Controversial opinion: Lockdown has been good for hip hop. I don’t mean the closure of clubs, the loss of local cyphers or the endless fucking parade of ‘Quarantine bars’ popping up on your Facebook. But for some, the lockdown has presented an opportunity to sharpen their skills.

Take Zatoichi’s Ears (AKA Elliot Fresh AKA Intricate Diligence, etc.). The producer/rapper has been plying his trade for a while. But lockdown has given him time to dig further into the niche he first started carving back in 2018 with In Syruppp.

Now he’s back with Shikomi-Zue Cuts Vol 1, a mini-mixtape featuring some of his fellow GOTM labelmates. And while most of us have spent lockdown stuck on never-ending Zoom calls and drinking blurring the line between day-drinking and alcoholism, Zatoichi’s Ears has been putting in work.

The obsession with obscure kung-fu films and Eastern culture suggests easy comparisons with Wu-Tang. But where the east coast pioneers used the symbolism as a springboard to discuss the black experience in America, Zatoichi’s Ears uses it to explore humanity’s collective place in the cosmic cycle. 

Alone that could be pretty heavy. But it’s counterbalanced by some quintessential English humour and more contemporary pop culture references than an episode of Spaced. 

‘Shao Kahn’ is a textbook example. Mortal Kombat samples battle with bars about Bela Lugosi – courtesy of Brighton rapper Larry Diamond – to create a hieroglyphic hodgepodge of eastern mysticism and tacky nostalgia. On ‘Know’, rappers Twizzy & Deeq trade bars about turning adversity into life lessons over a looping piano melody. You could spend hours trying to decipher the opaque symbolism of the lyrics, but it’s easier to just sit back and enjoy the liquid-smooth flow.

So yeah, lockdown might suck, but it’s also what you make of it. Just be glad some people choose to make beats and spit bars. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another 3 months of quarantine before he drops Vol 2.

Shikomi-Zue Cuts Vol 1 drops Friday 26th June on Gold on the Mixer.