HIP HOP 1: two turntables and a microphone. The name of the band is the X-ecutioners (formerly X-Men). Their ass-tight groove is midtempo, fluid, and organ-soaked (Wu-lite fresh, you might say). Their MC speaks the lyrics as if they were written on an unearthed grail. "If hip hop is indeed a culture, our culture, then why is our foundation slowly breaking...breaking? And drifting down a bottomless abyss. We have allowed our foundation to be manipulated, raped, and given back to us in a form we can not quite call our own." The MC is a woman.
Hip Hop 2: two turntables and no microphone. The name of the band is the Invisbl Skratch Piklz, a crew of Filipino-American DJs anchored by a guy named Q-Bert. Listening to their latest 12-inch single, "Invisbl Skratch Piklz vs. Da Klamz Uv Deth," is like breakdancing in a tornado. In terms of sampling, this is to Sean "Puffy" Combs what Public Enemy was to Lou Rawls. Beat, melody, rhyme, rhythm, and time are totally skewed as the DJs cut and scratch records (James Brown and N.W.A., primarily) with such unknowable, deconstructive skill that grooving (even listening) becomes painful. It reminds me of the first time I heard Sonic Youth.
Hip Hop 3: uh, I'm not quite sure. The name of the band is We, and the first side of their gorgeous album As Is is so undeniably "post"-post-rap, post-funk, and post-post, it's obviously "pre." But pre-what? I have no idea. "I love this; what is it?" asks my roommate in the tone he might affect if an angel landed in his lap. After a dozen listens, I count half a dozen mutating rhythms--straight hip hop, severed hip hop, severed disco, machine-gun drum rolls, drum'n'bass, and one I can't quite describe. I think I hear flutes; I know I hear sitars. It ascends, then it stops, and then it goes backward, and then forward. Oh yeah, and it's really, really pretty. It feels like the Velvet Underground.
The X-ecutioners, the Piklz, and We all record for a tiny label called Asphodel, specializing in, but not excluded to, putting out strange-but-true turntable music. Other Asphodel releases have included an album of traditional Chinese pipa music by a woman named Min Xiao-Fen; a sweetly frustrating modern classical recording from 1968 by a Greek composer named Iannis Xenakis; an album of so-called Incredibly Strange Music (actually lounge); and three volumes (seven CDs!) of noise collages, or "drones" (Swarm of Drones, The Throne of Drones, and A Storm of Drones). But their specialty is the post-hip-hop hybrid--of dub, ambient, electronic experimentalism, and musique concrete. They call it "illbient," but I'd rather not. It's best heard on recent albums by Sub Dub, Byzar, Tipsy, and the aforementioned hip-hop trio.
Asphodel is run by a guy named Nout Human, an old-school avant-garde type who got his start in the early '70s with a Bay Area group called Rhythm and Noise that put on "shows" specializing in "audience mobilization." The "crowd" would be loaded on busses and brought to caves, or the desert, or a borrowed school. Then they would be literally rained on, or blasted by borrowed movie-studio wind generators, and figuratively bludgeoned by music created by guitars, synthesizers, shortwave radios, and the banging together of kitchenware. By 1979, Rhythm and Noise's songs (sorry: "spaces") started getting shorter and the group started showing films as accompaniment. Not all that new in 1980, but their experiments provoked the interest of Warner Bros. Records, which plotted to turn the band into an "electronic Rolling Stones" whose music videos could be shown as, well, music videos--as in MTVideos. But the band's refusal to tone down their apocalyptic imagery scared off the suits.
Eighteen years later, Nout's big gig is Recombinant, a rave-to-read-by where the best Asphodel disc jockeys (sorry: "defusion jockeys") deflect their strange sounds against a "classical" orchestra (conducted by Nout) and images projected on four giant screens. Though tame by comparison to the bus experiments, its four-night run in San Francisco was seen by thousands, and reports ranged from bemused to amazed.
Nout's a neat guy to talk to--for a while. But, like his label's musical vision, his personal vision is a little, uh, brainy (sorry: "cerebral"). He can fall into long futurist rambles in which he savors and spits out terms like "sound sculpture," "isorchestration," and "fiber-optic hookups" with the same relish a Van Halen fan might ooze during a dialogue on breast size. His verbal tics hint at what some see as Asphodel's fatal flaw: It's way too fuckin' abstract. Confronted by my roommate's initial response to We ("I love this, what is it?"), I made a decision: "Well, it's hip hop, I guess." That prompted a dis: "This isn't hip hop; it's undanceable as bop." Sorry: post-bop.
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