Mr. Clean - With A Vengeance
'My debut like some live at the Apollo shit'. Lifted from the retro-funk thrash of She Took The Money, this statement might seem apt for an artist stepping cautiously in to the world of Australian hip hop. But Mr. Clean is in no danger of a mute crowd. He has embodied the fabled 'grind' that so many of his American counterparts love and loathe. The story of With A Vengeance is not one of a man thrust in to the spotlight unheralded. It's more Seinfeld in essence; a body of work built on years of shows, guest spots and impromptu microhpone grabbing. With such a back story, it was never destined to fail.
On a bleak Wednesday evening in April 2012, I ventured out alone to a free hip hop gig featuring the enigmatic Lee Monro (formerly Figgkidd) and up and coming Sydney spitter Ello C. On the bill was someone by the name of Mr Clean. The first few acts were standard fare, your typical Aussie hip hop night. The crowd was quite docile, despite the best efforts of the entertainment. Enter Clean. He wanders up on stage, pulls a mic out of his back pocket and proceeds to drop the needle on something that nearly blew the glass out of the windows, before throwing lyrical haymakers with technical aplomb. I was instantly hooked, and when Monro and Ello C called him back up for a collab and he spat the line 'you're chasing the blues like Gargamel' I was immediately on the Clean bandwagon.
It wasn't an easy one to be on. With 218 twitter followers, a sporadic posting history and only Hard Yak available for my iPod, I resigned to the fact that he probably wasn't going anywhere soon. But there were whispers, and the giant gestation period that With A Vengeance endured is testament to attention to detail as well as the dual responsibilities of taking care of 3 kids and a middling job. Work with legendary Aussie producer Katalsyt on Black Dragon, and a subsequent tour, served to stoke the hunger.
The hunger. That's what is present in spades on With A Vengeance. Bag Of Merk takes off with the incendiary qualities of a warning shot, as Clean details his motivations. 'So many beats get rid the same when only a few can spit them flames'. Over the top of a disquieting thumping beat, it's enough to make you sit up and take immediate notice. It's not until Diamond Thrust that he nails his colours firmly to the mast; 'I turn on the radio, it gives me a push'. As outspoken as he is skilful, a quick perusal of his social media accounts reveals someone disillusioned with the discordant relationship between radio airplay and talent. So many people have sat at home and said 'Shit, I can do it better than 90% of this trash on the radio'. Mr. Clean decided to damn well do it.
With A Vengeance is littered with his desperation to showcase himself as someone who is authentic and valuable to the rap game, with ability to match it with and best his contemporaries. Steroid Frauds, featuring a deep house mixed with boom bap beat by COLOURED NOYZ is a strain of conscious thought where Clean tackles the most traditional of hip hop themes: I'm better, and here is why. But he rides the beat with such aplomb, switching his flow halfway through bars with such ease it's impossible not to take him at his word. On album closer Ambition he ties the entire storyline up with a blistering performance over a spaced out beat, detailing his motivations for releasing a record and showcasing just why With A Vengeance was destined to be. When the fire burns so brightly within there's no point denying it.
That fire burns within most of us. It's particularly strong in me. I even bought a $300 microphone to supplement my recording process. There's only a select few with the follow through to make something out of that fire (not me), and of that select few, only a small portion have the skill and ability to turn it in to something listenable (undoubtedly not me). Mr. Clean is one of the most adept flow purveyors in this hemisphere. The way he runs up and down the beat with such ease is a show in itself. His seamless movement between standard and double time on Funeral Song is reminiscient of how Kendrick Lamar can morph flows. Faith In The Raw, another Katalyst banger, would overwhelm lesser emcees, drowning them out with shuddering bass drums and an epileptic synth noise, yet Clean grabs his monotone and uses his voice as an extra instrument, droning through the beat with unfailing intensity, sitting comfortably within its confines. He even gets a little R&B on The Highway, lending a dreamy chorus that turns the song in to a real slow burner.
If you take a step back, take your critical glasses off and just sit with the record as a whole from start to finish it is an incredibly accomplished product. There's so much variety in sound that it's amazing Clean can tie it all together and keep the record on brief. Tracks that will blow your speaker system (Bag Of Merk, Steroid Frauds, Faith In The Raw), ones that are direct throwbacks to late 80s party bops (Golden Frame, Enemy Tape), soul and jazz based samples (She Took The Money, Ted Demme), and then pure battle rap with the local DJ numbers (Monsta Squad) which firmly plonk the beat in the backseat whilst Clean's crew of aussie hip hop royalty (Empress MC, Lee Monro, Figgkidd and Muphin, to name a couple) spit absolute fire. And what's a 2014 album without a better version of a Yeezus beat? Hardware evokes its name, with tortured metallic noises underpinned by an ominous 808, and a heavily distorted chorus. 'You've got it in your head that you're a superstar, yet I hate copycats no matter who you are'.
And all of this whilst juggling family and job. On The Tundra he laments 'that middle class stress have you feeling it's a quest just to get a decent rest'. The achievements of these kind of artists can not be understated. They must bankroll their entire project out of their own pocket, they have to some how schedule in enough time to devote to it, despite their job and families, and on top of all that they have to actually turn up. By that I mean creatively and competitively. 'Most wait a lifetime just to do what we do'. It's a blessing to be endowed with such ability, but ability is not even 10% of the battle. There's little more pleasing to a reviewer in this world than when a project like this comes together. I was concerned about With A Vengeance. I wanted it to be good. I wanted it to buck the trend of the road that Australian Hip Hop has stumbled down, with high profile collaborations tailor made for radio, with weak rappers and even weaker reputations blossoming under the belief that just because it is Australian we have to support it. Fuck that. The only reason you should support music is if you enjoy it. With A Vengeance embodies this opinion perfectly, and you know what? He is better than 90% of the stuff they play on Triple J. Hopefully he makes enough money off this to tour and record more, because hip hop still needs rappers with insane skills, even if the public never hear them.