A look at acts breaking at radio and retail and entering Billboard charts. This week: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club & The Last Emperor.
REBEL YELL: The fuzz-tone guitars of San Francisco trio Black Rebel Motorcycle Club found a receptive audience overseas. Not terribly surprising, since the leather-clad rockers bury their melodies in layers of noise, a tactic favored by a number of U.K. acts in the early 1990s.
One drummer with a visa problem later, and the group found itself living in London. Now that the band has relocated overseas, America is becoming hip to BRMC. The band's sophomore effort, "Take Them On, On Your Own," was the highest-charting debut on The Billboard 200 last week, arriving at a healthy No. 47.
"I don't know why it took longer in America," bassist Robert Turner tells Billboard.com. "The country is a bit more spread out and things get diluted more. Word doesn't spread as fast here. At the same time, that's why this is such a good thing. It's nice to see that people still care. I think we've made an American record."
Turner and vocalist/guitarist Peter Hayes both hail from Northern California, while drummer Nick Jago calls England home. Despite two out of three members having American roots, the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have often been tagged as Angolphiles, with critics and fans alike routinely pointing to U.K. influences such as the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine.
Like the former two, the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club get plenty of mileage out of feedback. The group's vocals sound as if they were recorded in an empty freeway tunnel, and the drums propel the songs by providing the only moments of clarity in the band's wall of sound. Yet Turner says the band's lyrics, which express a vague sort of disconnect with society ("I've been feeling alone in this generation," the group declares at the album's mid-point), comes from growing up on American shores.
"We didn't feel the need to live in [London] and tell tales about how we rode in the subway or something," Turner says. "This time we got a lot of thoughts and feelings out, things that we were kind of pit of our stomach and have always been there and might always be there. I think that comes from growing up here. You can only talk about what you know. The first record we were just kind of saying things from a distance. We stuck our neck out on this one."
The self-produced album, which was mixed by Year of the Rabbit's Ken Andrews, sees the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club finding a smoother balance between its dissonant and melodic sides. Turner attributes the gain in confidence to constant touring, including outings with Oasis and Spiritualized, and increased support from label Virgin Records.
"We didn't have a lot of support from the label on our first record," Turner says. "We had to earn our freedom. This time, we didn't have to have our fights and were able to just make the music. We had creative control on the first album, but we wasted a lot energy just keep the music safe. I don't like thinking back on it."
The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is on a headlining club tour in the U.S. until early October.
THIRD AND FIRST: "Music, Magic, Myth" is the third album rapper the Last Emperor has recorded. It's his first, however, to actually be released.
Born in Philadelphia as Jamal Gray, the Last Emperor scored a record deal with Dr. Dre's Aftermath Entertainment in the early 1990s. But once Eminem exploded, it was clear to the Last Emperor that he would no longer be a priority, so he left the label. He then went to Interscope, but the label let him go without releasing his debut. The Last Emperor then signed to Rawkus Records, where, once again, he was dismissed from his contract before his recordings were released.
The Last Emperor hasn't been shy in interviews about why he couldn't work with the larger labels, and claims that more time was spent on his image than his music. Now that he's finally found a home with New York-based independent Raptivism Records, he's putting his trials on record. "Meditation" documents his dissatisfaction with the business of hip-hop as he declares, "I've never been a player, but I've been played." Later, on "Hold On," he gives thanks to those who have stood by him, yet pleads with Dr. Dre to "finish the album we intended to do."
The Last Emperor has been championed by the likes of KRS-One, the Roots and Mos Def, and like the aforementioned artists, the self-described socialist laces his raps with political commentary. The album opens with a few self-congratulatory tracks, but "Music, Magic, Myth" is soon elevated to a more introspective level.
On the soulful "Prisoner," he urges the listener to "dig a little deeper than the media clips," and documents the near impossibility of graduating to middle class. On "One Life," he tells various stories of inner-city life, placing his tales in a larger capitalist context -- a man dreams of owning a mini-van, a woman can't help from idealizing love and an elderly couple has simply given up ("Always seem happy, I can only guess why, 'cause they're barely getting by off their SSI").
With production from such major players as Beatminerz and Prince Paul, "Music, Magic, Myth" sounds as crisp as anything released by larger hip-hop labels, incorporating R&B and reggae inflections. The Last Emperor has been a cult favorite for the past few years, and in addition to appearing on stage with the Roots and Common, he collaborated with KRS-One and Zach De La Rocha on a cut on "Lyricist Lounge Vol. 1" (Priority).
Released earlier this month, "Music, Magic, Myth" may not be exploding up Billboard's charts, but it is slowly bringing the Last Emperor a wider audience. The album debuted last week on Billboard's Top Internet Albums Sales chart at No. 15, his first appearance on any of the magazine's tallies.