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THE TUNNELRATS (2004)
The Tunnelrats - Click to view!"Not for radio. Not for video. Fightin' for the freedom of the underground." - "True Underground"

When I interviewed Dax Reynosa two years ago for a hip-hop magazine, it was to talk about his semi-retirement from the rap industry. A legend in some circles as a battle-rapper and one of the leaders of the supercrew we know as the Tunnelrats, he told me something that pops into my head virtually every time I sit down to write about this music. "To be honest," he said, "for hip-hop to go back to the way it was, people would [have to be] broke. Hip-hop the way it was wasn't very commercially viable."

I never learned for sure, but a few of Dax's passing comments, on the way to deeper, weightier issues, led me to believe that he was closer to that ideal than most prominent emcees I know of. It sounded clichéd, but when he told me he wasn't in it for the money I eventually believed him—he gave the impression there wasn't much to be had. As far as I knew, his raps had never made him rich, and most people don't know his name.

This, I think, is a glimpse of what it means to be "True Underground," as the song title from the TRz recent eponymous LP boasts. It is to be, by choice, an "oddity/Less-known commodity" that often inspires either love or hate in the listener; to be what a lot of artists talk about but don't really live out; to be what every Tunnelrat apparently is.

Although there are many other issues attacked and messages sent in the course of the album, it's that authenticity, that integrity, which sticks out. Some tracks, like "Planet Dok," "Forever" and "Burn" are exceptional and others—"Her Story," "Slow Your Roll"—are not. And, to be fair, the same is true of some of the emcees (in this outing, at least). But in the end, both the album and the crew are everything they set out to be: definitely not commercial, definitely outside of the mainstream. Definitely underground.

The unfortunate consequence of being purposely unpopular is that fewer people will hear this record than, say, a GRITS or KJ-52 offering. But with this comes a certain credibility, and the chance that it will resonate with those it's aimed at.

As stated, this album is not perfect. Primary producers Dert and Raphi frequently contribute beats that betray a genius spoken of on this site and, no doubt, in the larger holy hip-hop community. But the rhymes occasionally keep the songs from achieving their true potential. "Substance over style" should the mantra of every emcee, but style counts for something.

Some will be put off, as well, by the battle-rap track "Burn," where an emcee shuns church in favour of witnessing "on the block." (This controversiality, too, is a distinctive TR trait—something that no doubt helps keep them out of the mainstream.)

I realize that as a white, middle-class hick, I do not represent the target audience for this album. But as the success of Outkast, Kanye and others suggests, good hip-hop is universal. Take it for what it's worth, but there are only a few songs in this 20-track collection that will be playing again in my stereo in the coming months.
- Ben Forrest
May 2004
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