Track back a couple years to 2013, and there was every reason to be very excited about the formation and impending debut release of Dead Players. The trio, signed to UK Hip-Hop powerhouse High Focus Records, were comprised of Dabbla of LDZ fame, flagship High Focus artist Jam Baxter and beatsmith GhostTown. At the time, this no doubt had Hip-Hop fans throughout Britain dribbling all over themselves in expectant glee. As a big fan of the individual careers of both emcees, on paper this seemed to be a match made in heaven. All early indicators as to what a Dead Players soundscape would feel like were extremely promising. Eggs, the track on Jam Baxter’s barnstorming collabathon ‘The Gruesome Features’ that the two rappers tore to shreds was a stand out track on an album that set a high benchmark for verses to claw to the forefront against. Attending a High Focus showcase at the now deceased Plan B in Brixton, shortly before the first album dropped, the Dead Players slot was the moment that I was most looking forward to. It didn’t disappoint. As one might have guessed Dabbla’s energetic lyrical stylings set a pace that GhostTown’s beat selection and Jam Baxter’s dark poetics more than adequately matched. Baxter hobbled onto the stage on a crutch and announced an injury that within minutes had taken a backseat to lurching around the front of the stage drinking liquor straight from the bottle and aiming his crutch into the audience like a possessed sniper. All three of them smashed it. And then the Dead Players LP dropped. And it was ok.
In actuality, that’s a harsh indictment of an album that under the scrutiny normally applied to a debut hip-hop release would stand up as some dope lyrics on a competently constructed array of beats. Essentially, there wasn’t actually much wrong at all with the groups self titled debut LP. The problem from the perspective of a fan was preconception. What I imagined the album would sound like didn’t match up to the offering provided. Both Jam Baxter and Dabbla are prolifically consistent. Dabbla has been churning out bangers for years and Baxter has never put out a solo release that wasn’t gold. As artists they differ radically. Dabbla’s often humorous bars, let a frantic, fast paced flow dictate his writing style. His brand of deepness, typified by lyrics like “I want something and I don’t know what it is, its kinda like I’m lean and I’m looking in the fridge” touches on something human and easily relatable, condensing his perspective into moments of wisdom put simply enough to make the listener wonder why they’ve never thought of something that way before. Conversely, in many ways akin to the UK’s answer to the cream of the Def Jux crop, Jam leans towards soaking his apparent disgust for the world around him in so many layers of imagery and metaphor that a PhD in cryptology might come in handy to decode the meaning underneath it all. What the two emcees have in common stylistically is a snarling vulgarity, complex flow patterns, an ‘I know I’m at the top of my game so fuck you’ swagger, and a serious capability to hype. This in mind, it might be fair to assume that the Dead Players sound would involve Dabbla and Jam Baxter meeting somewhere in the middle and creating some kind of glorious collection of bangers feeding off a collective seething anger with Dabbla doing what he does best and Baxter upping his pace and icing the whole cyanide spiked cake with his trademark flare for unsavoury description.
So here’s the good news. Freshly Skeletal delivers exactly that. That and then some. Firstly, from the moment that the albums down tempo intro track ‘Oh Well’ glides in like a melancholy phantom lubricated in a mist of chiba smoke, manifesting via the eerie wailings of its ethereal sample, its immediately apparent that GhostTown’s production game has come along leaps and bounds. There’s something that much slicker and crisper about the sound of the whole LP. The first track walks a balance between relaxed vibing and ominous, serving as a precursor threatening an imminent drop. As Dabbla goes in on the first bars of the album the tone is immediately set; ‘Cut my name into your forearm / I came to bring the mother fucking pain, apply the war balm / Nu’in but that pure charm plus a sore palm / Drown away a thousand rainy days, I change the forecast.’ From the outset the two artists draw from each others styles without copycatting and the combined effort works admirably.
