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Mixtape Round-Up: Tree, Zebra Katz, Brenmar, Girl Unit, and more

With each passing week, listening to the deluge of mixtapes, radio shows, and live sets from electronic producers and hip-hop artists alike becomes an even more insurmountable task. Quality offerings can fly under the radar, either added to our ever-growing “to listen” list or — more often than not – disregarded all together.

This week’s Mixtape Round-up finds a wealth of hip-hop mixtapes and club-ready DJ mixes, due in large part to an eagerly-anticipated album/tape from Chicago soul-trap pioneer Tree, a surprise offering from ‘Ima Read’ rapper Zebra Katz, and DJ sets from the always reliable Brenmar and Girl Unit.

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Chicago rapper-producer Tree’s ear for samples has long been what has set his productions apart from his contemporaries. ‘Soul trap’ might sound like a hokey descriptor but it’s pretty accurate, and Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out is Tree’s most substantial example to date.

Blending the sort of chillingly well-sourced crate of samples that you’d more likely expect to find on a Just Blaze production or even one of Kanye West’s early beats, with the chattering snares ‘n hats of the currently ubiquitous trap sound Tree’s productions make up a good fifty percent of the tracks on Sunday School II. Unsurprisingly it’s these tracks that feel like the meat of the record, and set the scene for the rapper-producer’s collaborations and guest productions. While these guest spots are lacking Tree’s bizarre, deeply original production tics, they add a little variety and the Frank Dukes produced slow-burner ‘Busters’ is a clear high point.

Like Chance the Rapper before him, Tree is shining a bright spotlight on his misunderstood city, and has a unique enough voice to make a difference. He might not be due the same kind of breakout success as seems inevitable for Chance (he is called Tree after all) but Sunday School II is easily one of the year’s rap highlights so far, and will deserve its place on discerning end of year lists come December.

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Diplo’s Radio 1Xtra gig has allowed him to take his underground tastemaker skills to the next level: as a radio presenter on the world’s most prominent station. Next up in the mix, FACT favorite and club remix king Brenmar. His one-hour set is full of originals, both old standbys like ‘Let’s Pretend’ and ‘Done (Don’t Luv Me No More) and forthcoming heat like collaborations with DJ Fade and Shyvonne, and it wouldn’t be a Brenmar set without a handful of refixes (of AlunaGeorge, R. Kelly, and more). Here’s hoping some of these bootlegs surface elswhere, namely his mashup of Kelis and Dubbel Dutch and Murlo’s mix of Kevin Gates and Meleka.

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NYC oddball Zebra Katz makes some of the finest doom-laden tunes you’re likely to hear right now. His breakout single ‘Ima Read’ was an unexpected highlight of 2012, and with that in mind, there’s plenty of anticipation around DRKLNG. It’s surprising then that the producer has taken the tough route and emerged with this confounding, brave, internal and occasionally hilarious tape. More akin to ‘Ima Read (remix)’-collaborator Tricky’s devastating first couple of albums than you might expect, the majority of DRKLNG crawls by in a smoky haze, haunted by Katz’s unique, menacing flow. Things take a turn for the amusing however when eccentric rapper Busta Rhymes’s lets loose on ‘Ima Read’ retitling it ‘Ima Lead’. At that moment the mood lightens, and shows that Katz isn’t afraid to fuck with us maybe more than just a little bit.

Held together by a patchwork of film samples (used in lieu of skits), the funniest moment is the producer’s clever use of a snippet from terminally unfunny Steve Carroll vehicle Dinner For Schmucks. We won’t spoil it for you but Katz’s puerile drop almost makes the movie’s existence worthwhile after all.

Zebra Katz is one of New York’s most unique voices right now, and his genre-bending fusion of rap, house and 80s glamour makes DRKLNG feel both confidently contemporary and smartly reverent in the right places. It might be over way too soon, but we’d rather have a mixtape that leaves us wanting more than one in dire need of liposuction.

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Like the inaugural editions by Night Slugs bosses Bok Bok and L-vis 1990, Girl Unit’s set for the trendsetting label’s mix series is an essential look at where it’s headed in 2013 and beyond. The Night Slugs / Fade to Mind family is represented heavily, with newer tracks by Bok, L-Vis, Kingdom, and Jam City, but Girl Unit — as always — is reverent of club music’s past, with tracks by Baltimore legends DJ Booman and DJ Technics. At just 36 minutes, it’s a short-but-sweet mix, but it closes strong with Girl Unit’s unreleased, intergalactic epic ‘Praise Dance’ setting the table for a bit of Brandy and Ciara.

