City Paper is not for tourists
Prefuse 73’s One Word Extinguisher is a monument to the death of the MC. But not because it features rappers spouting clichés or employing monotonous flow. No, Extinguisher makes its point by featuring rappers on only a handful of its 23 tracks yet still managing to be one of the most dynamic hiphop albums in years.
For years, critics have held that the most important element of hiphop is the MC. Dr. Dre is acknowledged as the master of hits and charts, but Tupac gets college courses dedicated to deciphering his lyrics. Primarily because the music of rap is based around repetitive loops and little melody, it’s always been hard to make a case that, say, a DJ Premier is the artistic equal of Duke Ellington or Isaac Hayes. The likes of Rakim and Biggie, who manipulate rhythm with all the facility of the greatest of jazz drummers, are much easier to place into the black musical continuum.
But once record companies figured out that such vocal complexity has virtually nothing to do with moving units, MCing, by and large, died as commercial product. The underground has fared only slightly
betterthough the MCing there has been generally more adept than in the mainstream, very few rappers have been able to move past the parameters of battle-rapping. Underground production, on the other hand, has pushed forward with ever-increasing speed. El-P’s Fantastic Damage raised the bar for MCing, but it also raised the bar for production, reinterpreting the Bomb Squad’s noise-mongering for the ’00s. RJD2’s dark Deadringer and Prefuse 73’s own debut long-player, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, took a more extreme approach by largely eliminating the MC from the equation.
But in the procession away from the MC, One Word Extinguisher proves to be the grand marshal. The album harks back to the glory days of Premier the way Fantastic Damage recalls the best work of the Bomb Squad, and it updates his approach with mind-boggling results.
Premier became famous for his use of jazz samples in Gang Starr. But as the ’90s progressed and the law began to crack down on sampling, he started to create his own loops by chopping up and rearranging his source material. The pinnacle of this technique is Jeru the Damaja’s 1996 “Ya Playin’ Yaself,” a cut that deconstructed Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s infamous “Player’s Anthem” both lyrically and musically. As Jeru tore down “Anthem”‘s glorification of gangsta-ism, Premier restructured the song’s bass line and bell tones into an entirely different track. But Premier’s weakness was always hiphop’s weakness: His production lived and died by the loop. If you heard the first 20 seconds of “Yaself,” then you’d heard the song’s entire musical content.
The Miami-born, Barcelona-based Prefuse (né Scott Herren) has internalized Premier’s techniquealmost every song on Extinguisher is built from atomized samples. But instead of one loop per song, Prefuse offers a blizzard of rearrangements, never allowing the listener to get too comfortable with any single sound. “Storm Returns,” for example, begins with a funky guitar riff of the sort that would constitute the bulk of a conventional rap track. But every few bars, Prefuse chops and rechops the riff into smaller pieces. Then he reworks the drums a few times, before finally bringing the loop back in as it originally played. “Why I Love You,” uses the same method, except that Prefuse makes the minimal addition of female vocals.
Prefuse’s technique works because it plays to the strengths of hiphop: rhythm, repetition, and low-end rumble. But like other great hiphop producers, Prefuse doesn’t honor genre boundaries when it comes to sample material. “Plastic” is constructed from electronic blips and bleeps, along with dissected keys and strings. “Busy Signal” uses a beatbox for its building blocks, whereas “Detchibe” is powered by pummeling drums. When MCs are brought to bear on Extinguisher, their appearances are brief and economic. The apocalyptic Mr. Lif chimes in on “Huevos With Jeff and Roni,” but just enough to give the cut some vocal framing: “You build a city on feeble lies/Then cry when the ground opens up wide and swallows your high rise…/Release everything that you held dear/Like your car, jewelry, your cash, and your career/Don’t forget all of that time that you couldn’t spare/To sit down and lend your three children an ear.”
Extinguisher is an ambitious study of noise that at its best plays like a blueprint of music-making. Each cut starts out offering you a particular view, then offers you another, and still another; by the end, the track is audio 3-D. The lack of MCing is disappointing, thoughnot because it hurts the album, but because there are so few cases of rap’s lyrical dynamism being matched musically.
Don’t expect such a marriage in Prefuse’s future: If there’s one message to be gleaned from Extinguisher, it’s that the world of rap music is no longer ruled by rappers. CP