Category Archives: Hip Hop

Thomas William: Deccan Technicolour

Thomas William: Deccan Technicolour
This Thing (2011)

Quirky, ‘bedroom’ producers are a dime-a-dozen these days thanks to affordable technology and the World Wide Web. Yet amongst the dross there are plenty of gems and  Deccan Technicolour is a shining example.

Thomas William is the monikor of Australian based Tom Smith, who used to go by the name Cleopatrics. Perhaps he’s not quite a bedroom producer, but whatever the case, he has a knack for turning the found sound eclecticism of acts found on Paw Tracks’ roster into head nodding hoe-downs for people who like beats. He plays with schizoid hip hop rhythms that sound like they’re about to collapse in on themselves, but all coloured with washes of synth garble, Middle Eastern collage and retro string arrangements to create something contemplative rather than danceable.

Williams’ dedication to cutting up intricate samples and collating them to capture his own melodies and droopy rhythms  borders on the obsessive (check the uber moody By Proxy for example), but that very focus is a blessing to the ears. While Hip Hop is central to Deccan Technicolour, particularly the more experimental styles practiced by the likes of Prefuse 73 (see Acid Overweight), and the quieter moments of Flying Lotus, there’s also evidence of Oneohtrix Point Never’s ambient experiments and the far-out corners of Black Dice.

A lot of hip hop records struggle to keep my interest from start to finish, but there’s plenty of ups, downs and left turns on Deccan Technicolour to keep my attention. Take a listen and start nodding your head.

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Digging: cLOUDEAD – cLOUDEAD

cLOUDEAD: cLOUDEAD
Mush (2001)

2001 was my last year at Art school and I was busy smoking spliffs and listening to left-of-centre hip-hop acts while getting all paranoid about what I was going to do with a four-year degree that provided no real job prospects. I’d hazard a guess that the pot wasn’t doing much for my quarter life crisis, but I also suspect that surrealist records like cLOUDEAD weren’t helping much either.

I’m no hip-hop aficionado, my knowledge is limited to the nihilsm of early nineties Gangster rap and the uprising of ‘avante hop’ in the early 2000s when two labels in particular, Anticon (San Francisco) and Definitive Jux (New York) were spewing out a super strange hybrid of indie rock attitude, dadaist poetry and beats damaged by the spawn of Warp Records. A whole group of American kids suddenly realised that Hip-Hop didn’t have to be about old soul records, blunts, 40s and bitches. Rather, it could be about extreme experimentation so they set about fucking with the formula.

Anticon took this exploration to the furthest, and perhaps darkest places. Being based on the West Coast its acts were ensconced in Beat history, love-ins, rock n’ roll and the Zappas and Beefhearts of Laurel Canyon. Definitive Jux, which gave birth to Aesop Rock, my favourite artist of this whole scene, maintained an experimental edge but always kept a finger in rap’s New York roots. Of all these artists, cLOUDEAD pushed ‘experimental’ to the furthest limits, and while this record might not be an absolute favourite of mine, it’s such a fucked up curiosity that I constantly find myself revisiting it.

cLOUDEAD is a collection of 10” singles independently released by ‘band’ members and Anticon label owners Doseone, Why? and Sole. The sound is Hip Hop only because it’s rhythmic and (occasionally) the vocals rhyme. Overall this is a disorientating pastiche of odd samples, vocal snippets, drugged out keys and stream of consciousness lyrics. Occasionally the calamity dips into head-nodding territory and the boys signify their roots. Then Doseone gets all rapid-fire, nasally and sing-song on your ass rhyming about witches, Birkenstocks and crises and suddenly you have no idea where your head is at. Sometimes the sound is dreamy and light-headed, almost musical but always stabbed through the heart by some abstract collage of noise and samples.

