equisite biographical information:
1. Phi Life Cypher, the subject of this review, are a predominately black act.
2. To be precise, they consist of two black rappers, and a white guy on decks.
3. They come out of Luton, a town less associated with modern day architects of blazing hip-hop, and more with the fact that it has a really shit airport which was mentioned in a Campari advert once.
4. Last year, Phi Life Cypher were voted “Best Live Act”, by the students of Kings College, Cambridge.
5. The total student population at Cambridge University is around 13,000 students 6. The total population of black students at Cambridge University is 73 students.
7. That means that 0.56% of the university’s total population is black.
8. Here’s a picture of Cambridge University students enjoying another one of their favourite live acts, indefensible 1980s TV host and current student ironist Timmy Mallett.
And now ends our brief précis on Phi Life Cypher, their achievements to date and who they are. From that, you’d probably take that PLC are on some rocking the suburbs ish, right? A few ghetto bling stereotypes, a nice line in AM friendly beats, heck, maybe they’ve even got a white girl in a silly hat to join their band for the new album to provide shitty choruses and make them more appealing to radio, yeah?
How about no?
Instead, Phi Life Cypher rock damn near every single UK hip-hop event they’ve been able to find for the past five years, for little recognition and even less reward. This album contains some of the sweetest lyrical drops that have been delivered on wax in the British hip-hop history, have a class A-line in bare beats that crate dig and cannibalise anything from roots reggae to pop-country, and they’ve even got a guy called “Skit Slam” to join them for their new album, who doesn’t have a silly hat, but he does have a silly name. Which is nearly as good.
They’re not going to blow up with this, though, or ever. Nowadays, we may as well accept that no British rap group ever is (HEY LET’S GO OVER TO UKHH.COM’S FORUMS AND COMPLAIN HOW HIP HOP CONNECTION IS KILLING MUSIC BECAUSE THIS MONTH’S ISSUE DOESN’T CONTAIN A 412 PAGE ARTICLE ON HOW SCOR-ZAY-ZEE IS THE BEST THING IN HISTORY). These guys are usually considered amongst the five most famous UK hip-hop types, and yet they still live on a housing estate. That should give you a rough idea of how low the bar is for success around these parts.
Undeserved lack of success, though. Their previous album, Millennium Metaphors was crucially overlooked (and was doing that whole Bollywood sample malarkey a good two years before Swizz Blaze and all that lot were doing it), and then they were the stand-out guest act on Skitz’s oxygen-essential “Countryman” production album. While Life’s solo album Everyday Life suffered from the band’s worst excesses, namely a desire for patronising attempts at schooling the listeners about left-wing politics and Evil Political Men of Power (they come across like the hip-hop wing of the Guardian at some points, and his single, “Bush and Blair”, is about as good as the title suggests). Herein, though, the focus is strictly upon flows
To quote the inlay, you’d believe that they “the problems of poverty, single parenthood, drugs (particularly crack), and racism”. You wouldn’t know that from listening to the album, though, because you’d be too busy going “oh man, that’s swishness” (yes, saying “swishness” is the new hotness), and rapid-changing your MSN name to some of their punches. I mean “Showing more skill on the boards than Tony Hawk”. Or “Shouting like John Thaw in The Sweeney”. Or that line about haemophiliacs. All great.
“Overemix” is the point scorer straight on track 2, though, a reworking of one half of their January 2003 (that was meant to be an album taster….) 12 incher “Over”, which clashes a hazy orchestral sample with line-end samples of soul singers saying “over”. Kinda like what Nas did with the Sopranos theme, except not completely fucking stupid. It’s the Phi at their finest, though, because what they excel at, rather than kicking it on some LowLife “all the junkies smoking their crack-pipes on the council estate” tip as they claim, is just deliver similes and metaphors like some kinda rapping Parcel Force. “This lyrical Range Rover’s towering over your tiny Nova”. Skit Slam earns his keep well here, basically acting as a palette cleanser between the two jackhammer flows of Si Phili and Life. Not to sell him short by making you think he’s some kind of rap sorbet but the onus is still on the original three amigos of the band to produce the goods here, allowing him that extra little piece of room to add finishing touches to tracks. To sheen.
Also worthy of note: “Rap It Up”, with its wistful ZTV Bollywood opening sample which mutates into a space-funk spitathon making you forget how bad the title is, and “The Desert”, which is all Arabic in this bitch, and has some nice torturous attempts at rhyming about deserts in the lyrics as well.
“Free”… ah man, “Free”. The sample it revolves around is “A Simple Game”, which I only recognise as being by the Four Tops. Except this is a different version. Google suggests the Moody Blues as a possibility, what with them being the holders of the worst ever guest appearance in The Simpsons, and, if it is, they’ve redeemed themselves with this one appearance. Working in a similar way to how Pitman utilised Sacha Distel’s “Words” last year, insofar as it allows the band to continue to kick their normal styles whilst having the old guy on the hook deliver the message of the song (the message here being a classic PLC “we shall overcome” one: “As time goes by you will see/That we're going to be free”. But you already knew that because you’re more au fait with the Moody Blues than me).
So, there you have it. The latest effort from the Luton housing estate rastas who rock the ivory towers of academia, and still don’t suck shit. There’s hope for Pat Sharpe yet.
Actually, no. No, there isn’t.
Reviewed by: Dom Passantino
Reviewed on: 2004-01-29