Producers rarely achieve a truly unique style, but Hot Sugar (Nick Koenig) is one of the few whose work is instantly identifiable. Sonically he walks a tightrope between dream and nightmare. His sound based on the principles of Associative Music, he uses environmental samples to trigger emotional responses in listeners: his last instrumental EP, Moon Money (2012), gathered rat heartbeats, sofas crashing off rooftops, even human bones clanking together. But as esoteric as this process seems, his beats also fit seamlessly behind an MC. From Big Baby Gandhi’s No1 2 Look Up 2 (2012) to his treasure chest of killer features on 2012’s Midi Murder, Hot Sugar has brought the best out of a roster of New York City rappers.
Like Midi Murder, Made Man knits together a vast array of guest spots. Greedhead MCs still dominate the Hot Sugar stable, but some new faces have also joined the fold. Opener “Erica,” for instance, is a first collaboration with Chicago-based vocalist the GTW. Slow, sepia keys and soft, lingering vocals combine perfectly to inflect the tale of a degenerating relationship with slow, resigned suburban laments. “Face in the paper cooking eggs up in the morning, I run out of words to utter so I end up yawning,” the GTW recounts dolefully, “our ‘ship’s expired, desire fades.” Again like Midi Murder, Made Man roves freely over terrains of both style and substance. “Erica” sets the tone to warm, sensitive and emotional, but things are quickly inverted.
“Mamma, I’m A Man” finds triumvirate of Hot Sugar favorites Antwon, Lakutis and Big Baby Gandhi going in over a glitchy, distorted Koenig production. The three trade braggadocious, oedipal verses that close with Gandhi’s “I’ma tell my momma I’m a man.” Bill Ding’s brawny guest spot on “Zanny Bath,” pushes this same style even further as he menaces “you could catch a coffin homie, I don’t need a reason.” “Born 2” finds Heems in similar gangster mood as his voice thugs around a New York City transformed by Hot Sugar into a horror movie soundtrack, haunted-house screams ringing out as the former Das Racist rapper likens himself to mythical vampire “Nosferatu.”
Alongside this tougher strain of lyricism there is another, cerebral and punchline driven. “Fuck one-liners, I do no-liners,” Kool AD raps on “In & Out,” both explaining and demonstrating this style. Gandhi, too, goes beyond one-liners with his long, staggered punchlines on “Blessing.” Playing with Prodigy’s famous line he raps, “Illuminati in my mind, soul and my credit card.” But as he continues, “charged so hard the black bar fell off, just like your favorite rapper, they all so soft,” every new line twists the sense of the last so that each becomes as unstable as the fractured beat it straddles. “Watermelon,” one of the EP’s strongest tracks, brings a different kind of wit. Over a sinister-sounding beat created by a rat walking across a keyboard, Open Mike Eagle delivers parodic homage to melon-smashing comedian Gallagher. A kind of lunatic think piece, it stresses that “the government should issue people rollerskates,” that “English professors [should] teach Cappa’s verse on Winter Warz” and pushes a host of other left field suggestions.
If the preceding tracks divided rap into brains and brawn, then final track “56k” weaves them both back together in a sprawling city epic. Hot Sugar holding the conductor’s baton, the 7 minute-, nine feature-track touches myriad themes and motifs. By turns nostalgic, political, morally edifying, “56k” is like an internet chatroom where lurking listeners can overhear snatches of conversation about New York City life. Gandhi, for instance, talks of “babies having babies” and counsels that “safe sex is the plan now.” Lanksy, by contrast, recalls the moral lesson learned when other school kids stole his “Donkey Kong game.” Antwon looks back to a time “before Google Chrome” when he “used to jack-off to pictures,” Lakutis crushes a verse about his progeny of “blue eyed devils speaking Spanish,” and DVS turns conspiratorial as his line “Illuminati want my screen name and my body” joins up with Gandhi’s earlier Prodigy reference. With Weekend $’s Ne$$ “signing off … live from the apple,” Chippy Nonstop’s “ring-a-ding-a-ding” hook combines with Koenig’s ever-building beat to bring the track to a feverish close.
“I feel like a Made Man,” says Koenig, describing his pleasure at working with so many of his favourite MCs. But the pleasure is ours, too. Made Man is fun and technically exciting. Moreover with Hot Sugar coaxing some exceptional bars out of every guest rapper, Associative Music proves itself just as effective on performers as listeners. Made Man will raise the profile of one of the most underrated producers around, and yet the EP leaves me itching for something else. I want a more sustained collaboration with just one rapper. Koenig has a special flair for instrumental narration and I would love to see it accompany an MC unfolding and developing a vision across the span of an entire full-length.