Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Other than his collaboration with DOOM (which sadly doesn’t seem to be an ongoing concern,) the Beat Konducta series is my favorite of Madlib’s projects. The format is perfect for his frantic work-ethic: a great big pile of hip-hop instrumentals, usually clocking in between ninety seconds and two minutes. For those who came in late, the first six volumes were released separately on vinyl and combined on two-for-one CDs. The first two (Movie Scenes) were an eclectic collection of beats based primarily on soul and funk, but with quite a few curveballs thrown in. The third and fourth volumes (Beat Konducta in India) used samples from Bollywood soundtracks, and the last two were tributes to the late J. Dilla, incorporating samples Dilla had used in his own productions and creating a sorrowful/celebratory vibe perfect for a musical eulogy. As the title suggests, this installment is (mostly) made from samples taken from African music. (The same sample of American composer Steve Reich’s “Come Out” used on the Madvillain album is used here as well, and if I had the encyclopedic knowledge to recognize everything, I’d imagine there are other non-African snippets.)
Occasionally, Beat Konducta beats will be recycled in extended form as backing tracks for rappers, but I prefer them in this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it channel-surfing format. It can be erratic at times, and a lot to digest at once, but it keeps things moving. On the odd occasion when the Beat Konducta stays in once place for too long, (such as “Spearthrow for Oh No” on this volume) it’s tiring. Maybe my attention span is spoiled by the brevity of most of the tracks. Maybe Madlib is just more of a flash-of-inspiration producer, lining up one disconnected idea after another, as opposed to making song-structure instrumentals like RJD2.
Because of the massive volume of tracks, the Beat Konducta records get better with each listen, and that was exactly my experience with Beat Konducta in Africa. Repeat listens reveal a wealth of little moments like the horns that soar over “Red, Black and Green Showcase”, the vocal hook that distinguishes “Warrior’s Theme”, the submarine throb of "Umi (Life)" and the lurching waltz-tome of “Chant 3”. These are scattered among less effective ideas, like the interludes that pair a tourguide record with some of the more muted beats in this collection. “Yafeu” for example, drags on far too long (just under two-and-a-half minutes, but it’s relative, eh?) without ever really hitting us with a great hook. Some of these spoken word portions are actually repeated, which adds to the tedium.
That inconsistency is a symptom of Madlib’s try-anything approach, the same thing that makes his best moments so inspired. Even if this isn’t the strongest of the Beat Konducta records, it is always good to hear Madlib in his element, chopping up cool samples. Writing about the first volume in Madlib’s Medicine Show, I said “Hip-hop, by its very nature, has broken down concepts of music ownership so thoroughly that it would be absurd to fault an artist for one more form of cultural high-jacking.” In my review of the second volume, I accused Madlib of cultural high-jacking. And here I am, writing about the third volume, which I guess falls on the good side of the difference between hijacking another artist’s work and making something new from it.
I love sampling. Before I ever owned a microphone, I was making music patched together from samples. DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing was the record that changed the way I approached making music. Once I heard that, I was done writing songs on a guitar. I spent most of my sophomore year in college crouched in front of my computer (I couldn’t, and still can’t, afford an MPC or anything like that) ripping CDs and looping and layering samples. I didn’t produce anything worthwhile, but I gained a new appreciation for the Pete Rocks of the world, and my interest in hip-hop went into overdrive. When I discovered Madlib, I had found this music’s Ornette Coleman, an artist doing things his own way, producing a diverse range of projects all tied together by a distinct feel that is difficult to pin down. Even when Ornettle Coleman is playing the violin or trumpet instead of his usual saxophone, it’s easy to recognize him. Likewise, whether he’s chopping up breaks or playing the drums or rapping, there is something uniquely Madlibish about everything Madlib makes.
