Once again, we talked to 10 of the hottest artists who are climbing the charts, breaking the Internet or just dominating our office stereos. This month: Mapei's genre-hopping pop, Your Old Droog's true-school hip-hop wordplay, the classic hardcore blurts of Obliterations and more.
Sounds Like: Chops-heavy, pun-soaked true school New York hip-hop made to break the rewind button on your Walkman
For Fans of: DOOM, Roc Marciano, Kool G Rap, Ka
Why You Should Pay Attention: The 25-year-old Coney Island MC is an Internet sensation thanks to his arch rhymes, brain-breaking puns and effortless delivery. Example: "That's kinda trifle, 'cause that's a knife, fool/You're just a "parasite," like the Eiffel/Stifle yourself like Edith or get played like a Paul Reed Smith/You and them cats you smoke weed with." Explains Droog: "It's not like 'Yo, I gotta sit down and reference an old Seventies TV show' — that's fuckin' corny. If the rhyme is ill, that's what really drives it. You can take rhyming to the edge of the Earth. That's what I loved about rap. I'm just trying to say what nobody else will say. Not even on some weird, bugged out stuff — I just wanna say, 'This dude's not gonna come up with this shit. Ever.'
Droog's lyrics are actually forced to stand for themselves as the rapper cuts a somewhat mysterious online presence: There's been zero promo photos, zero music videos and only one live show to date. "We took some pictures, man. It was weird. I gotta get used to it, man," he says. "I took more pictures backstage than I did the past six years."
He Says: Though only now releasing music, Droog started battling during lunchtime in junior high. "I was suspended for battling and saying foul shot about this kid's mom, like his mom was was a crackhead," says Droog. "The phys-ed teacher, I saw him on the edge of the battle just shaking his head." Droog's self-titled debut EP was released free to the internet in June — it's due for a physical release as Y.O.D. LP teaming its 10 tracks with 7 new ones. But his hustle was kickstarted by a different business model. "The last job I had was in 2012, and I lost all the money gambling to this one dude, shooting three pointers at the park," he says. "And then in November we bought dice. Let's play cee-lo, it's been a minute, I haven't played since high school. So we hit the staircase, like some bullshit, a dollar here. Then it ramped up, we used like a hundred, double or nothing, and it happened ever day. That's how I paid for every session for the EP."
Hear for Yourself: The lo-fi "Nutty Bars" features bonkers wordplay like "These other cats milquetoast, fake Steve Wilkos." By Christopher R. Weingarten
Sounds Like: Lauryn Hill and In Search Of…-era N.E.R.D. backpacking across the world and ending up at the United Nations
For Fans of: Pharrell, Santigold, Janelle Monáe
Why You Should Pay Attention: The Liberian-American (via Sweden) singer/rapper is worldly enough to craft a cosmopolitan pop/soul/rap/Ethio-funk/house album more suited for an indie record store than a shelf at Starbucks — plus she's ballsy enough to record an entire album with French sleaze-dance duo Justice and then scrap it because "it was more their sound than mine." After traveling the world to "look at colors and hang out with old ladies on the porch in Brazilian favelas," Mapei returned to Sweden, her home since she was 10, to re-record her debut LP, Hey Hey, with Swedish hip-hop/pop producer Magnus Lidehäll. "Don't Wait," the first single, is nearing 3 million views on YouTube, and the singer has re-signed with Downtown Records, the New York label that released her 2009 EP Cocoa Butter Diaries. John Legend and Lykke Li have also personally handpicked her to open for them on their respective tours.
She Says: "I tried to make my album like a dreamcatcher that takes away your nightmares. It's about escaping the darkness; the positive good friend that still has a little edge to it. I'm just trying to be a rainbow child for people that don't see the light… I went through a lot of discrimination growing up and that can make you insecure about yourself and your place in the world. Some people are more privileged than others and it's sad to go through that struggle and not get a job because of your skin color or maybe not be someone's taste because they're close-minded. I've seen the darkness, but I've always been positive and open-minded."
