The biggest music-related thing to happen in 2010 was without a doubt my trip back to London and catching Pavement at All Tomorrow’s Parties. Perhaps the most surreal experience from the entire trip though was being at the Butlins waterpark with a few hundred hipsters in their swimwear. Going down water slides and getting tossed around in the wave pool. Half-naked, bearded, tattooed and for the most part out of shape.
Anyway, I know it’s a bit late for a best-of-year list but for my purposes it’s acceptable so long as it gets posted within the first quarter of the new year (hah!). So without further delay (artists in alphabetical order):
Photek – Ni Ten Ichi Ryu (1997)
While dubstep has largely replaced drum and bass (and 2-step garage, thank God) as the electronic dance music du jour by the first decade of the new millennium, the scene still commands a relatively dedicated fanbase, particularly in its home ground of the United Kingdom. It is however quite unlikely that we’ll see another surge of mainstream and critical attention, the likes of which we saw during the mid-to-late 90’s which culminated in the propping up of releases such as Timeless by Goldie and New Forms by Roni Size. Unfortunately drum and bass today has mostly been relegated to being mere incidental music for sports programmes and wildlife documentaries.
‘Ni Ten Ichi Ryu’ is far from being the best track to represent the genre, but for my money it’s the best damned D&B track ever created. The track begins with samples of what sound like taiko drums and snatches of traditional Japanese percussion instruments. It takes about a minute before you can determine where the downbeat actually takes place, but once things get under way it’s an intense bombardment of drums, snares, samurai grunts, the metal clang of swords and distant, sporadic sighs of the shakuhachi.
Photek (real name Rupert Parkes) has an uncanny ability to program some of the most complex drum patterns, but never ends up spazzing out like Aphex Twin or Squarepusher. Despite running at an excess of 170 bpm, the track remains organic and somewhat hollow throughout its six-minute length. There’s no discernible melody, but with so much going on at the same time there’s barely any space for traditional song structure. All this contributes to a cold, uneasy sense of foreboding, which translates pretty well to the accompanying black-and-white, feudal Japan music video.
Most drum and bass makes you want to get up and rave your ass off. ‘Ni Ten Ichi Ryu’ on the other hand makes you want to just sit down and pay attention. Arguably one of the smartest and most cerebral electronic music ever made, regardless of genre.
I went to a Halloween-themed salsa party last weekend, dressed as a Rescued Chile Miner. No one got the joke. It didn’t help that both my borrowed safety vest and helmet were brand new, shiny and reflected the shit off every flash picture taken. I had nary a smudge mark on my face, nor did I think of wearing a pair of sunglasses to mimic just having gotten out of a mine. I ended up as Foreign Labour Road Worker instead.
Anyway, enough about me and my fail. Here’re three songs that hopefully will creep the hell out of you.
The Soul Searchers – Ashley’s Roachclip (1974)
Alright, here’s some Hip-Hop 101 for all of
you y’all. I suppose most of you are comfortable with terms like sampling? Drum break? Yes? Okay. Now check out the clip of ‘Ashley’s Roachclip’ by The Soul Searchers at the bottom, and pay particular attention between minutes 3:30 to 3:50. Sounds familiar? It’s alright if you had a bit of an, “Oh sheeiitt!” moment. After all it’s been plundered by everyone from hip-hop heavyweights like Eric B. & Rakim and Ice Cube to extinct pop acts like Milli Vanilli and Color Me Badd.
Funk music has churned out thousands of drum breaks and samples over the years but most remain within the exclusive domain of hip-hop. ‘Ashley’s Roachclip’ though is one of the few breaks, if not the only one, to transcend its usage in predominantly black urban music and helped define an entire decade of dance pop hits. It helps that it was a thoroughly clean break (i.e. just pure drums). But more than that, the kick, the snare, the tempo, everything was so precise and accurate that it’s almost impossible to imagine a live drummer behind the kit. It’s practically inhuman.
Unfortunately for me Rakim’s ‘Paid In Full’ was way before my time so I will always associate the beat with Milli Vanilli. Either that, or ‘Unbelievable’ (Vision Street Wear muthafuckas!!). I’m not afraid to admit I used to lip sync to Color Me Badd though.
Medicine – Time Baby III (1994)
Being 15 and listening to the soundtrack to The Crow on cassette for the first time can only result in one of two outcomes – either you think it’s too depressing and simply not up your alley, preferring to return to the safe pop confines of Sheryl Crow (‘All I Wanna Do’ was all the rage in ’94), or you get thrown down a deep, dark well of inexplicable teen angst and decide it’s simply safer to stay at the bottom than to face everyone else on the surface. Needless to say, I chose the latter.
