A wise woman once told me that the most important time to speak your truth is when no one wants to hear it. We’re in an era when the truth seems to be sinking into quicksand and there’s grifters around every corner waiting to cash in. A time where honesty seems novel and integrity seems exotic. Now more than ever, we need people who will give it to us straight and remind us that this shit was never that sweet to begin with. Thankfully, Greg Grease has never been one for fake smiles.
A perennial champion of the underdog, Grease has seen too many flashing blue and white lights, shook too many lifeless hands and witnessed too many people he loves fall into traps to pipe down and keep nodding along. If his 2012 debut, Cornbread, Pearl and G was a Midwestern inner-city coming of age tale and his 2014 follow-up Born To Lurk, Forced To Work grappled with art, commerce and what people do at night to survive, then Down So Long is about artistic growth, finding the balance in life and starting conversations many would like to leave unspoken.
The original working title of Down So Long was Ain’t Nobody Trying To Hear That. Like much of classic rap music, the album zeroes in thematically on big questions of nature versus nurture. The truth is, it’s tough to walk a straight path when the tracks are laid out crooked. How do you win the tug of war of between material satisfaction and spiritual sustenance? To what value do you give the potency of free will when you know you’re also at the will of the giant machinations of history and sociology? What do you do when you’re numb to the pain? How do you live when your skin reflects your life expectancy? Good deeds more often than not, aren’t rewarded, especially for oppressed people –– people that’ve been down for so long. All of it can make karma seem like a new age fantasy to those struggling.
But who wants to think about all that when they’re listening to music?
Down So Long was born out of grappling with this struggle of needing to speak your truth but fearing that it’ll fall on deaf, or maybe more accurately, battered ears. The album was made in the warehouse studio space where Grease works alongside his bandmates in the futurist funk collective ZULUZULUU. Conversations between friends become ideas, ideas sprout into concepts and concepts become, well, you can probably guess what comes next. Grease has been making Rap music for nearly decade. And so while his hair is a little longer, his beard is a little thicker and there’s a ring on his lady’s finger, he’s also not trying to impress the listener with bars and bars and bars anymore. He’s trying to bring you into his sonic orbit and wow you with the breadth of his instrumentals, the texture of his extended-syllable stanzas, the sting of his biting diatribes, the wisdom and weight of his philosophical ruminations. And of course, he’s got some good shit talk on there too.
Musically, Down So Long is a sonic gumbo, a slow-cooked stew of earth-toned instrumentals. There’s a little hint of Minneapolis funk, a dash of the Dungeon Family’s swamp, a sprinkle of knock from Conant Gardens and some guitar licks that would make Curtis Mayfield proud. Grease says that ZULUZULUU has challenged him to expand his musicality. So for the first time in his career, he produced this album largely sample free, brought in classically trained jazz musicians, expanded the range of his voice-as-instrument and wrote rhymes with the patient eye for narrative detail you’d expect from someone who stitches leather for a living. It’s a kind of slow-Rap for a new era that bends to the arc of what topic is trending.
In 1999, the great Amiri Baraka wrote of the epic failure of mainstream America to embrace Black music, ergo American music, as a collection of artifacts with the same institutional security, intellectual rigor and cultural sanctity that you’d find in the Museum of Natural History or the MOMA. They weren’t treating as an art of canonical value. As Masta Ace made it be known, Hip Hop, the collective expression of mostly poor, mostly Black people, is treated by the mostly rich, mostly white music business class as a “disposable art.” That’s why when Grease looks at each year’s new crop of rappers, he doesn’t frown at the young men, and it’s mostly men, pursuing their dreams. It’s the commodification and gross commercialism of the entire pursuit of picking who’s next?
Albeit over-inflated, the generational divide of Rap seems to be at an all-time high. To show any reverence for the past is to expose oneself as a cornball. Even with the world at our fingertips, history itself has become disposable. But if you’re unaware of the old heads went through you’ll probably end up like most of the old heads: broke and broken down by the industry with only their family and friends left around them. Because there’s yet to be a retirement fund set for Grandmaster Caz. As the saying goes, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
That’s why Grease has humble, if not different goalposts in mind besides chasing fame: a healthy family, a nice house –– nothing fancy, a few old schools to ride in. Down So Long is grown-up Rap, it’s working-class Rap, and though it’s indebted to the multi-century echo of Black music, it reflects what Martin Luther King meant when he spoke of the “fierce urgency of now.” You can only be down so long before it’s time for a rising up.