And this particular slab of Madlibishness, while not his masterpiece, is a worthy entry into his perplexing canon. The samples from highlife and afrobeat and soukous give these beats a unique feel, and the way “African Map Hustler” segues seamlessly into “Street Watch” might point the way for a more technique-oriented future for the Beat Konducta, which would be interesting to see. And, if nothing else, tracks like “Heritage Sip” and “Mighty Force” are essentials for anyone’s “Best of Madlib” mix CD.
Three down, nine to go. Next up: Madlib releases an album on 4/20. I'd give you three guesses, but you wouldn't need all three.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
The story of drum and bass music has a hundred versions, but purists frequently lament an arc of compromise: jagged breakbeats are domesticated to score car commercials as ritual raves are co-opted by businessmen. An outlaw is deputized. For a listener like me, however (Midwest, mid-twenties) the mythology of psychedelic libertinism and socio-spiritual ecstasy is barely more than the dated liner notes packaged with an LTJ Bukem mix. It’s like how I really dig Jimi Hendrix's music but you couldn’t pay me to watch Woodstock: The Movie. The heroic iconography associated with the pure heyday of drum and bass (the Hendrix-torches-his-axe for the jungle crowd) has typically been the DJ leading his congregation through their rhythmic glory, but I have always preferred the producer, huddled monastic in his bedroom over sampler and calculator, perfecting his masterwork before turntable apostles take it to the world. It’s no surprise, then, that that I am partial to the armchair end of drum and bass. Imagine the difference between swing and post-bop, dance music made avant-garde art. The same radioactive spider that turned Benny Goodman into Eric Dolphy also turned Goldie into Squarepusher. Meanwhile, Sun Ra was from Jupiter and Christoph de Babalon is from hell.
If You’re Into It I’m Out Of It is grim, scary and unyielding. I suppose people could dance to it, but somehow I imagine them sawing through their limbs to escape some Jigsaw Killer death trap instead. You’re not getting out of this record alive, buddy. De Babalon uses the lo-fi claustrophobia of a thousand black metal opuses to pummel his listener with overdriven bass drums and the twitchy, digital bite of spring-loaded sounds. You know those PFM and Spring Heel Jack records that reach for the clouds with a breath of fresh air? This is not that. This music smothers and strangles and slices. It’s awesome. "Dead (Too)" has a bandsaw synth that cuts through all the other music you listened to today and leaves it in little shreds on the floor. "Expressure" is the sonic equivalent of two black eyes.
There are lengthy, drone-based ambient tracks interspersed with the fury and murder, but they are not a calm respite. The ambience is not Brian Eno’s wide-open public terminal, or even Tim Hecker’s day-after-Chernobyl wastescape. It’s more like that box where they locked up St. John of the Cross. That claustrophobia, combined with the almost-excruciating anticipation-of-a-bang tension, is pivotal to the album's structure and makes it a complete, immersive listen. Pretty? Pleasant? No. It’s better.
I know a lot of people would hate this music, (it failed the girlfriend test), but the very things that make it alienating are what make it so thrilling. There’s no arc of compromise here. This music will not work in a car commercial. Your crowd-pleasing DJ has no use for it. De Bablon doesn’t care. If you’re into it, he’s out of it. He painted the basement floor red and he’s got a bunch of strange-looking tools.
I work as a substitute teacher, which means I watch more educational videos than any person should be subjected to. It’s incredible how many of these pedagogy-Spielbergs use anonymous, generic (probably public domain) house and jungle-lite to score their “learning is fun” condescension. Using music as background noise is paying it the ultimate insult. (In that, I am not including using music for dancing, which is a way of actively engaging it.) I admire Christoph de Babalon for making an album that refuses to be ignorable. Great art makes you want to rip it off the wall, they say, either so you can burn it or take it home. This guy doesn't care which one you do, but if you even try to attack this music you'll probably lose the fight. Look at that album title. It's just as audacious as “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. De Babalon has the good taste to spare us the pop-prophetic, self-congratulatory liner notes favored by so many electronic musicians, but you can imagine the sort of Nietzsche-esque exclusiveness he might have included: “Perhaps not even ten men alive are prepared to hear my breakbeats.”
