CZARFACE [Album Retrospective]: The Gods of #GeekSwag!

“Monsignor” Moody
@TravMoody

#GeekSwag is a phrase I coined a few years ago to describe hip-hop music that either: 1.) appeals to fans of popular geek culture — superheroes, comic books, fantasy, horror & sci-fi topics, etc, and/or 2.) contains a deep focus and reverence on such subjects. And, right now, no group hits both of those strands harder than Czarface

Esoteric, Inspectah Deck, DJ 7L.

The swag part of it all is how fresh or dope the hip-hop kicks, since we’ve heard — and often unfortunately heard — subgenres of hip-hop like Nerdcore, Horrorcore, Nerd Rap, etc. Czarface is not that. While topics may hover around ’70s Marvel cartoons and classic WWF/WCW wrestling promos, the combination of the Inspectah Deck and 7L & Esoteric deliver that pavement-rap essence found straight off the streets of Shaolin and Beantown.

To celebrate the trio’s 8th studio album, 20th anniversary since their first collaboration and concert tonight at Catch One in Los Angeles (LA! Finally! And if they’ve played in this city before, then I was sadly, oh-so-sadly sleeping!), your boy decided to run the gamut of Czarface’s discog, provide some vids for y’all viewing pleasure and dish out some bible scores. Trust when I say that this piece is long overdue.



CZARFACE (2013)

All gods have an origin story and this was it. The start of something beautiful for longtime listeners of underground hip-hop and readers of comics. But as insanely dope and fresh as this album was for 2K13 (they’d previously collabo’d on the insane ’99 vinyl, “Speaking Real Words” and “12th Chamber” on the 7L & Eso LP, 1212), heads were pretty sure this was a one-off project. Maybe that was initially the case, but why not keep something almost too good to be true going? Endgame: eight years later we have eight Czarface LPs.

But how dope is that wrestling intro? While inspired more by the National Wrestling Alliance than N***** With Attitude, Deck immediately gets into old form with sharp rhymes and Eso delivers the rawness over 7L’s chiming beats and hard snares. “Air ‘Em Out” was not only Czarface’s first official joint together, it also posed as their first official music video. 7L (along with Spada4) would go onto produce the entire album sans DJ Premier‘s “Let It Off.”

From the O.D.B. vocal snippets on “Cement 3’s” (mine and your fav pair of Jay’s) and the Killer Beez swarming sounds of “Czar Refaeli”, 7L doesn’t hide the fact that this was his “RZA” album. Beyond Deck spitting rhymes on every track, the Wu-Tang influence was apparent and more than welcomed on the backdrops; having Ghostface (“Savagely Attack”) — complete with classic Iron Man cartoon snippets! — and Cappadonna (“Shoguns”) guest spot on the LP was evidence of that approval.

Beyond all of the cool references, Wu-ish soundscapes, and incredible guest spots (Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Vinnie Paz and, arguably the best of all, Mr. MFN Exquire <<<where is that dude?), Czarface brought a type of fun not heard on the mic in.. forever. Peep their exchange of witty barbs on “Marvel Team-Up” and watch Esoteric flex on about Ra’s Al-Ghul and somehow make it sound cool on “Rock Beast”. And damn does Czarface love the Road Warriors/Legion of Doom! Voice snippets from Hawk and Animal all over this album, and, again, they.. somehow make it sound cool.

While the 46-minutes are filled with nothin’ but geek braggadocio, with bars like this — “an X-Man off the map with the realest rap/ I come back with a star on the shield of Cap/ I seal the gap, mechanical tentacles identical to Doctor Octopus…” — who’s to really complain? Czarface’s debut reassured that ’90s hip-hop & comics were still real to us, damn it! 4-4.25/5 Bibles.


EVERY HERO NEEDS A VILLAIN (2015)

I guess the one complaint from critics about Czarface’s efforts have been their “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. But that’s exactly why Czarface works in the first place. 7L & Esoteric and Inspectah Deck are, in their own rights, individual artists who have a share of their own concept albums. So, when they “Don The Armor” and link up together for “Sinister” raps, why not stick to the script? No one ever complained about EPMD doing the same thing. On Every Hero Needs A Villain, Czarface do what they do best and elevate their #GeekSwag sounds to a higher plateau…

Wu-Tang Clan members return to the world of Czarface, with the M.E.T.H.O.D. Man shining on the very Supreme Clientele-sounding “Nightcrawler” and GZA on the GHG-approved, retro brass of “When Gods Go Mad”. But perhaps more importantly, the O.G. Geek Rap God himself MF DOOM faced the Czar with “Ka-Bang!” It’s a hip-hop comic for the ages and later would set the stage for an eventual full album collabo. Who’d a thunk it it would take this dream team to pull DOOM from retirement?

