SPITTIN’ WICKED RANDOMNESS

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X-Ecutioners: X-Pressions [Asphodel]
Mix-Master Mike: Anti-Theft Device [Asphodel]

It may perhaps be an indication of the renewed currency of electro that has led some hip-hop practitioners to revisit the roots of their genre and discover anew the beauties of the beat box and of scratching; a kind of ever present picking up of the ‘Bambaataa Mission’. That electro led to hip-hop is hardly a point worth stre#ssing, but a couple of recent releases on New York’s Asphodel label show that hip-hop, perhaps being carried in the slipstream of the Wordsound label’s openness towards experimentation, is mutating and bringing into collision some of the differing elements of its tradition. On the otherhand it’s probably best not to loose sight of the fact that visibility is mediated, and, even without much of a handle on the hip-hop scene, it must also be a case of hip-hop elements continually subsisting beneath exposure and the generalisations of category that they induce…
For alot of people who followed electro into techno and got quickly impervious to the spoken word, the hip-hop scenes mainstay of rapped lyrics and pseudo-poetry meant that some landmarks of early 90s hip-hop – The Jungle #Brothers, Tribe Called Quest etc – passed-by unheard. Of these, tracing the Jungle Brothers through to the Wordsound crew (Sensational) is perhaps to locate one strand of hip-hop that has kept an open ended attitude to experimentation (a move towards being genreless and diffuse?). Here a fine example is the Jungle Brothers descent into collaged, anti-industry mayhem as heard on tracks like “Headz of Company Z” and on the string of separate tracks all called “J Beez Coming Thru” with their melange of turntable samples and hard edged beats (even before such musical anarchics, their 1989 Done By The Force Of Nature LP shows them drawing on all elements of the back music tradition: disco, electro, soul, funk). Even though such cacophonous tracks are rare for the Jungle Brothers it does seem that they were instrumental in pursuing an element# of hip-hop that has only recently become a more common currency: the ‘ill’ sound, referred to by the Tribe Called Quest as ‘subliminal’. Translated again, for me, ‘ill’ seems to be about a density of detail that subsists beneath the rapping…
The X-Ecutioners and Mix Master Mike achieve this density through the tapestry of scratching and turntable wizardry which also marks the ‘return’ of the DJ crew as record producers. A persistent factor in electro (Davy D, Pumpkin etc). The X-Ecutioners (featuring Rob Swift who has recorded for Wordsound) give us a varied LP of more conventional rapping numbers (Word Play, Raida’s Theme) that are spruced-up by lightening-flash scratch punctuation or broken down by intravenous bursts (Countdown, Solve for X, Musica Negra). Against these ‘songs’ there are a majority of other tracks (Get Started, One Man Band, Beat T#reats etc) that reverse the composition and give the foreground to the slurps and vinyl slashes of the scratching, occasionally adding drum and bass as anchor. It is on the latter tracks that X-Pressions escapes linearity into a ‘cut-the-fuck-up’ patchwork of activating fragments that work just as much as a potted history of hip-hop as it does as a break/flow console. Of the tracks that elude this mould we have a Rob Swift solo track: empty spaces of flanged piano and a lazy beat (Pianos from Hell) and an instrumental (Scratch To This). Overall this an LP that manages to balance convention and experiment by infusing them both with each other. Rhythm from turntable switchback….
Coming from a West Coast terrain is Mix Master Mike. Being a part of the Invisible Scratch Pickles and the Beastie Boys resident DJ this is an LP entirely made up from scratching and sampling, but whereas t#he X-Ecutioners seem to rely on the soul/funk ‘classics’ for scratch fodder, Mix-Master Mike draws on one or two more eclectic sources. This makes his LP (all forty tracks of it!) perhaps more readily amenable to crossover in that there’s a variety of bass and drum sounds on offer: electro infected, rock and soul sounds; kit and beat box. Though there’s a kind of flippancy at work on this LP, where scratches come in like cartoon voices and ruin the mood of a drudge beat or plummeting bass, once he gets away from using 50s sci-fi samples, whose innocence seems to infect some tracks, the LP progresses towards the grime-beats of New Organisation, Jack Knife and Well Wicked and, at their best, would be at home on an Electric Ladyland compilation. However, at its worse, Anti-Theft device can come across as so restless and unfocused as to be a kind of actually audible attention-seeking and whereas the cover image of X-Pressions is a scratched-in piece of subway vandalis#m, Mix Master Mike prefers a graphic of himself surrounded by adoring fans…. He’s a Beastie Boy after all.
Unexpected Coda: If the X-Ecutioners and Mix Master Mike are competitive scratchers sending signals to each other before they ‘go to battle’ then mention must go to the instrumental version of Portishead’s ‘Cowboys’ single. Portishead’s turntable operator seems to know that competing can be a backdoor route to virtuosity and that scratching, the re-articulation of fragments, can be usefully employed as a form of puncturation; as sounds without word-traces that don’t rush to the foreground but enliven the downward rhythm and repetitive ruts. On ‘Cowboys’ the sparsely used scratching seems to function as a reminder of a remainder. Something ‘ill’ this way comes…

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