Album Review: Micranots "The Emperor & The Assassin" (2003)






I Self Devine and Kool Akiem first starting making music in 1989 and they officially formed the Micranots in 1991, so by the time 2003 came along, the journey for The Micranots had been a long one. Their mission was filled with many victories, amiss numerous setbacks and challenges. Through it all, they stayed true to their message and mission, with integrity fully in tact. On “The Emperor And The Assassin” they sound supremely confident in their skills, but every bit as passionate as well.

The first proper song on the album is “Glorious”, which was also the first single and it has all the makings of a fitting reintroduction to the crew and at the same time, launching the theme of the album with the vigorous cuts, “Welcome to the Empire!” Once again, Kool Akiem constructs a track that perfectly communicates the song's purpose and has a bit of a future primitive feel. The backing drumbeat draws from the 90s, conjuring thoughts of Cypress Hill meets Royal Fam and sounds as if it is moving along steadily, but slowly. Perhaps it is feeling the weight of the heavy music appropriately blaring on top, attacking from all angles. I Self is perfectly in control of his flow and content. His style has so much finesse that it sounds like he’s enjoying himself, even as he is tackling hard topics, facing and revealing personal experiences, “Welcome to the empire, my words been fire/We self rule so we call it self sire/When we hired for the show we bless the crowd like kaya/Inspired, in tune, were no weed gets me higher/Disrespect, test your neck with a thin wire/then smile, been wild since violence was truly in style/I feel glorious like we defeated asthma/Inhale, breathe easy, I feel laughter/We victorious, so close another chapter/The book is written sitting on the shelf for you to map thru/After the braveheart battles put my blades away/No more drama, like Mary J, still fools masquerade/Fake face, cosmetic, Mary Kay/It’s a shame fools build obstacles to find their way/My thoughts changed but I’m still the same with a snipers aim/Tap your favorite leader in the face and change the game/They call my crazy, insane or I Dolo/I Self in the jungle with a bullet proof halo/Perverted angel, putting rap in a strangle/It’s church on the mic, plus the followers a faithful!” On the second verse he touches on his interchangeable nature of leader and follower, “I’ve always been a leader, got no problem following/But quick to take the lead when the leader starts wandering/Asleep at the wheel, I leap from that back seat/As an athlete, on the crossroads where the tracks meet…”

“Origin” was the track that first put Muja Messiah (credited as Mujaheed on the album) on my radar. The first verse finds the two MCs trading bars, which left me hoping for a side project with the two of them rocking together in a larger capacity. On the second verse I Self Devine taps directly into the theme of the song and speaks on power struggles with his Mother and the Educational system. Mujacloses it off and never really keys in on the theme of origin, but he just has so much flavor and charisma that he commands your attention.

“Our Universe” has a great moody vibe and a few subtle elements that give it nuff character, although it’s prominently fairly minimal, but effective. I Self Devine takes you on a 3D visual trip of his often turbulent upbringing. One section of the chorus sums up the sentiment of the track, “Our universe, how we make songs out of hurt/Pull diamonds out of dirt/We do work, we exert, we got thirst!” This is one I suggest you sit down in a quiet space and just let it soak in thru some headphones and catch the full effect.

“Steel Toe Vs The Rookie” takes a different angle on I Self’s issue with law enforcement. Here he plays the role of a young optimistic rookie who’s teamed with a crooked veteran cop, played by Slug. Over the course of the song you get to witness how those experiences start to affect and change the rookie.

“Heat” was the single B-side and it’s a Micranots styled Summer jam. I Self Devine vocally travels thru time, reminiscing of Summers from days past. The humming and overall musical aura implores memories of walking the streets, walkman in play mode and taking in the sites; the beautiful and the unsightly. The song highlight takes place in the final verse, “Ten years ago, Summer’s the release date/I’m a Free slave circulating out the gate/It’s the 4th of July, but we call it ‘the 4th of you lied’/It’s ironic that I’m out at this time/Walked a ½ a mile, Powderhorn park’s jumping/Multiple blunt smoking, fools knowing that I wasn’t smoking/for a year so they pass it like charity/I smell barbeque, drum beats give me clarity/Girls stare at me then smile, running next to me/ recognize the recipe for ecstasy/So elated that I’m celebrating/Instead of locked down, no fresh air, inside the cell pacing/Contemplating long years of escaping/I’m on the asphalt, bringing rhythm to the pavement!”

