High Focus continue to prove they are a well honed, dominant force in UK Hip Hop with the release of ‘Freshly Skeletal’. Not only are they cranking out great releases at an alarming rate, there is depth and diversity in their roster. For the un-initiated, Dead Players consists of producer Ghosttown and MC’s Jam Baxter & Dabbla. Their self titled debut dropped in 2013, and was received with relatively mixed reviews. The hype was strong prior to the release, yet they allegedly didn’t quite deliver the goods (I loved it). Criticisms were that Ghosttown’s production was a bit too much - overworked, dizzying and frustrating, while the two MC’s radically different vocal styles didn’t gel cohesively.
Now, lets get one thing straight. Dead Players do not give a fuck. Not one, single, solitary fuck. You only have to listen to one track. Any track. You will quickly realise that the trio do what they want, loud and proud, all the while their collective middle fingers raised in a permanent salute. However, I do think they have taken notice of the criticisms surrounding their debut. Or maybe they haven’t. Either way ‘Freshly Skeletal’ definitely shows a progression and evolution of their work. The three artists seem like they have had time to get used to each other, and they have formed a common middle-ground. A place where they can grab a table, a case of vodka, and craft something that can be labelled as ‘The Dead Players Sound’
Ghosttown has stripped back his production, yet in doing so the spaces he leaves on the track help create more depth to the music and provide a perfect backdrop for Dabbla & Jam Baxter to trade verses, each of them continuously trying to out-do their sparring partner. Ghosttown draws influences from Grime, Dancehall, House, Trap, Electronica and even Baseline/Dubstep to create a clean yet rumbling, heavy, sound. There is also at times a darker, eerie, even creepy side to the production on this album, a sound seemingly influenced by paranoia, psychedelia and comedowns. This is showcased on opening track ‘Oh Well’, with its strange, middle-eastern, melodica-esque sample, gas-powered bassline, drum claps and floating cymbals. Dabbla even plays with the sound and delivery of his voice for his first verse and hook, adding to the weirdness.
The two MC’s haven’t necessarily stripped down their style, more that they have raided each others arsenal and now display elements of each other when they rap. I have always thought of Dabbla as a distant cousin of Dirty Dike - arrogant, obnoxious, offensive and extremely proud of all of those traits. Dabbla is here to have fun, get crazy, cause trouble and laugh in your face as he steals your drink. And possibly your girlfriend. Jam Baxter meanwhile would rather avoid everyone in the party because he is disgusted by people. Wanting instead to drop acid, talk to a dwarf, explore the depths of the moving carpet and burn the house down as he escapes. Where those two styles may have clashed on the debut, when you genuinely mix them together as they have on ‘Freshly Skeletal’, you get an angry, snarling, warped, yet cohesive and formidable double team. Dabbla elevates his style, giving it more depth, and an insight into his own version of trippy, disturbing imagery and Jam Baxter adds more of an ego to his brand of disgusted metaphors.
Vocally, they are more of a unit on this album. But they also have a side-pot going; one where they are constantly trying to get the better of each other. An early indication of this is booze-fuelled anthem ‘Nah’ where Jam Baxters first verse is laden with imagery, before Dabbla seemingly snatches the mic for a belligerent second verse. But they pair up to hurl insults for the main hook, and then they finally back each other up on a shared third verse to collectively tell you to ‘fuck off’. Just in case you weren’t sure the first two times. And, as if to add insult to injury, Ghosttown’s main sample is some gypsy style accordion loop. It may sound like some weird flashback, but it works brilliantly.
They continue to take it up a notch for the first single ‘Call Us Now’. Both track and video celebrate their own brand of drunken debauchery. With a Grime influenced beat and some great, near double-time bars from both MC's that is extremely infectious, making you want to get up, get out, and find some dodgy warehouse rave. ‘B.A.W.G’ re-introduces the weirdness, with an exceptional almost science-fiction beat from Ghosttown, providing a fitting backdrop for Jam Baxter to deliver some fantastically dark imagery that would have been perfectly at home on his solo album ‘…So We Ate Them Whole’.
The album has consistently been taking it up a notch with each track as if it has been building toward something, and then it drops ‘Do It’. Unfortunately, this centrepiece is the low point of the album. Some weird, G-Funk era synthesized beat, that sees Lee Scott playing the part of a scouse Warren G - stumbling through a very drunken ‘verse’, going on to ‘sing’ an extremely lazy hook. Jam Baxter just about rescues it for his final verse, but then the hook returns to remind you want preceeded it. Luckily, this track sits at the end of Side A, so you could always flip the record over a little prematurely…
That weird detour aside, Side B quickly returns us to full power. ‘Ringing’ has a fantastic, head-nodding low end to the production. A warped dirge sample and bass that literally makes you want to crawl inside your speakers to explore the depth and dirt of the sound. The track has a slower pace, but that half-stepping only accentuates the vitriol in the two MC’s lyrics. It’s an understated sleeper hit, and actually one of my favourite tracks on the album. As we head towards the end of the set-list, everything is more grime influenced, particularly the posse cut ‘Infinite Limousine’ which sees guest verses from Sox, Ocean Wisdom, Illaman and Orifice Vulgatron of Foreign Beggars. With the exception of Sox who drops the ball towards the end of his verse, everyone delivers fire, each trying to out do the others, throwing in some double-time bars. All of this is backed by Ghosttown’s deep, Grimey bass wobble and insane hi-hats.
The album ends exceptionally strong with ‘Cooked’ and ‘Drenching’. The former being one more middle finger salute, with an extremely dark, unsettling, yet enticing beat and two expert displays of vocal vulgarity. The latter returns to that weirdness that keeps rearing its head. If all the tracks before it chart a Dead Players epic bender, then ‘Drenching’ is definitely the hangover or the comedown. Another track with a slower pace, that has an extremely paranoid sounding beat with a long, rumbling bass backdrop. This may be the comedown, but the anger and disgust is still blatantly apparent in their overlapping hooks and verses
This may not be for everyone. And thematically it is a relatively simple album, filled with debauchery and a ‘fuck you’ attitude. But the talent on display here is unmistakeable. Dead Players are back, and they are alive and ready to kick the shit out of everyone at your party. You’ve been warned…