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The shadowy project of Atlanta-based rap manager Derek Schklar, The Devil’s debut mixtape Harbinger has been put together with the kind of sinister flair you might rather expect to see on a Hospital Productions tape. Blessed with creepy monochrome visuals and a set of morbid titles, it would be reasonable to expect Schklar’s schtick to be on a par with Brooklyn horrorcore pioneer Necro, but you wouldn’t be further from the truth. In actuality The Devil is dark, sure, but Schklar keeps things pretty distanced from Necro’s comical horror or even the absurd ‘extremes’ of Odd Future.

Harbinger is a deathly serious and notably well engineered album, and Schklar melts a murky marsh of movie samples with a short selection of minor-key street rap bangers. An glaringly obvious comparison would be the similarly gloomy Spaceghostpurrp, not least in Schklar’s addiction to sampled noise and screams, but there’s a feeling that a fair few cuts on Harbinger that could actually have legs outside of the bedroom.

Schklar is aided by a long list of guest emcees, including a notable appearance from ATL superstar Future, and somehow they buy into his concept perfectly, giving the album a consistence and flow that these kind of producer-led joints rarely manage. The result is a surprising, heavy and thematically strong mixtape, and at around thirty minutes long one that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

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Strange VIP is Patrick Rood, one quarter of Brooklyn’s Trouble & Bass crew. Inaugurated earlier this year with the No Future EP, Rood’s Strange VIP alias allows him to pay tribute at the altar of his wide-ranging influences, from black metal to R&B (and as always, all things bass). Trouble & Bass pulled out all the stops for their RBMA Culture Clash-winning performance, and Rood does the same on this mix: from grimy fare from J-Beatz and 12th Planet & Mayhem, he segues into some personal- (and FACT-) favorite R&B jams. A few years ago, who could have imagined a T&B set that closes with Usher’s classic ‘Nice and Slow’?

Subscribe on iTunes or download the mix now.

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Pittsburgh rapper Shad Black’s Sneakers N Loudpacks is pretty far from a consistent record, but kicking off with the massive Chuck Inglish-produced title track it certainly has its highlights. Inglish’s retro, skeletal production is perfectly in line with Black’s tight, smart flow and if the whole record was this good we’d be ecstatic- sadly it isn’t. All too often the record veers into identikit ‘trap’ mode, and Black feels wasted throwing down verses on productions that all too often sound as weedy as cheap keyboard demos.

It’s not all bad news, occasionally Black’s Luger-baiting bangers work well; ‘High As A Kite’ is serviceably hard-hitting, as it ‘Talk About It’, but it’s when Black takes risks that Sneakers N Loudpacks starts to live up to the promise of its opener. The killer run of the sparse and electronic ‘Fastlane’, doomy low-key 40-esque ‘Supa Thick’ and endearingly old-school ‘Kicks On Fire’ shows off Black’s personality well, and make the record well worth that click.

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Skilliam continues his 100% series (after last month’s all-Skepta set) with a Dizzee Rascal-only mix. It features 14 of the finest moments of Dizzee’s decade-long career, expertly mixed by one of the DJs responsible for the grime renaissance. With Dizzee’s string of pop-crossover tunes (which recently found him ‘Goin’ Crazy’ with Robbie Williams), take a half hour to reacquaint yourself with the grime icon we all know and love.

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It isn’t even a month since Soulja Boy dropped Foreign 2, but he’s back with a brand new eighteen tracks and surprisingly King Soulja is actually pretty good. Lets not kid ourselves, Soulja isn’t making high art, but his willingness to take risks with stranger productions, and his absorption of pretty much anyone’s style (really whoever’s shifting units at the time) occasionally yields some unexpectedly bizarre results. Just flip over to the worryingly off key Future pastiche ‘Come On’. In the wrong hands it would be too earnest, or sound too hungry to make an impression, but with Soulja at the helm it’s just so skewed that it works.

There are a fair few genuine heavy hitters too – the bass-heavy Diplo-esque ‘Headed to a Check’ is a fine example of the rapper playing to his (few) strengths, and the woozy, saturated ‘King Music’ is probably as close as dark and melancholy as Soulja’s ever going to get. As Soulja soullessly slurs ‘living like a King, sitting on this throne/smoking on this kush, so leave me alone’ you almost feel sorry for him.

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The Memphis rapper follows-up his Gucci Mane collaboration EastAtlantaMemphis with a mixtape full of big, dumb Southern rap anthems. His brash delivery and languid flow is similar to that of 2 Chainz, especially on the playful ‘Any Many Miny Moe’, who does his usual 16 bars on ‘Get This Money’.

On the production side, hitmaker Drumma Boy, Memphis vet DJ Squeeky, and KE On The Track (‘All The Way Turnt Up, Future’s ‘Magic’) are joined by newcomers Speaker Knockerz and Izze The Producer, so expect wall-to-wall trunk rattlers. Highlights include the Eastern-tinged ‘Loves Me Not’ and the claustrophobic (and well-timed, with the NBA playoffs in full-swing) ‘LeBron’.

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