The way Baby J sees it, hip-hop is in trouble, and something has to be done about it.
Believing that hip-hop is straying from its street-level roots and veering dangerously into the realm of money-flaunting braggadocio, producer Baby J, 25, wanted to fill his debut album, Birth, with hip-hop as it was originally conceived: gritty street music, unconcerned with the bottom line and produced with a love for the art.
To add extra punch to the message, he created the record using a lineup of underground New York rappers who share his goal of reinvigorating the genre.
"It's basically the concept of blowing the breath of life into the nostrils of hip-hop," Shabazz the Disciple, one of the guests on the disc, said. "Hip-hop is a dead state. We're just coming to give it breath."
Due Nov. 17 on hip-hop indie label Bomb Records, home of the popular turntablist series Return of the DJ, Birth features such on-the-verge artists as Wu-Tang affiliate Shabazz the Disciple and Gravediggaz member Poetic, as well as underground New York rappers A-Alikes, Bless and Kinzmen rapping over haunted, Wu-Tang Clan-influenced tracks produced by Baby J.
All the songs on the album "keep it real," concentrating the raps on topics familiar to most MCs: who's a better rapper, the pressures of daily life and a distaste for the often-shady workings of the music industry.
It's this album's particular collection of musical kin that gives its message so much potency, according to Baby J. "This is just similar-minded people coming together to make something happen," he said Tuesday.
Baby J, which is his legal name following a name change, grew up in Darby, England, a small town that, he said, lacks much of a hip-hop scene. He first started producing beats in the early '90s but had nowhere to play them, since his home turf had a limited rap-related music scene. He said he was amazed when he first heard the haunted soundscapes of American rap groups Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep four years ago, because they sounded so similar to what he was working on.
As he worked his way through what hip-hop culture existed in England, he met members of the Wu-Tang Clan and began making connections outside of the U.K. After working on remixes of songs by Shabazz the Disciple and Dead Prez, he began putting together a project to call his own.
For Baby J, the end result of his work is a document that defines where he thinks hip-hop should be headed if it's to survive and grow. "By calling [the album] Birth, I want people to think of this as a new angle and a new start," he explained. "Nature evolves, you know? Something gets to the stage where it can't exist no more, and it evolves. That's what Birth is all about."
"If you think about it, in the music landscape, a lot of cuts and a lot of dance music is about flashing their money and bragging and that kind of s---," said 22-year-old Ness of hip-hop duo A-Alikes, who rap on "For My Army" and "Walk With a Bop" on Birth. "Rap, from the beginning, has been a little bit about bragging, but on this album we're going to talk about the here and now.
"The reality of life is seeing your mom and dad working hard. The exaggerated reality is how rich you are and how many whips you have," Ness continued. "The reality we're presenting is what it takes to make it in society."
The album's first single, "Saviour" (RealAudio excerpt), features Gravediggaz member Poetic rapping "I'm about to wreak havoc on the beats this year/ Labels ain't trying to promote this here/ Commercial radio shows, they just don't care/ The savior of the rap world just appeared."
The business side of the music industry also is assailed on Freestyle's "Focus," while Shaqueen, Omen and Shabazz the Disciple give a "state of the hip-hop union" address on "Truth."
Shabazz also appears with Freestyle as Celestial Souljahz on a "hip-hopera" entitled "War Trilogy," a kind of sonic play that casts Baby J's sonic manipulations as an audio war-zone within which the MCs "battle" their opponents.
"The concept is about just going to war against the elements of negativity," Shabazz said. "We're talking about negativity in hip-hop and the kind of negativity where people are hungry and ain't got no food. That's the bottom-line concept."
Baby J is happy with the final product, but he's perhaps most proud of sticking to his guns and calling on only new artists to appear on the album.
"I could've put a rapper on there who went gold (500,000 copies sold) already," Baby J explained, "but if he was wack and had no skills, it would've defeated the purpose. The way it is now, I'm giving these artists a breath of life as they're giving themselves a birth.
"Everyone on the LP is family-related," Baby J continued. "I knew what kind of vibe I wanted, and we all moved together in that direction."