Detroit-to-London mix works a change for Guilty Simpson

DUK’s Eric Lau helps craft a downtempo take on a gruff, hardcore rapper

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The further we travel into the 21st century, the smaller the world becomes. On any given day, it's nothing to communicate regularly with people on the other side of the planet. If there's one key advantage to technology making the world a little smaller, it's that musicians seem to be working on international projects at a pace faster than ever.


Case in point: One of Detroit's most globally revered MCs, Guilty Simpson, has a new EP available via Kilawatt Music that he created with London chill-wave producer Eric Lau.

And back to that small-world thing: The artists were never in the studio together while the music was being created. That happens all the time now, especially in hip hop, where a producer e-mails beats to a rapper some place far away, the rapper raps, the engineer e-mails the updated material back, and the producer tweaks everything into a finished product.

The problem is that, a lot of the time, that finished "product" often feels soulless, disconnected and slapped-together. It isn't the ideal situation for lots of musicians and producers, and while talking recently with Lau via Skype at his home in north London, he was quick to say it's not his preferred choice either. 

"Honestly, I wouldn't have done it if it were anybody other than Guilty," Lau says. "I would have loved to have been in the studio with him. I'm old-school as a producer, but I trust [Simpson]. I mean, just look at his résumé."

It's actually Simpson's résumé that makes this project even more of a stretch than the distance. The typically gruff, hardcore rapper, who is best known for rapping with producers J Dilla, Madlib and, currently, in the underground powerhouse group Random Axe, doesn't seem like he'd immediately gel with a downtempo producer who typically creates a unique brand of hip-hop lounge. Plus, Lau admits that he's never even visited Detroit. So much for chemistry, right? But the songs the duo created for The Mission over five months in 2011 far exceed a typical phoned-in project. The heavy keyboard feel and reflective rapping about Detroit life as a child on the EP's haunting lead single "Yesterday" make it one of the best releases of 2012 thus far. For the entire recording, Simpson isn't rapping about whupping people's asses or gunplay but instead tackles topics of love, relationships, longing for the past, and other more "sympathetic" themes that he normally doesn't touch. There's some real depth.

"I just got tired of being put in a box, so to speak, with my music," Simpson says. "I want to be remembered for substance in my music. Open-mic-style rhymes won't get me there and that's what a lot of "hip-hop heads" want me to do. So I decided to put more commentary in the music even if I addressed violence or the ways of the street.

Rather than focus on me, I wanted to focus on circumstances."

It's a smart strategy. Cerebral raps minus the typical narcissism slithering atop beats that are more soul-house than hood gives Simpson and The Mission a texture all its own. Lau's production is a definite change-up for Simpson but he says he enjoyed the challenge, happy to be pushed in a different direction. "[Eric] understands music and how to capture a vibe. Drums slap beneath the melody and it allows me to express myself without feeling like my sound is watered down," Guilty says. 

Hell, from a creative standpoint, that was Lau's sole intent.

Perhaps what matters most is that listeners hear the music without the backgrounds of either artist clouding any expectations. That's actually how the EP got its name.

"The Mission basically is to bring a different side of us out," Lau deadpans. "I think of it like an actor and constantly being typecast in certain films. I hope this shows that Guilty can play a different role."

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