Model 500 – Deep Space

Model 500 Deep Space

(R&S: 1995)

It's time to talk about Deep Space. An album dropped by Juan Atkins amidst a flurry of activity in 1995, it was released smack in the middle of the nineties and bisecting the decade both literally and metaphorically. Slotting in quite comfortably within the currents of outer space imagery running through techno at the time, from Galaxy 2 Galaxy to 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and the Red Planet EPs, it also predicted the tronik r&b moves and minimalist grooves of the late 90s, sounds that take us right up to the present day. Deep Space remains a fascinating record for the way it blends techno, machine soul, micro-house and jazz inflections into a swirling nebula of sonic possibility.

With Atkins tugging the curtain that conceals tomorrow from all of us, he's invited you to catch a glimpse of tomorrow's music looming just around the bend. This is a 21st century soul record, playing like a star map to the future. To this day, it remains one of those records so singular, so forward-thinking, that it's difficult to assess just where exactly it came from. How did Deep Space happen? To answer that question, where the future came from, one must take a look into the past. A decade in the past, to be precise. So let's set our time circuits back to good old 1985...

Juan Atkins, Richard Davis & John Housey of Cybotron

It's 1985. Juan Atkins had been a member of Cybotron (alongside Richard Davis aka 3070) for a few years by this point. Cybotron were seminal purveyors of electro operating concurrently with Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, who released Planet Rock just as Cybotron began unleashing records like Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear upon an unsuspecting public.

Cybotron's sound was a rude, street-level update of Kraftwerk's man-machine music, shot through with dark, psychedelic inflections that felt like a hangover from Funkadelic's early acid-tinged LPs (especially Cosmic Slop). The combination of Planet Rock and Clear (in particular) laid the foundation for the whole electro craze (see also Hashim, Planet Patrol and The Egyptian Lover), a sound that would go on to rule the first half of the 1980s.

Cybotron Enter (Fantasy)

The group added guitarist John Housey (aka Jon-5) for the album Enter, which expanded their sound to include a derezzed acid rock dynamic sprawling out in songs like Industrial Lies and the title track. Cosmic Cars rocked a 4/4 rhythm in a way that predicted the rugged, ramshackle techno traxx of 1987, while the digital funk of The Line and El Salvador split the difference between the black new wave of Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear's stripped-down electro punch.

The record also featured the awesome Cosmic Raindance, a skeletal tune built on a nimble rhythm matrix of crisp drum machines and a descending funk bassline, all of which propelled these great spiraling clouds of whining synthesized sound across a stormy digital sky. Ending in a crash of computerized thunder, it set a thrilling template for the elegant, minimalist electro of Drexciya and Elecktroids that would surface about a decade later. Cybotron swiftly followed Enter with the Techno City, at which point Atkins decided to strike out on his own.

Model 500 No UFO's (Metroplex)

This is where we came in. That is, 1985, when Atkins started his own label, Metroplex Records, and released his first solo record: Model 500's No UFO's. The record was a perfect fusion of tightly regimented electronic sequences and raging percussive chaos, boasting a richer, even-more-psychedelic sound than Cybotron. I'll put it this way: if Kraftwerk were James Brown circa Sex Machine and Cybotron were Sly & The Family Stone circa Stand!, then Model 500's No UFO's was Funkadelic circa Maggot Brain. Can you get to that?

The flipside was dominated by the slithering rhythm of Future, which found Atkins pumping electro moves the same way Hendrix played Killing Floor (see also Channel One's Technicolor), which is to say faster, more fluid and with more authority than anyone else around. This is ground zero for that 90s electro sound we all love so much, what with the tighter sound and sharper edges, it laid the blueprint for whole swathes of the scene. Aux 88 were certainly paying attention.

Model 500 Night Drive (Metroplex)

Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) followed, and somehow it managed to be even better. A masterpiece of neon vectors colliding in a phantasmagoria of motorik digital funk, it pierces your consciousness with tumbling bleeps and then just rolls for six minutes. Atkins narrates the nocturnal journey over eerie computer blue sonics, adding claustrophobic Jamie Principle-esque vocal stylings that give the whole trip a shadowy, spectral effect.

This is the first glimmer of what would come to define the Deep Space sound, and as such it kicks off a little potted history we're about to indulge in: a history of Atkins' music within this rarefied terrain. The following four records each outline key developments that would culminate in the Deep Space sessions. Context is key. After all, an investigation into this impulse within Atkins' discography plugs you directly into what is — by my estimation — the purest manifestation of machine soul.

B-side of Model 500 Ocean To Ocean (Metroplex)

After blazing a singular path through the remainder of the decade with records like Off To Battle, Interference and Other Side Of Life, Atkins rang in the 90s with the Ocean To Ocean EP. Kicking off with two versions of Ocean To Ocean, which played like a smooth-groove summation of everything he'd been up to in the intervening years, it was the flipside that offered a stunning preview of things to come.

Rocking a 4/4 pulse threaded by a resolute string/bass melody inna Off To Battle-stylee, Wanderer played like a stop off at the connecting station for the bullet train trip from 1985 to 2001. I've noted before how this EP was something of a blueprint for the more reflective side of UR's endeavors, and nowhere is that more evident than in Wanderer. It also neatly sets the stage for the final song of the record, its undeniable highlight.

