Streaming Consciously: Mining Philly's Rap Underground for a Diamond in the Rough
Triple Nickels-Lightning Wars
Underground rap ain't dead, it just moved to the web.
If you don’t recognize which rap group, with ‘underground’ in their name, I’m referencing in the line above?
Level Up, or DO YOUR GOOGLES.
This edition of Streaming Consciously deals with a brand new underground rap crew, with whom I was introduced to the old-fashioned way.
Offline. Organically. In-person.
And the results, I’m happy to say, made for one of the more surprisingly satisfying front-to-back listening experiences of the late-summer/early-Fall so far.
Before telling you about Lightning Wars, first let me give you the origin story.
It was a Friday night in August, when I went to go meet a couple of my fellow DAWG brethren (Uncle Ryan, Duke, Timmy) over at some place called Bok Bar.
As someone still getting my sea-legs when it comes to Philly night life since returning from L.A., I’d never heard of it. I’d also be the last one there, since everybody else was in the city while I had to hop on PATCO, then Uber over.
After arriving, I thought there might be a mistake. Instead of a bar, I was taken to what looked like an aging vocational school.
But when I got up to the door, there was someone out there checking ID’s, directing me to walk thru the halls of the school to the elevator, then pay a cover before ascending eight floors to the roof.
As it turned out, the hipster contingent had turned this old school out.
When I got to the roof, rather than circuit boards and chassis, there was chaise lounge furniture. Instead of middle-aged instructors teaching craft coursework, there were millennial-era servers slinging craft beers. Pop-up shop over shop.
Okay, you get the idea by now.
While being thoroughly confused, I did what came natural and ordered a drink.
While sipping an overpriced IPA, paid for by check-card on an iPad swipe device, I circled the area for my people, while noticing the rooftop had a hell of a view.
Not my scene, but a scenic view of South Philly all the same.
As it turned out, it wasn’t really my boys’ scene either, thinking I still wouldn’t be there for another hour, they’d already departed for the next spot.
After laying into Uncle Ryan over the phone for leaving me by my lonesome in this trade-school-turned-trendy-food-truck-like affair, I decided to finish the overpriced beer I’d just bought, while taking in the sight.
That turned out to be a good move, because it was around that same time that I’d saw a familiar face from the elevator ride up, checking out the view below right next to me, with a professional-looking camera, taking scenery shots.
That turned out to be Erik Coleman, aka Sleep-E, a Philly-bred producer-rapper.
Both of us clearly out of this spot’s typical demo, a casual conversation about the surroundings started up. Somewhere shortly thereafter, I was commissioning E to do some photography work for my UGHH Magazine profile shot that I had yet to take.
Once that was mentioned, Erik volunteered that he had just completed work on an underground rap album he had coming out at the end of the month.
I asked him to describe it to me in movie-pitch terms.
“It’s the Philly underground version of (Dr. Dre’s) The Chronic”.
Pssshhhh….if that doesn’t sound like some delusional struggle-rap dream that someone needed to be snapped out of, I don’t know what does.
Still, there was something about E that spoke with casual conviction.
When my face made no attempt to hide my skepticism:
“Don’t believe me? I got the mastered demo out in the ride out front!”.
I was almost done my beer and about to get out of here.
E convince me to stick around for another round, then said I could hear his masterpiece on my way out.
At this point I let him know the terms. If I go outside to listen to his Philly underground “Chronic”, and determine that it’s wack?!? He’s paying for my whole tab at the next spot where I was going to meet up with my crew.
“Deal”, he shot back, nonplussed.
After a second round, we headed out to his whip, and I waited for whatever pedestrian effort Sleep-E and his cohorts had cooked up.
I’m not sure if I would have held him to the terms of the wager.
But I certainly would not have waited around for even ten minutes, listening to an unreleased album, with someone I’d now known for about twenty minutes.
Then a funny thing happened.
The album actually sounded alright.
Better than alright, it might even be dare I say, good?
I stopped hedging while standing outside, and decided to take a seat in the passenger side of the ride, then listened to the next five or six tracks in a row.
What was impressive about it was the pacing, with solid sample-based production, often containing bits of dialogue wove in and out to provide a sense of cohesion. It was easy to tell what E was saying regarding The Chronic. It felt like the kind of album 90's rap collectives used to make.
While it of course isn’t on the level of Dre’s magnum-opus, there was a meticulousness to the way it was put-together, with a sole producer, plus a plethora of different rappers, and interspersed dialogue, that added up to more than the sum of its parts.
This is a rap album by savvy vets the world outside Philly doesn’t really know yet.
Overseen by a producer who clearly enjoys the album, over singles, listening experience.
The kind of thing you can just start at the top and let ride.
If one cut isn’t your favorite, none are obtrusive enough to make you wanna skip ahead to the next.
There's no need to interfere with the album's flow over the course of its 50 minutes.
There is at least 14 different MC’s, spread across this album’s 13 tracks.
This includes Philly underground rap legend Reef the Lost Cauze, whose debut, High Life, was primarily produced by Sleep-E.
Sleep-E produces essentially all the beats here, while also executive-producing, showing his gift for sequencing and splicing throughout.
Sleep-E is one-third of the nucleus of the outfit formed for this album, Triple Nickels.
Triple Nickels is mostly comprised of rappers Dame and M.O.G., who each kick at least one verse each on every track, with Sleep-E adding in verses of his own, over his own beats, on 8 out of 13, amidst the rest of the rhyming visitors.
The name is based on the “Triple Nickles”, aka the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, who were the first all-black airborne in U.S. Army, during World War II.
As for the title of the album, you can use your imagination, or listen to it play out, over the course of an album that's cinematic in scope.
As for the type of Philly rap this is, let’s not get it confused.
Despite this project, and this particular permutation of Philly rap crew being relatively “new”, do not go into Lightning Wars expecting to hear something that resembles what’s currently hot in Philly hip-hop, like Lil Uzi Vert or PnB Rock.
This is closer to the Philly rap you once heard coming out The Hilltop (Hustlers, that is).
Maybe more from Ackniculous Land.
Or possibly a part of State Prop(erty).
This is made for those looking for some raw new hip-hop with a meat-and-potatoes, mid-90’s NYC (or Dre in LA) era rap, and attention-to-album-detail aesthetic.
I won’t give up the sample sources, because I’m not snitching, especially for a group that likely couldn’t afford to fight a long legal battle.
I’ll just say that I definitely hear some good use of Black Sabbath on one cut.
While maybe I’m dreaming but I think I mighta even heard a snatch of Milli Vanilli in another spot.
The rapping isn’t necessarily next level, but M.O.G. and Dame do their job holding it down on the mic, while the guests each added a bit of hungry-ass rapping to this distinctly Philadelphian gumbo.
No wonder Sleep-E risked a tab on his talents, he pulls this album off with gusto.
To get back to the origin story, after making a trip across town in E’s car, to Buffalo Billiards on Chestnut to meet my gang, by the time we arrived I’d heard the album in full. Sleep-E had a new fan, and was introduced to some new friends.
One fateful summer Friday night in Philly, Triple Nickels’ Lightning Wars helped form the perfect storm. If you’d like to check the forecast yourself, you can cop the new album on iTunes, for less than the price of a Bok Bar draft.
Whatever school you attend, to us, that adds up to some good math.
Wudder Weight: 4 out of 5