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Sur5ill – Nerd Rap 101

Sur5ill, standard bearer of Boston Nerd RapThe story of Sur5ill (@golerflame) is one of a growing trend of emcees from the inner city who acknowledge, but don’t necessarily identify with the street element behind much of Hip Hop. Born in Boston and spending the majority of his youth in the city’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, Sur5ill would attend Boston Public Schools through his elementary years and go on to spend the bulk of his middle school and his entire high school tenure at a prestigious independent school in the Greater Boston area. During this time he began “internet battle rapping” as he terms it, a practice popular in the mid-late 1990s, where you post your raps in chat rooms via instant messaging programs and digitally duke it out for rhyme supremacy; the on-line version of a live Rap battle if you will.

It was also during these years that he came up with his stage name, “Sur5ill”, about which he states, “I was looking for a name that encapsulated my mindset, but it was stupid, I tried to include my favorite number in it.” After working said favorite number 5 into a few different nouns, he settled on “Sur5ill” – or “Survival” if sounded out phonetically. Though in a bit of a self-deprecating fashion he looks back on his insistence to include the number 5 as “stupid”, he also points out that he chose the word “ill” to round out his stage name because simply put, “I think I’m dope.” In one sentence, he admits that if you called him a “nerd”, he “wouldn’t take it as an insult,” and in the next, assessing the current state of Rap music notes that in his opinion there are “a lot of people bullshitting themselves thinking that they’re better than they really are.”

After graduating High School, Sur5ill would go on to split time between Morehouse College and UMass Boston before entering the work force, a period of his life which coincided with his first full foray into music, as a guitarist and vocalist for an alternative local Boston band called The LE Project . The birth child of a group of roommates and friends, Sur5ill notes that his time with the band was as a “good opportunity to evolve musically and not be hamstrung by people who were afraid of failure.” The result of these travels is a man who’s comfortable in both urban and suburban settings, whether among corporate types or in an artistic context.

During the decade+ period between Sur5ill’s middle school and college years (roughly 1993 through 2008), Hip Hop music was dominated by the likes of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Biggie, Tupac, Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem, Outkast, Ludacris, 50 Cent, Kanye West, & Lil’ Wayne; a group of names that’s by no means exhaustive, but captures the musical and cultural essence of Hip Hop for the given timeframe; at least from a male emcee’s perspective. Sur5ill was a fan of and respected these movements, but acknowledges that they weren’t wholly indicative of his own experiences. “I loved it conceptually,” he says, “I felt everyone was a great story-teller, but that wasn’t my life.” He goes on to explain that he identifies more with artists such as Childish Gambino and Chance The Rapper than Y.G., Young Jeezy, or T-Payne and that Hip Hop has “progressed a little bit more, whereas now everyone can tell different types of stories.”

That mentality speaks to who Sur5ill is an artist. It only takes listening to a couple of tracks to appreciate how technically and creatively Sur5ill composes his lyrics. Well-educated, and now a Sales Operations Manager at a start-up company in the Greater Boston area, he does not compromise the vocabulary he’s developed through his own experiences for one more akin to what we’ve grown to expect from mainstream Rap. His versatility allows him to successfully blend urban talk with corporate speech in large part because it comes across as being organic, but also due to the air-tight composition of the rhymes. Sur5ill’s lyrical content is very much indicative of who he is personally. In no way does it at any point come across like he’s trying to fit in to popular Hip Hop norms. He truly is just being himself, using Rap meter to share his experiences. As such, he tells an intriguing and entertaining story on ‘Work‘, his second mixtape offering available here .

Having produced, recorded, and mixed all of his solo material thus far, his first offering, ‘@golerflame mixtape‘ was an experimental work that allowed him to begin honing his craft, both as an artist and as an engineer. ‘Work’ however is a more concise and well-rounded piece that plays more like an album than a mixtape. One can definitely hear and feel growth between the two projects, but what remains consistent throughout is his honest approach towards the content. On “Work”, Sur5ill takes us on a journey that explores the nuances of being a young professional jockeying for success in the corporate sector, albeit through the mindset of a man whose artistic tendencies make it difficult to buy into office politics. He’s not rapping (excessively) about many of today’s Rap norms such as, strippers & hoes, fancy cars and yachts, twerking and turning up, excessive spending, and gangsta raps motifs. Instead we’re treated to the story of a stand-up guy who’s facing an inner tug of war between his corporate self and his artistic self.

