartfelt big up to S.Kalibre, for proving that the well-rounded mixtape was not just an impossible dream.



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