In the liner notes that accompany his new album, Buck Up Princess, Josh Martinez gives a shout-out to Swollen Members. Recalling that the MC once told me how little he cared for Swollen's music, I ask him if he's since had a change of heart. Seated across from me in a booth at a downtown café, the Halifax-born rapper buries his head in his hands, curses, and explains that his acknowledgments were printed in error. As far as Battle Axe's marquee act goes, Martinez still can't stand it.
"Swollen Members is a business entity," he maintains. "I think they're great businessmen, but I think they're [making] shit music, and I don't mind being quoted as saying that."
The Straight is only too happy to oblige, if only because a good old-fashioned feud might just breathe some life into Vancouver's tepid rap community. Since Swollen broke through to the mainstream with 2002's Bad Dreams, Van City's scene has split in two, with some artists (like Checkmate, Motoe, and Brougham Camp) attempting to duplicate the trio's crossover success while others (like Martinez, mcenroe, and No Luck Club) continue to ply their trade in the margins. Although it's tempting to write off Martinez's dismissal of Mad Child's crew as mere player-hating, his issue with them is a moral one.
"Swollen's done what they felt they had to do, but I think they did so without any social agenda or any attempt at helping their audience learn or grow," he says. "I think they really copped out on that, and I will always say that about anybody whose music doesn't have any more content than 'I'm good at rapping and here's why.' "
If anybody in Vancouver should be boasting about his rhyme-writing ability, it's Martinez; since breaking out with 1997's Josh Martinez & the Hooded Fang, the spindly spitter has turned hip-hop heads with his hyperliterate attacks on anti-Semitism and American imperialism. The latter theme figures prominently on the unreleased "God Bless America", a song that Martinez first performed at last year's South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. Playing to a roomful of ballcap-clad heads and boot-sporting cowboys, the Canadian delivered these lines with unerring rage: "God Bless America?/What the hell does that mean?/Why would you suggest/God bless a corporate war machine?"
Those lyrics prove that Martinez likes railing against the system, but he does so in a highly melodic way. Buck Up Princess finds the MC at his singsongy best, as he stacks multitracked harmonies a mile high on tunes such as "Theories" and "Deep End". Like the musical alchemists in Oakland's Anticon collective, Martinez draws more inspiration from the Beach Boys than from the Cold Crush Brothers.
"In general, I listen to rock music, because more so than hip-hop, it provokes an emotional response," he explains. "As I get older, it's starting to have a bigger impact on the way I make music. I already have a tentative title for my next album: Traditional Songwriting With Choruses."
More than merely borrowing rock's melodic hallmarks, the rapper assumes the same narrative perspectives employed by observational songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Where most hip-hop MCs pen paeans to their own greatness, Martinez revels in the raconteur's role, glorifying the toil of lumpenproles and starving artists all over the world.
Unsurprisingly, his music has won plaudits in indie-rock circles, notably from Britain's Robin Guthrie, the former Cocteau Twins guitarist whose Bella Union label will be releasing Buck Up Princess in Europe. On the home front, Martinez and his backing band (the Pissed Off Wild) are reaching out to guitar-based acts, lining up an upcoming show with the Buttless Chaps.
Head of his own label, Camobear Records, the young entrepreneur is looking to establish a West Coast counterpart to Minnesota's mighty Rhymesayers collective. After years of toiling in the underground, the Minneapolis-based rap stable struck gold last year, signing a distribution deal with Los Angeles's punk powerhouse, Epitaph. With Martinez pushing his labelmates to be their best, Camobear might soon find itself courting similar offers. Aiming for more than just financial security, the MC wants to preach his DIY gospel across the continent.
"As long as I can remember, I've always admired the idea of being a revolutionary, the idea of being someone who stands up, stands out, and then leaves in a cloud of fire," he says. "But you can't just take up arms and become a revolutionary anymore. You have to find alternative routes to be subversive. That's what Camobear is all about: bringing a bunch of people together to see what they can accomplish if they're all pulling in the same direction."