Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Joey Bada$$ and Samy Elbanna - two teenagers who will restore your faith in music

Lost Society's Samy Elbanna and Pro Era's Joey Bada$$

I was sitting at a poker table the other day when the conversation turned to music. The guy in the 7-seat was talking about a recent debate he'd had regarding the best 10-year stretch in music history. He was pretty convinced that it was 1965-1974, and nobody was putting up much of an argument. After all, it's hard to argue with an era that includes the prime output of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, CCR and Janis Joplin, just to name a few.

After mulling it over for a bit, I acknowledged that his decade was damn near impossible to top, but that for me, it would probably be 1986-1995. It's a span that saw thrash metal -- and, for better or worse, hair metal -- reach its creative zenith. It also includes the rise and abrupt fall of grunge and the entire "golden era" of hip-hop. Maybe names like Nirvana, Metallica, Guns N' Roses, Slayer, the Pixies, Jane's Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins, Public Enemy, N.W.A and the Beastie Boys don't quite stack up to the names above, but they're pretty goddamn close.

Not coincidentally, that also happens to be the era when music mattered the most to me. In my teens and early 20s, discovering great new music was pretty much my number one priority, and at the time, there seemed to be an abundance of it. Unfortunately, by acknowledging as much, I'm basically outing myself as one of those annoying old people who always complain about how much better music was "back in the day." I never wanted to become that guy, but what can I say? Everyone gets old eventually, and full-time jobs, mortgage payments, credit card debt and student loans -- and, if I'm being completely honest, poker and video games -- tend to take priority over seeking out cool new bands.

That said, I do still try to make a concerted effort to find awesome new music as time and life allow (and even write about it on occasion). It's probably no surprise, then, that two of my favorite new artists sound like bookends of that glorious '86-'95 era. What is surprising is that neither of them is even old enough to buy a drink.

Samy Elbanna, 17, is the guitarist and vocalist of Finnish retro-thrash act Lost Society, whose debut album, Fast Loud Death, is set for an April 2 release on Nuclear Blast. Joey Bada$$, 18, is the de facto leader of Brooklyn-based hip-hop collective Pro Era. He self-released his highly regarded 1999 mixtape last July and is expected to release a proper debut album later this year.

At first blush, they might not seem to have much in common. It's doubtful they'd share the same lunch table in the high school cafeteria. Yet both artists are currently the buzz of their respective genres, despite the fact that thrash metal and golden-era hip-hop both fell out of favor before Elbanna and Bada$$ were even born.

It's no secret that thrash metal has been experiencing another boom cycle recently. It's probably one of the more unlikely comeback stories in the history of rock 'n' roll, but thrash is nearly as popular today as it was in its late-'80s heyday. The "Big Four" managed to draw more than 90,000 fans to a pair of festival shows at Empire Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium, and even "second-tier" veteran thrash bands like Testament, Death Angel, Overkill and Exodus are consistent draws at mid-sized venues.

Newer bands such as Municipal Waste, Fueled by Fire and Bonded by Blood have also taken up the cause, but of all the post-revival thrash bands spawned in the past decade or so, none has captured the genre's ferocious-yet-fun-loving nature as flawlessly as Lost Society. At the risk of using one of the more tired clich├ęs in music criticism, Fast Loud Death can legitimately be described as an "instant classic." These Finnish youngsters might be the best thing going in thrash metal today, the venerable "old guard" included. Not since Death Angel unleashed The Ultra-Violence on an unsuspecting public more than a quarter-century ago has a group of teenagers had such a tremendous impact on the world of metal. Fast Loud Death is no mere homage. It's an altogether modern thrash masterpiece. Fucking Metallica wish they could write an album this good in the 21st century.

Joey Bada$$, meanwhile, is heading up a similar revival of golden-era hip-hop. 1999 is not only a brilliant modern hip-hop release -- which, admittedly, is about as backhanded as compliments come -- but could easily hold its own alongside such mid-'90s East Coast classics as Enter the Wu-Tang and Illmatic. Seriously, this kid is that good.

One of my biggest gripes about hip-hop over the years is that both the fans and the artists themselves tend not to embrace the genre's creators and innovators as wholeheartedly as, say, metalheads embrace Sabbath and Priest. In the world of hip-hop, music from two or three years ago -- let alone 20 -- is regarded as hopelessly dated and wack. (Hell, the word "wack" has been wack for about 15 years, but I don't care, because I'm old.) Fortunately, Joey Bada$$ seems to be devoid of this disdain for the past. 1999 features an abundance of smooth, old-school beats and conscious rhymes. The title is even a little misleading. The music is more '93 than '99, right down to the 11-minute closing posse cut, "Suspect," which gives his Pro Era cronies a chance to shine.

Bada$$'s latest single, "Unorthodox," features a beat by legendary Gang Starr producer DJ Premier and sees Joey eschew the almighty hook in favor of strong storytelling and wordplay that belie his tender age. The as-yet-untitled debut album is justifiably one of the most anticipated hip-hop releases of the year, and "Unorthodox" does nothing to dissuade that sentiment.

Ultimately, what makes Joey Bada$$ and Samy Elbanna so important is that they are capable of bringing classic musical styles to a new generation and inspiring other kids to explore metal and hip-hop's storied pasts. Let's face it, guys like Tom Araya and Chuck D aren't going to be around forever, and they really don't hold much sway with Millennials anyway. They're both in their 50s, as are most of their peers, and even the folks who grew up listening to them are in their 30s and 40s by now. If music like thrash metal and golden-era hip-hop is to survive, it needs kids like those in Lost Society and Pro Era to carry the torch. The fact that their music brings a smile to this cynical old geezer's face is just an ancillary bonus.

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