I can remember it almost like it was yesterday. 1993 was the year and Digable Planets were causing a fair amount of commotion on the scene. Folks started talking about this “new” fusion of jazz and hip-hop and where it was going to lead. But to be frank, I wasn’t very impressed. For starters, the jazz/rap synthesis had already been explored to much more interesting effect by A Tribe Called Quest on 1991’s THE LOW END THEORY and even earlier by Stetsasonic on 1988’s IN FULL GEAR. With that said I wasn’t a proponent of the mixture of jazz and hip-hop, partly because it occasionally seemed to be a shallow attempt at credibility mining, but mostly due to my conviction that what was (and is) best about hip-hop relates specifically to its newness: the transformation of the DJ from a block party and night club rocking dynamo into a scientific musical wizard appropriate for the end of the millennium; the scratching of records (achieving sounds by actually damaging yr equipment); the popularizing of sampling (i.e. appropriation, a tactic that spans back centuries but made quite new in rap by its boldness of gesture; not just lack of shame but the pride taken in sampling the most obscure record in the deftest way possible); and the establishment of the master of ceremonies (MC for short) from those block-parties of yore into a fresh possibility exalting a blunt, face-forward performative ethos that’s proven itself through pure staying power and the unexpected possibilities of variation. To this day I persist in stating that jazz and hip-hop have very little intrinsic overlap; sure, the freestyling MC and the improvising instrumentalist are in the same ballpark, but that’s a great big green blanket, and the use of jazz as sampling material has been overstated by many since the main thrust of the activity was almost entirely based upon crafting accents or loops that were quite different in form and function from the pulse of jazz motion. Rap was/is much more connected to the boogie-down imperative of street level disco (a perfectly fine genre that still gets denigrated by rock-centric dorks) and if it’s in league with an older style of music, it might just be the scrappy utility of old-time jug bands. Think about it; both formed new music from everyday materials – stone jugs, whistles, washboards, Jews harp, kazoos, washtub bass, turntables, microphones, old records, Casio keyboards, rudimentary drum machines. Yes, as rap morphed into the more mature stage crowned as hip-hop, the impressive breadth of this stylistic growth was often compared to bebop, but ultimately that was little more than a convenient surface similarity that made for good copy in monthly music periodicals. But back to the Digable Planets; they weren’t a group that raised my ire in any sense. Mainly they just left me cold. They managed a couple albums, the first a big hit, before fading from the limelight. Member Ishmael Butler subsequently formed Cherrywine, a group I’ve not heard for any specific reason other than possible sub-conscious aversion due to my severe distaste for the groups Buckcherry and April Wine. And now Butler, performing under the moniker Palaceer Lazaro, has a new project titled Shabazz Palaces that after some initial pre-listening skepticism on my part is proving to be a real lively kicker. Last year brought a couple of self-released EPs and 2011 finds Shabazz Palaces on Sub Pop with BLACK UP, a weird, smart and funky mixture of beat science and linguistic acrobatics. There is a tangible druggy quality to many of BLACK UP’s sonic environments and a penchant for minimalist production over the slick. The mode of Ishmael/Palaceer’s operation is comparable to such heavyweight experimental hip-hop names as Company Flow, Anti-Pop Consortium, Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox, and that’s a fine place to be. Once it was conclusively established that hip-hop was a phenomenon with real non-faddish pop potential the cultivation of an underground wasn’t far behind, and that’s where so much of the worthy beat-mining and word-slinging has been taking place since. Shabazz Palaces’ are a fine addition to the subterranean hip-hop equation, with a surplus of uniqueness that should assist in positioning them as a hopeful new leader in the field. That intriguing druggy/spacey quality is pushed in all the right ways and conversely, it’s also held in check so to not prove detrimental; psychedelic hip-hop is a style with a very small success rate, at least to this observer. Naturally I love the pop-psyche of De La Soul’s 3 FEET HIGH AND RISING and will give a shout of praise for the generally unknown KALEIDOSCOPE from DJ Food, but I’ll confess that Justin Warfield’s MY FIELD TRIP TO PLANET 9 leaves me solidly unstoked and the less said about an atrocity exhibition like PM Dawn the better. BLACK UP’s psyche-inclined aural landscapes aren’t surface nods toward potentially fakey flower-power vibes (De La wisely knew that going to that well more than once would be a blunder), but are instead quite deep in formation, actually reminding me in intent of recent non-hip-hop psyche action in the form of Animal Collective or Sun Araw. Naturally Shabazz Palaces’ innate funkiness causes it to stand a bit afield from the more explicitly abstract tomfoolery of the Collective or Cameron Stallones, but it’s a distance not too far. Another interesting aspect of Shabazz Palaces is how it mixes the boundary pushing with elements of pop savvy, resulting in an LP that’s terrain fluctuates smartly between mature strangeness and non-pandering accessibility. And Ishmael/Palaceer’s ability as an MC measures up to the music’s level of quality. His attack is loose, grittier and much riskier than I remember it, with generous doses of unusual wordplay matching up with the pure skill necessary for handling and exploring this music’s unusual, at times tricky surfaces. I’m particularly fond of the opener “Free Press and Curl”, with its strung-out vocal loops appearing halfway through the track, the quite skewed love ode “A Treatease Dedicated To the Avian Airess…” (I’m truncating some of the very wordy song titles here), the hallucinatory and infectious first half of “Youlogy”, the twisted trombone loop, woozy space flatulence and scattershot rhythms of “Endeavor For Never…”, the deceptive normalcy of “Recollections of the Wraith”, and the musically dense and lyrically antagonistic “Yeah You”, the closest this wisely brief disc (leave ‘em scratching their heads and wanting more…) comes to old-school diss-laden carpet calling. I’m very pleased with the guest femme vocals by members of the group THEESatisfaction, their presence adding balance and variety to an already very strong record. In closing I’ll mention that Ishmael/Palaceer still seems to be drawn to the undying fount of jazz, but not only has his interest widened but the way he utilizes the music has become, at least to these ears, substantially more appealing. It’s almost like he took a crash course in Sun Ra appreciation and passed with flying colors. This is why I unequivocally support higher education!!! Shabazz Palaces is one of 2011’s unexpected surprises, and anybody even mildly interested in the current shape of hip-hop should give it a hearing.
