It's appropriate that Chucky Sly's long-awaited debut album is titled The Unseen Mechanism—the local MC has excelled under the radar for much more than a decade and a half.
He moved here in 1991 from Germany, but since, he's consistently operated with the singular task of creating exceptional music.
"When I came here from Germany," Sly says, "I had one goal: to make a dope hip-hop album."
Perhaps the time it's taken to see The Unseen Mechanism come to fruition is the result of Sly's heavily literary influence. The son of a military man, Sly's deep passion for reading had its origins in a punishment that his father laid on him. Grounded and holed up in his parents' house for a lengthy term as a teen, he was given a copy of The Weapon Shops of Isher by A. E. van Vogt, a 1950s sci-fi novel.
"It was terrible," Sly moans.
But no matter, the seed was still planted—a lifelong reader was born. And in his rhymes, Sly hits on a variety of topics that come directly from those books that he holds so dear. A big fan of prominent sci-fi scribe Philip K. Dick, Sly's tastes also trend toward the spiritual journey of works such as Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi.
It all amounts to an image that may not immediately come to mind if someone told you to imagine a "veteran Dallas rapper." But Sly's musical tastes also lean toward the same diversity found in his reading habits.
"Right now I'm listening to 90 percent hard bop jazz," he quickly announces when the topic of music is finally breached. As hardcore a fan of hip-hop as they come, many of Sly's sonic selections are funk and soul, though he's quick to point out that harder-rocking bands like Wolfmother have made their way into his rotation as of late.
This wide-ranging palette shows in the variety of The Unseen Mechanism's tracks. The feel-good hip-hop popularized by groups such as A Tribe Called Quest gets a prominent nod, sure, but so too does a smattering of dub influence, funk samples and even soulful singing (Sly himself belts out a few lines on "Until You Get Home"). As a result, the final product stands as one that excels in several disciplines. His confident delivery and thought-provoking lyrics exude the aura of a true thinker, a welcome shift from the recent, expected recipe for success for locals in the more radio-friendly line of the same work.
"The major theme of the album would be techno-paranoia," Sly offers. It's a concept deeply rooted in the work of the aforementioned Dick.
As such, lovers of good, thoughtful music—as well as hardcore hip-hop heads—will truly appreciate the essence of the album, as well as the live show. With 15 years of local live performance under his belt, The Unseen Mechanism makes good on its promise to showcase to the world how well Sly masters a number of different genres. With undeniable head-nodders, Jamaican chant and the requisite calls for crowd participation, Chuck's events are always an emotional delight that hark back to another era while staying relevant in today's soundscape.
Even so, the purists who value street cred and hip-hop grit will still find plenty to admire on the disc. In an era when far too many listeners are in it just for the beat, The Unseen Mechanism's production stands on its own. A recent performance of his song "New Religion" at the Lounge on Elm Street included a moment reminiscent of those speaker-destroying 808 blasts popular in the Miami Bass sound of the early 1990s; the sonic effect was so intense that each member of the crowd for once took their eyes off of the performer, looking around to the closest neighbor with a surprised expression that asked, "Did you feel that?"
But how do you market yourself when you share so little with the area artists getting the local and national airplay for another, simpler, dance-heavy brand of the same genre? When asked, Sly deftly sidesteps the issue, saying that his sound should be defined as "music from Dallas" rather than "Dallas music"—even if the far-reaching nature of his background has significantly influenced its formation. Truth is, the development of Chucky Sly's sound, one that originated while he was immersed in the culture of the European continent, has flourished in the Big D. And while he avoids making direct comment on the state of his profession these days, he alludes to the situation on the track "I Remember," when he laments lyrically, "I used to pray for the day/When hip-hop hit the mainstream/Now I'm screaming to take it away."
Being long on experience, both in worldly matters as well as musically speaking, comes with a maturity not often achieved by those in this scene. Ask any local MC on the grind—those artists who record and perform while soldiering on at the day job—who their favorite local rapper is, and you'll more than likely hear Sly's name early in the conversation. It's a definite understatemant to say that this album has been highly anticipated among those familiar with his music. "Finally!" was the consensus reaction when the mention of the upcoming release made its way to the ears of several noteworthy DJs and MCs.
As such, the roster of local artists Sly's worked with is long and includes many of the most-respected and talented. Beginning with the group Native Poet, whose members included Tahiti from PPT and Awkwarius fame, Sly has also collaborated with acts such as Hydroponic Sound System, PPT, Strange Fruit Project, Rubba Rode, Shabazz 3, The Bodega Brovas and others. More than anything, the polish of The Unseen Mechanism comes from the familiarity and refinement that his material has undergone over the years. Since his first Dallas show, a 1992 event at the Aqua Lounge, Sly's been harvesting the material for this project. Some of the lyrics heard throughout, even, have been kept under wraps since the middle of last decade, with "For All the Girls" specifically dating back to 1995.
Like any artist, though, there have been peaks and valleys. After Native Poet, Sly and Tahiti began to spend much of their time away from the group, instead focusing on their side project. Originally code-named "The Super Secret Project," that undertaking eventually became The Almighty International Free Agents. With Sly still on the heels of that project's full-length debut, the late 1990s and early 2000s saw one of those valleys that happens when life simply gets in the way; despite pleas from peers and fans, along with a healthy dosage of perfectionism clogging the pipes, Sly still had yet to make good on his promise to himself of releasing that one dope record. Meanwhile, Tahiti would go on to complete his own solo release in the same super-secret project style that had borne the A.I.F.A. 2005 saw the launch of his The Birth of Whack, after which Tahiti kept himself on the Dallas radar by way of his PPT and Awkwarius efforts.
Largely with the help of Second Sense, Sly's performing DJ and producer of many of The Unseen Mechanism's tracks, the album was developed in about three months earlier this year. The focus and dedication that Sense brought to the project, coupled with the motivation of former partner Tahiti's successes, propelled Sly to finally jolt this gem to life. Bringing together a barrage of local production talent like Sense, Dubb Crawford and Strange Fruit's S1, Unseen could prove to be a landmark gem of the city—at least to those who appreciate a little more thought in their rap game.
And with the big step taken to get the first one done, fans can only hope that Sly will bless their ears with more—a distinct possibility, too, considering the "three or four more albums'" worth of material that Sly claims he still has in the archives.
Here's hoping his whole catalog goes Unseen, rather than unheard.