It’s a well-known fact that the music industry can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find success in, but imagine how tough it must be for an up-and-coming rapper. For starters, performing live as a solo act is never a simple feat, consistently portraying a persona can quickly become exhausting, and developing an interesting and unique delivery style is ever so important (unless you’re Eminem). On top of all that, the business side of the hip hop industry is a labyrinth of constantly evolving trends and vulturine connections, each with their own ulterior motives. The result is a legion of mediocre rappers “playing the game,” trying to sell generic trap songs to meme pages and hoping to be the next novelty to catch a feature with Kanye.
Of course, there are some exceptions: for instance, underground hip hop has existed for about as long as its mainstream counterpart. Many of these artists prove that hip hop can indeed and perhaps even should be insightful, timeless, and original. With his latest album, The Alligator King, Greaseball shows that he is one of these beacons of truth, honesty, and raw talent in an oversaturated and increasingly commercialized genre. Not only is it safe to bet that Greaseball will achieve success on his own terms, but it’s quite possible that he will develop his own definition of success altogether.
Grease, whose real name is Joseph Palmerin, grew up in the city of Riverside and has been rapping since the 6th grade. “I used to listen to rap music on the radio and I would try to write the lyrics out so I could say them along with the radio,” he remembers, “I did that a lot and then I was just like, ‘Man, I could write my own shit.’” He attracted the attention of his peers one day when he was reciting an original rap for one of his friends. “I looked up and everyone was looking at me. All these fucking astounded ass kids and they were all clapping.” Grease claims that this single event is what inspired him to develop his craft; something he’s been doing for the past 14 years now.
After teaching himself how to produce beats, continuing to write original raps, and releasing some music on the internet throughout high school, Grease met fellow Riverside rapper, Mc Lyfe and formed The Herbalistics at the end of 2011. Together, they played alongside such hip hop giants as Inspectah Deck, Open Mic Eagle, and People Under the Stairs. Grease attributes their quick rise to regional popularity to the underground hip hop scene at the time. “It was big back then. Everybody was like, writing graffiti, everybody was into old school rap, and trap wasn’t super prevalent yet,” he says. In other words, the Inland Empire was the perfect place for a unique and dynamic group like The Herbalistics to gain traction. From Riverside’s own Boom Bap Dojo, a monthly hip hop, breakdancing, and live art showcase, to other I.E. treasures such as Noa James and Cloudmakers, it’s clear that there was a community surrounding, not just the music, but the culture.
Since The Herbalistics haven’t been as active in recent years, Grease has released a steady stream of singles, albums, and collaborations which exhibit his versatility and growth as both a beatmaker and an emcee. Indeed, Greaseball does have a long list of hip hop credentials, but what defines him are his creativity and his unrelenting refusal to be anyone but his true self. In that regard, The Alligator King, which was released on January 1st of this year, is his best work to date.
The first song on the album, “Break Your Head,” features a fat, bass-heavy beat, produced by SPVCECVSE. The smooth verses and stand-offish hooks are enough to get anyone’s adrenaline pumping and the next song, the album’s title track, continues with that energy. Both of these songs utilize an aggressive and even “macho” tone that’s become sort of typical for hip hop, but the album’s third track, “The Pain,” shows that Greaseball isn’t afraid to embrace his own vulnerability. It features bittersweet lines such as, “I’ve been practicing my Spanish/ Hola Señora ¿Cómo Te Llamas?/ It makes me feel much closer to the man that I grew up watching disrespect my mama.” The introspective and, at times self-deprecating verses are juxtaposed with irresistibly catchy hooks. The album utilizes such ambiguities to paint a clear picture of a purely human experience. Greaseball isn’t afraid to contradict, laugh at, or learn from himself.
“The Alligator King is a bad character, you know, it’s me being a tyrant,” he says, “I was being really shitty in my last romantic relationship. She had done some fucked up shit to me and, instead of walking away, I held it against her.” This kind of self-reflection and honesty alone are rare for most people, let alone rappers who are trying to make it big. That’s exactly what sets Grease apart from other artists: he doesn’t seem to be very interested in the materialistic success that our society has been conditioned to fantasize about. Instead, he’s critical of the power that comes with money and fame. “The Alligator King sounds like a cool thing,” he admits, “But it’s not. It’s just someone who is abusive with their power.”
Stylistically, the album is just diverse enough to show that Grease can rap in about any hip hop subgenre, but it maintains a certain cohesiveness. “I Think I Do” even utilizes a trap beat and a triplet-heavy flow, which may be surprising to many of his longtime fans. However, regardless of what the general feel is, Grease is incredible at making each track his own. This is in part, due to his unique style, but also to how selective he was about which artists to collaborate with on this album. For instance, the only other emcee that is featured on The Alligator King is Hephty Martinez, one of Grease’s oldest friends and collaborators from the I.E. hip hop scene. He also recruited Ontario beatmaker, Asend, to contribute a few instrumentals for the album. “Asend is like a rapper’s best friend,” says Grease. “That dude just likes to make beats that people can rap on and I think that’s huge.”
One of the most uncommon things about The Alligator King is that it features collaborations with two different bands from the I.E. indie/ punk scene, Guestbed and Birote the Musical. Although these features may initially seem out of place, they show that Greaseball is talented and courageous enough to break many common musical boundaries. In fact, he seems to be much more interested in simply creating good music than pursuing status in any single scene.
Perhaps the event that had the most influence over the creation of The Alligator King was Grease’s move from Riverside to San Dimas. When he was a teenager, his father was diagnosed with cancer and his family had to take out a mortgage to pay for his treatment. After his father passed away, it was left up to his mother to finish paying that mortgage, but times seemed to only get more difficult as they eventually lost the house. “I was pretty much just homeless for a few years until I moved here,” he says, referring to the Cookie World Productions Trap House, where members of Birote the Musical and the Cookie World record label live. This move affected him just as much artistically just as much as it did personally. “When I met Birote, I saw how committed they were,” he remembers. “They really pushed me and within months of moving in, I had released a new album. And now, a year later, I’ve got another one.”
Cookie World has played a huge part in Grease’s recent work. Although he is the only rap artist who is currently signed with the label, that doesn’t seem to matter much to him or his label mates. Instead, Cookie World is just interested in, “People who play with their hearts,” says label member Chandler Howie. “It’s just authenticity. If they’re doing what they wanna do without the thought of ‘Oh we need to sound this way’ or ‘We need to do this for this certain fanbase,’ if they’re just doing it because they want to do it and they need to do it, that’s what we want. Freaks being freaks.”
This has proven to be the perfective environment for Grease to create music in. For instance, he says that Neil Gross, guitarist and vocalist for Birote the Musical, played a big a part in creating The Alligator King. “After my last album came out,” Grease remembers, “he asked me ‘What’s next? You’ve already established that you can rap, so what are you gonna do with that?’” This led Greaseball to writing an album that he thought was deeply personal, but ended up bearing a lot of universal truth. He says, “With the last album, people would hit me up and give me props, but with this one, people hit me up and they say ‘Thank you.’”
That’s why The Alligator King will prove to be a timeless album. It is as stylistically diverse as it is lyrically complex. It is a journey of self-reflection and egoist deconstruction. It is deeply personal yet it bears universal truth. The Alligator King is far from a generic rap album: it is a triumph for hip hop and for humanity.