Top Albums of The Decade #14

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.

Listen to ‘Bad Character’ and ‘Return Of The Loop Digga’

Top Albums of The Decade #13

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 ‘MoirĂ© (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.

Listen to MoirĂ© ‘(Piano & Organ)’

Can you see the different?

If you’re living in Malaysia and have somehow managed to catch films like The Men Who Stare At Goats, An Education or Precious, chances are you may already have seen the following clip countless times. If you haven’t, here’s a little background info.

Within the past two years or so copies of pirated DVDs found in Malaysia started surfacing with a pre-viewing, FBI-warning-type message imploring you to choose ‘gold discs’ over ‘purple discs’, with the former providing better audio quality, visual clarity and, well, more bang for your buck. The purple discs are apparently vastly inferior to the gold discs, as a valiant Daniel Craig will show you. I’m not sure what the real technical difference is between the two, but I believe the gold discs are supposed to be dual-layer discs (although a check with Nero’s InfoTool says that the discs are single layer with a capacity of 4.67GB) and the purple ones are regular DVD-R’s. Can you see the different?

Top Albums of The Decade #11 & #12

The Sea and Cake – Oui (2000) / Jim O’Rourke – Insignificance (2001)

I owe my awareness of the Chicago post rock/indie/improv scene to a little known two-CD compilation I picked up for cheap back in London called Chicago 2018…It’s Gonna Change. During a time when I was still largely only listening to beats and rhymes, Chicago 2018 pretty much expanded my musical horizons so to speak. What followed was a compulsive acquisition of anything Thrill Jockey and ‘Chicago-associated’ which yielded a whole bunch of albums that I’m still not sure why I bought in the first place (anyone wants my Rob Mazurek CD?). Oh, and a Tortoise T-shirt.

The best ones out of that stack of now dusty plastic jewel cases are Oui and Insignificance. Oui is simply a pop record first, a jazz-tinged indie rock record second. I have always been a fan of Tortoise’s John McEntire who dons multiple roles in The Sea and Cake, primarily keeping tight pace as the drummer and being responsible for the sparkly clean production. The mood is bright, breezy and unabashedly pleasant, a sort of Pet Sounds on a more minimal scale.

Insignificance is in the same vein but rocks out a little bit more, a far cry from Jim O’Rourke’s less accessible experimental noise records. His songwriting is amusing and whimsical with a significant dose of cynicism, the kind of lyrics you’d use for an ambiguous Facebook status. From ‘Memory Lame’ – “These things I say, may seem kinda cruel / So here’s something from my heart to you / Looking at you, reminds me of looking at the sun / And how the blind are so damn lucky”.

I always imagine walking around London aimlessly when listening to these two records, which is what I used to do anyway. Wearing my Tortoise T-shirt of course.

Listen to ‘All The Photos’ and ‘Memory Lame’

Top Albums of The Decade #10

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven! (2000)

This album is the be all and end all of post-rock. Nothing else sounded like it before it existed, and everything else sounded like it after its release. It’s a testament to the significance of the record and unfortunately also a reflection of how bland the genre has become. Lift Yr. Skinny Fists laid the groundwork for what would become hallmarks of post-rock – quiet passages of ambient noise with a smattering of melancholic guitar, increasingly swelling strings, grand trumpets, marching drums heralding the end of the world, guitars now generating walls of feedback, then everything comes together and builds up to the point of rapture and … all quiet again. It’s formulaic, but Godspeed did it first and did it the best.

Listen to ‘Sleep’

Top Albums of The Decade #9

The Avalanches – Since I Left You (2000)

In my opinion the culture of sampling in modern music can be divided into three significant milestones. The Beastie Boys paved the way for endless multi-layered possibilities with Paul’s Boutique in 1989. Then DJ Shadow turned it into an introspective art form in 1996 with Endtroducing. Finally The Avalanches took it out of the domain of dusty basements and cluttered studios previously occupied almost exclusively by hip-hop and brought it to pop-level mass consumption. You could say Since I Left You is the precursor to all things mashup, making it cool for everyone else to mix hardcore rap with cheesy pop and glittery disco. The CD is sequenced into 18 tracks but there’s really no point in listening to this album if you can’t sit down and finish it in one go.

Listen to ‘Two Hearts In 3/4 Time’

Artist of The Decade – J Dilla

Photo by B+

When I think of early J Dilla I think of handclaps, a hi-hat in the back keeping time, hard-hitting bassdrums and most importantly an elaborate, slinky bassline, in most cases derived from a heavily muted vocal sample. A good example of this is the beat on A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Get A Hold’ from 1996. It’s a rather basic formula for hip-hop beatmaking, but somehow Dilla’s method has always been different and undeniably unique. Dilla flips a sample like no other too. Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ has been used loads of times, but on this untitled beat he manages to recontextualize it in a manner that sounds simultaneously fresh and familiar, retaining the core melody of the original but taking on a whole new persona at the same time.

Hip-hop production is fundamentally a form of music creation rooted in recycling and reusing, generally taking more than it gives back. Dilla turned this concept completely on its head – instead of him sampling musicians (of the conventional type, i.e. one who plays instruments), musicians started sampling him. Questlove of The Roots who collaborated with D’Angelo on the latter’s Voodoo has spoken about how Dilla’s music was crucial in shaping the sound of the album. While they are consummate musicians in their own right, they were taking cues from Dilla’s style of irregular beat drops and indifference for quantizing, with some of the backing tracks essentially being Dilla beats recreated and rearranged with live instruments. All this inspiration from a man who basically lays his ideas down on a simple turntable, sampler and drum machine.