Infoworld starts with a memorable bleep refrain before revving up the 4/4 engine once again. A geometric bass pulse threads the beat matrix while electronic string staccatos seems to fuel the track's propulsion. The sound here defined by a sleek, aerodynamic quality, with a greater emphasis placed on nimble grooves and lush synth atmospherics. Ah yes... those synths! Like Larry Heard and Carl Craig, there's just no mistaking Juan Atkins' synths for anyone else's. As clear an oracle as one could ask for, Infoworld lays out the foundation for the next decade plus of Atkins' journey.

Model 500 The Passage (Apollo)

Case in point being this three track EP, Atkins' first engagement with R&S Records — via their ambient subsidiary Apollo — which finds him expanding the sound of Infoworld into sprawling intergalactic shapes. The motorik techno soul of Vessels In Distress finds Atkins in collaboration with Martin Bonds (aka Reel By Real), offering up a Moroder-inflected take on the Motor City sound shot through with shimmering shapes and textures.

Mind Changes features Atkins' dreamy vocals in duet with android intonations over a bouncing, compact house rhythm. With the track's austere 4/4 pulse defined by a sort of ethereal synth architecture, it's of a piece with the proto-micro-house sides that he'd begun circulating under the name Infiniti, records like Flash Flood and Think Quick. All of which would ultimately lead to his collaboration with German duo 3MB (Moritz von Oswald and Thomas Fehlmann) on the awesome Jazz Is The Teacher EP (more on this later).

The title track finds Atkins incorporating crashing breakbeats into his sound, the breaks sparring with his usual 808 dynamics and a chiming bleep matrix in a flowing tide pool of ethereal synth and atmosphere. Apparently the tune got some action at contemporary drum 'n bass sound systems, where it'd be pitched up at a sped-up '45rpm (proto-ambient jungle!). I suppose that does make sense. Above all else, its mode is pure machine soul and a clear indication of the shape of things to come...

Model 500 I See The Light (Metroplex)

Tucked away on Atkins' own Metroplex imprint is this nearly forgotten 12". Whereas much of the Metroplex catalog has been serviced quite well, to the best of my knowledge this has never been reissued. Which is a shame, because this is one of Magic Juan's absolute greatest records. I See The Light is a spectral electro symphony built on a cycling 808 chassis with a staircase bleep pattern and wispy synth figures swaying across its ocean-like refrain. Atkins intones the title's lyrics in a deadpan whisper. It's all very Aux 88.

Of course, the b-side is even better! Pick Up The Flow commences with one of Atkins' trademark sci-fi synth progressions, computer sounds fading into view on a tumbling drum machine rhythm as a rolling bassline unfurls across the length of the track. The whole thing seems to drift by on a cosmic wind, bleeps intoning between the verses as Atkins' gentle raps ride the rhythm in this gently pulsing astral hymn. Deep Space music, to coin a royal phrase. Stunningly beautiful, it flows quite naturally into our next record, which is the final way station before we reach our destination.

Model 500 Sonic Sunset (R&S)

Back on R&S — this time with Basic Channel's Mortiz von Oswald in the engineering booth — Atkins delivers Sonic Sunset, his first extended sequence of solo material. Nominally an EP, with three versions of the title track, it clocks in at nearly an hour. Built on a rapid-fire synth sequence that seems to bounce across the rhythm's surface, Sonic Sunset spans the beatless freeform of the Calm Mix to the Cave Mix's dubbed-out reverb architecture (shades of Basic Channel). The Third Wave Mix, which I suspect to be the original version, is of a piece with Jazz Is The Teacher (those unpredictable rhythms a signpost for tech jazz).

Neptune's iridescent, hall-of-mirrors trip stretches out horizontally across its sprawling twelve minutes, sounding like trance music played at a disco pace. Also comparable to the ambient house moves of The Orb and Sun Electric, it affirms the implicit connection between Detroit, Berlin and London (a figure like Thomas Fehlmann moving freely between the three). The machines here left to spool out into infinity on a vector-plotted course, sounding like nothing so much as a deep space probe gliding through the deep black of space.

Rather appropriately for this deep space journey of a record, Sonic Sunset's longest track also happens to be its greatest treasure: I Wanna Be There, a skittering slab of motorik techno soul, lasts the better part of twenty minutes. Dig that nagging shuffle of a rhythm and the bassline bounce, parallaxing against those great twisting atmospheric synths in the background. More than anything else here, it runs parallel to the proto-micro-house of Infiniti, albeit shot through with jazz-inflected shapes and a set of tender vocals from Atkins.

Juan Atkins at home in the machine
Juan Atkins: Soul Man-Machine

His delivery strikingly different here in comparison to his earlier man-machine moves, revealing Magic Juan the introspective soul man. Alongside those jazzed-out keys that dance across the surface, punctuating the groove even as as they spar with ethereal, flute-like sonics, it brings to mind the disco-era cosmic jazz moves of figures like Norman Connors and Idris Muhammad, rebuilt and rewired for the 21st century. Kompakt funk, to a man. The whole trip takes us through the final stretch of our journey, setting the stage perfectly as we arrive at our destination....

This is Juan Atkins' debut album... now you're in Deep Space.

A galaxy's core, painted in deep blue and red
The center of the Milky Way galaxy, as seen from the Hubble telescope

You switch on the music. Surfing in on a great wash of synthesized stardust, the ethereal chords of Milky Way drift across the soundscape before a gently shuffling drum machine rhythm comes into focus. This is liquid techno soul, soaring upon Atkins' trademark synth architecture and drums a tad tougher than you might expect. Computer sonics thread the groove within the groove, and post-Herbie Hancock sequences hop across the spaces between the spaces. It all fits in perfectly with what Carl Craig was up to circa Landcruising and More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art, particularly songs like At Les and Science Fiction.

