“I am a phenomenon, never cheesy like Parmesan—believe me, you won’t catch me at Comic Con,” raps Ivan Ives on “Got It.” The Ives-directed video for it is a riotous, clever visual fest of pop culture references—think “The Office,” with various nerd lexicon figures like Stephen Hawking and Star Wars characters. The catchy song is Ivan’s take on the “this is who I am” song, in the vein of Eminem’s “My Name Is” and it showcases his skill. One thing becomes immediately obvious—Ivan Ives knows how to flow on a track. His staccato, nuanced delivery draws the listener into his music and shows just how hard he has worked at this—he is a prolific MC with many EP releases under his belt. To call him an “underground” rapper, while true, would not do justice to just how polished he sounds on his second full-length release, Iconoclast. Released on his own record label No Threshold Records, it boasts fifteen tracks, with none of those filler skits we all love to skip. Featuring guest appearances from renowned rappers such as Cappadonna from the Wu Tang Clan, 2Mex, Vast Aire, and O.C. from D.I.T.C., it is a breath of much-needed fresh air in the rap scene.
Musically, the beats, created by Ives’ longtime producer Fresh, aka The Hitman, are very innovative. They have an old-school feel, with soul song samples and superb scratching interspersed throughout. Nothing like the beepy, synthetic and often simplistic sound heard on so many other releases, they sound very organic and, well, jaunty. “Fresh (aka The Hitman) is a genius. His beats surpass a lot of other producers in the game right now. He has a throwback sound to his beats that other people try to replicate but don’t quite get there,” Ives says about his friend and collaborator.
Which brings us to the next point—Ivan Ives is originally Russian, now living in LA, yet his sound is very East Coast. “A lot of people actually hear my music and THINK I’m from the East. I did spend part of my childhood in Brooklyn after coming to the states from Russia, so I don’t know,” he explains. “The first album I ever got was Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle. At first, I was really into all the West Coast MCs (2Pac, Death Row cats, etc.), but afterwards I started listening to more East Coast rap: Biggie, Wu-Tang, all the D.I.T.C. cats. Big L is one of my favorite rappers of all time; I look up to him and aspire to be as good as he was one day.”
While Ives clearly has the lyrical chops to nerd it up on par with the other underground rappers, it is apparent that he does not have an interest in showing off by pontificating on politics or esoteric topics. Sure, his songs are peppered with various quirky references—on “Carpe Diem” he pokes fun of the stereotype that Russians are good at Tetris and chess and affirms his skill in both—and Ives clearly has a lot of cheeky cleverness to go around, don’t mistake him for a nerdcore rapper. “To quote myself on ‘Nice’ off of the LA Heat EP, ‘Some care more about lyrics, some more about flow, s*** man, I care more about both.’ There are a lot of underground emcees that have some interesting stuff to say, but unfortunately they can’t flow and so no one will care about it. If you don’t have your presentation down, it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to say. If you listen closely to my music, I have a lot to say about society and the struggle for survival, however, I embed my messages into more accessible formats and more catchy flows, because I want more people to enjoy my music and hear what I’m trying to say.” Ivan Ives clearly incorporates the element of good delivery, seen in mainstream hip hop, with the lyrical chops and brainier leanings of underground hip hop. “Most mainstream hip hop nowadays is trash. I remember back when mainstream hip hop was actually good (although that was mostly golden era hip hop stuff). I’m trying to bring back a fusion of the golden era sound with more modern influences, and that is possible, of course, because of The Hitman’s amazing skills behind the boards. But I hardly even listen to any underground rap that is coming out now, because unfortunately I think a lot of that is also shitty. It’s getting way too artsy. Too many kids that lack real-life experiences making up fantasy worlds filled with stories of fake struggling and fabricated tales of redemption.”
Ives’ Russian heritage also adds an innovative quality to the mix. He raps in Russian briefly on several of the tracks, showcasing his equal skill in both languages. “Victory” sounds like a Russian communist march, complete with the, “They’ll never defeat us,” Russian samples. So while Ivan Ives is not a “Russian rapper,” his interesting background certainly gives him rich lyrical fodder. As to whether he feels pigeon-holed by it, Ives responds
“I have fun with it. I’m obviously by no means an ‘ethnic’ artist…Honestly, I do feel that my background and my father’s struggle against the KGB with his art have influenced my music and the direction I am ultimately heading in, and it definitely does set me apart from other MCs.”
Iconoclast finds Ives exploring the trials and tribulations of an up-and-coming rapper. A lot of the tracks feature the hallmarks of hip hop—braggadocio and claims of one’s awesome skill. When he waxes on about his lyrical superiority, however, it’s always done in a smart, punny way and any “arrogance,” is tempered with humility. “I got wicked game, call me Chris Isaac” on “Lay Low” is one of the clever punch-lines often found on this album. On “Mad Game,” he raps
“I build a legacy founded on leprosy; an outcast outlasted everyone next to me. Bitter wrath for most rap critics, I rap for cynics and real heads still in it.” On “Life Is A Bitch,” he talks about the struggles of his career, “Working shitty jobs for cash; I can’t smile–we are out of laughs. With dreams as unattainable as mine the question usually asked is why. Why do I strive to be the best that ever was and make tracks for nerds and clever thugs,” and declares “I am not arrogant. I am damned.” “The Recipe,” another really standout track, is a riotous showcase of Ives’ love for hip hop, in the vein of “Got It.”
“Olivia Josephs” is one of two tracks that finds Ives addressing relationships—in other words, don’t look for him to be stereotypical rapper with songs “for the ladies.” It’s all business on this disc. On this track, he bids goodbye to Olivia Josephs, an amalgamation of his exes. He raps, “I hate your blond hair; I hate your plastic life. Tired of you and your friends playing ‘pass the knife.” The other track, “Revenge,” is the only real-deal linear narrative track on this album. Over a trippy, eerie non-beat of a beat, Ives narrates a grim story.
Iconoclast is the narrative of a workaholic. Love him or hate him, one Ivan Ives is one hard-working MC and this album reads like the diary of an underground rapper trying to make his name known. Devoid of the vapid cotton-candy stylings of bling bling rap, it is also refreshingly free of pontification and boring exercises in spouting off philosophy. Fifteen tracks of excellent beats and lyrics showcase his growth from a more abstract to a mass-appeal emcee. The tight verses and good hooks harken back to an older sound, thus making this record all the more enjoyable. With his forays into film—Ives has made some award-winning shorts and videos—and the growth of his No Threshold label, as well as various other collaborations, Ives clearly intends to keep his fans happy. His East Meets West tour hits the 9:30 Club on October 10th. Other acts on this bill are 2Mex and Vast Aire. You would be remiss to miss this great Russian hope, who is worth all the hype.