What pushes Roll Deep Crew
as far along from So Solid Crew as So Solid Crew were from "Bound For Da Reload", apart from the even more bizarre and psychotic grooves they employ, is the endlessly involving element of personality
that each MC brings to their tracks. With So Solid Crew you can distinguish between each MC based on their voice and rapping style - Asher D does narrative, Megaman and Romeo do gruff nonsense etc. - but thematically and psychologically they present a largely united front. In contrast Roll Deep use differing vocal styles to create radically different and fundamentally unbalanced individual personas within a broader, sketchily cohesive crew-unit. It's not quite so easy to spot on their single "Terrible" (more of a vehicle for Wiley Kat than anything else) but you can readily and viscerally hear it on the Roll Deep Remix of The Streets' "Let's Push Things Forward" or their own "Bounce", both of which move through Wiley Kat's straightforward hyperspeed agression, Flo Dan's mysterious baritone menace and Dizzy Rascal's cracked warble with crisp efficiency, simultaneously highlighting their radical distinction from each other and yet presenting them as single manifestations of a single core idea.
I guess that core idea is a sort of grimey hard-knocks persistence. In his great article
about Clispe, Michaelangelo Matos says that the duo "sound unnervingly comfortable occupying the life they describe," and that they "never sound like they're posing for anything." None of the Roll Deep crew approach the bored professionalism of Pusha T in particular, and in fact some of them seem to never be anything but
hyper, but like Clipse there's a level of accepting familiarity to their grim tales that the hyper-aware self-reflexiveness of So Solid Crew avoids - whereas the latter started rapping about rising above their station almost as soon as they appeared, Roll Deep can envision no way to escape their lot. "You know I wouldn't hurt you on purpose" Wiley assures his girl on the almost comical "Everything Happens For A Reason", and his disavowal of responsibility is a telling example of his crew's "shit happens" philosophy. For Roll Deep, violence and betrayal are a fact of life, not unremarkable but not really avoidable either, and certainly not glamorous.
Roll Deep Crew also trump So Solid Crew in the Wu-Tang Clan-comparisons department, chiefly because they seem much more suited to a succession of spin-off solo careers. In fact I'm tempted to say that the crewmembers work better on their own, if only because there's more time to digest each MC's qualities on solo joints than on the whirlwind rush of their collaborative efforts (the latter can pay off brilliantly though - see the no-nonsense party track "Bounce", which rivals Pay As U Go's "Champagne Dance" for great thugs on the dancefloor action). Wiley Kat always seems a trifle conservative on Roll Deep tracks, but on his own track "I Will Not Lose" he sounds awesomely agile, rapping with a perfect precision over the stomping and stuttering beat like he's riding a bucking bronco at a rodeo. In isolation, it's clear that Wiley is the team's best technical performer, a garage MC in the traditional sense, impressing with the sheer audacious complexity of his aural pyrotechnics rather than with the realness of his stories or a flashy persona.
Dizzy Rascal's "I Love You" is probably the biggest hit the crew have produced so far (though oddly I only heard the full version for the first time a few days ago), and you can understand why: Dizzy is just so brimming with outlandish personality that he's almost irresistible. "I Love You" of course boasts insanely addictive, punishing, turgidly booming bass riffs and harsh, reticular snare snaps, but the show belongs to Dizzy. The callous chorus reminds me of Destiny's Child's "Bugaboo": "That girl's some bitch y'know, she keep callin' my phone, she don't leave me alone, she just moan and groan, she keep ringin' me at home, these days I don't answer my phone." But whereas Destiny's Child perversely employed hyper-emotive melisma to convey a fundamental emotionlessness (as much as a mixture of contempt, indifference and annoyance can equal emotionlessness), Dizzy finds good currency in perpetual emotional excess, exploiting his voice's tendency to land on unpredictable notes. He whines the chorus with such a thrilling tone of injured frustration that you almost pity him; whatever he feels, he feels it intensely. The song reaches its peak in the terse, accusatory call-and-response between Dizzy and his MC girlfriend: their game of twenty questions is so aggressive and tense that I half expect to hear plates crashing against the wall. "I Love You" is the opposite of the irrepressible giddiness of Nelly's "Hot In Herre", with Dizzy finding it impossible to keep down his festering resentment at a world that's never done him any favours.
It's quite a shock to go from "I Love You" to Flo Dan's "Big Mic Man", which swaps Dizzy's no-holds-barred impact for sly, prowling dancehall-garage. The dry, pounding 4/4 beat tapers off at the end of each bar, diffused or evasive, mired in a tremors of quivering military snares, and the resulting swampy groove is suggestive of a patrol in the Vietnam jungle, interrupted and delayed by the sudden intrusion of snipers and (ahem) snares. In stark opposition to Dizzy, Flo Dan's flow is all
restraint, a stark monotone basso profundo that's ultimately just as close to the edge of all-out violence as Dizzy's explosiveness, if not more so. "Bun dat with da fire!" he mutters, and warns that "I'm gonna leave this place in a mess!" What's fascinating about "Big Mic Man" is how unequivocally an MC
tune it is: there's definitely a groove there, but it's as compromised and enfeebled as those on Original Pirate Material
, not so much stop-start as surge-slip. It forces all of your attention onto Flo Dan, makes you listen to the steady implacability of his rapping and puzzle over his enigmatic blankness. It's an odd approach for someone unlikely to win the crossover attention of a Mike Skinner, but it's surely a positive sign that I've returned to "Big Mic Man" more than any other tune for the past six weeks or so.