Kevin Saunderson reaching for the camera
Kevin Saunderson

Notably, the track was co-written with fellow Detroit icon Kevin Saunderson. This at the height of Deep Space Radio, a recurring show that found the Deep Space Crew (rounded out by Atkins, Saunderson and Derrick May) bringing techno music to terrestrial airwaves. Undoubtedly, those heady vibes can be felt in this record as strongly as they could Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio (a mix album dedicated to enshrining the show's vision on disc for posterity) a couple years later.

As if that weren't enough, Milky Way was mixed by the great François Kevorkian. It certainly does have a touch of the cosmic about it. Cosmic jazz? Cosmic disco? You got it. Above all else, this gently unfolding deep space psychedelia often reminds me of peak-era Neptunes (during the whole Star Track trip they'd kick off a few years later) at their most blissed out. Needless to say, very strong SA-RA vibes are in evidence throughout as well.

The Cassini probe passes before the face of Saturn
Cassini in orbit of Saturn

A bubbling synth rises from the silence, heralding the arrival of the next track. With a pulsing 4/4 groove punctuated by a clanking sound one might encounter on a Rob Hood record, Orbit is on a slightly minimalist trip. One might even notice shades of Basic Channel in there somewhere. However, the strongest signal I'm getting here is from Jazz Is The Teacher. Despite it's minimalist intent, Orbit's got that unpredictable, anything-can-happen feel of the 3MB record. Maybe it's the splashing hi-hats, maybe those synths bubbling under, maybe even the crystalline synths that drift into the mind's eye every so often, but it's unmistakably there.

Until it isn't, of course, as Orbit collapses into a bubbling pool of synth and texture receding into the horizon. A menacing acid line rises from the chaos, announcing the arrival of The Flow.

Gaseous clouds on the surface of Jupiter
Calling out the flow, with the flow, with the flow...

Which is quite simply incredible. A perfect fusion of Kraftwerk and Janet Jackson, this is the Ur-text of machine soul. A shading of struck bells and that menacing electronic sequence drive crisp 808 beats that couldn't sound any more different from 1995 r&b if they were produced by Steve Reich. Of course a year later, Timbaland would single-handedly make it the sound of cutting edge r&b, bringing the form into the 21st century a few years early.

Aisha Jamiel's vocals alternate between spoken word and songbird (which becomes doubly haunting for the ethereal chorus) just like Missy Elliott would on Supa Dupa Fly two years later. The sonic similarities to Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) are undeniable as well, with The Flow recalling Atkins earlier opus only s-l-o-w-e-d d-o-w-n considerably, making it the definitive link between Metroplex and One In A Million, and as such the cornerstone of machine soul.

Model 500 The Flow (R&S)

Notably, The Flow spawned three separate 12" singles, featuring a bevy of remixes spread across them. You get a deliciously retro electro workout from the Jedi Knights, a jazzy drum 'n bass reading from Alex Reece, Frank De Wulf's proto-speed garage mix, a Howie B. machine funk take and two hard-edged speedfreak mixes from Underworld. However, the best remix is by Magic Juan himself.

The G-Funk Mix a wall-shaking house party monster jam, featuring a lascivious bass groove yoked to a Zapp-inflected robot voice. Aisha Jamiel's vocals duel with a jazzy Rhodes up and down the groove. Atkins grasp of the dynamics here quite simply impeccable, this ought to have gotten serious radio play. Shame, really. Along with J Dilla, who had a shaping influence on both Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope and D'Angelo's Voodoo, their impact didn't break through to the popular consciousness. Like krautrock, innit?

Still, it makes perfect sense that the era's r&b would have some serious Motor City vibes lurking just below the surface. Shades of The Velvet Underground & Nico... peel slowly and see.

Asteroids drift past the rings of a distant planet
Sharp Shooting On Saturn

Warning follows with a similar spirit to Orbit's, The Flow bookended by two erratic slabs of minimalist jazz electronica. Another high-pitched sliver of Rob Hood-recalling noise taps out a rhythm across a bouncing pendulum of clockwork synthesizer. These great detuned synths seem to squeeze up from beneath the cracks in the rhythm like iridescent magma. Still jazzed-out, but tweaked to abstraction. Playing like a tone poem, there's shades of onomatopoeia to the whole affair. Think Drexciya's Draining Of The Tanks or X-103's Eruption: this is a synthetic recreation of the events depicted in its title. You're on red alert.

Nebula
Astralwerks draws you in

At the last moment, you're carried away on the sweet sway of Astralwerks, a nebula of a track, an enigma, with rolling rhythms that seem to split the difference between downbeat and junglist double-time the way a certain Tim Mosley would a year later. The synths seem to speed up and slow down with the rhythm, the whole effect pleasantly disorienting. It's of a piece with the ambient jungle of A Guy Called Gerald circa Black Secret Technology, 4 Hero circa Parallel Universe and Jacob's Optical Stairway (a 4 Hero one-off that featured Atkins on The Fusion Formula).

The spectre of drum 'n bass hangs over the entirety of this record, in fact. I suspect that the unpredictable rhythmic danger felt throughout is sourced in jungle as much as it is in jazz. There's almost a sense of Atkins raising his game to match the innovations of the U.K.'s junglist auteurs. Noteworthy also the explicit drum 'n bass connections in the shape of 12" remixes by Wax Doctor and Alex Reece.

