"We're not just late '90s scientifical backpack revivalists," says Ian "Young God" Taggart, one-half of production duo Blue Sky Black Death.
It's a reference only a hip-hop head could appreciate. The "super-scientifical" tag comes from a verse in Jeru tha Damaja's 1994 classic "Can't Stop the Prophet," a bizarre drama in which the Brooklyn MC battles thugs who represent the seven deadly sins. The term has come to represent an influential wing of '90s hip-hop culture, evoking yin-yang flights of lyrically ornate action fantasy and pre-millennial dread.
But with its fourth album, Late Night Cinema, Blue Sky Black Death has distilled its essence into something more original than Wu-Tang Clan homage. Released on independent hip-hop label Babygrande this spring, it blends live instruments by Young God and various musician friends and samples into a dense tapestry of themes, from the antiwar epic "Ghosts Among Men" to the yearning romance "The Era When We Sang." The disc expertly evokes the group's namesake, a skydiving term for snatching ecstasy from oblivion.
"Probably the most beautiful thing when you're jumping out is all the blue sky, but it's the most dangerous thing you can do at the same time, you know?" explains Taggart by phone from his Upper Haight District home. "That's the black death. I thought it went well with our music because I thought it could be really dark or really pretty."
The 23-year-old Taggart doesn't earn a living from music yet. Instead, he lives a journeyman's existence sustained by a hodgepodge of retail and restaurant gigs. Meanwhile his Seattle musical partner, 30-year-old Kingston Maguire, has more stable employment as an apartment complex manager. "I feel like I'm attracted to bullshit jobs so I can focus on my music," Taggart says.
Since joining forces in 2005, Taggart and Maguire have worked hard to expand their audience beyond a small but appreciative following of hardcore rap fans. Their label has a sometimes unfair reputation for issuing angry, conspiracy-obsessed rap epics. Its flagship artist is Jedi Mind Tricks, a Philadelphia group whose '90s-style beats and verbal assaults against organized religion and the government have become a controversial subgenre unto itself.
Blue Sky Black Death has expertly mined this niche with wintry street dreams such as 2007's Razah's Ladder, an album recorded in conjunction with Hell Razah from former Wu-Tang affiliate Sunz of Man. But Taggart's afraid his group is being dismissed as a JMT acolyte. "Honestly, I don't want to be lumped in with them," he says. "That's not a diss towards any of those artists, and it's probably our fault because of the people we've worked with. But we try to drift away from that with our instrumental music because we don't want to be pigeonholed with our sound."
Blue Sky Black Death wants to break out of the super-scientifical ghetto without forsaking its roots. Upcoming projects range from Slow Burning Lights, a San Francisco downtempo band with Yes Alexander from the Casual Lights, to an album with rappers Ill Bill from Non-Phixion and Crooked I. "As far as when we're making actual beats and we have rappers in mind, I guess we're definitely influenced by the '90s sound," says Taggart. "But we take it a lot farther."
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