Purists called these guys heretics, plenty of people thought they were a load of bollocks, and the collective only released one more album before disbanding into a myriad of unclassifiable, but far less rap-oriented solo projects. Indeed by the time this collection of tracks was release as cLOUDEAD each member was already busy experimenting with indie rock art bands and other side projects (do yourself a favour and check Hood’s Coldhouse record from this period which features some fucking amazing contributions from Doseone.). But you know, things are never really meant to last. Bursts of creativity such as cLOUDEAD tend to project musicians/artists on to greater things. Perhaps if it wasn’t for the surreal paranoia of this record I would never have stopped pretending to be an art student and started thinking about my place in the world. And looking back, this record definitely started me on a search for weirder and weirder music. Something I’m still doing today.

New Releases: Dalek

Dalek: Gutter Tactics
Ipecac (2009)

dalek_gutter_tacticsDrone merged with rhythm. For me, this is a perfect marriage. In theory, anyway. A few years back I picked up Dalek’s album Abscence based on the fact it was released by Mike Patton’s Ipecac label and that it promised to conjure the doom of Black Sabbath riffing with head nodding beats. And it did that, but after a few listens I lost interest. The tracks on Absence began to sound the same, and MC Dalek’s rhymes were too ‘hip-hop’ for the mood of the samples.

However, I’d heard good things about Gutter Tactics, enough that I decided to test it out and goddamn I’m glad I did.

Absence bored me because the tracks tended to revolve around a single sample, but the offerings on Gutter Tactics are more concise and producer Oktopus sculpts his sound scapes into different forms throughout. Fluttering keys, xylophone samples and jagged synths break things up nicely and MC Dalek’s vocals fit into the wash rather than distracting from the beautiful noise.

The rhymes are still Public Enemy styled rants against capitalism, racism and government agencies, but overall Dalek don’t sound as angry as they once did which works so much better within the shoe-gazing nature of their sound. Gutter Tactics is a fucking awesome record, and so unlike any other ‘alternative’ hip-hop you’ve heard before. It has mood and atmosphere, something that’s often missing from vocal hip-hop in my opinion. Imagine a Sonic Youth freak-out mating with DJ Shadow circa Entroducing – are you creaming yet?

In the Flesh: El-P

El-P ( featuring DJ Mr. Dibbs )                                                                                                                                                                             Corner Hotel, Melbourne, 26 February 2009

Sadly the Corner Hotel was only half full for Def Jux’s CEO last night. It seems that interest in ‘experimental’ hip hop is going through a lull at the moment. A few years back the same venue was bursting at the seams while Def Jux label mates Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif tore the roof off the place. More recent shows by the likes of Cage and Atmosphere have also been well received.

But the lacklustre crowd didn’t appear to bother El-P. He convulsed around the stage like an indie rocker and tried his very best to get some call and response going with the audience.

On record El-P cuts a menacing figure, spitting aggressive rhymes with a William Gibson and George Orwell edge. He’s all about apocalyptic visions and comic book predictions of what we can expect from the future if world leaders have their way. He remains as aggressive on stage, but it’s a shock to witness these spiels coming from a short, chubby red head. El-P is the antithesis of traditional Hip Hop in every way.

el-p

Perhaps it’s this difference that sets his brand of hip hop apart from the mainstream. He’s never afraid to introduce dynamics, rock rhythms and unusual structures into his jams. He looks beyond the beats and word flow, to merge the foundations of hip hop with actual songwriting. He’s a damn good story teller to boot.

All of this is amplified in the live arena. Particularly during more theatrical tracks like “The Overly Dramatic Truth”, his creepy tale of a much older man emotionally manipulating a much younger girl, where his voice built to a deafening scream over the course of each verse. He never rhymes in monotone.

The set drew heavily from his latest opus “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead”, and a couple of older tracks including a short medley from his days in Company Flow. Best of all, many of his rhymes were accompanied by remixes and Mr Dibbs was allowed free-reign to mix and mash as he pleased. We weren’t given lazy replicas of his recordings, which is a trap that rappers often succumb to when performing with a backing DJ (yes, I’m especially talking to you Dizzee Rascal – you’re one-armed DJ is no excuse).

Sure, I’ve seen better hip hop shows, but El-P was worth the ticket price nonetheless. He put up a good fight in the face of a small and not so animated crowd. One can only wonder what could have happened if the atmosphere had hit full guage.