I love the dank atmosphere, the suspense of being chained to the furnace just below that mildewed waterline as the cement floor is sunk under a malicious flood. This is one of my favorite electronic albums. In case you were looking for one more thing Thom Yorke and I have in common (in addition to “scrawny” and “nervous” and “loved by millions”), I once read a review of this record that he wrote for the BBC (which you can read on de Bablon's myspace page). “I choose this record,” he wrote, “because it's the most menacing record I own and it's kind of how I imagined drum and bass was always going to be and then it wasn't.” I think I own some records more menacing than this, but that other part is exactly how I feel about it.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
It’s a dub record, so you know what it sounds like: The chunky wobble of the bass, the rusty scrape of the high-hat, the bass drum’s muddy thud, the horn section playing in a cave, the vamping guitar drenched in cement-floor slapback and the disembodied voices adrift in their delay-unit haze.
Scientist, once a protégé to dub innovator King Tubby, isn’t reinventing the dub wheel here, but he’s a master of his craft. His intuition is perfect, and the addition-by-subtraction process yields a work that never becomes repetitive or dull. There is a bright, crisp sound here, as opposed to the deep murk of, say, Lee Perry’s excellent Super Ape. Little spoken bits at the start of many of the songs (“I am the living dead!”) lend a kind of thematic unity, but it doesn’t really extend beyond those brief catchphrases and the album cover. Scientist’s albums all have amazing titles, by the way, like Scientist Meets the Space Invaders and Scientist Wins the World Cup. It’s like he’s going on all these great adventures, when really he’s just mixing some awesome dub. (He also made an album in 1980 called Introducing Scientist: The Best Dub Album in the World. I like it when artists aim high.)
Like strophic techno, dub is constructed by the addition and subtraction of layers. Each of the repeating elements is congruent with the others, and the music moves through a series of combinations as layers are added and removed, reintroduced or silenced as necessitated by the track’s momentum. Unlike techno, however, these elements are not programmed into a machine, they are parts played by session musicians, recorded to a multi-track tape where they can be isolated from each other in the mixing process. The musicians are typically not the stars of the show, however. It is the man at the mixing boards whose name (or pseudonym) graces the cover.
A few years ago there was a dustup when several tracks from this album were used in one of the Grand Theft Auto games without Scientist’s knowledge or consent. Scientist was apparently upset that his music was associated with anti-social wish fulfillment (“I don't understand why they have someone who steals a car and shoots up the place, then he's listening to reggae and Rastafari on the radio.”) The fact that he received no compensation probably stung a little as well. Just because the cover boasts his name doesn’t necessarily mean he is recognized as the author of this work, however. A managing director at Greensleeves Records said "Basically, Scientist was claiming to own copyrights in songs and recordings as a result of being the mixing engineer. Although we always felt these claims were ridiculous, we had to defend ourselves all the way to trial.” Greensleeves won in court, perhaps because certain people in the legal system just don’t understand how dub works. Apparently, according to precedent, the mixing engineer can not claim authorship of a recording.
So who is the author here? Henry “Junjo” Lawes produced the recordings and wrote the arrangements, which are played expertly by the Roots Radics Band. The original mixes feature vocals by Michael Prophet, Wailing Souls and others, though in Scientist’s mix, these are reduced to well-placed snippets.
Jamaican pop uses and re-uses riddims frequently, and the artistry most often recognized is what a certain performer does with those pre-recorded backing tracks. It’s not unusual for the same Sly and Robbie track to be used for several different songs by several different vocalists. This is similar to the way American rappers will recycle each others’ beats on mixtapes, except in the case of reggae and dancehall the practice is often a feature of “official” releases.
In the early days of dub, a single’s b-side would often be a dub version of the a-side. Somewhere along the way, dub became an art in itself, and whole albums of dub versions were released. I haven’t heard the original un-dubbed versions of any of the tracks on Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires, though I suspect I would like them quite a bit. It’s strange that those originals have fallen into obscurity while these versions comprise a recognized classic. Who's the author now?