There are plenty of choice cuts from the album that I could highlight here. The Cure’s ‘Burn’ serves its purpose by being a great lead track. Nine Inch Nails’ cover of ‘Dead Souls’ by Joy Division is pretty good too, if a little bit uninventive (the only thing Trent Reznor adds is performing it LOUD). But the one that stands out for me is ‘Time Baby III’. I remember the friend who lent the tape to me going on about how the Pantera and Helmet tracks were fucking awesome and made him want to throw his desk out the classroom window. I on the other hand have always been quietly fascinated with Medicine’s distinctive guitar tone and hallucinogenic flanging. And I’m a sucker for breathy female vocals. This was shoegaze years before I even knew about shoegaze.
I still have very little knowledge about Medicine beyond what I’ve Googled in recent years. They were on Creation Records with My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain. They have a couple of albums to their name and had their most recent one released on Wall Of Sound Records in 2003. But somehow I never had the inclination to seek out more from them. Kind of like I didn’t want to ruin my memory of the band by hearing a song from them I didn’t like.
Every once in a while it’s still nice to just shut off and sit at the bottom of the well. ‘Time Baby III’ fits that purpose just right.
RZA feat. Method Man & Cappadonna – Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance (1996)
‘Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance’ is possibly the best Wu-Tang Clan joint you’ve never heard. Released as a single from the High School High soundtrack, the track is literally an audio billboard for the group’s then newly-launched streetwear line, created to capitalize on their underground spillover success. It charted relatively well too but was quickly overshadowed by Ghostface Killah’s Ironman which was released right about the same time.
The three Clan MC’s spend close to four minutes proselytizing the superiority of Wu-Wear over every other urban brand out there. RZA’s verse has him relating a story about a man going through, well, a garment renaissance and deciding to ditch every high-street label that comes to mind (‘Stopped wearing Benetton / Tommy Hill, Perry Ellis, Nautica, or Liz Claiborne / Ocean Pacific, Fila, Bill Blass and leave fitted / Quit the Armani sweaters with the Gucci wool knitted’) and replacing his entire wardrobe with ‘strictly Wu-Wear’.
In between verses by RZA and Cappadonna you have Method Man serenading the label’s quality statement to you (‘Ain’t what you want baby / It’s what you need baby / Just come see me / Satisfaction guaranteed baby’). And beneath all the marketing talk you have RZA’s hard-hitting and uncompromising beat, as are most of his other productions from that period of time, with the odd doorbell sample surfacing every once in a while.
Wu-Wear laid the groundwork and preceded every other rap-mogul-owned clothing line – Sean John, Rocawear, you name it – and subsequently made owning a fashion label a requirement for every fledgling hip-hop career. If only every one of those labels had a banging commercial like this.
Tricky – Makes Me Wanna Die (1996)
‘Makes Me Wanna Die’ is easily the standout track from Pre-Millennium Tension, perhaps the most accessible too. That’s saying a lot coming from Tricky who was, at his 90’s peak, frequently attributed as a sort of trip-hop prince of darkness. Taking the drum break from The Headhunters’ ‘God Made Me Funky’ and slowing it down to a languid 82 bpm, the only other things punctuating the sparse track are a plaintive funk guitar, Martina Topley-Bird’s meandering vocals and Tricky’s occasional whispers.
Like all well-written songs, the subject matter is intentionally left open to interpretation. In all likeliness it’s about weed more than anything else. Tricky makes allusions to ‘Mary’ (you know, short for marijuana), isms (Rasta slang for, again, marijuana) and most overtly to ‘smoking hydroponic’.
For my intent and purposes I like to think of the song as an anti-paean for a guy who’s hopelessly drawn to an unattainable target. He’s clearly infatuated with her (‘Cherish the things she knows / Says if I change my stride / Then I’ll fly’) and has his mind stupefied by her mere presence (‘Look to the sun / See me in psychic pollution / Walking on the moon’).
Unfortunately he can’t shake off his lingering sense of self-deprecation and feeling of not being good enough (‘Who do you think you are? / You’re insignificant / A small piece, an ism / No more no less’). His solution? To make excuses for himself and escape from reality (‘You know it’s ironic / Smoking hydroponic’).
She really makes him wanna die.
Ghostface Killah – Supreme Clientele (2000)
The time span between the release of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) up to and including the first round of solo albums was an incredibly prolific time for the Wu-Tang Clan. Solo joints by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekown, GZA and Ghostface Killah all reached dizzying heights of critical and commercial success. Things started going slightly downhill from there though, beginning with the overly-long double-disc Wu-Tang Forever.
