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Anybody still prattling about the lost integrity of hiphop is wasting precious time. The old school may have come up with some mighty fine blueprints for making MC-based, DJ-driven urban music, but those designs have their limitations. Globalization and high-tech gear have changed the game permanently: Hiphop is the world’s music, and it’s growing up faster than your 12-year-old baby brother. Heads everywhere should get used to it.
The biggest adjustments are required for discs such as Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, the full-length debut of Atlanta producer Scott Herren’s Prefuse 73 project, named in honor of his love of late-’60s and early-’70s pre-fusion jazz. That kind of information should immediately set off anybody’s Pompos-O-Meter, but Herren doesn’t play the role of high-handed studio geek. Like DJ Shadow, he’s a lofty presence with a down-to-earth goal: creating elliptical, disembodied beats that are somehow still funky and human. But he does fuck with the system a bit. Four underground rappers and one indie-rock crooner appear on the disc, and most of their vocals are shoved through Herren’s sonic chop shop. The percussive verbalizations that emerge are ego-free and sometimes even word-freea product that will undoubtedly be tough to swallow for anyone who continues to subscribe to the cult of the MC.
For those of us who accept that the world adores hiphop largely for its beats, Herren earns points for treating the music like a blank slate, or, perhaps more accurately, a corkboard. Hiphop’s protectionists, meanwhile, should take note that Vocal Studies is a relatively tame record despite its consistent surprises. The disc is locked into hiphop’s vernacular, but built on restrained beats that rely more on kick drums than bass lines. The easy-listening factor probably stems from Herren’s history as a meditative abstractionist whose other projects, Delarosa and Asora and Savath + Savalas, have earned him a reputation as an explorer, not an instigator. For Herren, the inner space of a beat is where things get deep.
“Last Light,” featuring Chicago post-rocker Sam Prekop, is a prime example of Herren’s ability to flip an artist’s essence until it reveals another face. Prekop’s hushed vocal style, heard most commonly in the Sea and Cake, owes much to soft-touch Brazilian-pop legends such as João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim. On Vocal Studies, Prekop gets an appropriately mellow keyboard riff and distorted snares, and his vocals are reduced to a series of preternaturally cute exhalations. The outcome? He sounds uncannily like the dude from Steely Dan. Ya learn something new every day.
The real MCs get similarly revealing, if sometimes less successful, treatments. Underground vet M.F. Doom (aka Zev Love X of KMD) and newcomer Aesop Rock escape largely unscathed on “Blacklist,” although the song stands out only because Herren chose to save their rhymes from the butcher block. He must have realized that he had little to work with: Both rappers have bland deliveries, and they spit out typically half-baked explorations of what it means to be so damn nice. The chorus is especially tossed-off, ending with a line that implies some sort of long-term conspiracy by the haters of the world: “Far as I know/We’ve been blacklist/Ever since the Earth rotate on a 23-degree axis.” Whatever.
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The rap-singing of Freestyle Fellowship member Mikah 9 gives Herren more juice. The beat of “Life/Death” coagulates into a Dirty South tempo and then scatters into Aphex Twin territory around Mikah’s nimble flow. His vibe is what makes the song distinct: Half-casual, half-hurried, the West Coast rapper’s singsong flow perfectly complements Herren’s playful side. Rec Center, who appeared with Herren on the Chocolate Industries compilation Rapid Transit, is subjected to an even wider array of production tricks on “Living Life,” which takes some cues from the blip trips of German electronica duo Mouse on Mars. Bits of the rapper’s voice hiccup above equally chopped-up synth noises, creating an electronic groove that could be mistaken for a coded message. In many ways, that seems to be Herren’s general MO: delivering familiar music in odd patterns that hint at more meaningful content upon closer listening.
Without such attention, Vocal Studies can sound utterly repetitive: Herren loves to allow his spacey samples and keyboard riffs to swell and ebb at the pace of restful breathing. But that approach proves to be full of life, especially in the downcast horns of “Five Minutes Away,” the floating female voices and Latin-lite tone of “Afternoon Love-In,” and the mellow honk of “Nuno,” which comes off like a distant cousin of Craig Mack’s ’90s classic “Flava in Ya Ear.” Those sounds aren’t the ones prescribed by hiphop culture at largethey don’t lead to huge climaxes, and their presence isn’t macho. But along with Herren’s ubiquitous glitches, clicks, pops, and twitches, they create an urgent personal language. Vocal Studies is a pointed attempt to be understood, and if that’s not hiphop, what is?
Even a small dose of Herren’s subtlety could transform the Arsonists from a group of extra-loud MCs who merely understand their place in the game into an artistic threat. In its current form, the Brooklyn trio of Q-Unique, Jise One, and Swel Boogie (members Freestyle and D-Stroy have departed) knows only one mode of communication: the full-throttle holler, punctuated with street slogans and in-yer-face one-liners. It’s a common affliction in underground hiphop, where most cliques strive to bludgeon the competition, not simply outshine it. The offending parties would do well to mirror the unflappable martial-arts heroes that inevitably inspire them, not just the corny mayhem they weather so well.
The fact that the Arsonists still cop the occasional kung-fu move points to the trio’s unhealthy willingness to adopt hiphop’s most overused clichés. Yup, Date of Birth, the follow-up to 1999’s endearing but scattershot As the World Burns, contains an unabashed nod to Sunday-afternoon Asian action flicks: “Language Arts,” a song that would be funnier if the play-world of fictional fighting masters hadn’t already been drained of rap-inspiring material. The high priests of the underground (anybody know one?) need to issue an edict against any more dojo-centric rhymes. Next on the Index should be conspiracy theories: The paranoia theme is just about dried up, even if Cannibal Ox can still squeeze it for viable material.
Nonetheless, the yellin’ on Date of Birth, due out on Tuesday, periodically gells into something notable, especially on the horn-boosted crowd-mover “Burn It Out” and the piano-driven “We Be About,” which is the background tune for ESPN’s promos for the upcoming Winter X Games. That track is the clearest sign that Q-Unique, the Arsonists’ in-house producer, has hidden a bit of Rootslike genius in his usually undistinguished minor-key approach. With its tense open spaces and slightly downbeat feel, the track almost forces the group to bring the verbals down a notch. There are ear-grabbers elsewhere, too: Q-Unique turns what could be a Hendrix riff into a cop-show groove on “Space Junk” and mutates a John Tesh-style keyboard cascade into something more sinister on “Wordplay.”
The strengths of Jise and Swel, however, are more difficult to pinpoint. Neither was an up-front piece of the five-man Arsonists, and their prolific rhymes on Date of Birth are rarely as distinct as Q-Unique’s better moments behind the mike. He delivers the disc’s most memorable manifesto during “We Be About,” giving a shout-out to “Puerto Rican women who make progress” and quickly adding, “I’m about KRS, Miles Davis, Pearl Jam, and Rakim” and “I’m about platinum plaques for underground acts.” The words are a welcome blast of cockiness, but they also signify that the Arsonists, like many of hiphop’s allegedly rugged individualists, prefer announcing obvious goals to thinking up harder targets. It’s the tactic that offers the best chances for musical survival, but it too often causes groups like the Arsonists to ignore their chances to tone it down and say something unusual. CP