This article appears in the latest issue of One More Robot, which is available to buy online or Dubliners can snag their copy at All City (Crow Street, Temple Bar), The Record Art and Game Emporium (Fade Street), The Winding Stair Book Shop (Lower Ormond Quay) or White Lady Art Gallery, Wellington Quay.
Though his unauthorised MF DOOM collaboration has attracted him a whole new fanbase, rapper/producer Grip Grand has been a underground hip-hip hero for years.
Like his oft-referenced influencer Dr Doom, whose transformation from scientist Victor Von Doom was fully completed when he donned a metal mask, razor-voiced rapper MF DOOM is never seen without his own facial plate, which morphs the mild-mannered Daniel Dumille into a behemoth super villain. But, while DOOM may lean towards the darker side of the Marvel universe, San Francisco-based producer/rapper Grip Grand – who last year released an unauthorised DOOM collaboration under the name GG DOOM – sees himself more the heroic type. When asked which comic book superhero guise he feels most appropriate to him, he actually chooses one of Dr Doom’s most bitter adversaries: “Reed Richards,” asserts Grip, referencing the Fantastic Four’s stretchable leader. “Family man. Highly intelligent. Shapeshifter. Always in the lab.”
Jacking some of DOOM’s verses and placing them on top of his own beats, the seven-track collection GG DOOM? But How? was widely embraced by the former KMD rapper’s fan base, who straightaway identified the beats and overall presentation of the record as reminiscent of their hero’s best loved solo work. A sonic collage of soulful samples, intricately woven with cartoon dialogue and other assorted audio snatched from a hefty vinyl collection, the record was dubbed a “beautifully executed remix project” by Ego Trip, “so convincingly Doom-patible it’s kind of uncanny”.
However, Grip never attained permission to use the verses and he soon found himself in hot water when DOOM’s people moved in on the unlawful project. Without notice, the album was removed from the internet, where it had been available for the public to freely download.
“I got an email from Bandcamp, which is where I had the album up, saying that a copyright claim had been made by a representative of [DOOM’s label] Metal Face Records and that the GG DOOM album had already been removed,” explains Grip. “But, before it came down, it was the number two hip-hop album – the new Ghostface was number one. The response to the record was extremely positive.”
While some of DOOM’s people might have been unimpressed by the copyright infringement, the man himself seemed to give the project a ringing endorsement. After the record had been pulled, a copy of the original was posted on rappcats.com – a pretty official source for DOOM material – and the London born, New York bred rapper’s official Facebook page. “That was really gratifying, not to mention an honour,” beams Grip. “When I put it up originally, I truly thought only a handful of people would ever hear it.”
He’s being modest. In fact, Grip has long been a well-established rapper and beatmaker, with two full-length albums in Welcome to Broakland (2002) and Brokelore (2008) that enjoy a cult following, not to mention a collaboration list that boasts AG, Percee P and Phat Kat. Born in San Francisco and nurtured by music-loving parents, Grip wrote his first song aged 5, later absconding to hip-hop when he began penning rhymes. “I started writing before I was even a teenager. Just little kid rhymes about nothing,” he remembers. “But I think the first group I ever really tried to emulate, style-wise, was De La Soul. I don’t know how evident it is, but on my earliest songs I do hear that influence. And of course their production, especially in the Prince Paul era, was a touchstone, too.”
By age 7, Grip had developed a taste for performing, singing in choirs and acting in plays. His first attempts at rapping in public, however, he prefers not to remember: “I had to quit halfway through my first song due to insurmountable feedback. I blame technical difficulties and my own inexperience. The next time I performed was in Frisco for a Puma x Yo! MTV Raps launch party. I think it went over pretty well. Who knows? All the lights were on and we were standing in the middle of a shoe store. But people seemed happy and drunk. I think that’s good.”
