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During my year or so in D.C., I spent so many Thursday nights swilling beer and watching the white kids dance at the now-defunct Soul Camp that few evenings distinguish themselves anymore. But, next to the night I flirted with jungle fever over a pitcher of Bass Ale—and, of course, the time a man was shot to death outside the club—I most remember the night I first heard “Dirty Gusto” by Team Demolition.

Now, this was the old Soul Camp, over on H Street. This was back in 1999, when practically everyone in attendance was in college or from Northern Virginia or both and when the Lions of Zion and Natural Elements b-boys were always in the house. It was well after that post-midnight point when the regular folk managed to nudge the athletic yet oh-so-narcissistic breakdancers out of the way and the amateurs packed the dance floor. Suddenly, it sounded as if a brokedown Millennium Falcon were revving its engines in slow motion. Then the drums kicked in, and the warped churning altered slightly to fit a barrage of relentless rapping. Did this cacophony qualify as an actual song? Maybe not, but it was damn catchy nonetheless.

Hooked enough to find out more, I worked my way through the crowd and up to the DJ booth, where my friend Chuck was spinning. He showed me the label on the vinyl. Team Demolition? Kind of a cheesy name, I thought, but the next thing he told me was golden: “They’re here.” Later on, members of the group found me and hipped me to their NoVa-born operation. However two-bit the outfit might have been, I was, after all, the press, and these guys were serious about getting the word out.

It’s taken Team Demolition almost two years to put out a long-player, but the group is still plenty serious. Two weeks ago, an advance copy of Demolition Derby: The Wreckoning landed on my desk with a professional-looking press packet and photo—just like for the big boys at Def Jam or Arista. I put the folder aside, popped in the CD, and skipped right to “Dirty Gusto,” the last song. It’s a lot slower than I remembered—Chuck used to pitch it up a bit to make it danceable—but that groaning and twisting bass line still provokes a head-nod. And I can hear the lyrics clearer now: “Central Market was the spot where I purchased Blow Pops.” The words aren’t remarkable, but they’re perfect for a hometown hit.

Once I’d had my “Gusto” fix, I backtracked through the rest of the album. Demolition Derby stumbles out of the gate and into the same bleak terrain as many underground rap acts. The first two songs are tedious, dirgelike affairs that sloppily straddle the line between honest pessimism and unwarranted nihilism. The hyperbolic murk of the second song, “Survivors,” is absolutely smothering: “It feels like my world is ending, surrounded by strangers/Watch each step I take so I don’t walk into danger/My heart is cold, dark, corroded by hate/Show no mercy on the strong or the weak that I face.” The fourth song, “Teamwork,” momentarily relieves the gloom with its sparse, funky bass, snappy percussion, and nonsuicidal, group-hug verses (“Yo, I score the TD, but we all hold the trophy”). But the group returns to sulking with the bitter anti-industry “Bloodshot Eyes” and continues to take life, itself, and hiphop a little too seriously for most of the album’s remainder. (Somehow, TD manages to take even lines such as “Standing out like a whore in church” and drain them of any discernible humor.) But more than the album’s dark sounds and matching subject matter, it’s TD’s mundane approach on the mike and unwillingness to have fun with language that sentence Demolition Derby to indie-hop purgatory.

Like its obvious influence, the Wu-Tang Clan, the multiracial TD banks on strength in numbers. The six voices of Dialtone, Optical, E-Ball, Zechariah Wise, Lazarus, and Jady Experience vary greatly in pitch and rasp, but the crew drops few clues as to who’s who, making the task of attaching flows to faces practically impossible. And though TD resembles Wu in vocal range, the group has next to no variation in rhyme styles. The Wu has got everything from Method Man’s casual singsong poetry to the GZA’s cold lyrical economy, but in TD, all the fellas pretty much stick to the same straightforward delivery and pressure-cooked lyrical concerns.

In fact, the Team members sound best when they’re working as one, trading off short verses (as on “Teamwork”) or contributing lines to a single theme (as on “Bloodshot Eyes”). None of the MCs are particularly clever—Demolition Derby is disappointingly short on hiphop quotables—but the album’s few narratives help focus their songwriting skills. “It Can Happen to You” is your classic politically incorrect hiphop cautionary tale, spiced up with a grinding, mutating sample and some tongue-in-cheek crooning on the hook. And “The Burbs,” a hilarious dedication to the group’s suburban origins, is the closest thing TD gets to lighthearted. Here, the rappers’ reflections showcase a unique and honest perspective that momentarily distinguishes them from the slew of backpacking MCs who disavow their middle-class status: “Our parents bust their ass to reach the lower middle class/Where there’s crazy mini malls and white girls with no ass…where dysfunctional families live in denial/Where your neighbor could be an undercover pedophile.”

Demolition Derby’s production, handled almost exclusively by Dialtone, Optical, and Zechariah Wise, is too often plodding and stiff. Especially on droning cuts such as “Uhip2it” and “Prove It,” TD’s unnatural-sounding drums and grim loops only grow duller with repetition. “The Burbs” has hometown-hit potential, but nothing on the album simultaneously bewilders and enthralls the way “Dirty Gusto” does—or did when I first heard it. And even that listening pleasure, now repositioned among all this well-intentioned, numbing mediocrity, is a good memory that’s way out of context. And, well, I guess you just had to be there. CP