Hear for Yourself: "Don't Wait" blends Mapei's soul-drenched voice with West African-sounding percussion and radio-friendly finger snaps. Chance the Rapper tacks on an earnest ode to sex and love on the remix. By Jason Newman
Sounds Like: Future-minded R&B-pop with an EDM color palette and an old-school spice rack
For Fans of: James Blake, Blood Orange, Jungle
Why You Should Pay Attention: Adam Bainbridge is a 30-something Briton whose Indian grandmother was a heroine of the South African anti-apartheid movement. He grew up loving hip-hop and R&B but absorbed influences everywhere — the record that put him on the map was his moving, wholly unlikely house music hallucination of the Replacements' "Swingin' Party." For Otherness, his second album, Bainbridge changed up his lone-wolf approach to make music with friends, including Robyn, Blood Orange, Kelela and others. The set tilts from the more straightforward club music of his debut towards more extravagantly imagined groove worlds: Check the quietly dazzling horns on "8th Wonder," which has a bilingual cameo by globetrotting Ghanian rapper M.anifest. Bainbridge also has an ongoing, yet-to-be defined recording project with Robyn and Eighties funk vets Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
He Says: "I only recently started using Twitter. I use it to gain insight into the music-making process of all these disparate people: Pete Rock, Dâm Funk, Blood Orange, Jimmy Jam, Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear. Anyone who makes music that comes from the heart and does it superlatively is someone I'm interested in. It seems to me that the way people listen to music now is based less on genre, and whether it's appropriate to your class or background, and more on how it makes you feel. And I think that's the only way music should be listened to."
Hear for Yourself: "This Is Not About Us" is a bared-soul fractal glinting with minor-key piano, 4 a.m. saxophone and a blurry "Take Me To The Mardi Gras"-style breakbeat. By Will Hermes
Sounds Like: A long-forgotten L.A. hardcore band cut from the soundtrack of the original Decline of Western Civilization
For Fans of: Off!, Negative Approach, Minor Threat
Why You Should Pay Attention: The members of Obliterations, which features members of Black Mountain, Saviours, Pink Mountaintops and Night Horse, have all been skulking around the underground metal scene for the past decade. When they came together in 2012 to concentrate all of their sweaty, hardcore aspirations into Obliterations, they stumbled onto the same recipe for punk aggression that made their L.A. forefathers like Black Flag forces to be reckoned with in the mid-Eighties. Their latest record, Poison Everything, which the band recorded over the course of three days at Dave Grohl's Studio 606, represents Obliterations' grizzled riffs, machine-thrashing drumming and blood-puking vocals in their most distilled form.
They Say: "When we first played together, it was real Seventies, hard-rock vibes," vocalist Sam James Velde says. "The second time we went in there, our guitarist Steve [McBean] had this riff that ended up becoming 'Kick Against the Pricks' on our first EP, and I was like, 'That's kind of like Black Flag or the MC5 or something.' There's a huge ode to John Brannon of Negative Approach and Laughing Hyenas in our style, because he's done hardcore and rock, and I've always looked up to him. But we didn't purposely say, 'Let's sound like this.' It's just what it sounded like."
Hear for Yourself: "Mind Ain't Right" is a ragged, feedback-addled nervous breakdown. By Kory Grow
Sounds Like: It's 4 a.m. on a weekday night, the bar is closed, and your feet keep dancing
For Fans of: Simian Mobile Disco, Duke Dumont, Maya Jane Coles
Why You Should Pay Attention: Last December, Breach's collaboration with Andreya Triana, "Everything You Never Had (We Had It All)," peaked at Number Nine on the U.K. singles chart. It's the tech-house producer's second U.K. Top 10 hit: The first, "Jack," sported a hooky bass line inspired by Eric B. and Rakim's "Know the Ledge (Juice)" and was one of last year's EDM festival anthems. His latest Atlantic single, "The Key," is a peak-hour delight featuring a huskily seductive performance from Kelis. All of this newfound attention is a surprising development for Ben Westbeech, a Bristol-raised, Amsterdam-based musician who developed his warmly soulful hybrid of deep house and electro-funk for years. A talented vocalist, he released two albums under his birth name before his Breach instrumental tracks became his focus. Ironically, he stopped singing just as other British artists like Sam Smith began topping the charts with a similar sound. "Are you telling me to make plans to do another Ben Westbeech album for America?" he laughs infectiously. "I'm not putting a timeline on that stuff. I wouldn't do it to have success commercially. That's not what I make music for."