As well as rapping, Grip took a keen interest in beatmaking and, having laid his hands on some lo-fi equipment, the now Oakland resident began recording self-produced songs in his living room. These tracks would later be collected and released as his debut album Welcome to Broakland. But the set was never projected by Grip to be a fully-functioning album. “I made the songs on Welcome to Broakland just for my own entertainment, never really intending to release them,” he says. “They sound hella homemade, and that has a certain charm.”
The album is indeed charming, a charismatic, kitschy effort that showcased a young Grip’s ear for a sample and the skill to channel it via a series of pleasurable donuts. For example, ‘B-Day Document ‘99’’ is a simple ode to Grip’s girlfriend on her birthday, while ‘MPE 2000 (Emotional Mix)’ is dedicated to a close friend. In fact, the first version of Welcome to Broakland was just a CD-R its author gave to friends, which compiled every rap song he’d ever recorded up to that point, padded with added skits and interludes. But such was the quality of the music that it impressed the heads of local label Bomb Hip-Hop Records after they received a copy in the post.
“I had transferred them all off the original four-track cassette tapes onto minidisc, then I used the minidisc to experiment with the track order and fade-outs until the sequence ebbed and flowed like a proper album,” says Grip. “And that’s the version I sent to Bomb Hip Hop Records before they signed me. Eventually they removed my two earliest recordings and some of the skits, kept the track order and everything else, and put it out. I know a few of my friends held on to that OG ‘friends and family’ edition of the album, though.”
The record instantly tied Grip to the Oakland hip-hop scene (“Broakland” is basically a portmanteau of “broke” – which he was at the time – and “Oakland”). However, growing up in the nineties, his family frequently moved to different cities and he spent a significant portion of his adolescences in Los Angeles, among other places. In an interview with fifthelementonline.com in 2010, he claimed not to truly feel like a member of the Bay Area hip-hop scene, but acknowledges its influence on his sound. “One of my friends was in a San Francisco group called 3 Shades of Rhythm, which later morphed into Bored Stiff,” he tells me. “Their early demos were really influential to me, and I always kept tabs on them and that type of underground, Bay Area hip-hop throughout the nineties. I liked albums like Fuck the Dumb by The Grouch. And I listened to all the Solesides artists, and to Hiero, and the Coup, and on and on.”
The years following the release of Welcome to Broakland were relatively sparse for Grip in terms of musical output. But having made the move from Bomb to Look Records, he levelled up the production values on his long-awaited second record Brokelore. Despite the more expensive toys, he claims little changed when it came to this fractured process of recording.
“Not as much as it probably should have,” says Grip when asked if the process of actually creating an album affected his approach. “I just kept making random, unrelated songs, and eventually I compiled the best of them into an album. Some of the tracks on Brokelore were recorded three years apart, so maybe it’s not as sonically cohesive as it could have been. But that’s just me being a perfectionist. I still think it’s a solid album. It paints the picture I intended it to.”
The experience, however, taught Grip a lot about working in a more fully-functioning studio, and he credits Executive Producer DJ Design as being a key mentor. “His music always has a cool sound, and one reason is that he has a lot of knowledge about the process, and he takes the time to apply it. I was so used to doing lo-fi home demos, I was rushing a lot of stuff. But he would say, ‘You know, that synth bassline would sound better if we ran it through this filter on the ASR-10’, or whatever. Taking time to get every detail of the track sounding right. Always trying harder to make the song better. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn.”
While the production values were boosted, so was Grip’s rapping. Gone were the attractive-but-dinky pocket verses of Welcome to Broakland, replaced with a more confident, forceful MC. While usually considered a producer first, rapper second, tracks like ‘Win the War’ and ‘96 Tears (Shalem’s Talk About It Mix)’ boast dynamite flows as Grip effortlessly moves from hard to soft with lyrics that pull from the wryly self-deprecating side of his sense of humour – “I guess Grip is platinum if less is more/‘Cuz I ain’t sold jack in the record store,” he spits on ‘96 Tears’
Grip remained active following the release of Brokelore, dropping a series of mixtapes and assorted tracks. But without a solid project to dedicate himself to, he decided to make some music purely for his own enjoyment, turning to one of his most significant influencers.