7L’s production (again alongside Spada4 for a few tracks) elevates even further on the sequel. The pairing present a far more varied sound, incorporating more cuts, grooving bass (think Dan Nakamura’s sounds from Doctor Octagonecologyst on “World Premier”), marching staccato and buzzing electric strings on “The Great” and “Escape From Czarkham Asylym”. For those wanting different, “Red Alert” sounds unlike anything the group had done at this point. With an overall off-kilter percussive sound, Eso opens up with a clever rhyme about how ill he is — as in physically ill — and Deck is, of course, ubiquitous, matching his PnC’s every sly move.

The pacing of the follow-up is an improvement, yet every track will keep listeners on their toes with several well-placed pop culture snippets and swift beat-change-ups. If nothing else, Deck’s verse right here sums up the super sophomore LP perfectly: “Wordplay wizard, my mic is Harry Potter’s wand/ Czarface nominated at the Comic-Con/ Drop bombs, deliver it hot like it’s Papa John’s/ Poppin’ Don, burnin’ Blue Flowers with Dr. Octagon.” Five years later, this remains Czarface’s strongest album. 4.25/5 Bibles.


A FISTFUL OF PERIL (2016)

We reviewed this album! Peep our Matt Paulsen’s take here. He eloquently sums up Czarface’s third LP as “an array of raw lyrical punches, imagery, storytelling and comic book references that carry on the rest of the album’s nearly 36-minutes.” Matt awarded 2016’s A Fistful of Peril with 4.25 Bibles.

“Czar Wars” has Steiner Bros., Warlord, and L.O.D. references, while the trio brilliantly bring out the other Beatnuts emcee, Psycho Les, on “Dust” following their team-up with Ju-Ju on the previous album’s “Junkyard Dogs”. And this track is straight raw. Again, the album is more of the real rap shit we know and love mixed with 8000 great geek (Eso playfully spits “Imagine Baron Zemo directed by Tarantino”; Deck mentions Leonard Snart and Hodor in the same verse), rap nostalgia, and sport references up until “All In Together Now” — a homage to the Marvel Avenger Black Panther, who of course went on to blow up in the mainstream just over a year later.

Esoteric hops onto the production mix for A Fistful and his influence of eclectic electric keys, boomier basslines, and hell — MF DOOM’s influence — is widely apparent. This album is for the trunk! Throw in appearances by Mayhem Lauren and Griselda’s Conway, an ode to one of my all-time fav albums (“Dare Iz A Darkside”), hilariously awkward action figure review sound snippets from YouTube, and a song named after a legendary comic book creator in “Steranko” and Czarface saves the rap day again. In only 36-minutes, too. Top that, Clark. 4/5 Bibles.


FIRST WEAPON DRAWN (2017)

I reviewed this album, which wasn’t much of a traditional album at all, but a concept album that played more like an auditory comic. Read my write-up here. N/A/5 Bibles.


CZARFACE MEETS METAL FACE (2018)

A hip-hop loving comic book nerd’s wet dream. There’s no doubt who is the originator of this new self-made-up genre (#GeekSwag) and that’s MF DOOM. Sure, Wu-Tang labeled Meth “Johnny Blaze” and Ghost “Tony Starks”; but who’s really the one who took it to that level of full conceptual hip-hop geekdom? DOOM. Operation Doomsday. Vaudevillain Villain. Etc. Etc. You know the drill.

Only just two years ago in 2018, DOOM would team up with the new Czars of this geek rap shit and sound entirely refreshed, to boot. On the boards, 7L officially found himself joined by Spada4 and Jeremy Page for the project, dubbing themselves The Czar Keys. With DOOM’s inclusion (sadly not behind the boards, but still), they definitely aimed for a darker, more DOOM-like sound and absolutely triumphed– so much so that many claimed DOOM produced the super team-up…

In an album full of bass-throbbing bangers, my fav tracks are: “Captain Crunch” (DOOM’s vigor and spite no doubt return, and Eso amazes nerds again, rhymin’ on a “group text with Steely Dan, Groot, Baby Groot, the ghost of Dave Brubeck, Alex Trebek and Boba Fett”); “Nautical Depth” with Blacastan sees an ironic rhyme from MF DOOM, considering the subject Czarface often praises– or maybe that’s the point? “No friendly warfare, this ain’t wrestling/ There’s nothing staged over here, you’re trippin’, mescaline”; and “Phantoms” which packs pleanty of pleasurable Pac-Man effects and spotlights Open Mike Eagle with a sick Noob Saibot reference.

Respective of the audience, Czarface enlist very few guest stars and Jedi Mind Tricks’ Vinnie P is the only other one to take part. His track “Astral Traveling” is likely an ode to Gang Starr’s “Speak Ya Clout” with the beat switch-ups, as we find Eso slammin’ rhymes over a sample Premo ripped first.

MEMBA: This is also a DOOM record. So even if those Metal Fingers had to send rhymes via London wi-fi, it’s fantastic that Doom was able to provide his first major output since 2014’s NehruvianDoom. And that may not have been achieved without The Czar Keys dutifully emulating MF’s classic sound. Peep the “Crunch” remix, “Captain Brunch”, for a joint that sounds like it came straight off the Mm.. Food menu. Yum. 4/5 Bibles.


