I was first introduced to Jun Tzu’s music by a friend in 2010 or 11, when he played me the original mix of Wee Jonny. It really grabbed me, and along with the Message To You Rudy remix has been a firm favourite of mine since. The grit and lilt of Jun’s Belfast accent and the visceral story he tells combine with harsh, sparse beats to make a truly compelling hip hop track.
As such I was intrigued to hear about his new EP, Unknown Ground, a project with his uncle William Smith, also featuring Serenay Odabaşı, William’s girlfriend. The EP takes six classic country and folk songs, played by William and intersects them with Jun’s raps. On his Belfast Baby EP (the record that the remix of Wee Jonny appears on) there are hints of this kind of fusion, particularly in Folks Music (Evil Foreman). Nonetheless, Unknown Ground brings a new dimension to Jun’s work.
The strongest track on Unknown Grounds is its first, The Pilgrim. Taking Kris Kristofferson’s country ballad of the same name, which tells the tale of a perpetual traveller, Jun and William create something else. William’s wonderful winding harmonica introduction sets the scene perfectly as he starts to croon about a poet, a picker and preacher who’s a problem when he’s stoned, before Jun’s distinctive voice gives us the verse to William’s chorus, filling us in on the trials, tribulations and freedoms of the road. The lyrics contain the style of a travelling preacher, full of spirit but rejecting institutionalised religion, and . For me the track reveals similarities between the storytelling power of both country and hip-hop and reminds me of the Alabama 3’s work, minus the tongue in cheek element but containing some of the same wit.
My two other favourites are Hard Times and I’ll Fly Away. Originally written in New York in 1851, Hard Times is hopeful and mournful in the same breath, a song of the downtrodden pleading for hard times to come around no more. Again the theme of the battling underdog, that runs through folk ballads and hip-hop alike, is beautifully brought out. Jun takes us into his struggles as a father and an artist with this moving and well crafted track. I’ll Fly Away is originally Methodist song, written in 1929, and has been covered by a variety of artists since. Although it takes death as its theme, and is commonly played at funerals its a very uplifting song. In stark contrast to the track that precedes it, Ride On, in which William’s voice harrowed me and Jun’s words pour sorrow, it has a lighter feeling to it. Major chords on the guitar and harmonica chime with the themes of acceptance and redemption reflected in the chorus and Jun’s lyrics ‘on the day I die, don’t cry, just smile with me, smoke an L get high, come fly with me’. The song takes the EP in a different direction, away from the loss, alienation and struggle embodied by the other tracks, and also adds a very different new take on the song to the catalogue of existing versions of this popular song.
Other highlights for me were the fiddle playing on Take Her in Your Arms and Ride On, and the final track on the album, Our Town, which sees William accompanying his partner Serenay Odabaşı on harmonica in a cover of Iris Dement’s lament to the decline of her home town.
Looking at the EP as whole I think its a brilliant piece of work. As mentioned earlier, I think it takes the very different narrative traditions of folk music and hip-hop and melds them in an innovative way. I enjoy the relationship between the original versions of the songs and the ones on the EP. Aside of Our Town, none of them are covers – they take choruses and parts of verses and treat them more like samples, albeit played on live instruments. In this sense it explores both hip-hop’s use of reference, and folk musics history of adapting and reusing popular songs to give the listener something new. Whilst it represents a break from Jun’s previous work, his avid followers won’t be dissapointed, as it still brings out the themes of politics (with a small p) religion and personal journey that they will be familiar with.
Unknown Ground has already been released and is available for download from https://juntzu.bandcamp.com/album/unknown-ground for £5. To fans old and new, I highly recommend getting yourself a copy.