For the first time since the great hyphy explosion of the mid-2000s, Bay Area rap can claim a new figurehead — a centripetal artist with an energizing signature sound. That artist is Trackademicks, a producer, rapper, and leader of the eight-member Honor Roll Crew. His debut album, State of the Arts, released this week, sounds like it could be the future of Bay Area hip-hop.
A somewhat portly fellow fond of dressing in cardigans, dress shirts, and ties, Trackademicks isn't all that new — his first mixtape was released in 2005 — and he clearly sees his music as part of a local lineage. He readily mentions the '90s output of Young Black Brotha Records artists Ray Luv and Mac Mall, the freestyle ethos of Saafir's Hobo Junction, and major figures like E-40 as influences. (Some of those are also collaborators; he produced a remix of E-40's breakthrough hit, "Tell Me When to Go," in 2006.)
But on top of those foundations, Trackademicks says he adds "more universally known sounds like Down South rap, soul, and electronic music." In theory, this isn't a peerless blend — it's one you can detect on any number of the hipster mixtapes that have emerged since the term "mash-up" entered the pop-culture vocabulary. But Trackademicks' sincerity and skill set him apart.
"In terms of what's going on right now in music, every rapper is doing electronic music and doing techno music, and pop singers are trying to come out with rock songs," he says. "A lot of cross-pollinating is going on." But you don't need to suffer through Lil Wayne's rock album to realize such combos are usually more about fashion than creative cross-pollination. Trackademicks' output, on the other hand, is earnest: "I'm trying to tell the story of what it is to be an actual artist in this time period and come up as a product of those different things and do it effortlessly," he explains.
For Trackademicks, this involves mixing of a love of British sophistipop bands like Swing Out Sister and the Style Council with local influences. He grew up in a time when the Bay Area's rap output was "synth-driven, but on the funk side, with lots of Moog basslines." He is reluctant to put a label on this blend, but "breezy" frequently comes up when he talks about his music. Listening to State of the Arts proves it an apt choice: The swaths of synths layering the album add the breeze to its bumping beats.
Crucially, this mix appeals to artists outside the Honor Roll camp. Bay Area rap veteran and onetime hyphy poster-boy Mistah F.A.B. has been working with Trackademicks since 2005, and features on album track "Stop It," a song hooked around cascading synth stabs. He says Trackademicks' production style has now come into its own.
The rapper Phonte, formerly of the North Carolina indie-rap group Little Brother, guests on "Fool on the Hill." He attests to the effectiveness of Trackademicks' blend, too, saying it combines "that traditional hip-hop bump, drumwise," with being "musical and melodic at the same time." He says Trackademicks' textured approach to production has the potential to translate outside of the Bay. He chalks that up to "an energetic feel-good energy that makes you wanna move. Anybody can relate to that, no matter where they are." With a production portfolio that also boasts collaborations with local staples J Stalin, Balance, Shady Nate, and Livewire, plus a solo release on A-Trak's record label Fool's Gold, Trackademicks is emerging as a central figure in the Bay's hip-hop music hub, someone who can link the underground, street, and hipster scenes.
Trackademicks credits the growing reach of his sound to the pull of making music that is truly inspired by its environment and generation. "When I first started making beats I was influenced by J Dilla, Pete Rock, and the Neptunes," he explains, referencing producers from Detroit, New York City, and Virginia Beach respectively. "Those people have sounds that are localized, but when they mastered that sound people felt the attitude of where they're from through their music." With State of the Arts, Trackademicks has achieved the same for the Bay.