No doubt if the profile of Zach Lint, a.k.a. Coolzey, increases, publicity will give some attention to his back-story and persona, as it’s an unusual one in the field of hip hop/rap music. A kid from a farm town north of Des Moines, Iowa who moved to Iowa City and turned himself into a DIY juggernaut as a rapper, songwriter, and rock musician, launching an independent label and adopting the DIY ethic of underground rock towards all his projects, especially his rap/hip hop work, then took to touring the country relentlessly in a van, changing his city of residence frequently while running all his own business affairs as an underground artist. Despite the relative lack of the usual adversities that similar stories play on — Zach is, after all, a healthy middle-class white kid from one of the friendliest parts of the country — it’s his work ethic, which has enabled him to build an underground career from next to nothing in resources — that inspires in a “you could do this too” kind of way, no matter who you are or what you come from.
That work ethic has a lot to fo with the story of Coolzey And The Search For Hip Hop Hearts Vol. 1: He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper. In the summer of 2010, even as he continued a hectic schedule of touring and making up the rest of his living in the remodeling business, Coolzey embarked on an impossibly ambitious project: over the 12 weeks of summer, he would complete an album of 12 songs, one per week, each based on a beat from a different DJ, and each with its own music video created in collaboration with his Public School Records partner and video producer Jason Hennesey. Each track and video was released online, right on schedule, and the album available for free download from the Free Music Archive.
And that might have been as far as the project went, but it became evident that there was demand for a hard copy. So earlier this year Zach put up a Kickstarter campaign to fund having the mixes cleaned up and the album and videos mastered and pressed to a CD-plus-DVD package; the campaign was successful and the resulting product can most likely be acquired at the merch table at dates of Coolzey’s upcoming package tour with three other heavy hitters: Joe Jack Talcum, a singer-songwriter best known as the member of The Dead Milkmen who sang on “Punk Rock Girl”; Austin-via-Iowa City rapper-singer-songwriter-composer-keyboardist-improviser-raconteur The Bassturd; and Iowa City’s maestro of the disturbing Samuel Locke-Ward. Said tour hits Vaudeville Mews in Des Moines on June 18 (and The Blue Moose in Iowa City the night before, for those of you out that way). This show promises to be amazing and you would be a fool to miss it.
There are those, and I occasionally claim to be among them, who profess to miss the fun vibe of the early rap and hip hop of the 1980s and their youth as we find ourselves now so many years deep into the tuff-guy gangsta era wherein each artist tries to appear more “hard” than the last. Perhaps some of this sentiment has latched on to the underground phenomenon where you find Coolzey, and through Coolzey I have been turned on to the likes of Rashaan Ahmad and I’m not sure if there’s a rap peanut gallery that degrades this kind of thing as “hipster rap” the way there is in the metal scene, but if so I could give a fuck about that kind of talk. At the end of the day what matters is quality, and while there may be some hearkening back to the attitudes of classic hip hop, you’d be mistaken to consider this material as merely throwback or retro, as the sounds are new and varied, and you’d be even more off the mark to pigeonhole Coolzey into “nerd rap” with some of the other outsiders, even if he does look like he would fit in with their crowd.
I can’t claim to be much of an expert on hip hop music but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Zach is a hell of a lyricist. The way he puts words together makes me as a songwriter a bit jealous. He has obviously devoted himself in a big way to honing his craft. He also manages to sound positive even when while he’s savagely dissing lesser/lazier MCs and doing it more cleverly than anyone else around. He delivers his criticisms in a way that makes him sound above the fray even as he participates in it: “If I don’t eat their lunch, they’re in the next room chumpin’ me / Sizing me up, trying to figure out the best way to get at my cheese / Here’s an idea: ask me / I wouldn’t put it past me to give it up for free / My soul is infinite, so there’s no way to outlast me.” Zach’s values and ethic as an artist and toward life itself make it to the forefront of most of his lyrics, and the philosophy he espouses is that life is too short to waste hating on others or expecting anyone to come around and hand you anything for free.
Elsewhere Zach extols the virtues of creativity and the DIY hustle and devotes an entire track, “Put Me Away,” to an extended metaphor about how he just likes to stay busy and bring joy to people any way he can, by portraying himself as some kind of all-purpose As Seen On TV helper robot. The track, like much of the album, is clever and hooky, and Zach backed up its concept in his Kickstarter campaign by offering as a premium at the $3000 level that he would come live with you for 5 days and clean your house, babysit your kids, do remodeling, or anything else you ask for (there were no takers but he definitely would have followed through). Most of the music has a laid-back feel but there are darker, more sinister tones as well, especially the spooky yet inspirational examination of human mortality “Faces Of Death” and the tough-talking “Ten WA” and “Keef.”
The variety of approaches however, does result in some moments that seem out of place and throw off the album’s overall focus. “No Reply” is an intriguing though incongruous mix of a Coolzey rap over some avant-garde electronic sounds by The Rhombus, a bit hard to follow, and while fairly enjoyable to a noise-head like myself, is likely to get the skip button treatment from most. “No Solicitations” also comes off out of place, but taken on its own terms works well, Zach portraying a dull office-drone character who we’re not sure whether to laugh at or sympathize with or both. And on some tracks the lyrics can veer disorientingly from philosophical meditations and on the human condition to political issues. But for the great majority of its running time, The Search For Hip Hop Hearts is a collection that once again showcases Coolzey as an artist capable of making you laugh, dance, and think all at the same time.
Also, not enough has been said about the videos, which come on a second disc in this package. Writing about videos is if anything even harder than writing about music. Jason Hennesey definitely plays up the fun aspect of these songs, featuring Zach rapping with a plush puppy dog hand puppet, Grace Locke-Ward’s cats wearing graduation caps, drunken camera shenanigans, live show footage and vintage educational films. You can watch all of them on Vimeo.