Reading: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation
Jeff Chang ( Picador, 2005 )

cantstopbkcover

I came to Hip-Hop late in the piece. I dabbled with N.W.A.’s Straight Outta’ Compton back in early high school, like every other adolescent who got a giggle out of their hyper-masculine and expletive riddled tales of guns and bitches. But at the time, I didn’t understand the racial tensions and politics driving that album.

I grew up in a world were you were either into guitars, or the sample based sounds of Hip-Hop. I was into Metallica. And despite Anthrax kicking ass with Public Enemy, the Red Hot Chili Peppers stirring my interest in funky rhythms, and Sonic Youth pairing up with Chuck D, I remained faithful to the guitar into my twenties. I laughed at Ice T when Body Count played the infamous Alternative Nation festival at Olympic Park in 1995.

I might be a convert now, but I’m no expert on the history of Hip-Hop. So I picked up Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop excited to learn about how the scene came together and arrived where it’s at today.

I was disappointed.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop isn’t a bad read. In fact it’s a thoroughly researched examination of black history and culture. However its title and blurb are quite misleading.

Chang uses Hip-Hop as a springboard to discuss the history of Black American culture, from oppression and Jamaican struggles, to tightrope walking equality in the new millennium (he wraps it up around 2001). This is interesting and poignant stuff, but don’t be fooled into thinking that Chang’s book is an exploration of the Hip-Hop movement you might be familiar with, because it’s not.

There are huge chunks of the genre, which ignorant little ol’ me know to be significant in its evolution, that Chang barely touches upon. Wu-Tang Clan with their absolutely capitalist stance and boundary breaking beats get nary a mention. It seems Chang isn’t aware that  Tupac and Biggie Smalls were murdered, or doesn’t consider the events important enough to explore.

Suge Knight in jail and speculation of his involvement in the murders of Tupac and Biggie, not to mention conspiracy theories about the involvement of the police in said murders? Nothing.

A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, De La Soul and every other positive MC and their ties to Blues and Jazz music? Barely a mention.

Vanilla Ice, Eminem, Beastie Boys and the rise of white rappers in the context of a predominately black music scene? Uh uh, no mention.

Boo Ya tribe, Cypress Hill, Mobb Deep, Snoop Dogg and the dangers of Gangsta Rap? Very little, beyond telling us that conservatives don’t like N.W.A (well, duh).

What about the rise of experimental Hip Hop labels like Anticon and Def Jux, and their rebellion against the clichés that much of modern Hip-Hop stands for today? I don’t think Chang’s even aware of this subculture.

Chang seems to focus on the power of Hip-Hop to fix problems between black and white communities in America. And for the most part, he pretends that there are absolutely no negative forces at work within Hip-Hop. What I mean by that is, he appears to ignore the deaths of people like Biggie Smalls and similar events because he doesn’t want to tarnish the positive image he paints for the movement. And in doing so, he forgoes the exploration of Hip-Hop’s interesting, and challenging contradictions and dilemmas.

On his website www.cantstopwontstop.com, Chang says he didn’t want to write a book about Hip-Hop in terms of rap music. He says that “Hip-Hop offers a generational worldview that encompasses the shoes you choose, to whether you’re inclined to vote or not, to how you understand the issue of race. So I use this worldview to look at the last three decades of the American century.”

I agree with his intent whole-heartedly, but I’m disappointed that he leaves major parts of the culture untouched. I felt confused about why thinks the music, the breaking, the graff and clothes can be such a positive influence on people. It was hard to make this link when he spends 50 pages discussing the political implications of Rodney King’s death, quoting numerous black scholars and activists, but doing little to tie it all back into Hip-Hop culture (save for mentioning that the police didn’t like Bodycount’s Cop Killer. Well, duh).

The jacket of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop is covered in praise from The New Yorker to Vibe magazine to Publisher’s Weekly. So maybe I’m missing something here?

Re-reading the above, perhaps I’m being a little harsh. But overall I was disappointed in this book. Pick it up if you’re prepared for a history lesson in racial politics. Perhaps give it a miss if you’re after some insight into Hip-Hop as a musical culture.