The Best Hip-Hop You Won't Hear This Year

Matador's first hip-hop group has been compared to the none-too-shabby Gang Starr.

The Arsonists are gimmick-less. In fact, the band's only hook is its

skill. Here's hoping that's enough, because As the World Burns

deserves to break through, even if it's not perfect.

Formed in 1993 as the Bushwick Bomb Squad, the hip-hop crew has

several buzzworthy 12-inch singles to its name and a reputation for

putting on a scorching live show. The five MCs — Q-Unique

(longtime member of the Rock Steady Crew), D-stroy, Freestyle, Swel

Boogie, and Jise One — all have distinctive styles that blend

together well: Few songs on As the World Burns sound like solo

joints with guest appearances. So there's no star, and the personality

that defines the record is a group personality — one that pays

tribute to 20 years of hip-hop without becoming nostalgic.

After an "Intro" of studio chatter, the record starts off with

"Backdraft" (RealAudio excerpt) an aggressive manifesto that sets the tone for much of the

rest of the set. While most of the record stands somewhere between Gang

Starr's spareness and the Wu-Tang's eerie atmospheres, the Arsonists

manage to maintain a distinctive style. It's what allows them to do a

track like "Pyromaniax," full of (Warner Bros. cartoon-music wizard)

Carl Stalling–like muted trumpet and oom-pahs, or the lush,

soulful "Flashback" (RealAudio excerpt).

Lyrical Skills — capital "S" — are in evidence throughout the

album. Each member of the crew can hold his own, as evidenced on the

hilarious "Lunchroom Takeout" (RealAudio excerpt). D-Stroy gets dada on "D-Sturbed Words"

and the group warps meter all over the place on "Geembo's Theme."

There's not a lazy lyric on the record, and the nods to the Black Sheep

and Onyx, among others, are sly rather than slick.

As one of the few non-rock acts signed to Matador, the Arsonists have

some unusual challenges ahead of them. As the World Burns is a

first-rate hip-hop record. Let's hope it gets the airplay it deserves.