So, when people ask what were the first two CD’s I ever purchased? I tell them, “Def Lepard Retroactive and PM Dawn” (I bought the both on the same day). But, the first music I ever purchased was Public Enemy’s “It takes a Nation Millions to Hold us back” on Cassette sometime around 92’. I came from a family of 5 and my older brothers had begun listening to Ice T, Ice Cube, and Public Enemy like many of the white kids in rural communities. Now, the Beastie Boys were always played in our home, but not until the early 90’s was I exposed to any hardcore rap. Aside from that brief stint in the early 90’s, I’ve honestly haven’t listened to much hip hop and know very little about the disciplines of the art form. This is why I’m somewhat tentative in reviewing many of the local hip hop emcee’s. But, Burnell Washburn is one of those few gems whose talent is so transcending it requires you to recognize him.
I saw Burnell early summer last year at a local open mic where he was spitting rhymes while being backed by an impromptu band and a blues harp player. How I wish could have recorded or recreated that night. The sound was a unique blend of Jazz and blues, loosely akin to the Roots or Digable Planets. Yet, since it was more of a jam setting, the songs structures would blend and morph which broke the typically repetitive beats and samples used in hip hop (picture the harp solo from “You are the sunshine of my life” and mashing it with the Blues Brothers for 10 minutes). It was one of those nights where musical boundaries were being broken, new art form was emerging, and Burnell was at the head emceeing all of it. The night included several battle rounds with other local emcees and Burnell consistently coming out on top demonstrating the breadth of his talent. He gave me a copy of the White Dove Ep and I promptly devoured it during the following weeks. Recently, Burnell release his first album Food of Love; he is now touring the west coast in support of it.
I have not heard or seen anything quite like that night again in the collaboration on melding of music. The flow of Burnell’s rhymes is more true to traditional hip hop style and can be compared to maybe KRSone. For the most part, Burnell remains positive throughout and he doesn’t try to be something he’s not. Many of his rhymes are a heavy, abstract type of word poetry which may be influenced by the large Slam poetry scene which exists in SLC. It brings a smile to my face to hear him unabashedly promote Utah, but still be able to call out many of its hypocrisies. He is adamant in staying true to the style of hip hop and renounce indie and pop influences which have seeped into what is represented as hip hop in top 40 radio. My criticism for both White Dove and Food of Love is the minimal production elements. While I can respect his passion for traditionalism, and his desire to convey, “the message”. The repetitive beats and production act as filler and cannot stand equal alongside the rhymes nor elevate them. The music should be that extension which can interact with the artist. Granted deep down my feelings are likely biased because deep down I wish to recreate some of the magic when I first saw Burnell. In hind sight, what originally drew me to act like Public Enemy and other albums like Paul’s Boutique were the new boundaries which we being created with their groundbreaking use of samples combined with a the creativity of emcee’s like Chuck D and Beastie Boys. In my opinion, Burnell's talent cannot surpassed. He is the best and most creative emcee in Utah. It would very difficult to picture anything preventing Burnell from become a national sensation