Voodoo, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, Slum Village’s Fantastic Volume II and Dilla’s own solo joints Welcome 2 Detroit, the Ruff Draft EP and Donuts are among some of my favourite records from the past decade. All have Dilla’s overarching influence in them, directly or indirectly. These records collectively represent several significant phases of Dilla’s career. Voodoo, Like Water For Chocolate, Fantastic Volume II and Welcome 2 Detroit were all released in the early 2000’s and epitomized the more bottom-heavy, deeply soulful and laidback aspect of Dilla’s style. Common’s ‘The Light’ and Slum Village’s ‘Fall-N-Love’ are personal highlights from this period.

The Ruff Draft EP signalled a stylistic shift to a harder, edgier and more disjointed sound, less concerned with the mood but more with the bounce. I have to admit that when I first heard Ruff Draft I didn’t get with it immediately. I couldn’t identify with what he was doing on tracks like ‘Nothing Like This’ and hadn’t heard anything from him that I didn’t readily recognize. Ironically it took other people to sound like him before I went back and realised that Dilla was doing it before anyone else. I mentioned how he flipped samples like no other. Listen to this and this and see if you get what I mean.

Then of course there’s Donuts. The barebones, raw and spontaneous approach he utilized on here was unfortunately necessitated by the fact that he was working on the beats from a hospital bed. Given the circumstances surrounding the making of this album, it’s amazing to see the legacy that it has created in the years after its release. Simply put, Dilla showed an entire generation of new producers the value and art of getting more out of less. Three days after the release of Donuts, Dilla relented to TTP, a rare disorder of the blood-coagulation system.

Dilla left an immense discography, spread out over different record labels, bootlegs, unreleased material, beat tapes, forthcoming albums and an undetermined number of productions and remixes for other artists. Then there’s the insane amount of posthumous acclaim and adulation which may seem a bit puzzling to those not familiar with Dilla’s work. As an unabashed fanboy (although I’d like to state for the fact that I have been an ardent follower of his since his days in The Ummah), it’s good to know that there’s still so much more that hasn’t been heard from him. There’s no doubt that Dilla will continue to be on heavy rotation for a very long time.

Shtikman Podcast February 2010 – Valentine’s Day Special

Here’s one for all y’all lovers out there. If you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day you may want to put this podcast on to set the mood, so to speak. Or if you’re single like me you can still have this on in the background while you clink wine glasses with your imaginary date over a romantic candlelit dinner by the beach. Either way it’s all good.

1. Sylvia – Pillow Talk
2. Steve Parks – Movin’ In The Right Direction
3. The Jacksons – Show You The Way To Go
4. Al Green – I’m Still In Love With You
5. Minnie Ripperton – Inside My Love
6. Pete Dunaway – And It’s OK
7. Shuggie Otis – Island Letter
8. Rufus feat. Chaka Khan – Sweet Thing
9. Maze feat. Frankie Beverly – While I’m Alone
10. The Sylvers – Only One Can Win
11. Eddie Kendricks – Intimate Friends
12. Darondo – Didn’t I
13. Curtis Mayfield – The Makings Of You
14. Smokey Robinson – The Agony and The Ecstasy
15. The Isley Brothers – Choosey Lover
16. Little Beaver – Get Into The Party Life

320 kbps, running time 1:00:43

Get laid already.

Top Albums of The Decade #8

Aphex Twin – 26 Mixes For Cash (2003)

I’m really only including this as an excuse to have Aphex Twin on the list. Most of his landmark output was released back in the 20th century and technically 26 Mixes For Cash is no different, since a large portion of the songs on here were produced pre-2000’s. Aphex Twin’s trademark eccentricity and sarcasm begins with the very title of this compilation. Richard D. James, as his mum calls him, clearly has very little interest in the music industry but loves the work aspect of it nonetheless. The artists remixed here, as varied and diverse as they are running the gamut from David Bowie to Mike Flowers Pops, have nothing in common other than the fact that they were selected as source material for James’s outre studio machinations. Sometimes he remixes tracks he’s never even heard, as is the case with ‘The Beauty of Being Numb’ by Nine Inch Nails. Don’t ask me how that works. It’s just Aphex Twin being Aphex Twin.

Listen to ‘The Beauty Of Being Numb’

Top Albums of The Decade #7

Broadway Project – Compassion (2001)

I’m still a bit miffed at the relative obscurity of this record. In a decade largely devoid of anything (good) from DJ Shadow and pre-Portishead’s Third, Compassion was my only fix for poignant, beat-heavy electronic music. The drums are hard, the snares are intentionally crisp to the point of distortion and the samples come from jazz, hazy psychedelic rock and liberal snatches of film dialogue. The choice of vocal snippets especially fill the album with a sense of despair and misery. ‘Non-Resistance’ for instance is underscored by a mournful piano and a woman imploring you to ‘help me / help my children / my men / my women’. Yeah, creepy. Not an all-occasions listening experience, but a rewarding one when you’re in the appropriate frame of mind.

Listen to ‘Non-Resistance’