The “Intro” to Background Music, L.A. hip-hop duo Substance Abuse’s second album, begins with an trippy mashup of soundclips that includes quips like “Substance Abuse presents problems without presenting solutions,” “they team up with other MCs,” and “they sound like 1998.” These clips, although smashed together quickly and barely coherent,accomplish the same thing B. Rabbit did in 8 Mile’s final battle scene— they bring forth potential flaws before critics have a chance to mention them.
The intro finishes up with a slightly-out-of-context yet still effective clip of Ice Cube on “Colorblind” hinting that listening to nay-sayers isn’t worth it through his line, “that shit’ll drive you crazy if you let it.” True, although none of that self-directed criticism on the intro is necessarily accurate.
The duo, which consists of Eso Tre and Subz, follows the intro by coming in on “How Many” and absolutely destroying it with swing-beat ride cymbals and incessant, quick-paced flow— like the West Coast equivalent of Wu Tang’s “Gravel Pit.”
The group does, to a certain extent, sound like 1998, although that makes sense considering that’s around the time that they formed and began making songs together. Their music is somewhat similar to the underground legends of an earlier era— MF Doom, Madlib, People Under The Stairs, etc. Of course, they aren’t an act that ignores that time has passed since hip-hop’s Golden Age and/or the late 90s. “Young Hollywood,” for instance, samples Jay-Z’s Black Album and references TMZ and laptops.
That song is about society’s unfortunate obsession with celebrities,and it features Erik Solo and Hanif Hobbs. Several of the duo’s other songs also revolve around socially-conscious premises.
“West Los,” for example, explores the influence of hip-hop on suburban kids. West Los Angeles is considered the yuppier side of the city(it’s near the beach), while the East Side is considered somewhat slummier (it’s not near the beach). The song references how kids in West LA adopted the lifestyle of the East Angelenos, experimenting with graffiti, sagging their pants and wearing the same jackets. Lyrics like “the lines between the hood and the burbs are now blurred” continue to be more and more noticeable in modern society.
Although many of the songs address social issues, the duo reminds listeners that they also like to have a good time on “Don’t Get Us Wrong,” which consists of the song “Don’t get us wrong / of course we like to party / cuz the purpose of the song ain’t trying to hurt nobody / not expecting you to take this crap they gave you / why do fools try to hate when your tracks have flavor? (at least I think that’s the point of the song. Hope I’m not getting them wrong)” That song also features Tash from The Alkoholiks, who delivers a strong guest verse. And the group delivers an unfortunate truth in the first verse— “I guess they call us underground because our raps don’t suck.” Well-said.
One of the album’s standout tracks is “Flossin’,” which features Compton’s Most Wanted rapper MC Eiht. The song denounces the tendency of rappers to flaunt their jewelry and sneakers, over an insanely dope beat that could potentially be used by a rapper to talk about flaunting his jewelry and sneakers. The fact that Substance Abuse takes it to another, self-conscious/self-aware level, is what makes them so good.
Eso Tre and Subz have mentioned in interviews a few reasons as to why they chose Background Music as the album’s title, but, if anything—it’s ironic. The album demands to be played with the listener’s full attention. Every beat, bass-line and syllable should be carefully digested. Background Music is, in no way, simply background music.
The album also isn’t quite a G-Funk throw-back, but the funk elements that dominated LA rap in the 90s are present throughout Background Music. On tracks like “Front Row,” the funky backing track is more sped-up than usual (in relation to other funk-sampling hip-hop tracks), and Eso Tre and Subz easily navigate the beat with up-tempo flows.
On Substance Abuse’s first album, Overproof, MF Doom was undoubtedly the most high-profile guest. The rapper’s appearance on “Profitless Thoughts” is what helped propel the duo to prominence in the hip-hop scene. Although Doom’s not present on Background Music, the album does have a strong cast of supporting MCs, including the aforementioned MC Eiht and Tash.
This time around, though, KRS-One is the album’s most esteemed guest. The MC features on “Rear View,” a track with an old-school hook and soulful sample that allows the three rappers to contemplate the differences between older rap eras and the current/future state of hip-hop. While it’s obvious that things aren’t as these three wish they could be (or like they used to be), the song isn’t negatively nostalgic. As long as KRS-One’s still rapping, and Eso Tre and Subz continue to make new music, not much is wrong with hip-hop.
Background Music is only the second album in Substance Abuse’s lengthy existence as a duo, but it’s apparent that the rappers took their time crafting another unique, coherent body of work. They’ve maintained that “1998,” distinctly L.A. hip-hop sound that’s been lost in the modern day, pop-rap shuffle while still pushing the genre forward and remaining inventive. That’s a tough combination, but Substance Abuse managed to do it well.