Among the list of things that Dead Players have absolutely nailed for their second excursion is structure. Freshly Skeletal gels very smoothly as a whole album best listened to from start to finish. The track order is on point, orchestrating a build in pace that brings the listener up on a demented high that occasionally ebbs and predominantly flows but stays consistent throughout. Beyond ‘Oh Well’s spacey, atmospheric beginnings, booming ‘Billa’ steps it up a gear, sampling a kick that sounds like a war drum in a tunnel but refrains from jumping straight to firing on all cylinders by holding to a slow pace. The expected aggression edges more to the forefront though from the second that Baxter’s scathing verse begins with ‘Let me show em where the future is / You underachieve under a chief’s tutelage / While you’re moving as model citizens / Did your brand of ignorance come with a free crucifix?’ Third track ‘Nah’ ups the build up by a similar increment, showcasing GhostTown’s occasional tendency towards beats that sound like an accordion player at an acid heavy rave in a circus, as heard before on promising single ‘Yeah’ from the groups first outing. You’re already four tracks in before either rapper drops any of the kind of double time raprobatics listeners have come to expect from Dabbla. At which point you’re fully primed for the madness to come and Freshly Skeletal confidently hit’s a stride that it has no trouble maintaining. ‘Call Us Now’ the first single off the album, a mashed up celebration of dangerous benders and party excess with a chaotic video shot in the aftermath of Notting Hill Carnival, is a grower. The flow tempo and humorous vibe is an example of why the Dead Players dynamic works with Dabbla’s style tempering Baxter’s tendency towards cryptic darkness in his solo work and encouraging a hyper side of the emcee that he employs as masterfully as his characteristic acid drenched imagery.
What becomes clear this far into the LP is that Dead Players have settled perfectly into what they are. Both in terms of sound and conceptually the group have carved out a niche that makes them distinct both compared to other rap outfits and from their own individual creative endeavours. Lyrically the basic premise of the album isn’t complicated, its part head nod hip-hop designed to smash up a rave, part cocky disdain for everyone and everything. Its got more front than the norm for a Jam Baxter release and more texture and imagery than Dabbla normally brings to the table. In terms of its topics the album falls more into the typical hip-hop tradition of show your skills, wreck up the club and rep your crew than Jam Baxter’s more conceptual lyricism in his solo affairs. In some ways the essence of the album content wise is as simple as ‘We’re dead players, you’re shit, the worlds shit, fuck you, now party.’ A sizeable portion of the lyricism delights in this assured arrogance and contempt. As Dabbla puts it on ’Cooked’, ‘Speak of the devil / deep in the belly but it doesn’t matter cus you couldn’t creep on my level / We don’t wrestle / We knock ‘em out flat with one slap and laugh at the pile / Dance around ‘em all pointing and giggling / Killing the illegitimate problem child.’ While it would be possible to level the criticism that compared to Jam’s normal approach to writing, his bars on Freshly Skeletal lack conceptual depth, this would be entirely missing the point. For this project, although he does wander into epitomising where he’s at as a solo emcee at points, see ’Ringing’ and ’Drenching’ both of which sound like they could be lifted straight off ‘…So We Ate Them Whole’, generally he keeps his content a touch less elusive and a touch more accessible. For the most part his colourfully horrible vocabulary focuses its full articulation on showboating a larger than life persona as a cogent part of the chem drooling, ugly behemoth that is Dead Players, exemplified on ‘BAWG’ (Breeze Air Waft Gas) where he starts ‘So I was riding the placenta out of this planets miscarriage,/ Ballyed up singing power ballads while I pissed acid / When the barb wire mesh had circled the sky / I breezed through bleeding, tripping out, surfing the high.’
As for bars, so for beats. Freshly Skeletal stays true to its title taking everything down to its bare bones, before polishing them to perfection and sharpening them into shivs. GhostTown’s track construction remains heavy throughout. Instrumentals are never overly busy, taking minimal moving parts and precision honing them to excellence, managing an often discordant array of sounds tidily into place, allowing plenty of space for vocals to sit in the foreground. On a good portion of the songs e.g. Billa, Nah, Call Us Now, BAWG, the bass line is almost always inseparable from the bass drum. Simple production techniques like this which drive a clear rhythm for the LP letting Dabbla and Baxter provide the complexity, act as a stylistic continuity that contributes to the albums distinctive sound. While variation in tonality, diverse samples and relentless bars throughout the album provide more than enough to keep the overall product from ever becoming samey. The three musicians have managed to create a banger that manages to be accessible and danceable without ever wandering anywhere near being pop. Often favouring jarring rave tones such as on ‘High’ where GhostTown’s sound selection could have been plucked from the crates of the likes of Diplo, the producer/DJ walks a line between being hype and always remaining distinctly Hip-Hop.
