by Harrison Samphir
Will the real emcees please stand up?
If you have been following hip hop music at all since the new millennium, you should be able to identify a number of trends running concurrently through the industry. From club-conscious production to R&B-influenced swooning, many “rap” and “hip hop” artists have moved decidedly outside the traditional delineations of the genre, charting new territories to stake claim in a popular sound or milieux.
But what you probably haven’t noticed are the artists still staying true to the core tenets of hip hop music; remaining below the common radar while delivering the goods to an already devoted fan base.
One such group is Swollen Members.
The Vancouver-based trio–currently comprised of emcees Mad Child (Shane Bunting) and Prevail (Kiley Hendricks), along with producer Rob the Viking (Robin Hooper)–has been a nearly permanent staple in the Canadian rap scene for over two decades. Together, Swollen Members released ten albums, two compilations, dozens of singles, and garnered a rare mix of underground and mainstream success, a feat elusive to most artists.
Launching with 1999’s Balance, the trio has vacillated between numerous lineups, at a time including Langford, B.C. legend Moka Only (Daniel Denton) from 1992-1996, and again between 2002-2005, along with backup rappers Easy Roc and Zodak.
Balance earned Swollen their first Juno Award for Best Rap Recording in 2001. It was a mighty achievement for a record that boasted only modest sales, selling a mere 41,000 copies in Canada. But the LP is now considered a Canadian classic, having magnified the importance of the west coast, Vancouver scene and partnering with California legends Dilated Peoples and Del tha Funkee Homosapien in the process.
And the accolades didn’t stop there. The group’s second full-length release, Bad Dreams, would procure yet another Juno Award in the same category, reach Platinum status in Canada and penetrate deeper into US audiences than ever before (it sold 55,000 copies). With another two Junos in its possession–earned for 2003’s Monsters in the Closet and 2007’s Black Magic–and another half-dozen records under its belt, Swollen has returned with Beautiful Death Machine, an homage to the groups self-described “dark” and “melodic” idiosyncrasies.
Speaking with Stylus on the phone from Victoria, B.C., Prevail shared his thoughts on the group’s ascension, offering a retrospective of sorts to elucidate its journey.”
“We grew up in the age of golden age hip hop,” recalls Hendricks in a humble yet enlightened tone. “There’s a lot of influence from the west coast, but we still consider ourselves abstract expressionists. . . we’re quite cryptic, allowing you to listen closely to different nuances and meanings.”
Prevail and Mad Child have consistently brought a dualistic, contrasting voice to Swollen’s sound. The former is an introspective lyricist with the expansive vocabulary of any cultivated rhetorician, while the latter is a smooth battle-rapper whose sharp yet often humorous rhymes carry an unmatched, distinctive accent. And the dichotomy has never been an issue.
“I think Mad and I’s styles are quite different but complementary” says Hendricks. “We’ve been able to scope dark, brooding, heavy undertones in our music; you could say we have the best of both worlds.
“[And] our work ethic has always been great. Mad is an advocate of hustling, and it’s within all of us. He rights the ship when things go wrong.”
Certainly, from a duo whose roots lie in the bygone era of distributing 12”s, a durable partnership has withstood the vicissitudes of a changing industry. To Prevail, it’s “the same methodology, but a different state of delivery.”
He continues, “Mad saw the change coming a long time ahead. When downloading came in, it portrayed everyone in the industry in a different light. . . now, there are very few degrees of separation, especially through social media. The lines are clear: you’re either an underground group, or you’re not. In a way its made the community more unified.”
Swollen’s latest, Beautiful Death Machine, expectedly champions this more unified scene. Featuring numerous underground mainstays such as Vinnie Paz of Jedi Mind Tricks fame, Apathy, Celph Titled and hardcore rap legend Ill Bill, it’s a record designed for many varieties of hip hop head. And the production has been elevated, too.
“Its been great and interesting to work with new producers” confirms Hendricks. “We obviously recorded with Rob the Viking, but this time we brought C-Lance into the fold.”
The Massachusetts beat doctor is the youngest producer signed to Vinnie Paz’s Enemy Soil Records, and offers raucous appeal to Swollen’s new LP. For Prevail, its given the group “new and challenging opportunities to harken back to the old days.” As for the men he shares the mic with on the album, they’ve practically “become family.”
“We have absolute killers on the album,” he said. “The quality of the verses they’ve given us speak volumes about the impact of our group. When they absolutely kill it, set it on fire, it makes us feel good about what we’re doing.”
Preparing to embark on a cross-Canada tour in support of the aforementioned disc, Prevail reminds listeners (and readers) to take advantage of Swollen’s hard work and make an effort to support the group.
“I think fans realize that they have to show support because of the new challenges presented by a changing industry. If you’re going to get the album–dope. If you obtain it through other means, come to the show and buy a t-shirt.”
For everyone else, it’s fair to say this won’t be the last you hear from Swollen Members. Expect Mad Child’s new EP, Super Beast, later this year, and a Prevail/Moka Only collaboration under the name SplitSphere sometime during summer, 2013.
Catch Swollen Members and Cityreal at the Pyramid Cabaret Saturday April 6, 2013.