Model 500 Starlight (Metroplex)

Starlight is similarly forward-thinking work, this time in a thoroughly Basic Channel mode. Built on a gently chugging rhythmic figure, the melody is carried by a single synth pulsing at regular intervals as its run through the filters. Sailing on a solar wind in perpetual motion, the whole thing so slight but profound. It's worth noting that from the prior tune onward, the remaining tracks on this album are engineered by Moritz von Oswald. Nowhere is that more evident than on Starlight, which even got a 12" release on Metroplex with a remix from Oswald.

Moritz von Oswald & Juan Atkins

One thing that's always intrigued me about Starlight is how much it sounds like an Infiniti record. There's that same sense of linear expanse stretching across a great horizontal plane that one finds in tunes like Moon Beam or Think Quick. In fact, it's an even more skeletal outing than even most of the Infiniti output, with the same x-ray architecture that Oswald and Mark Ernestus had essayed in Basic Channel. As one might expect, this sense is amplified in the Moritz Mix on the 12", with its striking tonal shifts and great caverns of reverb.

Fans of Isolée, Luomo and Villalobos would love both versions of Starlight, which have the same shimmering, tactile quality one finds in Beau Mot Plage, Tessio and Dexter. Like I was saying before, Kompakt funk. Fascinating the way this record weaves its micro-house and machine r&b shapes together, envisioning an unlikely sonic pact between the two forms before they'd even fully come into their own. The juxtaposition certainly makes far more sense in 2018 than it would have at the time. But then, they don't call Juan Atkins The Originator for nothing...

A space station launch in progress
Kinda like... SA-RA

Last Transport (To Alpha Centauri), which plays like a downbeat, deconstructed take on the earliest Metroplex releases, is to No UFO's as Funk Gets Stronger (Part 1) is to Flash Light. It's a great little piece of electronic funk that very strongly recalls Kraftwerk circa Computer World, but with a glitch in the machine. There certainly seems to be a fair bit of mischief about it, the delivery executed with a wink and a nod.

It's reminiscent of what Gerald Donald was up to around the same time with projects like Dopplereffekt, the Elecktroids and Drexciya, bearing that same sense of 2600-inflected retro flavor it's nevertheless bang up to date. Once again, you could picture this coming out a few years later with Timbaland in the production chair (check those quasi-xylophone fills). Just add Busta Rhymes or Bun B rapping over the top, and it might as well say ©2000 Blackground Records on the label...

Model 500 I Wanna Be There (R&S: 1996)

The record's penultimate track is a tight edit of I Wanna Be There, which you'll remember originally appeared on Sonic Sunset. Within the context of the record, it's the mirror image of The Flow, an r&b-inflected pop song at sea in abstraction. The third of the singles from this record (after Starlight and The Flow), the I Wanna Be There features an aqua tint drum 'n bass mix from Wax Doctor and a lush tech jazz rework from Dave Angel. Once again, however, the kicker is the remix by the man himself. Stripping the track down to a sleek spacecraft simplicity, Atkins aligns it even more closely with Infiniti's digital micro-funk moves.

A deep space psychedelic swirl
Lightspeed!

Which are also writ large on Lightspeed, the closing track to the Deep Space saga. Fusing the celestial atmospherics of Starlight with the shuffling catch-up groove Milky Way, it's as if the scrambled memories of the record are being rearranged in the slipstream across the dark side of Jupiter. Beyond the infinite. With just a snatch of almost subliminally funky bass and the occasional synth shimmer, it's the perfect ending to this intergalactic voyage.


As I said before, Deep Space feels more futuristic with every passing year. At the time, one might not have noted the implicit connections made between Pony, Beau Mot Plage and Finley's Rainbow, but with the benefit of hindsight, they're all here clear as crystal. Somewhere in the record's DNA lie the whisper of future figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk, Spacek and the music they would bring. Juan Atkins mapped out this strange point of intersection where cosmic r&b, shimmering micro-house, electronic jazz and straight up techno all collide to form the basis of machine soul: the art form of the 21st century. You're in deep space.

Terminal Vibration VII (Edge Of No Control)

In the depths of the city, a torrent of rap records fall from the sky
Rap mutates in the darkness

In 1999, Material released Intonarumori, a sprawling double-album sourced in the seedy underbelly of hip hop stretching from the Wu-Tang Clan and Company Flow all the way back to Schoolly D and the Death Comet Crew. The record was as ugly and twisted as you could hope for. Demented downbeat jams rubbed shoulders with asymmetrical big beat symphonies that owed as much to Tackhead as they did the RZA, while Killah Priest rapped over a beatless illbient soundscape of eerie flutes and droning tambura before a dusted beat drops in at the last minute.

With old skool legends like Rammellzee, Kool Keith, Flavor Flav and DXT (consequently all of which warrant further exploration today) trading verses with the grimiest voices in dead end underground hip hop (including a cadre of figures from the WordSound crew), it's a perfect culmination of the most abject and abrasive tendencies in New York hip hop.

Material Temporary Music 2 (Red)

Of course, by the end of the century Material bassist and ringleader Bill Laswell's involvement in rap music had already spanned the better part of twenty years. As covered in Terminal Vibration V, the original incarnation of Material was a downtown post punk group that specialized in bass-heavy punk funk records like Temporary Music 2 and Memory Serves. When they signed with Celluloid Records, the group were tapped to produce a series of rap records for the label.

