All Circuits Busy

Electronic avatars Fatboy Slim and Roni Size give jolts to a critically dismissed genre

It seems as though "electronica" has been toe-tagged and scheduled for autopsy before ever achieving a clear definition. In a telling (and typical) April 30 New York Times piece attempting to define the legacy of Nineties music, Eric Weisbard succinctly summed up the impact of techno. Considering that "only Prodigy and Fatboy Slim [made] the Soundscan 1,000" best-selling records of the decade, Weisbard reasoned, there was no impact.

To further weaken dance music's credibility, the press has taken to discrediting and dismissing the individual hydra-heads of the multifaceted pseudo genre. The newest critical inductees into the Hall of Who Gives a Rat's Ass are big beat and jungle. Strange dance partners, to be sure. With the former dubbed too stupid and popular, the latter dismissed as too clever and irrelevant, electronica on the whole has been damned as simultaneously pedestrian and esoteric. Which is all the more reason to rejoice over the new strides the biggest names in those two genres have recently made.

Between his pivotal 1988 James Brown six-minute megamix "Payback (The Final Mixdown)" and his later incarnation as Fatboy Slim, Norman Cook has emerged as Britain's most danceable racial-integration advocate since the Specials. Avoiding outright appropriation, Cook has opted to augment and integrate his black American influences into everything from mod garage rock to French Moog oddities. But after decades of hard play, restlessness over his "big beat" rep set in, and in an attempt to jolt himself out of his Rockafella rut, the 37-year-old Cook initiated a project that would attempt to add a new dimension of heart and maturity to his oeuvre.

Although the result of those efforts, Between the Gutter and the Stars (Astralwerks) recently debuted at a respectable No. 51 in Billboard, fans-come-lately converted to Cook's shtick on 1998's You've Come a Long Way, Baby are in for a shock. After snickering through the intro "Talking Bout My Baby" (which contains my favorite recent body simile, "shakin' like two big ol' balloons in a hurricane"), they're gonna have to sit through 12-and-a-half minutes of acid. "Star 69" is definitely 7,931 international pleasure units (IPUs) short of Baby's booty-moving "Acid 8000." And after comparing the amazing last cut of his debut Better Living Through Chemistry and the Jim Morrison-sampling exercise in entropy that serves as Between's alleged centerpiece, well, "Sunset (Bird of Prey)" is nothing next to "Next to Nothing."

There are a few other disappointments: Bootsy Collins's guest spot is buried under layers of distortion on "Weapon of Choice"; and the token rock-out big-beat thump of "Ya Mama" contains a painfully obvious and distracting bite of the Chemical Brothers' "Block Rockin' Beats." But such gaffes are more than atoned for by the appearance of Macy Gray on the two most distinctive cuts here. Atop some of the heaviest P-Funk wallop that P-Funk never made, "Love Life" finds Gray smokily transforming the alphabet into an alluring come-on ("I'm gonna C ya, gonna D ya, if I E ya, 'cause I wanna F ya"). Then she plays for the cardio-pump with "Demons," in which she simultaneously mourns a lost friend and purges her sins over the most beautiful merger of breakbeat and soul piano since DJ Shadow's "Midnight in a Perfect World." Throw in the cortex-poking house rumble of "Retox" and the rave-as-testifying gospel breakbeat of "Drop the Hate," and you've got yourself a career breakthrough that displays Cook's more eclectic side--an exercise in growing out, if perhaps not growing up.

 

Roni Size and his Reprazent crew broke new ground with 1997's jazz-influenced New Forms, winning a ton of acclaim and awards for their efforts. By 1999, when Size's Breakbeat Era project revamped his sound into something more sinister, the press was busy fawning over Basement Jaxx and jungle was "over." In the Mode (Talkin Loud/Island), the official Reprazent sophomore full-length, seeks to revitalize interest in drum 'n' bass through the same method Fatboy Slim employed to legitimize big beat: using guest spots by well-known Americans.

Jungle and hip hop have always worked well together when the right parties are involved, and the cadre of MCs who add name recognition here are meshed ingeniously with the stepped-up intensity of the breakbeats. Method Man's reputation precedes him enough to give Size, Krust, and Die impetus to prepare some RZA-esque string spikes and kung fu ambiance. "Ghetto Celebrity" could be an ace Tical B-side remix, semi-tasteless lyrics notwithstanding ("Mr. Meth, Roni Size/Shady guy with lazy eye/Crazy high, maybe I/Crash and burn like Lady Di"). Zack de la Rocha's feral growl, just recently freed from the confines of Rage Against the Machine's rap-metal thud, sounds completely revitalized: "Centre of the Storm" showcases a lyrical talent the rocker merely hinted at elsewhere. Even hip hop's best nonlyrical mic fiend makes a contribution: "In Tune With the Sound" features human beatbox Rahzel doing a dead-on impersonation of the boomf-tsch, boomf-tsch breaks Size is so enamored with.

While the cameos shine, however, Reprazent also demonstrate enough of their own mic skills to stymie the "U.K. rap sucks" contingent. From the blazing reprise of New Forms' leadoff track in "Railing Pt. 2" to the beat-battling snarl of "Who Told You?," Dynamite MC's Carribean vocal inflections and skittering meter forge an intriguing link between jungle and dancehall. And singer Onalee's performance on "Staircase" blends enough butter and vitriol to make one of the most cliché sentiments in popular music--"I don't need nobody"--sound like an explosive opening salvo of furious, self-assured independence. Meanwhile, down below, the mellow jazz grooves of the past have been replaced with electronically mutated strings and beats so distorted they sound like they could blow out your speakers at ten decibels--all slathered over heavy-rolling drum breaks that Bad Brains would be proud of.

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