The Urban Renewal Program compilation CD is a companion to what is described as "the past, present and future of urban art, music and expression." Apparently this is the first of four installments, meant to embody city life, at least thematically, with notions of "community," of "graffiti," of "artistic integrity," and of "transit" (?). As a piece of product, it's attempting to represent a conveniently packaged radio frequency where hip-hop and electronic music shall meet and provide the soundtrack for a generation of hipsters rocking their Vice magazine-approved wardrobe and paint-by-numbers aesthetic.
The label behind this collection convinced a few notable rappers and DJs to participate in their sonic propaganda. Some of the work is appealing. Most is appalling. And at least one song might make you want to tear your stereo from the wall and smash it into a million little pieces.
Things get rolling with Prefuse-73, revisiting and remixing "Radio Attack," a track originally found on his impressive debut album, Vocal Studies and Uprock Narratives (Warp, 2001). The song is a judicious representation of the glitchy, hip-hoppy melodies that made that album so unique. If Boards of Canada were from Brooklyn instead of Scotland, they might produce something close to the music of Prefuse-73's Scott Herren. It's no mistake he's signed to groundbreaking electronic label Warp.
From there, it's up to Aesop Rock to keep things moving. Unfortunately, his track, "Train Buffer," is a signal flashing an impending derailment. Why is it that while indie-rock musicians are generally more original, more energetic and more exciting than their mainstream counterparts (e.g. The Hives vs. The Wallflowers), indie-hip-hop guys, at least lately, rhyme like they have trouble getting out of bed?
Fuck, man, take some Prozac with that '40.
Producer of the moment El-P provides a sledgehammer-like beat as a backdrop for Aesop to suffocate us with his unrelentingly monotone, completely rhythm-free flow. The dense sound that informs El-P's work, both as a solo artist and as the man behind the decks, is an acquired taste (check Cannibal Oxtrumentals if you want to sample the best of his post-apocalyptic soundscapes). And it's clear that he and Aesop Rock order off the same menu. In this case, they're aggressively bummed out, and "Train Buffer" brings the album to a screeching halt.
In some ways, those first two tracks tell the story of Urban Renewal Program. If it, as a collection, is commenting on where independent electronic and hip-hop music currently stand, it certainly makes a compelling statement. The instrumental tracks, produced by, amongst others, Prefuse-73, Rjd2 and DJ Food, are interesting sketches. Afterthoughts from capable artists, but breathing nonetheless. They aren't supposed to be upbeat. But they are at least in texture and composition in motion. It might be slow motion, but, in contrast to Souls of Mischief, who reappear here, rapping falsely on "Spark" that they're "advancing the artform," at least there's a pulse to be found.
Souls' exuberant debut, '93 til Infinity (Jive, 1993), is one of the overlooked records of late '80s/early '90s hip-hop. That's why it's disheartening to hear them embrace this dull style. Like almost every other rapper present, they sound tired, both psychologically and artistically. One exception is Diverse, whose rhymes in "Time" have some spring. That track complements his flow, musically, with a steady beat and a rolling keyboard sample recalling early work by The Roots.
The worst performance, the one that made me never want to listen to hip-hop again if it was going to sound like this, is reserved for the aforementioned El-P and his self-produced "Deadlight." El-P is a political guy. He's come out against hip-hop sellouts and backed up his beef by leaving his original label, Rawkus, to start his own, Def-Jux. He's signed artists like Rjd2, championing his exceptional Dead Ringer. His is an admirable story by an indisputably creative force. But it's also impossible, at least in this corner, to enjoy much of his work. That's probably not the point, anyway. The point is probably to be challenged and drawn into his darkness, which, at least in that regard, is accomplished successfully. It's a matter of taste, as all music is.
El-P's approach to hip-hop permeates not only his own music but that of the talent he produces. As an aside and a counterpoint there are other moody hip-hop artists out there with like-minded independent streaks who succeed in being provocative but not deadened (see Buck 65). As far as Urban Renewal Program goes, however, there are few moments that aren't plodding and lifeless. And El-P's fingerprints, at least from the direct and circumstantial evidence gathered, are to be found all over it. For those already depressed enough by our current state of the union, who've historically looked hip-hop's way for a little relief, that's too bad. For those seeking some beats to complement their real urban renewal program, I'd suggest bumping the new Missy Elliot.