Futura 2000 with The Clash The Escapades Of Futura 2000 (Celluloid)

Ultimately clocking in seven 12" singles (all released in 1982), ranging from electro-tinged slated like Grand Mixer D.St. & The Infinity Rappers' The Grand Mixer Cuts It, The Smurfs' Smurf For What It's Worth and Phase II's The Roxy to odyshape post-p-funk grooves like Fab Five Freddy's Change The Beat and Une Sale Histoire, Tribe 2's What I Like and Futura 2000's The Escapades Of Futura 2000 (which featured an electrofunk backing from The Clash!), these were records of varying quality that nevertheless managed to consistently offer up a left field take on rap (the original undie records?).

Jungle Brothers

By the early 90s, Laswell was producing the sessions for what would become the Jungle Brothers' ill-fated third album, Crazy Wisdom Masters. The unreleased tapes — recently leaked on the web — reveal a druggy, abrasive sound very much in the vein of Intonarumori (albeit informed by a greater sense of demented humor).

Jungle Brothers J. Beez Wit The Remedy (Warner Bros.)

The record that finally did surface in 1993, J. Beez Wit The Remedy, may have tightened up the edges and introduced a spoonful of sugar in the shape of downbeat summer jams like Good Lookin' Out and My Jimmy Weighs A Ton, but that only served to highlight the strangeness of the material that was preserved from the initial sessions. Tunes like Spittin' Wicked Randomness and For The Heads At Company Z were complemented brilliantly by the smoked-out, Gaussian blurred beats that the crew had come up with in the intervening years. In either form, it was clearly one of the most unique rap albums of the decade (and incidentally my #1 rap album ever).

Crazy Wisdom Masters The Payback EP (Black Hoodz)

In 1999, the same year that Material's Intonarumori hit the shops, the New York-based WordSound label put out a stunning four track EP of recordings from the Crazy Wisdom Masters sessions (this long before anyone had heard the untouched masters) on the Black Hoodz subsidiary imprint. Hinting at the rougher edges of the initial recordings, Battle Show and Ra Ra Kid were abrasive, asymmetrical slabs of left field big beat hip hop. Naturally, this fit the WordSound aesthetic perfectly, which was a grimy, staggering vision of hip hop informed by dub's bottom end gone lost in the wastelands of the big city. Releasing records by the likes of Spectre, The Bug and Dr. Israel, it was something of a stateside, gutter mirror image of James Lavelle's Mo Wax empire.

Crooklyn Dub Consortium Certified Dope, Vol. 1 (WordSound)

Crucially, WordSound was also linked with the Axiom imprint that Bill Laswell was running across town, with Laswell contributing substantial material to WordSound's output — including the Crooklyn Dub Consortium series — while various WordSound personnel would regularly appear on Axiom releases. One such figure was Sensational (aka Torture), an iconoclastic MC who had a profound impact on the Crazy Wisdom Masters sessions (and by extension J. Beez Wit The Remedy). The (possibly apocryphal) story goes that Laswell introduced the JBs to Sensational while he was freestyling over a Stockhausen record as he was scratching it!

Sensational Loaded With Power (WordSound)

Although not all of his raps survived to the finished product, one can feel the spirit of his contributions in a continuum stretching from Gram Parsons' on The Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo to J Dilla's on Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope. Whatever the case may be, he managed to release two excellent records of skewed hip hop as the 90s drew to a close. Loaded With Power, in particular, is a brilliantly claustrophobic slab of decomposed hip hop (think REQ's Frequency Jams) that descends into the same sense of hydroponic psychosis showcased on Tricky's contemporary records (especially The Hell EP, recorded in part with the Gravediggaz).

DJ Spooky: That Subliminal kid

Meanwhile, across the city DJ Spooky was mirroring trip hop's modus operandi with his own vision of dub-soaked, abstract hip hop, a sound that he called illbient. Importantly, Spooky was not only a DJ and producer but an arch theorist, ruminating on hip hop's sampladelia with the most intricate detail since David Toop started checking the music in the early 80s. His own music stalked the outer rim of what would come to be called dark ambient, with low slung hip hop beats squeezing through the claustrophobia of bass pressure and slow-motion industrial sonix.

DJ Spooky Riddim Warfare (Asphodel)

Nevertheless, with a keen ear for a hook, Spooky also excelled at the sort of block rockin' hip hop that would fit right in with the likes of EPMD and The Beatnuts (not to mention the jungle of Dillinja and Roni Size). Tunes like Object Unknown, Galactic Funk and Peace In Zaire would have been radio staples in a parallel world where figures like and Rammellzee became superstars and managed to reshape hip hop in their image.

Rammellzee

Indeed, Rammellzee is surely one of the key figures in the development of an abstract, avant garde strain of hip hop. Appearing on stage clad in a trench coat with Shockdell during the climactic show at the end of the film Wild Style, he provided one of the most memorable moments of the film, rhyming rapid-fire over an awesome synth sequence with a mic in one hand and a toy machine gun(!) in the other. This sense of the strange carried over into his collaboration with K-Rob and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the epochal Beat Bop (a record that Peter Shapiro once declared the Rosetta Stone of trip hop1), a record that in retrospect sounds about a decade ahead of its time.

Death Comet Crew At The Marble Bar (Beggars Banquet)

The Death Comet Crew record followed swiftly afterwards. A collaboration with Ike Yard's Stuart Argabright and Michael Diekmann (along with Shinichi Shimokawa), the Death Comet Crew realized perhaps the most uncompromising fusion of rap attack and angular post punk sonix yet essayed with Rammellzee rapping over uptempo electroshock beats cooked up by the remainder of the group. These tropes were further explored a couple years later on the Death Command/Lecture 12" collaboration with Shockdell, which culminated in the excellent Missionaries Moving LP by the Gettovetts.