He Says: Breach spends a third of the year DJ'ing in clubs around the world. He advises, "When you're touring, try and stay as healthy as possible. Eat well. Try and get as much sleep as possible if you can, which you probably won't. Earplugs are a must as well if you're playing in clubs all the time." What are some of the things you shouldn't do? "Um…I don't think there's much you shouldn't do. You shouldn't mix flights to the next gig. Don't get so drunk you miss your flight."
Hear for Yourself: In the video for "Everything You Never Had (We Had It All)," Breach's throbbing rhythms cause a clubber to literally jump out of her skin. By Mosi Reeves
Sounds Like: A welcome walk back through the poppier corners of mid- to late-Nineties 120 Minutes
For Fans of: Pre-return Weezer, Grouplove, Dave Grohl's shredded-chords hooks
Why You Should Pay Attention: It's rarely a bad sign when sonic kindred spirits give you an upward-thumb of approval. In L.A. band Waters' case, said thumbs include Grouplove's Ryan Rabin, who recorded their new It All Might Be OK EP. Also lending support is Weezer, who Waters is joining for a string of opening slots. "I almost quit guitar when I was in middle school because I was getting so bored with learning scales," says Waters singer Van Pierszalowski, "and then my friend's older brother offered to teach me every song on Pinkerton for $20 and I was hooked again. That band has meant so much to me, so it was obviously a huge honor."
They Say: Go ahead and take It All Might Be OK's title literally — Waters meant for the EP to be something of an escape for less-OK times, even though some of the lyrics simmer with pain. "Nobody wants to listen to songs about how, 'This is gonna be the best day of my life' and all that when they're going through serious stuff," says Pierszalowski. "Don't get me wrong — I love a lot of pop music and the joyful sentiments that go along with it. But alternative rock has always been a refuge for kids going through bad shit. And now when you turn on the radio to that dial, it's a lot of smiles and haircuts. It's tiring and feels so calculated…I'm more into rock bands being honest about how bad and hard stuff can get, and I feel like there's a need for that on the radio."
Hear for Yourself: The energetic and enthusiastically earworm-y single "Got to my Head" puts smart heft behind its ample (and successful) use of hooky oohs and ahhs and yeahs. By Nicole Keiper
Sounds Like: Blissed-out psychedelic grooves with a krautrock touch
For Fans of: Broadcast, Caribou, Can
Why You Should Pay Attention: The Toronto trio's self-titled debut album, produced by Fucked Up's Mike Haliechuk, came out via Arts & Crafts in Canada — the label that broke Broken Social Scene, Feist and Stars (it's due on Lefse in the States). It's a heady space odyssey full of groovy motorik rhythms and reverb-soaked hooks. They land in the States this November, on a 22-date tour with Alvvays
They Say: The members of Absolutely Free spent nearly a decade in the experimental art-punk crew DD/MM/YYYY before that band split up in 2011. "To form something new was very freeing for us," says drummer/singer Matt King. "It really felt like being released from a fucking prison." Their new band name alludes to one of their favorite Frank Zappa albums, but it's led to some confusion among fans. "Every night, there's a comedian at the merch table asking, 'Dude, are these T-shirts free?'" says King. Adds drummer-keyboardist Moshe Rozenberg, "We could just change it to Absolutely Fee."
Hear for Yourself: "Beneath the Air" is a forward-racing anthem of the sun with shades of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." By Simon Vozick-Levinson
Sounds Like: A few heavy-prog nerds forming a basement punk band; what "emo" meant during the first Clinton administration
For Fans of: Early Fugazi, complicated Black Flag songs, guys ranting outside of left-wing bookstores
Why You Should Pay Attention: This Philadelphia outfit has been kicking around since 2009, with various Philly art-punks rotating in and out. They're just getting around releasing their genre-smashing debut EP, Serious Heft, six songs of dense, political noise rock that would sound equally at home on mid-Nineties Dischord or opening for Rage Against the Machine. In an era when most bands don't bother to let you know if they even vote, Split/Red put legendary Catholic Communist Dorothy Day right on the album cover. They also walk the walk: Guitarist-founder Stephen Buono went to El Salvador for the 25th anniversary of liberation theology martyr Oscar Romero's assassination, became involved with a Salvadoran NGO and has done election monitoring.
