Various Artists
Low Life Records Presents Life Before 40

A carefully picked crop of EP and album tracks showing the range and depth of one of the UK's leading hip hop outfits.

By Demented Toddler

The UK hip hop stable's 40th release isn't a greatest hits in the usual sense, instead a carefully picked crop of EP and album tracks. The chronological playlist is smartly put together, with tunes often seeming to pick up some musical or lyrical motif from the track before, while maintaining as much diversity in pace and style as the label's remit allows. It will show more sides of Low Life to those who've already dabbled, and its variety makes it a gentler access point than labouring through all of Jehst's Falling Down, or Skinnyman's Council Estate Of Mind.

As testament to his range and workrate, Braintax has a hand in seven out of the 13 tracks here. A jack-of-all trades and master of production, he comes with infectious Zorba-the-Greek beats on Mad Runningz, a rambling tale of luckless dealing and date-placating from Ricochet. Two pieces with Mystro, On The Road and Tellin' You, come towards the back of the album, as does the UK's answer to Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Kashmere The Iguana Man. Not quite weird enough, Kashmere falls between stools over Straight Dirt's b-list organ loop.  

Four of Low Life's biggest stars appear over Brains' beats on You Know Who You Are. Their unbusy bounce makes a perfect canvas for displays of verbal skill from Rodney P and Farma G, the Riddim Killa and Matchmaker each strewing their sixteen bars with trademark phrases for the fanboys.  Mystro is most inventive, adapting Phife Dawg's opening lines from Scenario: "Stro knows this, and Stro knows that, the party isn't started if the Stro don't rap". I do have a worry though. What with You Know Who You Are, Taskforce's Phi-Life collab Who's This? (Zebra Traffic) and Skinnyman's Banger Who? Me, also featured here, I start to wonder whether all British rappers suffer from identity crises?  Braintax seems to have it sorted on Just Me, last heard on Skitz's Homegrown blend: "Straight talking, pay me now there's no credit, I'm from up north, half of these Londoners don't get it".

Asaviour and Jehst have similarly spartan requirements – Money In The Bank. While that tune shows a more upbeat side of the high plains drifter, the compilation would hardly be complete without one of the classics that made his name. The bleak, wheedling trudge of City Of Industry shows why he is "the quintessential outlaw". No other hip hop artist can touch Jehst's curiously effective un-celebration of being "numb", "uninspired".

As his gloom dissipates, a dramatic change of pace as UK hip hop godfather Rodney P lets you know you're "Now rocking with the best y'all". The original Big Tings We Inna switches up the style, The Sea's skanking guitar and rolling dub echoes a breed apart from the majority of the production here. The mood has to shift again, and moves from a reggae tip to Harry Love's laid-back jazzy sensibilities on Showbitchness. A nice UK companion piece to a tribe called quest's showbusiness, Harry and Verb T's indictment of the fame game reworks Annie Get Your Gun on the chorus: "There's no bitches like show bitches in showbusiness".

The highest of the highlights comes at the beginning though, the "cloud-stepping" Lewis Parker track Life And Breath. It's from the EP '98 Series Part 1, and very much in the vein of his beautiful Masquerades And Silhouettes album. The mantra "life... breath" repeats under mesmeric twinkling marimba as Parker, Braintax and Supa T trade rhymes in harsh-accented soft voices. By some margin the oldest track on the album, this bedroom recording is incontrovertible proof of how far ahead of his time Parker was – in the vanguard of the movement which has turned into today's UK hip hop scene. Eight years ago, who could have guessed we'd be inna such big tings?
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