Kool Keith

In many ways, Kool Keith was the figure in rap's next generation who picked up the baton of rap's mad scientist. Starting out as the scatological court jester of the Ultramagnetic MC's, he also happened to be by far the greatest MC in the crew, spitting his surreal wordplay (informed by mathematics, non sequiturs and bizarre insults) in singularly nasal fashion.

Ultramagnetic MC's The Four Horsemen (Wild Pitch)

The Ultramagnetics turned out a trio of excellent LPs — the utterly essential Critical Beatdown, the deeply unpopular (though I've never understood the hate for it) Funk Your Head Up (which nevertheless turned up the epochal Poppa Large) and the bleak hip hop noir of The Four Horsemen — before Keith struck out on a long and singularly weird solo career.

Dr. Octagon Dr. Octagonecologyst (Bulk)

His first move was the Dr. Octagon record (recorded with Dan The Automator), a surreal slab of perverted hip hop whose eerie downbeat atmosphere boasted a startling détente with the contemporary trip hop of Tricky and DJ Shadow (indeed, the record was even licensed by hip downbeat institution Mo Wax).

Divine Styler Wordpower 2: Directrix (Mo Wax)

Similarly, Mo Wax also put out a record by abstract hip hop pioneer Divine Styler. Wordpower 2: Directrix featured Styler rhyming abstract-to-the-max over ice cold breakbeat geometry, which found the MC entering the slipstream of the burgeoning hip hop underground. Of course, he'd laid some of the foundational architecture for that underground in the first place with the first Word Power record (check Tongue Of Labyrinth) in 1989 when he was still aligned with Ice-T's Rhyme $yndicate.

Divine Styler Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light (Giant)

In between those two records lies the enigma of Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light, a record that would strain at the confines of any generic definition, let alone rap. Grey Matter, the one moment of more-or-less straight up hip hop, shares space with extended spoken word pieces like Heaven Don't Want Me And Hell's Afraid I'll Take Over and spacious post-Hendrix psychedelia like In A World Of U and Walk Of Exodus. This album is one of the most unexpected moments in rap's winding history, and remains essential listening for curious minds.

Ice-T O.G. Original Gangster (Sire)

Divine Styler's dalliance with rock mirrors Ice-T's controversial thrash metal output with his band Body Count, as well as T's embrace of noise on the recordings that bear his own name. Early records like Rhyme Pays mirror Code Money's crashing productions for Schoolly D, while O.G. Original Gangster runs parallel to the dense noise-collages that The Bomb Squad unleashed behind Public Enemy and Ice Cube (with a hint of Dr. Dre's contemporary productions with N.W.A.).

LL Cool J & Rick Rubin

Public Enemy and N.W.A. both flirted with elements of metal in their music at times (see Public Enemy's She Watch Channel Zero?! and The D.O.C.'s Beautiful But Deadly), a tradition that dated at least back to Run-DMC with Rock Box, King Of Rock and Rock This Way). Def Jam-co-founder Rick Rubin (that notorious heavy metal head) is the other great conduit of rock dynamics into hip hop, a primary example of which is his production of Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill (which also turned untold hordes of rockers onto the sounds of rap).

Run-DMC

Moving beyond literal rock 'n roll sonics, the crucial element in this strand of hard-edged hip hop to surface in the 80s was in their harnessing of noise: looped snatches of atonal sound, heavy on-the-one stabs, and huge, skyscraper-crumbling beats. Upon their emergence, Run-DMC's beats hit harder than just about anyone else's and ushered in what would become rap's second era.

Schoolly D Schoolly D (Schoolly D)

The stark minimalism of Rick Rubin's drum machine matrix in productions for the likes of T La Rock, the aforementioned Run-DMC, Beastie Boys and especially LL Cool J honed hip hop down a stripped-down essence of an shouting over block rockin' beats, defining the dominant sound in rap for the next couple years (with Jewel-T's I Like It Loud a particular highlight). Schoolly D and Code Money amplified the sound to a preposterous degree (see P.S.K. "What Does It Mean?"), inadvertently spawning gangster rap in the process.

Too $hort Players (75 Girls)

Ice-T's Rhyme $yndicate, who had their own significant strains of hard edged hip hop, produced by the great DJ Aladdin, seemed to pick up where Schoolly D left off. Along with that other forefather of West Coat rap, Too $hort, they laid the foundation for the twin poles of L.A.'s rough/smooth dialectic, with Ice-T's hard-edged beats playing the bad cop to Too $hort's low-slung street funk.

N.W.A. 100 Miles And Runnin' (Ruthless)

This thread was picked up most infamously by N.W.A., who took Ice-T's hard-hitting beats to a whole new level, spiked with a generous helping of intricate funk programming dished up by Dr. Dre. Starting out in the World Class Wreckin' Cru, sequined purveyors of West Coast electro par excellence (see 1984's Surgery), Dre moved into this heavier style to complement the heavier subject matter being explored by MCs like Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Ren, along with the rest of the posse.

Interestingly, early N.W.A. member Arabian Prince had similarly strong roots in electro before hooking up with the crew, ultimately splitting in 1989 to put out the excellent Brother Arab, a shadowy fusion of computer beats and proto-g-funk.

The D.O.C. No One Can Do It Better (Ruthless)

The D.O.C. turned out possibly the greatest negotiation of Dre's hard-edged production style on Straight Outta Compton and his later g-funk sound with the aptly titled No One Can Do It Better, featuring a dense sonic concrete jungle that found Dre expanding his earlier innovations into the sound that would inform the rest of his career. N.W.A. upped the ante with 100 Miles And Runnin' EP, alongside up-and-coming L.A. crews like Compton's Most Wanted and Above The Law, nearly managing to outdo everything that came before with their final LP, Efil4zaggin.

