Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
“Indie-rock?” was my incredulous response as my co-worker tried to classify my latest musical unearthing, Emperor Penguin’s Shatter the Illusion of Integrity, Yeah. As a hiphop headeven a progressive oneI’m allowed only a few guilty pleasures other than the straight-up banger. Classic jazz and soul aside, I usually limit outside indulgences to genres where hiphop aesthetics and production methods still apply, such as jungle, some electronica, and (I hate this term) triphop. For the most part, a phat, dirty drum track, whether dug out of the crates or synthesized on a PC, is the final decision maker (see Portishead). Shatter has more than its fair share of both but without the pseudo-enigmatic female vocalist or the annoying Jamaican DJ, so after the album’s third consecutive run in my CD player, I figured it must be electronica.
The first cut, “How Y’All Feel?,” is a double-time Big Beatdown in the tradition of Lionrock or Fatboy Slim. Interestingly, Bill Cameron, aka Mel Stanke, who represents one-half of Emperor Penguin, claims to be mostly unfamiliar with MTV’s favorite fat boy. “How Y’All Feel?” establishes the experimental tone of the rest of the album by being completely different from any other track. In fact, Shatter appears to be an attempt to simulate as many different musical styles as possible with antique synthesizers, a sampler, and a few guitars. As Cameron eventually revealed to me, the effort was much less deliberate: “It was like we’d go get a frozen pizza and a 12-pack of beer, and we’d sit around in Carl [Saff, his musical partner]’s living room,” he says. “We’d loop something or we’d just be fooling around with a synthesizer, and it’d make some funny noise, and we’d be like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to record that.’” In spite of their toss-off approach, Cameron and Saff, aka DJ Lazlo Minimart, stumbled upon more than a few convincing renderings. Any West Coast rapper from Ice Cube to Saafir would give his mike arm for “Smoove B”‘s harp-inflected funk. The album’s clear standout is “Beats From the Bungalow,” which, more smoothly and elegantly than the album’s other tracks, conjures images of a Latin spy flick. “The Cruise” and “Area White” sound like Prince Paul plundering surf rockwhich makes them a little less palatable for beat junkies like me.
Emperor Penguin doesn’t seem to take anything too seriously. Its Web site is a jumble of uninformative publicity, inflated slang (“jamtastic!”), and pure fiction. The duo’s comic aliasescomplete with pseudonyms, fake images, and dorky biosare obviously a sendup of Euro DJ culture. “I came up with the Web site,” Cameron says, “and I was just like, you know, we have these goofy pictures of these other people and just use these stupid names just because it might be a little more funny. You can tell from listening to our record that we’re into just goofy, random things.”
For Penguin, nothing escapes goofing, even bands that Cameron and Saff like and respect, such as Kraftwerk. On several cuts, the group spoofs “that whole cold synthesized sort of blooping, bleeping calculator noise sort of music.” Ironically, these are some of Shatter’s best moments. On “Echoes of Pumford” and “Profound Revelations,” dark, keyboard-heavy electric orchestrations drone along on top of thumping drum loops and grow steadily more optimistic as they go. “Moon Dub” represents Moog music at its bestall chords and reverb; it reminds me of a musical screen saver I used to have on my old Commodore.
I was disappointed to hear that both Cameron and Saff consider themselves indie-rock musicians indulging in a diversion, rather than dedicated electronica artists; but that’s ultimately the key to the development of the duo’s experimental sound. “The problem that I have with a lot of electronic music,” Cameron admits, “is that [the artists] get so wrapped up in the sound of the beats or the looping of samples that they sort of forget to come up with a song.”
Mike Delaney, aka Dub-L, of the Manhattan triphop duo the Controls, is worried about sample use for his own reasons. “I was making all rap stuff before, so it was really sample-based at first. But then you start realizing the business end,” he says with a cautionary tone. “You’ve got to watch out for all that stuff.” Still, Delaney openly admits to significant sampling on his group’s first LP, One Hundred, and does not mind being placed under the electronica banner.
Actually, the Controls fit into an even more specific subgenre than electronica. They live in the ever-expanding universe of “diva hop” pioneered by Portishead and Tricky, populated by acts like Morcheeba, Mono, and Esthero, and touched upon by everyone from Whitney Houston to Natalie Imbruglia. It’s a simple formula: hiphop beats, frequently sampled, laced with female vocals, usually melancholy.
Delaney is coupled with a particularly somber songstress, Ann Colville, whose voice is not incredibly strong and whose poems are only occasionally compelling as songs. With a few exceptions, such as the throbbing, perfectly gelled single “Coward of the Year,” the match is a rough one. “I heard someone on the Internet write something about us, and it said, ‘The album sounds like a dope hiphop producer couldn’t get signed for hiphop, so he started making beats for some singer,’” Delaney told me. “In a way that’s kind of what happened.” Indeed, Delaney’s rock-solid beats and multilayered tracks mostly carry the vocalist and would stand up just as well underneath most any other singer or rapperor even on their own. On the eerie “Shere Khan,” Coleville trades verses with underground MC Aesop Rock, but his abstract lyrics and ominous voice reduce her crooning to a forgettable chorus. Conversely, Colville does her best distraught-torch-singer impression without a suitable backbeat on “Home Again.” I was not moved. For undeniable proof of Delaney’s production prowess, there is the final track on the album: “New York City 1999” has no vocals, only a faint oboe playing in the background. It’s really only a pitch-shifted sample augmented with 808 kicks, but it manages to be incredibly engaging as it repeats for three straight minutes. Delaney says, rather slyly, “That loop is so ill. I hope no one ever finds that because we didn’t clear that loop.”
Though he is aware that One Hundred could let the Controls follow in Portishead’s path and cross (slightly) over to the mainstream, Delaney is not about to detach himself fully from his hiphop roots. He recently signed a deal with Wu-Tang, in which “they make all the money on any song I do.” It doesn’t sound like such a sweet deal, and Delaney admits to not quite understanding the logistics: “It’s all kind of business-y stuff that I don’t know that much about.” He’s happy just to be making beats.CP