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November 30, 2001

++ Independent Hip-Hop Roundup

++ I don't know what it is, but I have one hell of a time writing about hip-hop. Which seems odd, given that I studied literature. But throw some lyrics in a track and suddenly I'm at a loss for words. Literally.

But the last month or two has seen a number of surprisingly good hip-hop releases come across my desk. Most are from independent labels — a refreshing change, in a year where much of the best hip-hop, like OutKast and Missy Elliot, came from the majors — and quite a few take hip-hop's hybridity to new levels, twisting the form into something that a few years back might not have been recognized as hip-hop at all. So I figured it was time to write about the other electronic music, the one that doesn't call itself by its technique. (After all, hip-hop's one of the oldest forms of popular electronic music out there.)

++ Antipop Consortium, The Ends Against the Middle (Warp): Queens, New York's Antipop Consortium travel a path deemed unconventional even by the anything-goes standards of indie hip-hop. This summer you could've caught the group warming up European audiences for Radiohead, and in October they shared a Montreal stage with Oakland laptop spastic Kid606. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they signed early this year to the UK's Warp Records, better known for the crunchy post-techno of Aphex Twin and Autechre than the blunted psychedelia of American underground rap. Still, there are more unusual pairings out there — most of the lads affiliated with the label claim to have been Sheffield b-boys back in the day, and Antipop's queasy analog groans suggest that they probably had some Stockhausen records squirreled away in the closet, right behind the track suits and shell-toes.

On the Consortium's debut, 2000's Tragic Epilogue (75 Ark) the trio of lyricists — Priest, Beans, and M. Sayyid — laid down Moebius flows over beatbox autism, echo-soaked monotones evoking the wee-hour surrealism of a world bathed in fluorescent lights. But on their new mini-album for Warp, The Ends Against the Middle, the murk disperses. E. Blaize — co-producer, engineer and "fifth Beatle" — has cleaned up the sound, emphasizing the queasy analog keys and whipcrack snares. Still, it's unlike any hip-hop you've heard, more Joy Division than James Brown, with wheezy organ lacing the sci-fi bleeps with an eerie humanism. Even their boasts feel off-kilter: proclaiming "nonstop hits like that bunny with the battery," they're energized by a weird and nameless force. I just keep coming back to this, trying to find out what it is, but I'm left mystified, stymied every time. Funny that their logo's got a fast forward symbol on it; that's the last thing I want to do when I put this on.

++ Various, Farewell Fondle'Em (Def Jux): Bobbito Garcia's Fondle'Em Records was, for the second half of the 1990s, the underground label of hip-hop. Garcia — AKA DJ Cucumber Slice — was one half of the legendary Stretch and Bobbito show on Columbia University's WKCR 89.9 FM (voted "Best Hip-Hop Show in History" by the Source in 1998). There he introduced audiences to underground talent like Juggaknots, Cage, Company Flow's El-P, the Arsonists and more. Over some 30 releases, Fondle'Em (the name reflects his disdain for the music industry) developed an uncompromising sound of stark beats, spare jazzy touches and advanced, uncontrived delivery, marked by conceptual leaps and tongue-twisting flow. Farewell Fondle'Em, released on El-P's Def Jux imprint, recaps the label's high points, including M.F. Doom's "Dead Bent," a warbly bit of pause-tape psychedelia, M.F. Grimm's heartfelt "Scars and Memories," and Lord Sear's "Alcoholic Vibes," lazily drawled over a slinky bassline and the nakedest snare you've ever heard. But the real gems on this comp are the interludes taken from live tapings of the radio show, like the inspired, if ribald, Kool Keith Freestyle from 1992 that opens the album. There's also a jazzy '93 freestyle from Cage and a smoldering '94 collaboration between El-P and J-treds. The background voices in the studio, offering vocal applause after every particularly deft bit of wordplay, are more than a reminder that this is a live recording — they're a reminder that this was history in the making.

++ Mike Ladd, Vernacular Homicide (Ozone): Like Antipop, Ladd's been courting a crossover audience, touring with Tortoise and playing England's All Tomorrow's Parties festival alongside Autechre, Television, the Sun Ra Arkestra and the Def Jux crew. Vernacular Homicide goes a long way toward explaining this. With his Infesticons album, Gun Hill Road for Big Dada/Ninja Tune, he explored the bluntest edge of the genre, and alongside Japan's Ultra Living he crafted one of the year's most sonically exciting hip-hop records — but this album is something else altogether. Only nominally hip-hop, it draws from indie rock on the lurching and Tortoise-like "Poseidon's Reigns," and '70s funk rock on "The Last Word," which throbs and screeches with wah-wah guitars and gospel singing. On the opening track, Ladd cops his flow from early De La Soul, but the backing track glows with the weird light of bedroom gear and tube amps, oddly cozy. When he finally pulls out the breakbeats and does a "proper" hip-hop track, it's still a glorious mess of buzzing organs, distant drums and marching bands run amuck.

++ Fat Jon the Ample Soul Physician, Wave Motion (Mush): From the cover it's clear that, graphically speaking at least, Fat Jon's going for the Afrodelic vibe of mid-'70s Miles Davis or Stevie Wonder albums, and sonically he succeeds in harnessing the buttery feel of Innervisions. Fat Jon makes beats for the Five Deez and has worked with Rakim, Talib Kweli and Anticon's Doseone, but Wave Motion is his first instrumental album. This is true instrumental hip-hop, far more than rhythm tracks shorn of vocals; every cut holds its own, building and morphing according to an internal logic. Not unlike Soulmates, Nobody's album last year for Ubiquity, Fat Jon draws on the folky side of soul; the clarinets on "Watch Out" suggest the English avant-pastoralism of Talk Talk even as the backwards guitar recalls Hendrix. The way the all-too-short "1975" captures a moment makes me think of a photograph by Garry Winogrand; the vocal samples ("Dr. Johnson, call your office") suggest some unknown drama, while monotone keys and woodpecker snare create an unresolved tension. Without a bigger label's promotional muscle, it's unlikely that this will find much of an audience, which would be a shame, because it's a soulful, versatile record with broad appeal. And it's generous: Fat Jon has hoarded up more than his fair share of moments of startling beauty — and laid them all out for the taking.

++ Def Harmonic, Travel Suggestions (Wobblyhead): Dry and dark, Milwaukee's Def Harmonic sounds at times like Req's fantastic debut from a few years back, especially in the atonal rumble and that dry, flat snare sound. Elsewhere there's more of the warm billow of Kruder and Dorfmeister productions, dubby bass underpinning high-end effects that scatter like birds in flight. Def Harmonic are unusual in that they combine male and female MCs, and they exploit the vocal contrasts to accentuate their sultry atmospherics. Unfortunately, they don't go far beyond this, and especially in the first track, the lyrics tend to the "rock the spot" variety, reminding me why I don't pay much attention to lyrics in the first place: the actual content is often an afterthought. And given the extreme verbal dexterity of today's most progressive MCs, simple iambic rhythms fail to be very effective. Still, Jason Todd's production skills are spot on, especially on the instrumental closing track, ringing with harp, guitars and bright, live-sounding drums. Anyone with a thing for smooth, smoky hip-hop along the lines of Nightmares on Wax or Rae and Christian could do worse than to check this out.


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