N.W.A. Efil4zaggin (Ruthless)

Efil4zaggin is a production tour de force, featuring Dre's most fully-realized productions ever, it only suffers from a descent into puerile humor and less inspired detours in its second half. It seemed the crew needed Ice Cube around to keep things focused (see AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted and the Kill At Will EP), although one wonders what might have gone down if The D.O.C. had never had his car accident and folded into the group to take Cube's place...

Public Enemy Yo! Bum Rush The Show (Def Jam)

Of course, at the center of any talk of hip hop's noisescapes will always be Public Enemy and their production masterminds The Bomb Squad, who tore up the fabric of sound a stitched it all back together again into a dense collage of confrontation. This sound, which utilized hard breakbeats, guitar stabs, vocal exhortations and illogical snatches of sound was the perfect complement to the stentorian vocals of Chuck D and Flava Flav's wise guy antics (who fulfilled a role similar to Kool Keith and Eazy-E in their respective crews). The turntable skills of Terminator X provided that certain x-factor of scratchadelic noise, so crucial to the era, rounding out Public Enemy's unique sonic attack.

Bomb The Bass Into The Dragon (Rhythm King)

The Bomb Squad's approach had a crucial influence on not only the next wave of hard-hitting hip hop but also the feedback-drenched, distorted breakbeat sound taking shape across the Atlantic, a sound that would come to be called big beat. Bomb The Bass were out the gate early with records like Into The Dragon, even continuing to have hard moments (the big beat perfection of Bug Powder Dust) even as they sprawled out into a sort of post-hip hop blues.

Meat Beat Manifesto Storm The Studio (Mute)

However, if there was one crew that shaped this sound (and they don't get nearly enough credit for it), it was Meat Beat Manifesto. The group's mastermind was Jack Dangers, who gradually took their sound from a sort of heavy industrial-inflected, post-Bomb Squad rap (imagine a dystopian, J.G. Ballard-damaged Beastie Boys) into a densely populated breakbeat sound that split the difference between big beat and trip hop (with a healthy dose of dub thrown in for good measure). There was a paranoid aspect to the music, bordering on psychosis, that only became more unhinged as the group pared down to the central figure of Dangers. In 1998 — the same year as Actual Sounds + Voices — Dangers even collaborated with Public Enemy, producing Go Cat Go (along with Danny Saber) for the He Got Game OST.

The Prodigy present The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One (XL)

A lot of big beat leaned heavily on the classic rock side (Fatboy Slim springs to mind), which is not relevant to this discussion, but a lot of it was heavily indebted to the hard beats Bomb Squad-era hip hop. The Prodigy, for one, betrayed Liam Howlett's roots in UK hip hop after their ardkore era had run its course with Music For The Jilted Generation, even collaborating with Kool Keith on the album to follow (1997's Fat Of The Land). Howlett's mix adventure The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One encapsulates this drift perfectly, featuring Public Enemy acolytes Hijack's awesome Doomsday Of Rap. There's that whole lineage of UK rap that fits squarely into this continuum, crews like London Posse, Hi-jack and Ruthless Rap Assassins.

The Chemical Brothers

The Chemical Brothers offered the best of both sides of the big beat coin, indulging in blissed out reveries like Where Do I Begin and Asleep From Day (featuring Beth Orton and Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, respectively) and Tomorrow Never Knows-inspired sixties psychedelia worship with Setting Sun even as they unfurled feedback-drenched beats like Loops Of Fury, Song To The Siren and Block Rockin' Beats.

The Chemical Brothers Exit Planet Dust (Freestyle Dust)

Records like Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole seemed to exist in the tradition of instrumental hip hop landmarks like The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel and The 45 King's 45 Kingdom (not to mention Frankie Bones' series of Bonesbreaks records).

Depth Charge Nine Deadly Venoms (Vinyl Solution)

Representing this phenomenon at its darkest, although he did have moments that predicted the Brothers (see Shaolin Buddha Finger), is one Jon Saul Kane. As Depth Charge, he combined the hard beats that were big beat's calling card with the oppressive atmosphere and dragging tempos that would come to define trip hop. Combining a pervading sense of sleazy darkness with copious martial arts samples, Depth Charge created a unique sonic vernacular all his own out of whole cloth. Notably, Kane also released the Beat Classic compilation on his own D.C. Recordings imprint, which made scarce hip hop grails available once more (often in instrumental form).

The Wu-Tang Clan

If the equation of bleak soundscapes, heavy drums and martial arts samples sounds familiar, it's probably because a certain East Coast crew happened to be taking a similar approach into the charts around the same time. Master producer the RZA wove desolately downbeat sonic tundras for his cadre of MCs to haunt. Figures like the GZA, Method Man and Ghostface Killah provided the perfect counterpoint to the RZA's visions of doom.

Method Man Tical (Def Jam)

The early Wu-Tang records — records like Liquid Swords, Tical and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — might be as close as rap ever got to post punk sonix within the mainstream drift of 90s hip hop. Strange, decomposed moments like Sub Crazy and 4th Chamber rubbed shoulders with hits like Bring The Pain and C.R.E.A.M., while peripheral Wu-Tang records like Soldiers Of Darkness/Five Arch Angels by Sunz Of Man took this sound to its outer limits. Collaborations with figures like Tricky and Genaside II were scattered amongst the crew's extended discography, while Method Man's Release Yo Delf was even remixed by Liam Howlett of The Prodigy!