“Eight Days” gives some insight to I Self’s move from Atlanta back to the Twin Cities, as well as some of the struggles within the struggle itself, “People be asking me ‘Why’d you make the xodus from A-town?’/You spilled blood, left fertile ground/Not a exodus, I’m yelling it’s a journey thru hell/When my faith and commitment and purpose was on trial/ Got upset with the movement and dealing with many schisms/Is my dreads long enough to excite your favoritisms?/Do I say ‘overstand’ enough? Food; vegetarian, vegan/When we reason, are you hearing or scheming/Many politics, not enough community to save me/I thought collectively but lost part of me, down spiraling/F**k how I look like, peep how I’m speaking/Could be rocking a suit, dead broke with blood leaking/At times I wish I had no knowledge of self, because the path was so vivid, dreaming in detail!”

Later he pays tribute to some of the strong women he has encountered in life. He starts the verse with, “Peace to the women in my life who just listened/Gave me sunshine when the weather was hard-hitting.” He then addresses some specific women, who he eventually describes, “These are the mothers who raised me into a man/Strong warrior, killer, father, holder of contraband.” He then proceeds to explore some more learned lessons, “I’ve known sisters, friends, lovers and yet/They had respect, when I was off, put me in check/Some I’ve done wrong,they cut their heart muscle/Some shattered mine when I got out hustled/Some gave me books for me to read up/Knowledge myself, others gave me dough for re-up/Money for tuition in school or proper insight/Told me about the stars and the moon and how to eat right/Held me down when the label was jerking me/Talked me out of wild s**t, handgun murdering/Yo, I’m out, my time is done/And when you vision I Self feel the rays of the Sun.”

Not only does the song end on that point, it actually starts that way also as he describes the time he met Assata Shakur, which sounds like a life-changing experience and he characterizes it as, “Truly Mind-blowing, watching time slowing and flowing/She be teaching thru her actions/While speaking, I’m thinking ‘this aint’ happening’/I’m humbled, watching jewels dropped effortless/The life lesson is, relax, stop stressing petty adolscent s**t!” I have an immense respect for the fact I Self always represents for women on every record, so many male figures are far too insecure to speak so honestly and reflect that there are countless amazing women in this world that are deserving of the ultimate respect and love. Although, I commend I Self for being among the few true enough to express it, I simultaneously feel ashamed to live in a world where it is a rarity.

This album only had one single, but if there was a second, “Neutralize” might be the right choice. It’s got a good feeling with some vibraphone, background horns, and a combination of light and heavy drums. I Self Devine shares stories of adversities in his days of school and youth homes, as well as surviving thru gang Culture to discover Hip Hop.

As many of you probably realize, "The Emperor And The Assassin" also ended up being the last Micranots album and not long after its release the group would officially disband. One can imagine that after nearly 15 years of making music together, that along with all the great music, learning from each other, and positive experiences, there were also many growing pains, disagreements and challenges along the way. I Self Devine gives his personal account of what lead to the break up of the group, including some things in hindsight that he recognizes could have been handled differently. Of course, every story has at least two sides, the following is just from I Self's perspective and in a future piece I'd be interested to also explore the Kool Akiem perspective as well:

The break up of the Micranots to me began with that ultimatum given to return back to Atlanta during the recording of The Dyno. When I got to Atlanta I was super motivated and didn't see the same motivation from AK at the time in relation to practicing and a reluctance to put music together in the fashion we did before leaving Minneapolis. Prior to the Micranots moving to Atlanta Truth Maze and I would dig for breaks and pool them together with Ak's and collaborate on samples chorus and song ideas.

