A link between hip-hop and cyberpunk may not initially seem like the most obvious musical connection. Industrial’s cybernetic fusions of organic instrumentation and machinery, rave’s dayglo futurism or, more recently, synthwave’s re-imagining of 80’s kitsch and the video store synths of Vangelis and John Carpenter might be more obvious candidates for the ‘cyberpunk music’ title.
In recent years, however, sronger links have emerged between these once disparate movements. A cyberpunk mindset and aural palette can be heard in the aggressive, glitched out noise rap of Death Grips or B L A C K I E, the politicized electro-punk menace of P.O.S. and even in an artist as well known in the mainstream as Kanye West’s adoption of cyberpunk visual tropes in the video for Stonger or in the digitized, post-human angst of his 2013 album Yeezus. Perhaps an argument could even be made that man/machine amalgamations are nothing new in hip-hop, dating back to the integration of samples and drum machines instead of live bands in most cases. It is maybe telling that Public Enemy’s DJ went by the cyberpunk appropriate stage-name of Terminator X when unleashing an apocalyptic squall of sirens and beats on audiences.
YTCracker’s take on cyberpunk and hip-hop in Introducing Neals is perhaps not quite so oblique as the above artists, instead opting to directly take on cyberpunk themes and contemporary concerns about surveillance and privacy, wiring them up to synthwave production and creating an album that is unabashedly and unmistakably a cyberpunk artifact.
Introducing Neals is a 24-track concept album telling the story of Neals, a young hacker fighting for privacy and net neutrality in the dystopian metropolis of San Sequestro. The concept album approach works well here, aided by the inherently cinematic feel of the production and even spawning a related animated video which was incidentally at the center of this rather fascinating news story from late last year. The video is also part of a planned hour long cyberpunk ‘hiphoppera’ based on the album that was seeking funding on Indiegogo. Sadly, the funding campaign ended on January 4th 2015.
YTCracker’s depth of knowledge and passion regarding security and privacy issues are clearly apparent (before becoming a rapper, YTCracker created waves as a hacker in his teens) in both his delivery and lyrics, although some listeners may find themselves wishing for a more allegorical take on modern concerns here. Certainly neither YTCracker or his alter-ego Neals are shy about sharing their views with the listener or dropping computing analogies into the lyrics, which can admittedly be quite a lot of fun for those invested in the subject matter.
Nevertheless, even for those who may not necessarily share YTCracker’s concerns, there’s a lot on Introducing Neals to recommend the album, . The production here really shines and is full of enough pulsing and shimmering synths to keep fans of synthwave and 80’s soundtracks in neon-lit anthems for some time to come.