Company Flow

One thing that Wu-Tang seemed to lay the foundation for was what would become the modern hip hop underground. I once read an interview with El-P where he explained that when he started out, the underground was merely the seedy underbelly of hip hop culture, whereas it would ultimately break off into its own world that bore less and less resemblance to the body hip hop. The Company Flow and Cannibal Ox projects that he masterminded certainly bear this out, during an era when rap was becoming increasingly electronic.

Lil Wayne Tha Block Is Hot (Cash Money)

This the era that southern rap was on the ascendant, and empires like Cash Money and No Limit were firmly established. Records like Lil Wayne's Tha Block Is Hot and Juvenile's 400 Degreez seemed to recreate the density of sampladelia with digital materials, harking back to Mantronix even as they often bore striking resemblance to the atmosphere conjured up by The Prodigy circa Music For The Jilted Generation. There would be an interesting echo of this in Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury half a decade later.

Run The Jewels Run The Jewels (Fool's Gold)

It's rather appropriate that these twin wings of rap would eventually meet in the middle — no matter how unlikely — with Run The Jewels, featuring an elaboration on El-P's production for Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music that resulted in a full-scale collaboration for three albums (and counting). Which takes us right up to the present day, where Kanye West puts out Yeezus — a stark slab of an album featuring EBM/grime/Code Money-inflected hip hop — on Def Jam (the original home of hard beats). Likewise, Vince Staples' Hell Can Wait was also released on the label, sounding like something Terranova might have produced at the turn of the century.

Material Intonarumori (Axiom)

It all ties back to those base materials, the idea of rap conjured up by Material's Intonarumori, a grimy cyberpunk vision of hip hop, where droppin' science is meant to be taken literally. This is the realm of Rammellzee, Dr. Octagon and Hank Shocklee, where mad scientists split the atom again and again, refracting rap's beat matrix through the bleak prism of Metal Box, Liaisons Dangereuses and Front 242. A place where breakbeats collide with guitar stabs, found sounds, rude electronics and pure noise, as MCs unfurl tangled mathematical phrases over the surface. This is the sound of rap at the edge of no control...

LISTEN NOW

    TV7: Edge Of No Control

  1. Killer Mike Big Beast (Williams Street)

    (featuring Bun B, T.I. & Trouble)

  2. Meat Beat Manifesto God O.D. (Part 1) (Mute)
  3. Jungle Brothers Battle Show (Black Hoodz)
  4. Public Enemy She Watch Channel Zero?! (Def Jam)
  5. Schoolly D P.S.K. "What Does It Mean?" (Schoolly D)
  6. Kanye West On Sight (Def Jam)
  7. Method Man Release Yo Delf (Prodigy Mix) (Def Jam)
  8. The Prodigy Poison (XL)
  9. Ultramagnetic MC's Poppa Large (East Coast Mix) (Mercury)
  10. Ice-T New Jack Hustler (Sire)
  11. Depth Charge T.D.A. (D.C.)
  12. Ice Cube The Product (Priority)
  13. Material Freestyle Journey (Axiom)

    (featuring Ahlill The Transcending Soldier, phonosycographDISK & Jerome "Bigfoot" Brailey)

  14. Lil Wayne Remember Me (Cash Money)

    (featuring B.G.)

  15. Mantronix Bassline (Sleeping Bag)
  16. Public Enemy Go Cat Go (Def Jam)
  17. Vince Staples Fire (Def Jam)
  18. DJ Spooky Rekonstruction (Outpost)

    (featuring Prince Poetry & Pharoahe Monch of Organized Konfusion)

  19. Genius/GZA 4th Chamber (Geffen)

    (featuring Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest & RZA)

  20. Divine Styler Tongue Of Labyrinth (Rhyme $yndicate)

    (featuring The Scheme Team)

  21. Rammellzee & Shockdell At The Amphitheatre (Animal)
  22. Hijack Doomsday Of Rap (Music Of Life)
  23. The Chemical Brothers Chemical Beats (Freestyle Dust)
  24. Jewel-T I Like It Loud (Jewel)
  25. N.W.A. Approach To Danger (Ruthless)
  26. Gravediggaz Deathtrap (Gee Street)
  27. Clipse Trill (Star Trak)
  28. Death Comet Crew At The Marble Bar (Beggars Banquet)
Killer Mike - Rap Music Meat Beat Manifesto - Storm The Studio Crazy Wisdom Masters - The Payback EP Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back Schoolly D - Schoolly D Kanye West - Yeezus
Method Man - Release Yo' Delf The Prodigy - Music For The Jilted Generation Ultramagnetic MC's - Poppa Large Ice-T - O.G. Original Gangster Ice Cube - Kill At Will
Material - Intonarumori Mantronix - The Album Lil Wayne - The Block Is Hot Public Enemy - He Got Game Vince Staples - Hell Can Wait DJ Spooky - Riddim Warfare
Genius/GZA - Liquid Swords Divine Styler - Word Power Various Artists - Wild Style Hijack - Hold No Hostage The Chemical Brothers - Exit Planet Dust Jewel-T - I Like It Loud
N.W.A. - Efil4zaggin Gravediggaz - 6 Feet Deep (Blank) (Blank) Clipse - Hell Hath No Fury Death Comet Crew - At The Marble Bar
Terminal Vibration 7: The Records

Footnotes

1.

Shapiro, Peter. Drum 'n Bass: The Rough Guide. London: Penguin, 2000. 268. Print.