In the name of remaining balanced because I’m biased by the fact that I love this album, I should probably poke a few holes. So here’s a few half hearted criticisms: I have no idea what Dabbla means by ‘Tune in to the Yuguns.’ Euguns? Ugens? This bugs me. Answers on a postcard please. Freshly Skeletal is short. Eleven tracks isn’t a lot in the hip-hop sphere, but on the other hand maintaining a high quality throughout and leaving the listener wanting Dead Players 3 is preferable to beefing it out with filler. ‘Do It’ feat Lee Scott is the weakest link on the album. It does add to the dynamic of the overall track list by allowing the listener a breather. However, the combination of G-Funk era synths with Freshly Skeletal’s most lyrically lazy contribution courtesy of Lee Scott’s shoulda woulda coulda hook, doesn‘t really work in the context of the rest of the album. This said, hating on the man responsible for ‘Butter Tits’, for not taking his chorus writing duties seriously on an album that revels in not taking itself seriously, makes shit all sense. I just don’t like it. Finally, its conceivable that critics might suggest that Dabbla and Jam Baxter’s styles clash due to their different approach, with Dabbla living more in the literal world conflicting with Jam seemingly being almost permanently entrenched in one of Salvador Dali’s nightmares. On the flipside of that argument however, the two rappers have both taken leaves out of each others books in their approach to writing on Freshly Skeletal and the difference between their styles provides a contrast that gives their sound more texture.
Other stand out tracks to listen out for include obligatory, crewed up track ‘Infinite Limousine’. Features come in the form of Birmingham’s Sox, High Focus Records’ latest golden boy Ocean Wisdom, long time Dabbla collaborator Illaman and Orifice Vulgatron of Foreign Beggars. The guest emcees all kill it, its got a humorous confidence to it from the bars down to GhostTown’s production and as Freshly Skeletal’s grimiest offering it hit’s the peak of hype, likely to make listeners turn up until their speakers are ruined. Finally, typifying the group’s new found ability to craft a release that works aurally from beginning to end, last track ‘Drenching’ readopts a chilled vibe that delivers the listener neatly back where the album started, wondering what the fuck has just occurred. The production sounds the most like its plucked from Jam Baxter’s last album and the lyrics turn more introspective with Dabbla showing an ability to adapt to Jam’s habitat with lines such as ‘So I figured lets see how it pans out / Sat down picking fresh scabs of these new cuts / Shat the butterflies out my loose guts / Got a bit too much, had to turn the taps off / Did it my way, California highway / in the Cadillac shooing all the bats off.’ If Freshly Skeletal’s essence is a blurred night of debauchery spanning various squat raves, ‘Drenching’ is the inevitable come down. As a choice for how to end the album, its completely fitting.
Its been another good year for High Focus Records. With artists across the roster putting out releases that have often shown a surprising degree of evolution. The Four Owls have taken themselves to the next level, Dirty Dike put out an LP with more artistic weight than anyone would have expected from him and ‘The Man With The Foggy Eyes’ is the liveliest and funniest thing that Verb T has come up with to date. Having already had the UK Hip-Hop game in a chokehold for a while, 2015 seems to have been a year for High Focus consolidating its position and then aggressively advancing into new territory. Dead Players more than adequately meet the new standard set by their label contemporaries with Freshly Skeletal. Its relentless throughout and gels into a distinctive whole with all three parts of the group bringing their A game. Its fair to assume that fans of 2013’s debut will love this album but I would strongly urge anyone who wasn’t convinced by the first Dead Players effort to cop Freshly Skeletal as the group have redefined themselves to more than match expectations. Release date is 26th October with a UK Tour already underway. Get Involved.
Review By Kieron Sullivan