They Say: Named after the Minutemen tune, Split/Red learned a lot from the political punk legends. "For me, they were reminiscent of Beefheart, and at other times Fela Kuti or Victor Jara," Buono says. "The morning after Split/Red opened for [Minutemen bassist Mike] Watt, we were talking on my porch, and contemplating what to do with a wounded finch that was with us, when a stray cat suddenly snatched it away, the bird let out a chirp, then was eaten. We were both super sad, and Watt said, 'We heard its last song.'"
Hear for Yourself: Split/Red get thunderous and wailing and guitar soloish all at once on the frantic "Uno Poco Foco." By Joe Gross
Sounds Like: Disclosure attending Bela Lugosi's funeral, Joy Division's secret jam band phase, a glacier on fire
For Fans of: Jesus and Mary Chain, A Place to Bury Strangers, Interpol
Why You Should Pay Attention: After gaining notoriety twiddling knobs behind Macbooks in DJ booths in their home country of Iceland, Captain Fufanu dropped the "Captain" and strapped on guitars. The youthful duo of Hrafnkell Flóki Kaktus Einarsson and Guðlaugur Halldór Einarsson — a.k.a., Kaktus and Gulli, and no relation — added drummer Frosti Gnarr about a year ago, and accidentally fell headlong into a psychedelic bummer-rock aesthetic. The new sound configuration made for an awkward first gig — most people thought they were going to a rave — but they won over that crowd, and subsequent festival audiences at Roskilde and ATP Iceland. Fufanu's as yet untitled debut album — filled with Kaktus's somber meditations, Gulli's shards of processed guitar, and a mix of Gnarr's drums and electronics keeping time — could see early 2015 release via London's One Little Indian (Björk, Ásgeir, etc.). Kaktus's old family friend Damon Albarn (yes, that Damon Albarn) liked what he's heard enough to invite them to open for him at Royal Albert Hall in November.
They Say: "It is an entirely new band, even though it feels the same," says Kaktus. "There was no certain moment when we realized that this was our sound. I think we just liked what we were doing and kept experimenting. From [last year's Roskilde Festival] onward, the idea of a new sound for us was born — although leaving techno was not the outcome we imagined. We started to write new music with Frosti as part of the band, but still using all of our synths and drum machines. It all happened really naturally."
Hear for Yourself: The hypnotic, snowshoegaze meditation on touring, "Circus Life." By Reed Fischer
Sounds Like: Lagos' take on cool and club-ready hip-hop, a "Rack City" that has taken over the globe.
For Fans of: Femi Kuti, YouTube dance tutorials, complex drum patterns and vocalists skilled enough to take advantage of them
Why You Should Pay Attention: Though American press has fixated itself on William Onyeabor, a nearly 70-year-old Nigerian artist who quit making music in 1984, 30 years later, however, the country has moved on to Wizkid. He's a 24-year-old rapper known for progressive tracks that could start a party anywhere from South Africa to Trinidad, London to New York. His next album will have cameos from Rihanna and Chris Brown, and his last, Ayọ, featured Tyga on a remix of "Show You the Money," his hottest tune. Returning the favor, Wizkid refuses to charge for guest verses of his own, and accordingly, his dry tuneful flow has helped make hits out of KCee's infectious "Pull Over," L.A.X's menacing "Ginger" and Jesse Jag's dancehall-influenced "Bad Girl."
He Says: "I'm still trying to keep it original, staying true to my sound," he recently told U.K. DJ Tim Westwood, discussing the possibility of a full crossover in a country where his music has been embraced even outside the African diaspora. "It's crazy how a whole lot of African artists work. Big respect to everyone that does it, but I have not heard anything that really cuts across. We're trying to do that."
Hear for Yourself: Handclaps and kick drum drive "Show You the Money," but Wiz and some cutting, dissonant synths steal the show — at least until you see the dancing in the music video. By Nick Murray