Meet Apollo Brown, The Best Producer In Underground Hip Hop
Detroit, MI’s Apollo Brown has released a substantial amount of music over the past few years. He’s not an emcee, but the beats he produces are among the finest you can hear in underground hip hop. Apollo Brown lets the needle hit the record on his beats and just lets the static it creates flow through the tracks. Sampling from blues, Motown, gospel, and soul, Apollo Brown creates beats that bring back the feel of 90’s hip hop while keeping it fresh and new for today. As his legend grows, so does the quality of emcees contributing rhymes to his music. If you are not familiar with this man’s work then prepare yourself; an embarrassment of riches awaits you.
My introduction to Apollo Brown’s music happened as many musical discoveries often go: I was checking out something on Youtube when a recommendation on the sidebar caught my eye. It was the cover of The Left’s Gas Mask album. I was initially drawn to it because the cover resembled Nasum’s Inhale/Exhale which features a crowd of people all decked out with gas masks. I’m the type of listener that has low expectations, yet I’m gullible enough to engage in a potentially fruitless endeavor. Upon starting the track “Gas Mask”, the bluesy crooning from O.V. Wright‘s “I Can’t Take It” lays the foundation for the beat followed by a brief movie sample before giving way to the drums, bass, horns, a snippet of female gospel vocals, and piano. All these elements coalesce together to create a beat that sounds more like it has heart and soul as opposed to being programmed on samplers. Of course all of this was created by sampling sounds and creating a beat, but I don’t think I’ve encountered anything in hip hop that resembled the kind of energy and emotion you get when hearing a band with live instruments. One thing leads to another and I was instantly hooked on Gas Mask and spent countless hours listening to it. Get some feels and rock “Gas Mask” below. The whole album is worth a listen, but if you are strapped for time, tracks such as “Chokehold” ,“Caged Birds” and “Real Detroit” should grab your attention.
Discovering that Apollo Brown had other albums naturally had me thirsting for more. I pondered if the level of quality found on Gas Mask was on other releases. My next venture was his collaboration with long-time hip hop veteran OC entitled Trophies. The emcees on Gas Mask are serviceable, but one is left to wonder if things can be taken to another level should an established rapper handle the microphone duties. And that’s precisely what is achieved on Trophies, as OC rips through tracks over Apollo Brown’s wonderfully orchestrated beats. OC’s street-wise rhymes and steady flow are as heartfelt and genuine as Apollo Brown’s beats. My favorite track off of this one is “We The People” which is essentially a call for people to come together and protest the injustices we are subjected to by the ruling elite. The beat relies mainly on violin string samples with a thumping drum beat. The sample comes from The True Reflections’ “Look At All The Lonely People” which is sped up to accommodate the beat. This particular passage in the chorus really stands out and sticks with me to this day:
I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees
For change it guarantees
The people need to take to charge, get involved and wake up
Or forever stay asleep
Other standout tracks on this album include – “The Pursuit”, “Another One” and “Just Walk”. As with Gas Mask, the entire album is solid, but you can start with these songs to get yourself familiar.
Nothing could prepare me for the next Apollo Brown album I would encounter. Dice Game, the collaboration with fellow Detroit native Guilty Simpson is loaded with beats that challenge your head not to nod along and simple yet effective lyrical stylings. Guilty Simpson does not rhyme in riddles and complexities, but his flow and modest lyrical approach work just fine. For this next featured track, I’d like to ask you to follow along by first taking a listen to the very beginning of the Wu Tang Clan’s hip hop classic, “C.R.E.A.M.” Now that you’ve done that, listen to “Let’s Play” and witness the mastery that is Apollo Brown. The beat is carved out of the intro and I happened to catch it when the two songs randomly played back to back on shuffle one day. You’d never expect such an amazing beat to come out of a place where you normally wouldn’t focus your attention. But this just proves Apollo Brown is on another level as he has an ear capable of locating elements that will succeed in his compositions.
As I mentioned, this album is loaded with good songs. Lend your ears to these jams – “One Man”, “I Can Do No Wrong”, “Potatoes”, “The Cook Up” and “Nasty” are all bangers that will have you coming back for more.
Another stroke of genius in Apollo Brown’s catalog comes in the form of a remix album. Some of you may be familiar with Ghostface Killah’s Twelve Reasons To Die. The album saw Ghostface teaming up with producer Adrian Younge who provided live music for the record instead of the traditional sampled beats that most hip hop albums are accustomed to. Apollo Brown got a hold of the vocal tracks to this album and put his own beats behind them. The result is called Twelve Reasons To Die: The Brown Tape. What’s interesting about this album is that while the original is an interesting concept, the lyrics tend to stand out more when Ghostface’s verses are returned to the traditional hip hop format. For example, listen to the original version of “Revenge Is Sweet” and compare it to Apollo Brown’s treatment below. Ghostface Killah just recently released Twelve Reasons To Die Part 2 with Adrian Younge handling the live music once again. I wonder if Apollo Brown will give this one the remix treatment as well.
In 2014, Apollo Brown collaborated with California’s Ras Kass on the album Blasphemy. Up to this point, Apollo Brown had worked with plenty of quality emcees, but this album with Ras Kass married the beats with the rhymes as it takes aim at religion and politics while still finding plenty of time to balance it out with fun playful tracks. Say what you want about conspiracy theorist David Icke but the sample at the beginning of “Deliver Us From Evil” sums up perfectly what anyone who is not rich and powerful is up against in today’s world. This is thinking person’s hip hop that values message over the materialistic jargon that pollutes much of mainstream hip hop. Blasphemy is another album that features the soulful and bluesy production that Apollo Brown has consistently delivered throughout his recording career thus far. Other tracks worthy of your attention include “How To Kill God”, “H2O”, “48 Laws (Part 1)” and “Drink Irish” which also features guest spots from Slaine and Sean Price who unfortunately passed away a few weeks ago.
Apollo Brown and Ras Kass got together one more time earlier this year for Mellow Music Group‘s compilation Persona. The track “PNT” is another intelligent hip hop track in which Ras Kass delivers a scathing indictment of United States politics and how the citizens of this country are manipulated by propaganda. You should seriously bump this track in the whip with the windows down and mouth the lyrics so you can illicit awkward stares from old white people. As usual Apollo Brown provides another great beat powered by some blues vocals, gospel, blues guitar and horns that come together with Ras Kass’s brilliant lyrical performance to create a standout hip hop song.
So what’s next for Apollo Brown, you ask? He’ll be dropping a new album called Grandeur on September 25th, and he’s already previewed a few tracks from it. One features Your Old Droog (check out Dagon’s post on him here) and the other is with the legendary M.O.P. that you can stream below. Guests on the forthcoming album include Barrel Brothers, Evidence, Sean Price and REKS . He’ll also reunite with Ras Kass and OC once again, so if you’re a fan of underground hip hop then you are likely foaming at the mouth in anticipation of what’s to come.