When Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys got the rap-metal ball rolling back in 1984 (Run-D.M.C. with "Rock Box," the Beasties with "Rock Hard"), they probably had no idea that rap-metal would still be around 20 years later. They weren't thinking that far ahead; Run-D.M.C. and the Beasties were simply doing something that felt good to them at the time. But rap-metal proved to be impressively durable, and it has since become an extremely crowded field; the late '90s and early 2000s brought listeners a glut of Korn and Limp Bizkit clones, many of them totally forgettable. Nonetheless, the cream still rises to the top in rap-metal -- not always in terms of commercial success, but certainly in terms of creativity -- and on 2004's Universal, Downset continue to offer some of rap-metal's more substantial grooves. Rage Against the Machine is an obvious comparison on this CD; Downset are also a very sociopolitical band. But while Zack de la Rocha and his colleagues are angrily cathartic (even if you find some of their militant politics to be simplistic at times), Downset aren't just angry -- they're also spiritual. If you combine Rage's verbal bombast with a touch of Limp Bizkit's thugishness and a lot of Public Enemy, KRS-One, and Ice-T's spirituality, you get Universal. Calling Downset spiritual isn't saying that the Los Angeles residents are trying to force some religious dogma down listeners' throats; spirituality doesn't have to be about organized religion or sectarianism. Rather, Universal is spiritual in the way that the best PE, KRS, and Ice-T raps were spiritual -- spiritual as in deep-thinking and conscious, spiritual as in seeing how oppressive life in the hood can be and trying to come up with some possible solutions. There is no shortage of mediocrity in rap-metal, but on Universal, Downset avoid the pedestrian and demonstrate that they are still among the more intelligent and creative bands in their field.
by Alex Henderson