Columbus rapper Skumlordt and producer Alex Durr were experimenting with a batch of scuzzy, foreboding new beats earlier this year. Then Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and the escalating war and the sense of doom it carried with it started to loosely inform the songs that emerged from the sessions.
“All of these videos are coming out of Ukraine where people are getting married and then [a day later] they’re ,” said , born Christopher Brand, who will join CHPS mates and rapper in concert tonight (Friday, July 21) at Victory’s Live to celebrate the release of the trio’s debut album, Comrade Chips. “So, there’s this juxtaposition where people are living their lives, and then they step outside and they're at war.”
While the songs populating the LP might have taken thematic cues from the conflict, the loose tale that unfolds within is deeply fictionalized, the dual rappers telling the story of a mercenary whose life is upended as bombs begin to fall and an invading army moves in. “We didn’t want to talk about this real situation, but something adjacent, something that could potentially happen,” said Skumlordt, who added that the fictional pivot was motivated in part by a desire to not minimize the horrors currently being perpetrated in Ukraine. “But it’s this idea that you wake up one day and all of these terrible things are happening around you. How do you adapt? What would happen to you? What are some of the things you would think? How would you act?”
Sonically, the album frequently reflects this ugliness, beats rumbling like passing tanks, ringing like air raid sirens and vibrating with headphone-clogging static – the sonic equivalent of a massive debris cloud fogging the air in the aftermath of an explosion. Samples are pulled from everything from films about Chernobyl to clicking Geiger counters. And one instrumental interlude, “Phase III Dominate,” layers on bomb blasts, disembodied radio instrumentals and dense volleys of gunfire, the track setting the listener at least temporarily amid the siege, a feeling so pervasive the scent of gunpowder is nearly detectable in the atmosphere.
“We wanted it to be abrasive. … Sometimes [I’ll listen to it] when I’m driving and some sound will kick on and I’ll turn [the radio] down, like, ‘Is that a siren? Is my car fucked up? No? Okay, we’re good,’” said Skumlordt, who worked with Durr to build sonic backdrops out of unexpected sounds, such as the feedbacking screech of two cell phones placed too close together. “We wanted it to be unorthodox. We wanted to use the most piercing sounds we could without making it unlistenable. And that was really Alex, because he went to the Recording Workshop in Chillicothe, and he studied this, so he would go into the actual frequencies of things and be like, ‘If we push it to here, it’s just on the cusp of being too ugly to listen to.’ It’s to where you hear it and it gets you in the molars a little bit. … These are shocking things we’re talking about, and we wanted that to come through in the sound. We wanted that [idea] to be all-encompassing.”
Even the rappers’ vocals are pushed to extremes, the two often purposefully riding in the red, their voices pushed almost to the point of degradation on cuts such as “Molotov,” as combustible as its name implies, and the punishing “O, Comrade.” “Soldiers get to marching and cover ground like the permafrost,” they rap on the latter, their voices crackling atop the relentless honk of a car alarm.
Recording vocals for CHPS allowed Skumlordt to lean into the gruffer, more textured corners of his voice – a practice he said he had taken to in his more recent solo work, much of which centers comparatively on internal issues like depression and anxiety. The Buzzrd, though, has a more traditional flow, and Skumlordt said there were moments he worked to push the rapper from his comfort zone. “On ‘Molotov,’ there was a point where I was like, ‘Dude, fucking say it. Scream that shit as loud as you can,’” he said. “And we were amping each other up to sort of break out of that box. … We wanted everything to be loud. We wanted to red-line the speakers.”
Skumlordt said he’s long been drawn to extremes, recalling how he got his start playing AC/DC on guitar and quickly progressed to idolizing deathcore bands such as Whitechapel. His path in hip-hop has followed a similar path, with the rapper mimicking the likes of Joey Bada$$ and A$AP Rocky on early songs before cracking things open and finding his own voice over the last couple of years, particularly in the new tracks he’s recording alongside Danny Rogers for the next Skumlordt project.
“Through years of doing it, and years and years of imitating others, I think I’m starting to find my sound,” said Skumlordt, who added that those early career imitations were essential to learning the craft of emceeing, allowing him to internalize everything from verse construction to the importance of breath control. “Now it’s like, ‘Okay, these are the words I would say, and this is my lingo.’ … The bars I’m writing are more mature, and the things I’m saying are relevant to my life right now. And Comrade Chips helped a lot with that, just to allow me to see, okay, I can push the limits. I can expand on the boundary of what hip-hop is.”