CZAR MEETS GHOSTFACE (2019)

While the whole DoomStarks dream sequence may very well be that–a dream–leave it to Czarface to find the right medium in shifting from albums with MF DOOM to Tony Starks aka the Iron Man of this Wu-Tang Shit aka Ghostface Killah. No emcee has been more prolific from the Wu than Ghost, so it’s only right that the fellow comic book fan and fellow mic superhero team up with his other heavily consistent Wu partner and the boom-bap nation of 7L & Esoteric.

While ‘Face’s arch-nemesis Doom may have shared a bowl of “Captain Crunch” with Czar on their last album, Starks lets heads know he’s not the only one packing “dangerous material, spread like venereal/ got the scoop on the game like a bowl of cereal”. Czarface ramp up the wrestling themes up to Wrestle Kingdom levels of proportion with tracks like “Iron Claw”, “Czarcade ’87”, “Masked Superstars” (you’ll find “Mean” Gene and One Man Gang namedrops, and an absolute filthy beat change on this one!), and the Randy Savage intro “Back At Ringside”. 7L and The Czar Keys’ production, again, brings back the head-nodding drum rolls, buzzing sounds of electric riffs and beaming keys.

“Morning Ritual” is something new for the crew and who better than Ghostface to narrate all the pre out-the-door nasty’s? This was actually one of the few Nas-like story cuts that Czarface has partaken in, so nice to see GF delivering a different element to the collab. And don’t fret comic heads; we have “Super Soldier Serum” (that closing percussion section!) and “Powers And Stuff”. You just knew Starks had an answer to the Czarface sinister plan.

Overall, Czar vs. Ghost is an unsurprisingly enjoyable time, but mostly for the guest-star. Deck and Eso sound overworked, not as hungry as previous efforts and yet you can bet they still come off better than 80% of anything else in rap’s underground. Even the worst tracks on the record have addicting beats, cosmic soundscapes and effortlessly dope raps. If you love Ghostface Killah, add this one to the playlist. 3.75/5 Bibles.


DOUBLE DOSE OF DANGER (2019)

From GetOnDown.com

“7L scores the soundtrack to a Double Dose of Danger, a 20 page giant-sized comic book & LP set, inspired by the legendary Power Records collection from the 70’s. Written by Marvel Comics contributor and Czarface’s own Esoteric, our hero leaps off the pages and into dastardly danger! There’s two action packed stories, “Chrome Doubt” illustrated by the Grammy nominated Benjamin Marra and “Poach the Poacher” drawn by Dan McDaid…each backed with Czarface’s bone chilling soundtrack. With cover art by Czarface co-creator Lamour Supreme, this LP is guaranteed to stand out in your Czarface vinyl collection.”

Yup. Sadly haven’t read the comics yet — yes, Moody on Record Store Day failed this city! — but I’m digging 7L’s instrumentals on this. If you love Czarface then you know what you’re in for. It’s no RJD2, Blockhead or DJ Shadow, but worth throwing in your Czarface playlist. 3.5/5 Bibles.


THE ODD CZAR AGAINST US (2019)

Despite how dope their meet-ups, team-ups, and battles against DoomStarks were in the previous two entries, there’s no doubt that Czarface proper needed this. The Odd Czar Against Us is an apt name, a breath of fresh air. While the sounds and stylings of the Czar we know and love don’t completely diverge from what brought them to the dance in the first place, Esoteric finds his solo root inspirations in synth-tech (see the dancehall fusion of “Call Me”, the 80s New Wave sounds of “Dear Computer” and “Dog”).

Don’t be scurred, though; these “what’s old is new” sounds allow the group to grow, branch out about subjects beyond comic book heroes (except for “Couch”; BAH GAWD has there never been a more on-the-nose song in reverence to nerd culture!), the rap heroes that inspired them, and other previous previous Czar-themes.

Since it did, at times, seem like the dynamic duo was running out of steam against Starks in the last LP, it was smart to go the more laid back route on many tracks (“Me’s Company”, “Czartist Gilmore” and “Brother Czarquis” sound right in the wheelhouse of ol’ school El-P), branch out to more conceptual strands and even opt for more personal views than ever before (the incredibly hypnotic “The Gift That Keeps On”, the humorous “Burrito”). Basically, The Odd Czar is hearing how Inspectah Deck would sound over a 7L & Esoteric album–20-years later.

Again, geeks who love their geek-hop as much as I do are good. All good. Addition to all of the more varied, chill efforts, Czarface deliver a triple dose of danger with the haunting electric riffs and bloopy-blip sounds of “Bizarro” — sounding completely re-energized on this signature opening track — while flexing more button-mashing bravado on “Double Dragon” and on “The Problem With Frank”, a hype ode to The Punisher. The Czar-Saga Continues… – 3.75-4/5 Bibles.

Czarface (Inspectah Deck, 7L & Esoteric) is set to appear tonight at Catch One in Los Angeles. Buy tickets here.

-Travis Moody

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