- Photo via Bandcamp
The Domino Effect, the hip-hop duo comprising rappers Steve N. Clair and Cue, like to boast that they are "the most known of the unknowns." It's a subtle subversion of hip-hop bragging, and the seemingly contradictory phrase underlines the group's upward mobility as well as its unwillingness to sacrifice its art for commercial gain. The pair's 2015 release Unknown made its status plain in the title, but for the just-released Satellites, the Domino Effect retains its underdog pose while delivering eight strong, varied tracks that rely on throwback soul samples and word-on-the-street rhymes in equal measure.
"We've got two perspectives," says Clair of the group's known/unknown divide. "In the sense of underground hip-hop in St. Louis, we're trying to start it off on the lowest of the low on the totem pole. The people that follow the underground scene know us, but people who follow Hot 104.1 FM have no idea who Domino Effect are."
Cue, who handled much of the production on the eight-song set, emphasizes his and Clair's commitment to "always sticking true to ourselves, to that known Domino Effect DNA. It's about always keeping our same style, that same element of hip-hop that we bring into our city."
That DNA stays largely true to Unknown, with tracks that can hit hard, including the assured "Reign Supreme," but are more often content to use jazz and syrupy soul music to lay a funky foundation. For Cue, the band's trademark is twofold: He describes the production as "kind of nostalgic and trippy." That vibe shows itself on the jazzy syncopations of "Protocol" and the smoothed-out jam "+Frequencies." As a producer, Cue most clearly tips his hand with a nearly unadulterated sample of the Stylistics' quiet storm classic "Betcha By Golly Wow" for "314-Life." Cue notes that the sample is a nod to the sounds of their youth.
"That's stuff we grew up on — putting the Stylistics on and bumping that when you're getting ready for a cookout or something," says Cue. "With Satellites in general, it feels like every song is taking you on a ride through the galaxy. I've always been intrigued by that type of sound."
Clair says that the varied sounds speak to the duo's wide influences and gives credit to his brother Klick Klac, who offers production on a few tracks here. "All three of us are musically inclined — you'd be surprised," says Clair. "We are definitely influenced by '70s soul, progressive rock and psychedelic music. Hip-hop might be the third on the list that I listen to."
If the production leans toward silky retro jams, Domino Effect's verses are rooted in the here and now. Some of the tracks on last year's album were in direct response to Michael Brown's killing and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson, and those issues and others are still present on Satellites.
"We talk about real things," says Cue. "We talk about things that are relatable; we always give you that subject matter."
The clearest message comes through the track "Chainge," which uses a ballad tempo and uncluttered, piano-led production to make its bones.
"From our perspective, there ain't nothing new under the sun," explains Clair of the song, which traces a line from slavery through the present day. "We spelled it like 'chains' for a reason. It's kind of like a reaction toward all the police brutality and things like that."
Even the more upbeat "314-Life" doesn't tiptoe around heavy subject matter. While the track is styled as a throwback jam and a celebration of city living, Cue, Clair and guest Indiana Rome mix childhood memories with harsh reality.
"There's been a lot of murders of people that we may not know, but are always one person away from someone we know," says Cue. "We tried to make a feel-good record while keeping perspective of everything that's been going on." According to Cue, Rome's verse came in at the eleventh hour but adds another layer to the song. "Everyone's got their own perspective on what it's like to grow up in STL," says Cue.
The recurring thread of real-talk is bracing in places on Satellites, but the album provides smart, humane commentary on St. Louis circa 2016 and shows Cue and Clair's appreciable skills, rhymes and heart. A layer of positivity is never too far from these songs' surface.
"That's one of the main reasons we're doing music: to lift someone's spirit and make them feel good," says Cue. "We may talk about more negative situations, but we always try to bring a positive mode and higher learning as opposed to just rapping about whatever on any track. We put our emphasis on teaching you something."Stream the new album below: