“Our music is targeted as the bridge between hip hop and soul”… So says Maurice “The Palmetto Cheetah” Sheffield, one half of the Columbia hip hop duo, Clockwork 7. Along with his partner Rodrick “Soulstar” Belton, the two make good on that promise, brewing a musical concoction that delivers an old school rap shot to their listener’s heads while chasing the solution down with some impassioned soul vocals. The feel here is late ’80s – early ’00s, but the production is modern, creating a throwback that reminds us why groups like EPMD, De la Soul and Blackstar had their share of popularity, while striving to connect with a modern audience. Rod and Cle met in the late ’90s as students at Francis Marion University and this has been an on and off project for them through the years, but they have upped the stakes for more recognition with their latest EP, “The Definition of 7”. The clued-in transitions between pure rapping and emotional singing are one of their trademarks but the group’s reliance on scratching, sampling and programming is pretty in your face, as well.
“Introduction to the Definition” starts the 7 song record off with James Brown samples, whom the band acknowledges as a key influence. Scratching right off the bat and soulful singing à la anything D’ Angelo has done lately segue into the positive lyrics, which are a stamp of the band. It’s a strong juxtaposition; the ’70s funk guitar layered in the background has that certain dirty south feel, like the first couple of Geto Boys albums, but the affirmative message is far removed from the designed-to-shock lines of the Texas band’s gangster rap. This is a theme song, introducing the group that is “always on time”. The Palmetto fanbase is notified that we have a group representing them. “Hot Revolver” seems like the candidate for lead single, and it busts out the braggadocio you would expect from rappers with a mission to break away from the legions of pretenders. “Out of all the scores of rappers I see, can’t none touch Cle or his boy Rod B.” and all of the rivals will be “crushed like a piñata” while our heroes are “ginsu-knifin’ ’em”. The track ends with a female narrator detailing the group’s makeup for the uninitiated: “the number of completeness and perfection” and don’t you forget it. A short interlude with nice harmonies follows and then “We Know!! (Cloud Flow)” is the next song with a certain hazy style that might fall under the definition of cloud rap. The unexpected distorted guitar at the beginning rolls into a catchy chorus. “Keeping On (Jimmie’s Song)” starts with a humorous stand-up comedy sample about the difference between black and white churches, moving into a jazzy funk guitar/ bass pattern with more soulful singing. It’s an ode to not giving up and once again, the group throws positive energy all-out at their audience. Record closer “We Made It” starts with a sample paraphrasing a biblical passage about human endeavors and their fruitful results and the song itself continues the narrative with Rod bringing the soul. Predicting their own success and owning their band mission is here: “I used to wait tables/ not to keep the lights on/ but to focus on these life songs”. In the end the message is “this is the year of your exceptional favor”, quoting, well, God.
Columbia has always had a history with rap, since the first female hip hop band originated from here (The Sequence) and Clockwork 7 are fine progeny of that legacy. Hip hop duos can be ultra powerful; like Blackstar or Mobb Deep, Rod and Cle throw in sweet transmutations that change the listener’s expectations and keep things interesting. The militant comic book cover album art of “The Definition” shows the group has a mission in mind for both themselves and the rest of the universe; give this record a listen and see where these Palmetto sheppards are leading you.
Recommended if you like: The Roots, EPMD, Common
Sean Knight is a native South Carolinian who has spent his life bouncing back and forth between SC and Texas, playing in bands you probably never heard of in both states and stinking up open-mic nights in the Low Country for many years. He plays, collects, listens to and probably spends too much of his life obsessing over music.