Sur5ill's Work mixtape, a Nerd Rap production

That said, the tracklist on the record effectively and concisely details Sur5ill’s story of corporate angst. ‘Written Warning’ begins with an humorous skit in which during a phone call between employee Sur5ill and one of his superiors, he scrambles to explain that he’s already sent the email she’s requesting and would be happy to resend it, but it falls on def ears as the superior promptly rushes him off the phone with minimal acknowledgement for his efforts. Sound familiar? Lord knows I’ve been there. The struggle between corporate self and emcee self is introduced in this song as well, as Sur5ill raps, “I want to be a rapper, professionally, ’cause I do it exceptionally!” and in true emcee fashion, boasting about his lyrical prowess, closes out the track with the metaphor, “I’m tighter than hallway quarters that you can find a hoarder in.

From there we move on to ‘Corporate Speak’, my 2nd favorite track on the project. Again highlighting the struggle between emcee and employee, Sur5ill uses air-tight rhyme patterns and even switches up his tempo at times (emcee techniques) to discuss a myriad of office terminology, proclaiming on the chorus that “if you don’t know the language, I’ll tutor you” (as any good employee would, no?). Never one to believe the hype (Public Enemy, anyone?), Sur5ill raps “they say shit like fiscal year, and there’s a dip in shares. All that means is work harder ‘fore I fire every bitch here. Excuse me, I mean downsize. Now I think that fucking sounds right. I heard that diversity kid, is a term they use for brown guys.” That’s good stuff right there.

The album then goes into the title track, ‘Work’, where on the hook Sur5ill contends, “bottom line, I don’t like my work place. 8 hours a day, confound to my work place. Boss thinks that I should pick up my work pace.” In a bar that made the 34-year-old me chuckle, but the 24-year-old me feel guilt, he goes on to rap, “I hate this fucking place, the atmosphere is in disarray. To get away I maxed out my sick days by middle May.” Sounds about right, no? I mean c’mon let’s be honest with ourselves here, who hasn’t had that particularly crappy year where we’re so disillusioned with out jobs that we literally run out of time off by the Summer months? I know I have. That said, this line is a prime example of how Sur5ill’s honesty and humor lends itself to not only a fun, but also relatable listening experience. Continuing that corporate dismay narrative, Sur5ill follows up ‘Work’ with ‘The Layoff’ and ‘Job Search’, on which he uses a delivery that at times is loosely reminiscent of Eminem on ‘Rap God’. No small task to achieve.

‘Cover Letter’ is up next, my favorite track on the album. Again revisiting the emcee vs. employee theme, the the “write-up” if you will for this particular cover letter is composed in one part to push his credentials as a musician and another to promote his education and corporate strengths. For example, he talks about his “sole goal” being to promote the LE Project in one verse and in the next jokes about his “primary language” being “of the Anglos” but that he “knows Spanish too,” before going on to discuss his experiences at Morehouse and UMass Boston. Featuring one of the more hypnotic bass lines on the record, and by no means lacking in word play and complex rhyme patterns (with a fair share of inside rhyming going on as well), it’s the chorus that I really dig about this track. “My resume is on the interwebs, and so is my cover letter. They’ve both been there for a little bit. So therefore, I ain’t bitter yet.” Simple by comparison when measured against much of the record’s lyrics, it’s the filter (reverb, maybe a hint of auto-tune) that he puts on his voice and the way he delivers it (half rapped, half sung) that makes it catchy to my ears. I also enjoy that he used the term “interwebs” in place of “internet”, especially when one can make the case that “internet” actually rhymes more closely with “little bit.” But he went with “interwebs”, a quirky, nerdy type word that works better in that space due to the overall feel of the track and really the entire album, despite “internet” being the better choice from a pure rhyming standpoint. “Interview”, “Rejection Letter”, and “Offer Letter” round out the record, completing Sur5ill’s journey through the highs and lows of Corporate America.

