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The protests of the Baltimore uprising were in full swing, and the West Baltimore rap duo HS (Higher Standard) was delayed. The city-set curfews prevented rappers True God and Shokus Apollo from heading back to the studio to wrap up their first joint album, Upper Echelon.
The album was meant to be a fun project from a two friends who’ve been rapping together since their middle school days. They were a couple of kids from impoverished neighborhoods doing kid things, like dating two girls in 7th grade and, after both breaking up, dating each other’s respective exes in 8th.
Now, they were forced to reckon with adult concerns like racism and police brutality in their communities. By the time riots ran through the city, the duo was exhausted. “HS was an escape,” Shokus Apollo says.
A few months earlier, HS had commented on Mike Brown’s killing in Ferguson on an album, Exodus, with members from their larger group, DAR (Define A Revolution). Now, HS headed out into the streets and watched the peaceful protests, but were left frustrated by the lack of direction in the activism.
“There’s not a lot to talk about of what happens in West Baltimore. Selling drugs, getting shot, getting shot at…. I grew up around that,” True God says. “Seeing that, being in it, you got to give people something more. All you see is apathy and poverty growing up—why are you going to talk about that all of the time?”
They finally finished up Upper Echelon and released it in early May. It is mostly filled with feel-good vibes, although the back end of the album has a much darker tone, partly due to the city’s climate at the time.
“As a black man, I feel responsibility,” Shokus Apollo says. “And [I’m] in this position to actually have our voice and be heard by thousands of people. That affects kids’ lives; that affects people’s lives.”
“If anything, we try to be a voice for the alternative, while giving you reality,” True God says. “I’ve always believed in trying to uplift and be positive.”
In a lot of ways, HS has put out the kind of music they might have made when they were still kids themselves: tracks about girls, goals, and odes to a golden age of hip-hop. The 16-track album glides through ‘90s boom-bap beats, but it also messes with brooding dark tones, European samples, and rapping and singing that recalls the back-and-forth, easy rhythm of Outkast.
The two men have been meaning to put an album together for years, but they’ve been too busy working on their individual careers or focusing on DAR’s group work. Baltimore City Paper ranked True God’s third album, Soul Revival II, in the top 10 local hip-hop albums of 2013. But with Upper Echelon, they’ve come out with what they say is some of their best work to date.
The duo demands respect on the album as the two rappers switch up styles over a diverse set of beats. Their sound shares some similarities with other Baltimore rappers, but HS doesn’t shout out the city or region in every song or tweet. “You could say, ‘Oh, the DMV scene.’ [But] I want to create the DAR scene.” True God says. The two want to avoid being pigeonholed by regional repping, marketing their sound to anyone who wants to listen.
“We do put on for our city. We represent where we come from, but we’re not just throwing it in your face all the time,” Shokus Apollo says. “That’s going to be the main story other than the music itself.”
Upper Echelon features a wide array of producers both local and global: There are a couple of beats from Surge of D.C., plenty of tracks from HS’s in-house man and fellow DAR member, Speed on the Beat, and a couple of tracks from Old Beats Record of France.
The back end of the album kicks off with a three-part mini-concept about a relationship with a woman. “Soak” is a sexual song for when you’re just starting to get involved with someone. “The Glow” is about enjoying that person on a deeper level, and “Elevated (Going Up)” covers the breakup. The beat for “The Glow” one of the best on the album: a flipped French song with a soft set of drums and a loop of “la la” notes. “Spit that raw, sing that R&B/Pardon me, make sure that you honor me/Shakus is picture perfect, can you draw for me,” Shokus Apollo raps. It’s one of two singles from the album (the other is Upper Echelon‘s true banger, “Hallelujah”).
The album also plays with cultural practices like religion. “New Testament” gets going with an intro from the conspiracy-theory flick Zeitgeist and an electronic, almost mystical instrumental beat. True God spits a condemnation of the dude who’s supposed to be doing the earthly bidding of True God’s namesake: “Pope is truly evil and ain’t no way of romancing that/Say the church is holy, but ain’t no way of advancing that.”
HS’s first joint album is a provocative release. It was meant to be an album that was bound to happen between two rapping friends, which would carry some of the fun tone of their foolish middle school days. Although playful at times, it shows that the men have matured in their own lives and in their abilities as rappers.
Upper Echelon’s songs are saturated with potent lyrics and a hint of the struggle of the riots. On “Transylvania,” Shokus Apollo raps “I know what it takes to raise my level/I have endured enough grief from the devil/Thinking of ways to leave out of this ghetto.” The heavy note is sobering and apt on a track recorded late in the Baltimore riots, but Upper Echelon keeps listeners in high spirits with its light-hearted production and MC work.