By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Gold Teeth Thief
Let's start in the middle. Dahlena's "Dabka" is a kind of polyrhythmic Indian marching song, its trilling woodwinds and driving drum corps lending it a feeling of ancient ceremony. The track starts the second half of Gold Teeth Thief, the self-released DJ mix-CD by Jace Clayton, a.k.a. DJ /rupture, an American currently living in Madrid. (The mix is distributed in the U.S. by Surefire and is also downloadable in its entirety from /rupture's Web site, www.negrophonic.com).
For most of its length, /rupture leaves "Dabka" alone, an anomaly among the 18 tracks that come in for some aural microsurgery. Arriving in the middle of the most kinetic DJ mix I've heard in ages, it stands out, mainly because it's a chance for listeners to catch their breath. A couple of minutes into the song, a stabbing guitar surfaces, suggesting the blues without quite playing them, and adding a modern, urban air to the Dahlena track without throwing it off balance. When /rupture cuts "Dabka" out completely, the switch into the instrumental mix of rappers Non Phixon's "Four W's" is seamless.
The contemplative feel of the Non Phixon track carries over to Djivan Gasparyan's "Die Yarnan," a meditative instrumental played on an Armenian flute called the duduk, which soon nestles into Funkstörung's ghostly remix of Wu-Tang Clan's "Reunited." Only, with the track's vaguely threatening, spoken-slurred "Wu-Tang, motherfucker" repeating over a somnambulant beat, the feel has changed from relaxed to moody and potentially dangerous. When Funkstörung's slow-mo groove is ambushed by an untitled track from Nettle (another Clayton alias), the tension explodes. The Nettle cut is a breakbeat shitstorm, and it hits like a gunshot at a house party, making your ears run for cover.
I could go on, but the point is that, if you're like me, you might not even notice this particular sequence until the ninth or tenth time you play Gold Teeth Thief, because there's so much else going on. A well-plotted mix that courses with dancehall and dub, North and South African music, gabber and glitchcore, Thief is simultaneously abrasive and compulsively listenable like little I've heard since prime Public Enemy.
The slogan of the Clayton-run Soot Records is "Contemporary experiments in digital-audio & breakbeat reconstruction informed by North African musical traditions." Clayton, a Boston native, has been intensively studying North African and Arabic music on his own for the past five years. "There's no obvious place to study it," Clayton says via e-mail. "A lot of scholarship on the subject tends towards a stultifyingly ethnographic approach, rather than dealing with the more vital and far more popular contemporary currents in Arabic song."
Not that Soot's fusion of keening Muslim melodies and raw-boned drum 'n' bass rhythms is especially new even in the States. Even before 9/11 brought increased focus to Arabic culture as well as politics, Clayton's tracks could be heard as an especially potent wrinkle on the Eastern tropes that have been surfacing in hip hop with greater frequency--think of Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin'," or the Thief-opening one-two punch of Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On" and Nas's "Oochie Wally (Instrumental)."
Still, 9/11 has lent Thief a special resonance, especially the disc's final sequence, which moves from Muslimgauze's "The Taliban" to Paul Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo's "Homeless" to a gorgeous live track by Miriam Makeba, who lived through 30 years of exile from her native South Africa during apartheid. It's not often that even DJ culture's most politically outspoken figures (Matthew Herbert, for instance) express their viewpoints through grooves rather than extra-musical rhetoric. But with Gold Teeth Thief, DJ /rupture has managed the feat of capturing something more than your average dance-floor epiphany: His set provides a glimpse into the world at large rather than a mere escape hatch from it. The world's a mess, and it's in his mix.