As far as the music itself goes (lyrics aside), in the same manner that Sur5ill doesn’t compromise his word choice, he isn’t afraid to steer clear of many of the sonic elements that are popular in today’s Rap music. If you’re looking for that DJ Mustard or Mike Will Made It sound, or if you’re into that Rap/EDM fusion, this isn’t the project for you. That said, one can hear a hint of Trap music influence, so it’s not completely devoid of today’s trends. Many of the tracks on ‘Work’ are carried by deep, often hypnotic bass lines, with the additional musical elements complementing that feel. He employs drum patterns and high hats that to my ear sound reminiscent of how Timbaland and Pharrell often use them. Synths, keyboard, and true to his LE Project days, guitar strums (most notably, and masterfully on ‘Corporate Speak’) for the most part complete the sonic composition the album’s beats. In a statement that speaks to his readiness to create music he likes, regardless of what’s popular in Rap, Sur5ill says about his guitar use that he’s “not just gonna give it up ‘cuz it’s not super familiar within the genre.” He also utilizes vocal filters in certain places, mainly around hooks, that add to the fluid and hypnotic effect of the heavy bass lines.

That said, if there’s anything that I would nitpick about ‘Work’ it would be a noticeable lack of adlib vocals. Background vocals can often add life and texture to a song. Adlibs can be placed for purely musical purposes, such as those subtle “uh!” and “uh huh” vocals that add some punch & emphasis to a hook and/or bridge, a la Biggie in ‘Hypnotize’ or pretty much any pre-posthumous Michael Jackson track. In fact, to further highlight how much adlibs can add to a track, one of the main reasons I have trouble listening to his posthumous material is the noticeable lack of “HEEE HEEE!” and “CHA-MOAAANE!” adlibs – it just doesn’t feel like vintage MJ.

Adlibs can also add depth of meaning to a particular lyric. For example: On TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’ Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes raps, “see, if you can’t spatially expand my horizon, then that leaves you in a class with scrubs never risin'”, and cleverly places a drawn out “Rison” adlib (overlapping the “risin'” lyric), no doubt a shot at her then ex-boyfriend, former Atlanta Falcons Wide Receiver, Andre Rison, with whom she had a very contentious relationship that played itself out in the public. Adlibs can also be comical in nature; just listen to Eminem’s more lighthearted tracks and you’ll hear all sorts of background noises and lines that liven up the song. In an album full of moments where Sur5ill takes playful jabs at himself, his superiors, his interviewers, etc… a few background punch lines seemed to be a natural fit, and the absence of such results in certain moments throughout the record feeling incomplete.

Aside from that, though for the most part I enjoy the beats, I feel that certain tracks would’ve benefited from a stronger drum kit. The album’s final track, ‘Offer Letter’ for example, could have used fuller, more powerful drums to help better capture the “excitement” of his corporate journey culminating in his landing a new job (and I put excitement in quotation because by design part of the track’s feel is sarcastic in nature). Stronger drums on ‘Offer Letter’ would’ve offered a nice contrast to light drums on the album’s penultimate track, ‘Rejection Letter’, a song whose airy, hollow sound works well with the song’s primary sentiment, that being the empty feeling one gets when absorbing a rejection letter.

Nerd Rap on vacationAll this brings us to the term “Nerd Rap”, a motif on which Sur5ill prides himself, but those with a narrow view of Hip Hop may criticize for its lack of street edge. At day’s end however, such a view ignores the fact that at its core, much of Rap is driven by authenticity, or that phrase that’s embedded in Hip Hop’s lexicon, “keeping it real.” To that end, Sur5ill notes that he’s “always been that scholarly, not super urban type of person, but also someone who’s fond of Hip Hop linguistically.” As such, in an age where it’s commonplace to question how “real” all of these “baller” and/or “hardcore” emcees actually are, Sur5ill is quite simply as real as they come. Giving us no reason to doubt the authenticity of his “Nerd Rap” mantra, by simply being himself on record Sur5ill delivers a brand of Rap music that as a Hip Hop community, we can enjoy, learn from, and should absolutely embrace, at least in my book.

So to conclude, if one Scholar’s opinion means anything to you, check out Sur5ill’s music, particularly the ‘Work’ project, and if you’re in the Greater Boston area be sure to catch his upcoming performance in Cambridge at The Lizard Lounge , on October 20th, with doors opening at 8:00pm. As a matter of fact, to his credit Sur5ill is on his grind these days, regularly performing in and around the Cambridge / Boston areas, sometimes as many as 4-5 times a week.  So be sure to follow him on twitter (@golerflame) for his latest music updates and show dates and join me in supporting the “Nerd Rap” movement. I know you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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