One of the first things I notice when the four members of Alphabet Stew stroll through the door is the snazzy custom letterman jacket DJ Spark is wearing. Emblazoned with both his and the group's name, it's quite the confidence-building piece of merchandise. I come to find out that all the members of the group have their own jackets, like a hiphop version of a high school football team. The look of the jackets—though snazzy—is not important. What is important is that they exist; four working stiffs like DJs Wels and Spark and emcees Andy B and Al-One who sink their money into custom embroidery clearly states: "We plan on being around for a while and we believe in this group."
Alphabet Stew is a relatively recent (and welcome) addition to the Portland hiphop scene, having just released their debut record, Mentil Soup, on Halloween night. Produced over a period of two years, Mentil Soup is a vibrant, humorous experience that demands repeated plays. Furthermore it is a truly gestalt piece of work; somehow the breezy twisting rhymes, funky beats, and carefully scratched choruses add up to something more than the sum of its parts.
At this point I have to admit that we music writers are a hyperbole-prone bunch. We sometimes ascribe equally glowing terms to good, as well as great, projects and—all things being equal—it usually works out. But, when something as solid as Alphabet Stew's album comes across my desk I'm forced to reevaluate former reviews and ratings. It's not that Mentil Soup is the "greatest hiphop album ever made," or even the "greatest hiphop album from Portland," but it does deserve special mention as the most fun I've had listening to a hiphop record in a long damn time.
Fun is really what differentiates the Stew from their contemporaries. With a diverse array of song topics—which range from overeating ("The Fridge") to booty slapping ("Handprints")—the group could find itself unintentionally categorized in the dreaded "comedy rap" genre. What saves them from such a fate is their solid delivery—these are funny guys, but make no mistake, the music they make is seriously good. Another characteristic that distances Alphabet Stew from the competition is their musicianship. Andy B—who produced the entire album in addition to rapping on it—is a multi-instrumentalist whose father, Portland jazz bass player Denny Bixby, contributes to two of the album's tracks.
"We realize there are a million other groups out there and we have to ask ourselves, 'How do we stand out?'" says Al-One. DJ Spark chimes in: "We want to push the envelope but not be forcing it. We just want to take some risks musically and have a good time."
There's a lot to like about Alphabet Stew. Bringing a boisterous array of talent to the stage and the recording booth, they help enliven a hiphop scene that, at times, reflects the dreary atmosphere of our Northwest weather. Even though I'm very much an appreciator of the darker side of hiphop it's nice to see some fundamentally solid performers not taking themselves too seriously. It's an inspiringly simple musical formula spiced up by some really likeable artists. That and, of course, the custom jackets.