Pas vraiment dans l’esprit des gros beats et synthés abrasifs de son EP Argyle avec le rappeur Birdapres sur lequel on l’avait laissé en 2013, le Canadien Rob Crooks, toujours affilié à l’écurie belge Marathon of Dope et plus que jamais influencé par les années 80, s’essaie à un exercice à demi-réussi mais parfois surprenant et 100% attachant sur ce LP à la croisée de la synth-pop et du hip-hop, dans la mouvance des regrettés Restiform Bodies du label Anticon.
Parfois légèrement rebutant comme sur l’ultra dansant We Are Not Famous aux rythmiques discoïdes et au chant pas très juste que transcendent une chouette ironie sur l’état d’esprit des musiciens indépendants (et un clip joliment décalé), l’album et ses thèmes existentialistes borderline nihilistes génèrent en effet un bon nombre de réussites dosant avec intelligence alt-rap azimuté et dancefloor gothique de l’underground 80s (Just Wanna Dance), post-punk rétro-futuriste et versets martiaux (Orphans, Anti-Sisyphus), boîtes à rythmes convulsives et claviers délicats (Freedom), lorsqu’elles ne versent pas des pieds à la tête dans une new wave fervente et efficace dont l’instrumentation vintage assure le cachet authenticité (The Last Thing).
De l’hédoniste Simon’s Song avec ses guitares à la Smiths au mélancolique et fantomatique When is it Enoughévoquant un Hot Chip vrillé de scratches abstract, en passant par l’électro-pop hachurée du bien-nommé Dream Machine ou l’électrisant All I Need, petit tube de l’album aux allures d’hymne régressif au plaisir de jouer pour le frisson plutôt que le succès (basse bondissante façon New Order à l’appui), la spontanéité et parfois la fragilité du chant du musicien originaire de Winnipeg – la métropole la plus ennuyeuse de la galaxie à en croire ce que nous disait son compère de label Pip Skid lors de son concert lyonnais avec le boss Speed Dial 7 il y a quelques années – finissent par emporter le morceau, et on se prend d’attachement pour ce disque à la production minimaliste mais plus atmosphérique qu’il n’y paraît, tout en synthés clairs-obscurs du plus bel effet.
“There is much to unpack from the cover of Rob Crooks’ latest EP, Downtown ’09.
First, there’s the cover art, which depicts a jagged lightning bolt blowing off the head of the Golden Boy, who is perched on the worse-for-wear dome of the Leg. Drawn by Patrick Skene — a.k.a. fellow Winnipeg MC Pip Skid — the image should be recognizable to in-the-know punk fans; it’s a Winnipeg interpretation of the cover of the 1982 self-titled debut from pioneering Washington, D.C., punk band Bad Brains (the lightning bolt is striking the White House on that one).
Then there’s the title, a riff on Downtown 81 — the 1981 film starring artist Jean-Michel Basquiat that examines the subculture of post-punk Manhattan.
Fitting influences, both, for a hip-hop/electropunk EP that takes an almost anthropological look at the gritty underbelly of Winnipeg’s downtown nightlife scene. Winnipeg, Crooks says, is a punk-rock city. He was interested in its hard edges.
When he wrote these songs a few years ago, he was listening to a lot of Bad Brains and Black Flag and hanging out at a lot of dive bars with beer-soaked carpets, and all-night warehouse parties with a colourful cast of people.
“My social circle was bit bigger and maybe a bit stranger,” he says. “I found myself experiencing the seedy side of Winnipeg’s nightlife without even meaning to.”
His experiences weren’t shocking, exactly, but they were altering. “When you’re in it, not much surprises you –but when you’re out of that lifestyle, these experiences seem alien,” he says. “You can be standing outside the Albert smoking a cigarette and a fight can break out in front of you. Or someone can come from around the corner and say, ‘I was just stabbed.'”
So, he started documenting it. “There was a quiet desperation about partying and that lifestyle that I was interested in,” he says. Crooks describes Downtown ’09 as something of a loose coming-of-age narrative, set against the backdrop of a city that felt cold, dark and broken. A city divided by class and race. A city that struggled. It’s that side of Winnipeg that is reflected in the album’s lo-fi esthetic, Crooks’s rumbling, subterranean low end and spitfire raps. He’s an incisive writer who’s economical with words; there’s power in his plainspokenness. Like its namesake, Downtown ’09 serves as a snapshot of a certain time and place.
For his part, Crooks, 31, isn’t so much into the party scene these days. “It’s not a very productive way to live,” he says. “When you get older, you start re-evaluating your goals. I’d rather be working on music or studying — I’ve gone back to school. I’d rather be in bed by 11 p.m. and wake up early so I can do something with my day.”
Crooks is already hard at work demo-ing tracks for his forthcoming album, due out sometime in 2015 via local imprint Disintegration Records. “It’ll be quite different,” he hints. “There’s less focus on rapping and more singing. It’ll be less aggressive.”
Crooks says releasing Downtown ’09 was “like cleaning out my closet, in a sense” but then he reconsiders his turn of phrase. “Maybe that’s not the right way to put it. I was still proud of these songs and I wanted people to hear them.”
Downtown ’09 is available for free download now via Marathon of Dope.”
“Bearing sonic similarities with everything from krautrock to hip hop to electro, the EP has a punk rock spirit, a constant sense of urgency amplified by Rob’s approach to using drum machines and samplers as instruments, and embracing the mindset of just going for it with or without the technical wherewithal.”
– Julijana Capone, Spectator Tribune
“We’ve just been introduced to Winnipeg’s Rob Crooks and his electro-punk/hip-hop hybrid music. And we love it.”
– digits, SilentShout.ca
“Rob delivers his very personal, often biting, lyrics in a manner that can range from straight-ahead singing to pretty-much rapping, all while managing to create some very catchy tracks.”
– NAEDOO, Herohill.ca
“Combining groove-laden soundscapes and ferocious lo-fi post punk, Crooks has managed to create an EP that appeals to an audience beyond the hip-hop community.”
– Kent Davies, Stylus Magazine
The Hearts EP Reviewed in Uptown:
“Hearts, the latest solo EP from Magnum K.I. member/veteran rapper Rob Crooks, is an inspired amalgam of indie rock, hip hop and lo-fi electro that buzzes with urgent, nervous energy. Whether he’s rapping or singing, Crooks’ lyrics are raw, personal and bitingly blunt (see: Knows How To, about a girl who “knows how to fuck but doesn’t know much about love,” or the aggressive Not Cool, which calls out posers). Recorded by Greg Arcade, the EP has a cool, cassette-tape indie rock feel; there’s definitely an emphasis on the high end, which sets it apart from traditional hip hop albums. Crooks’ sound is fresh, and Hearts has a strong pulse.”
– Jen Zoratti, (now defunct) Uptown Magazine.