Hip hop, being the community that it often is, can become quite a small world when it comes down to it. Emcees, DJ’s and producers can find themselves linked to each other in several ways without ever having met. I had heard Jam Baxter several times before, and was vaguely familiar with London based emcee Dabbla, although I had no idea until now about producer Ghosttown. But when I heard these three young hopefuls had released an album under the moniker Dead Players, I’ll admit I was surprised to realize just how connected they are. They’ve cut their teeth working with some of the finest minds in UK hip-hop, so it was fair to say I pushed opened the box to their debut, self-titled album, with high expectations. Maybe it was inevitable then, that Dead Players would end in disappointment.
The bouncing beat and video-game inspired instrumentals of Arcade are too divorced from the rhymes, lilting like a drunk leaving the pub. In truth this is symptomatic of the album, and if Dabbla and Jam Baxter were given something less erratic to work with, Dead Players could have been a truly exciting debut. As it stands, the album looks set to slink into the shadows.
Jam Baxter and Dabbla certainly bring their own style to the record. While Dead Players might not wow like some of their High Focus contemporaries, there’s still enough to keep your head nodding and your foot tapping. The groaning organ’s of opening track Winning are complimented by a pleasingly thick bassline, but the tune itself will leave little to no imprint on your memory. The album is made even more frustrating by the glimpses of just how good this trio could have been. Soul tinged number Lover finds a perfect pace. Baxter and Dabbla spit vicious circles around the instrumentals, and the track doesn’t drop pace so you get a good three minutes of unadulterated lyrical dexterity. The same goes for Velvet Swamp, with the guest vocals of Edward Scissortongue and Dirty Dike elevating the ethereal instrumentals to a new level. If the London hip-hop threesome could capture the allure of these tracks across the whole album, Dead Players would be one of the most exciting debuts this year.
The tracks incorporate elements of soul, electro and even jazz, but with almost every track you come away feeling disorientated and frustrated. The trio tantalize you with some quality lines and intriguing flows, but never fully deliver. Dabbla makes a sterling effort, spitting vitriol like a seasoned pro. His versatility and ability is showcased perfectly in Badman, but the album is littered with little examples of his verbal deftness. It’s just a shame that the instrumentals give him such a narrow platform on which to spin his lyrical skills.
Ghosttown might make a few stumbles with the instrumentals in Dead Players, but you have to admire his willingness to try something new. Yeah , a combination of gypsy accordion music and booming grime-bass provides a platform for Baxter and Dabbla to properly open up and make some real noise. The same goes for closing number Every Manor, a slick, ragga tinged slice of brilliance featuring guest vocals from dancehall legend Parly B. The bouncing rhythm fit’s the boys’ scathing lyrical pulse perfectly, mercifully sending the album out on a high note.
So while it may not be a groundbreaking release, Dead Players does have a unique hidden appeal that shines through with each new listen. If you give it time, the album will reward you with some moments of top class hip-hop. It’s not the most inspiring of sounds circulating the British Isles this summer, but Dead Players has its moments, it’s just a shame they’re so far apart.
Dead Players is out now on High Focus Records.