If I were to rate the 20 best local hiphop albums of all time, 25 to 30 percent of the music on that list would come from 2009 alone. Since Dyme Def opened the year with the Panic EP, there has been a deluge of remarkable recordings by a wild variety of rappers and producers. Indeed, there is so much good music coming out that it's hard to keep up with it. These days, it goes like this for Seattle hiphop fans: While enjoying and trying to fully absorb a new recording by some young cat or established veteran, a newer and equally interesting recording drops. For example, on the day before Thanksgiving, I received THEESatisfaction's latest, "Icing," a gem of a tune produced by OC Notes in his Pioneer Square studio. But the day before receiving "Icing," I was listening to Helladope's Return to Planet Rock and trying to come to terms with yet another contender for the best local hiphop recording of the year. When it rains, it pours.
Helladope are a rapper/producer duo from Blue Scholars' land, Beacon Hill. Consisting of 29-year-old rapper Jerm and 22-year-old producer/MC Tay Sean, Helladope are part of a larger entity that came into existence in 2007, Cloud Nice. This collective includes acts such as THEESatisfaction, Jus Moni, Thaddeus, and Mowglii. The collective's reason for existence is to promote and consolidate the "culturally diverse Beacon Hill community." Helladope are also part of what I call, and will continue to call, the third wave of local hiphop, whose leading figures are They Live!, Mad Rad, Champagne Champagne, and GMK. Third wave, which also includes albums like OOF! by the Blue Scholars and From Slaveships to Spaceships by Khingz, is defined by a robust eclecticism, producing albums around themes, and a postracial attitude to fashion and fusion of cultural elements. (Indeed, the Go! Machine shows at the Crocodile can be seen as a celebration of this new movement in local hiphop.)
With Helladope's Return to Planet Rock, the theme is space travel, rocket science fiction, distant galaxies, stars, and moons. On this album, a rapper is not human but an alien who happens to be in the form of a human. We also hear a race of rappers declare: "This is my planet!" But we do not know on which planet they dwell. There is also a chill "Cosmic Voyage" with THEESatisfaction on a pimped-out spaceship. And on "We Come in Peace," dark energy makes an appearance and throws down a rap to a disco beat: "We are the energy causing your planet to rotate." Musically, Helladope keep it low-tech, with cheap-sounding synths, old-school drum-machine rolls, and electro-funk beats. Theirs is not the future as we see it today (which is a biotech future), but as it was seen in the past, in the '70s and '80s (man-machines, space suits, radio transmissions). This is the future of yesterday; this is a return to Planet Rock.
Let's go back to the early '80s and think for a moment about two groundbreaking tracks—"Clear" by Cybotron and "Computer Age (Push the Button)" by Newcleus. Both tracks, which the theorist Kodwo Eshun would call works of "sonic fiction" (the black form of science fiction), are very serious. "Clear" is about an army of machines that is clearing, erasing everything to create space for a new tomorrow. "Computer Age (Push the Button)" fears the eradication of the human past by machines. With Helladope's sonic fiction, all of the anxieties and nihilistic drives are removed, and what we have instead is a future that's all about play. "You boys and girls get on the floor and show me something new," raps the cheerful and encouraging robot on "The Soul Electric." The age of "Pro Tools, and YouTube, and MySpace, and Google" does not fear the power of machines.
One more point about Return to Planet Rock, and also THEESatisfation's Snow Motion (these two locally produced albums interlock). The father of this dusty, low-tech, science-fiction funk is veteran producer/rapper Specs One. Back in the late '90s and early '00s, he released a series of CDs (which are now very hard to find) that contained beats and raps that sounded as if they were transmitted from another world. Helladope have, of course, a much cleaner sound than Specs's early recordings, but the space mode/cosmic mood is one and the same. The "original space neighbor" now has a lot of company on his far-out street..