If Detroit-native musician Denmark Vessey was born several decades ago, his style of hip-hop could have been welcomed with open arms at Woodstock. His proper debut, Cult Classic (released via The Dirty Science) is an album that not only sonically gives strong reminiscence to the psychedelic rock style of the 1970’s, but also recalls verbally back to a time where the unfiltered and sometimes painfully true elements in rock and roll lyricism were proclaimed with such fervor that we can still see the impacts of them to this day. Just like that, Cult Classic is bold everywhere it needs to be; addressing the corruption that often comes with power, hypocrisy, theology, and lastly intellectual growth.
Right from the jump, the exuberant Midwest MC delivers sermon-like bars comparable to a reverend speaking to church goers on a typical Sunday: complete with classic spirituals and Gospel singing. The mood is set right away, but it’s clear Denmark isn’t necessarily “preaching to the choir” through this conceptual project—but that’s the point. Vessey challenges the motives of major institutions (everything from religion to politics) on this album. The inspiration seem obvious when told, but in reality is something that is hard to touch on, presumably because many people always tend to relate church with God, or government with country. These things, so poignantly illustrated on the album, don’t always go hand in hand. To get a true idea of how this concept formed, it’s important to see where Denmark had been coming from.
“From kindergarten to 10th grade I went to Catholic school in Detroit. My mom (had me) raised in a Baptist church up until I was 15 and then I just stopped going. So that’s where I am coming from just in general, just a really religious background—like going to church every Sunday type stuff, going to Bible study and all that, going on church trips, all types of stuff—that was all me— just entrenched in the church. I eventually broke away from that and got a little more independent with my thought. I decided that that wasn’t necessarily for me in terms of living my life like that. I just stopped going and started thinking a little bit more outside of that realm because up until that point, it consumed my whole life. I was there damn near everyday in between going to school and going back to the church—because they make you go to the church in Catholic school…I went to a Catholic school in high school and had a Theology class and it opened up my eyes a little bit—and I actually want to go to school for theology for a little bit too but in any case, that’s where my mind set is and that’s how Cult Classic came to be.”
Certainly, it’s easy to see how such an album skeptical of a social construct could have been formed just based on the context of a strict Catholic upbringing, but I continued on further to see what other inspiration was present.
“There was this pastor in Atlanta—this dude named Bishop Eddie Long. He got into some trouble with a scandal in his church with some molestation type stuff with teenage boys. He is super anti-gay, so there is this mad irony because I found it funny that he is ‘super anti-gay’ but winds up getting in trouble for molesting. There are all types of contradictory instances where a person in authority makes it their sole purpose to denounce something and then they wind up getting caught for the very thing that they are denouncing. That’s kind of where that came about too, I mean that happens damn near everyday. It happens with politicians too, it’s not just religion—you know, somebody is saying ‘no to drugs’ and then they wind up getting caught with a bunch of cocaine and some underage strippers or some shit like that (laughs).”
To strengthen this theme throughout the album, a classic hip-hop technique is employed in samples. Sprinkled throughout are sound bites of enigmatic and (in the context of mocking them) oftentimes comedic, cult-like leaders rants cleverly placed amidst the project. A sense of nostalgia is shown through this with the psychedelic rock instrumentals, calling back to a day where people like Jim Jones told everyone to “drink the kool aid” and when Charles Manson told his followers about his insane “Helter Skelter” inspired ideology. This throwback sampling brings the album full circle. Looking back on Jim Jones & Charles Manson, we view them as obviously evil and view their followers as brainwashed fools. In which case, the production portrays the ideas of these 1960s & 1970s cults in a modern context with institutions that most of us don’t think of as a ‘cult’. Scud One provided more info on the process him and Denmark went through when creating the production aspects of the album.
“A lot of it we did in the studio together so Denmark had almost as much input as I did as far as what samples we were going to use or what kind of sound we were going to go with. I pooled together a bunch of samples and spin em with this and do them in the studio. I’d say, a fourth of the time this guy already had half a verse before I even chopped or looped up the sample or did anything, so it was kind of organic. We said that to a lot of people in a lot of interviews but it’s very true; I’d take the sample, this guy would have a fourth of a verse, and then maybe in an hour we’d already have a song. We used a lot of psych rock samples, soul type stuff and basically anything we could use to capture that sound and more of an almost religious type sound for some of it.”
Cult Classic is an album that brings the uncomfortable into the light, bluntly confronts it, and then moves forward with great resolve. As any religious sect has the ability to be an opposite of God, and as any politician can be opposite of a pure ideal; so can Denmark parallel that to the cult that oftentimes is the music industry. With a sound that is completely unique provided by Scud One, and with content that many are afraid to touch, Vessey successfully pulls off a classic LP that is independent of that very “cult”.