Conor Oberst is a prolific guy, similar in my estimation to both Will Oldham and Bill Callahan in the modern earthiness of his musical whatsis, but obviously very much the master of his own thing. And that thing has caught a fair amount of guff over the years for being overly “emo”, but to me all that hot air just registers as so much noxious bellyaching from a bunch of “real” “tough” “men”. And ultimately I just don’t think the emo tag is accurate. As others have pointed out, the stuff categorized as Emo Music generally vacillates between woe-is-me excursions of self-pity and self-righteous assignation of blame, the whole thing wrapped up in the uncomely narcissism of the young and alienated. Throw in an implicit streak of misogyny, and you might get the picture that emo is far from my favorite genre. That picture would be accurate. Oberst, on the other hand, while surely wearing his wildly pumping heart on his sleeve, registers quite often as a folk musician favoring the personal (though he can spin quickly into well-considered protest material), telling tales of other’s troubles just as often as his own, and in the process building a feeling of shared community in his listenership. In other ways Oberst reminds me a bit of early Sebadoh, except actually less troubled. Some high-strung individuals have been known to complain a bit about the at times unrestrained quality of the man’s voice, but I call that a red herring; he’s no more “out” than Dylan or Jad Fair or Wayne Coyne or Jonathan Richman. Let the guy sing. Oberst settled rather quickly into a mixture of confessor and storyteller, and he’s been refining that combination for the better part of the last fifteen years. He’s also a big collaborator, with his main project Bright Eyes featuring multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis and piano/horn-man Nate Walcott plus a revolving door of occasional contributors. They’ve knocked out some great records, a few bordering on classic, but I’m currently digging the 2006 odds-and-ends compilation NOISE FLOOR (RARITIES 1998-2005). It’s plain as day that when a player-writer is this prolific (by my count eleven full-lengths, eleven EPs and fifteen 7” records in roughly a decade and a half) not everything will attain a singularly high standard. But Oberst, particularly with Bright Eyes (and on his “solo” records) is surprisingly consistent if determinedly eclectic. The two LP edition of NOISE FLOOR collects 21 tracks from various sources and considering the random conceptual glue holding them together the four sides make for very solid and surprisingly cohesive listening. It’s also got a heap of double-album sprawl, and that’s not at all a bad quality, though the majority of the music comes from the years 2000-2002, which assists in setting the balance right. Things get interesting quite early; the attractively technoid A-side from the band’s 2001 Sub Pop Singles Club entry “I Will Be Grateful For This Day, I Will Be Grateful For Each Day To Come” quickly shows the breadth of their sonic investigations, and it’s followed up with “The Trees Get Wheeled Away”, one of the rousing numbers that Oberst excels at penning and delivering, particularly in the live setting, which fits very well since a few of the guy’s songs hang right on the precipice of sing-a-long solidarity. “Spent On Rainy Days” is the first of some crucial collaborative tracks, this one with Britt Daniel, and in its brevity it does feel like a cross between the sound of Bright Eyes circa LIFTED and Spoon around the time of GIRLS CAN TELL. Even though the tune’s too short, they do manage a bit of racket by the end. “Soon You Will Be Leaving Your Man”’s lonely/loner acoustic-ism really hits my sweet-spot for strung-out but sturdy folk songs about broken relationships, and the brilliant shroud of accompaniment (second guitar, percussion, piano, electronics, found tapes) that subtly surrounds Oberst’s voice and string picking elevates it to the level of near masterpiece. “Blue Angels Air Show” actually feels loosely and mildly descended from early-‘60s Spector-esque pop, and the following two songs, “Weather Reports” and “Seashell Tale”, both from an inexplicably unreleased 7” collab with M. Ward, display a fine adaptability, the pair of tracks landing squarely in Ward’s Americana-based indie-strum wheelhouse and obviously foreshadowing the Monsters Of Folk. The cover of Daniel Johnston’s classic pop lament in miniature “Devil Town” finds Oberst expanding upon but wisely not altering the original’s structure, and the tune’s success should prove thrilling for fans of Johnston and Oberst alike. The final five songs on the 2 LP set are exclusive to the vinyl, and they include some ringers for those with discerning taste. “Act of Contrition” is exemplary go-it-(mostly)-alone achy and wet-eyed strum, total angsty trench-coat and journal scribbling stuff to be sure. And if this was the only card Oberst played, I agree it’d certainly get old, but one big point of this comp is that he’s holding a nicely varied deck. “When the Curious Girl Realizes She Is Under Glass, Again”, the flip side to that Sub Pop single, is a heavily belted bit of indie-styled country-rock (the kind purists hate), with well-judged use of banjo and lap steel. ‘Tis true that the closing tune “It’s Cool, We Can Still Be Friends” possesses formidable levels of the abovementioned woe-is-me aura, but it’s in no way problematic since it ends with a “I’m gonna get blind blasted on booze and forget all about you” screed that might even get a veteran bluesman to tip his weathered cap. And it’s all the more resonant since everybody, hell anybody with just a little bit of experience knows that forgetting is well nigh impossible. NOISE FLOOR is a damned fine collection. It’s not the place for newbies to start, and the knowledgeable should have it already. But if you don’t have the vinyl, ya’ don’t have it all. So get cracking.