Upon my return that process was abandoned. I would bring ideas to the table and they would be dismissed with little explanation. My ideas may not have worked, however the explanation on why was not satisfactory for me. I was left with confusion and not understanding. I also wanted to start making beats, but I was discouraged by Akiem not to. His reasoning was you already get to shine as the MC and the role of a DJ in Hip Hop is further diminishing with the over commercialization of the culture. I agreed and suppressed my desire to produce to be a team player. With my increased create digging and the decreased desire for my sonic input I became frustrated with our output and beats selection. I began to keep my records to myself as well as retrieve the records I brought to the collection. Those records samples and ideas became the sonic landscape for Semi Official, which I've mentioned Ak hasn't listened to to this day. He viewed it as a dis album to him which it's not. It's was what I wished the Micranots would have sounded like, as well as validation that my ideas worked regardless if I could work the equipment. 

 Akiem is a year and a half older than me and growing up we would all look up to him as well as Truth Maze. The MC I am today and my knowledge of the role of a DJ creating verses choruses and the usage of samples are all attributed to AK .To me alot of the breakdown of our communication and working relationship was, as the younger brother and student I began to grow and elevate which changed the dynamics and I don't think he was willing to adjust. I also felt that Akiem took advantage of his rank in the crew by not respecting and honoring the growth. As a mentor of others I have taken that experience as an example of what not to do. If you are a good teacher it is inevitable that your pupil will be a master. And you should develop nurture then get out of the way and he didn't do that. As a result of those dynamics petty power struggles became rampant. It also didn't help that we were in two different states. To note, every album from Return of the Travallah's to The Emperor was either written or recorded in different states. Because of my displeasure of the sample choices, I sent Akiem a crate of records of his choosing to comprise some of the sonic landscape of the album. I felt he took the crates reluctantly not cause he wanted to but more out of a passive aggressive gesture to show he was doing what I wanted which was not what I wanted. I wanted to collab like we used to and not a "my way" situation.

After I listened to the finished product it became apparent that Akiem was silently battling me on our own record. I called him and in our conversation/argument he confirmed my premonitions. There were interludes after every song which to me weren't needed. He went back in after we recorded and jumped in on choruses and talked over songs that weren't originally like that, as well as rhymed on a song I felt he shouldn't have. I felt he wasn't secure in his own skills and overcompensated.The album to me would have been a classic if it was leaner with out the aforementioned. To me, this album was his response to Semi Official.

 All of these things were compounded and exacerbated when he came to live with me a month before we went on the Seven's travels tour and imploded on the road, which was embarassing. I admit I was younger then and my responses to those issues were not productive long term. At our record release I had enough and ended it. Our creative process became compromised and I no longer enjoyed his company nor what we were creating or performing regardless of how much money was at stake. We had worked together since we were 17 and 19 and It was time to move on. In retrospect I would have handled it differently. 

Kool Akiem & I have since reconciled working with each other. As recent as the "Culture Series" ("The Sound Of Low Class Amerika" lead-in promotional campaign), we have performed together, performing a few Micranots joints.

-I Self Devine

 -Bonus Notes:

"Off Beats":On this track on the album there was a guest MC named Malcolm, who I never heard of before or again that I know of. I asked I Self who he was: 

"The MC, Malcolm, on "Off Beats" was Budah Tye's younger brother Ward Malcolm who had just moved here from Sacramento, (he) was also my roommate at the time of recording."

 "Kish": In the shout outs to the album both I Self Devine and Kool Akiem give a shout to someone named Kish. I Self also makes reference to Kish having nice freestyle skills and mentions that they were planning to record a track together. Being I wasn't aware of who he was I asked I Self to shed some light:

"Kish was a young upcoming MC and artist from Florida, I think, who went to Atlanta College of Art with Ak's younger brother Caleb and I. Coming up he liked our music and we would freestyle together. As I remember he had a real MC's voice and a amazing knack for improvision.  In passing we would always talk about doing a song together however that never materialized due to his murder. He was shot and killed. I'm not sure under what circumstances."

Compiled and Written By Kevin Beacham 

Additional Commentary and Insight By I Self Devine

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