There are several factors for this. One, for better or for worse the Clan has now evolved from a hardcore rap crew from Staten Island, New York into a bloated commerce unit. If you have the CD copy of Wu-Tang Forever you’ll remember the card inserts for Wu-Wear hoodies, T-shirts and a truckload of other merchandise. The back of the CD booklet even had 1-800 numbers for every member of the Clan (ODB’s was 900-26-DIRTY, Method Man’s was 900-HIT-METH and one was simply called ‘DATELINE’, number 900-267-LOVE). Frankly it got a bit out of hand.
Two, RZA was increasingly delegating his production tasks to his protégés. While respectable, you can’t ape RZA in the studio even if you were sitting right beside him. And that kind of took the shine away from the sophomore round of solo albums, most of which paled in comparison to those from the first.
Ghostface Killah, while not always the best lyricist in the Clan (my money’s on GZA), somehow managed to even trump his previous release Ironman with Supreme Clientele. Despite being one of the Clan’s more physically imposing members, Ghost has always rapped in a voice a tad too whiny for the way he looks, worse when he sings his lines. There is however always a sense of urgency and anxiety in his delivery that rubs off on you, even when he raps about the most mundane of things (from ‘Child’s Play’ – “Jellies, Bubble Yum, soda tongue, too young to cum / Then engage him with them candy rings / Eh yo, I hit that shit, got jealous when she kissed Rob / I broke her Chick-O-Sticks”).
The beats on Supreme Clientele aren’t too bad either. But of course, the best ones for me are RZA’s. There’re only four of them but he brought back some of the grime and rawness which went largely missing on Wu-Tang Forever. Check out ‘Stroke Of Death’. He couldn’t even be bothered to loop the beat through a sampler and resorted to just pulling the record back, and back, and back.
Supreme Clientele gave the waning Wu-Tang dynasty a much needed revitalization and served as a timely reminder, for themselves and for their fans, that at the end of the day the Wu-Tang Clan still ain’t nuthing ta fuck wit’.
Quasimoto – The Unseen (2000)
J Dilla and Madlib are like brothers from another planet. Both eschew overproducing their music and making anything sound too clean. Warped vocal sample? Leave it in. Scratchy drum break? Rhyme over it. Both work at breakneck pace and have a seemingly endless output, moving on quickly to new projects with hardly any time to look back. The similarities end there however. While Dilla is the masterly producer’s producer, Madlib is the erratic, perpetually-stoned oddball. Like Sun Ra to jazz and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to dub, Madlib brings a dose of eccentricity and unpredictability to hip-hop without being overtly tongue-in-cheek or gimmicky.
The Unseen best typifies Madlib’s anything-goes but strictly crate-diggin’ aesthetic. ‘Return Of The Loop Digga’ for instance has him rapping about how, “Some niggas be samplin’ the same ass shit / Some niggas be loopin’ up them played out hits,” and striving ‘to create some way out other shit that you ain’t heard yet’. For the most part though it’s Madlib’s helium-voiced compatriot Quasimoto who takes on mic duties with stories of mischief, getting high and mostly just being an unpleasant individual. From ‘Bad Character': ” I’m always lookin’ under some girl’s dress / With a vest, cause some ducks wanna put me to rest / Now I’m a soldier in the town drinkin’ Butterfly Snapple / I walk around the streets passin’ out poisoned apples.”
Who exactly is Quasimoto anyway? Madlib and Quas are intrinsically linked (more than you may realise), but according to the Stones Throw website, “.. they’ve never been seen in the same room together. In fact, Quasimoto’s never been seen in the same room with anyone – he’s The Unseen.” Go figure that out.
Jan Jelinek – Loop-finding-jazz-records (2001)
I remember playing this album in my room once when my mum walked in to ask me something. Just as she was about to leave she paused for a moment at the doorway. She looked at the stereo, then turned to me and said, “Son, I think your CD’s skipping.” The first few minutes on lead track ‘Moiré (Piano & Organ)’ doesn’t sound far from that but a steady rhythm soon kicks in, punctuated by a deep bassline while a stream of clicks and crackles echo and reverb, fading in and out of the mix. Jan Jelinek apparently created Loop-finding-jazz-records by extensively chopping up old jazz records and repurposing the bits into infinitesimal, hushed soundscapes, although the only remaining ‘jazz’ element that’s remotely identifiable anywhere throughout the album are the brushed drums on ‘Rock In The Video Age’. You’ve heard of albums being created for headphone listening. Loop-finding-jazz-records is one of them. In fact, one that requires noise-cancelling headphones. In a soundproof room.