“DOOM has been one of my favourites since the pre-DOOM, KMD days, and I’ve been collecting his music since back then,” says Grip. “My MF DOOM vinyl selection alone is at least a foot wide, so I already had a lot of the acapellas to work with. It’s just something that I really feel an affinity for and definitely one of my major sonic influences.”
Unsurprisingly, considering his fandom, the old-school DOOM sound on GG DOOM? But How? was entirely deliberate. “I like all DOOM, but that classic sound is what really inspired me. I purposely chose to use acapellas from songs that he didn’t produce himself, songs that didn’t necessarily have that signature sound. And then, when I went to remix them, I just tried to imagine, ‘What would DOOM do?’ It ended up being a lot of stuff that I do in my own music, too, so it felt like a natural fit. Like I said in the press release, if it doesn’t sound exactly like DOOM’s own production – and it doesn’t – at the least it sounds like a Doombot did it. And if you don’t know what a Doombot is, minus five comic-nerd points for you.”
The fit was natural. As early as the track ‘Superrapper’ on Welcome to Broakland, Grip has been using superhero cartoon samples in his music, something that helps make DOOM’s output instantly recognisable. “I’m a lifelong comic fan, and I used to work at a comic shop, too. My comic book collection isn’t as big as my record collection, but it’s pretty solid. I love sampling comic book records, because it combines so many of my interests – comics, records, and rap music – and it reminds me of listening to those albums as a kid. I always buy them when I see them, plus I still have a few of my original ones from childhood, which I definitely used on GG DOOM.”
In addition to the skits and pop culture samples – which draw from everything from Fantasy Island to the oh-so-DOOM Fantastic Four cartoons – the record is another example of Grip’s ability to cut and chop a sample. He’s an out-and-out crate digger, constantly hunting for records in dollar bins for the next audio snippet he can lace. “I look for everything,” affirms Grip. “I still love loops, but I look for unique sounds and textures, too. I have certain years and labels I gravitate toward more, and I keep an eye out for specific producers and session musicians, but I buy a little of everything. A lot of it is just how the record looks…the art, the liner notes, what the band is wearing, whatever. You definitely develop a sixth sense for finding good records after a while.”
While hearing DOOM rap over a popcorn maker would still sound positively delicious, the presentation is key to the enjoyment of GG DOOM? But How?. The rapper remains a looming presence throughout, but his rhymes actually appear on surprisingly little of the sprightly 18-minute running time. Most of it is a series of audio collages, with a raw, grubby feel that sounds as though the whole thing had been assembled with scotch tape. The producer takes no shortcuts either. For example, on “Gonads” he takes DOOM’s verses from “Change the Beat” and mirrors the original song’s format, meaning three instrumental changes over the course of a single track.
With so much intercutting and audio play, the record is more a single unit than seven individual tracks. Yet the highlight is undoubtedly the less than two minutes long “Jive Turkeys”. With a warm sax sample and sledgehammer boom bap percussion, it’s a laid back masterwork that inspired one of the most enjoyable music videos of 2013, created by Grip himself. “I recut a bunch of classic Marvel cartoons so that the subject matter – and lip syncing – matched my song. It took forever. I started to make a second video for the title song, but I ran out of time and energy.”
That’s hardly surprising when you consider that Grip, like his hero Reed Richards, is a full-time family man. In fact, GG DOOM came out the day before his second child was born. “I’ve had my hands pretty full since then,” he says. It’s likely an understatement.
Still, now living back in San Francisco, Grip plans to continue making music, and an official GG DOOM follow up would prove a dream project.
“I’d need outside financing to hire the Mask,” he concedes. “Interested gazillionaires, get at me.”