Nothing’s Changed

Tricky live at the Music box mixed with sleeve art
Tricky live @ the Music Box 5/17/2018

After twenty years as a massive fan of the man's music, I finally caught Tricky live last Thursday at the Music Box. After work, I cruised down Harbor Drive, past Lindbergh Field and the Embarcadero toward the San Diego Harbor. I stopped off at the Fish Market to grab some fish 'n chips (soulful as Maxwell) for a solitary dinner overlooking the docks. Squeezing in a bit of writing, I washed it all down with the darkest beer I could get my hands on.

From there, I parked at Lot 1023 — on the corner of Pacific and West Broadway — and walked through the American Plaza Station, continuing down India Street for a couple blocks before the Music Box appeared before me. I handed the doorman my ticket and was in the place before you could say Six Minutes, I'm On.

A view of the Music Box after dark
On India St., standing outside the Music Box.

Walking through the front door, I was confronted with a truly evocative atmosphere: now this was a proper venue. The Music Box now inhabits the space that was previously known as Anthology, an after hours jazz club that I'd been to a few times in the past, before it unceremoniously shut down a couple years ago. Anthology was on the upscale, aspirational tip, like the South Seas Club meets Norman Connors sleeve art, which fit the late-period jazz vibes in evidence on the venue's stage and soundsystem perfectly.

A view of the main dancefloor with the stage (and video screen) beyond
Walking into the empty Music Box.

The Music Box, in contrast, seemed to intimate a sort of post-industrial warehouse atmosphere, a million miles from the sleek surfaces of Anthology but still teeming with vibe. I could see the original stage in the distance as I made my way through the anteroom, where a handful of cocktail tables were scattered beneath the half-light in lapis lazuli. The bar was located to my left, so I got fixed up with a drink and made my way toward the dancefloor (which at this point was still empty).

Ad for Mark Farina live at the Music Box (June 1, 2018)
Mushroom Jazz

The plush booths of Anthology had been cleared out on the ground floor (although they appeared to have been retained on the upper floors), replaced by high chairs hugging the right wall in semi-circles around narrow cocktail tables in order to maximize floor space on the dancefloor. On the left was one long bench hugging the wall, much as it always had. The dancefloor spread out between.

There was a giant video screen behind the raised stage displaying coming attractions (Slum Village, She Wants Revenge, George Clinton with Parliament/Funkadelic, Mark Farina, etc.), and the walls were emblazoned with the shades of rust and iron. In other words, it was the perfect place to catch a trip hop show, especially in an era where the music seems to make even more sense than it did in its own time.

Tricky Angels With Dirty Faces Island

That time was the nineties, which is when I first dove into the music in earnest. Tricky's Angels With Dirty Faces was one of the first dozen or so records that I ever owned. In truth, I'd wanted to catch the man live since way back then, but for various reasons it never really happened. In the first instance, it was down to being too young to get in the door (circa Angels With Dirty Faces) and then it was because — in an era when I was going to school, working to pay for school and digging ditches — I was broke and (truth be known) living the trip hop life a little too fully. After that, it just never really came together. Sometimes it just goes that way...

Picture of a young Tricky (from the Tricky Kid sleeve art)
Tricky Kid

So it was thrilling to be in a venue like this to finally get to see see the man live in person. I'd bought two tickets back in January, but unfortunately as the day rapidly approached no one else could make it. I was somewhat disappointed at first, but ultimately realized that it was rather appropriate to be at this show alone: this is just as it would have been back in the day, when no one else I knew that was into this sort of thing. As much as Detroit techno or ragga jungle, this was a music that I'd had an intimate relationship with, and it hit me at the deepest level. I suppose that picking it up in a way so totally out of step with my prevailing surroundings only made me love it more. So not much has changed, then.

Massive Attack Blue Lines Wild Bunch

A selection of trip hop's greatest hits were playing over the soundsystem as people started to stream in, and damned if it wasn't a cross-section of a certain corner of my record collection back in the day. I'm talking about Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy, Portishead's Sour Times (and Glory Box *cough* even though Hell Is Round The Corner is better *cough*), DJ Shadow's Midnight In A Perfect World and Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt, Björk's Headphones and Radiohead's Talk Show Host.

Talk Show Host was especially a real surprise, much as it had been when I first heard it — on seeing Romeo + Juliet in theaters — and placing it immediately as Radiohead, even if it was drastically more beat-oriented than anything they'd done up till then (this just before their new direction was mapped out with OK Computer).

Perhaps the demanding trip-hopper in me would have loved to hear some Smith & Mighty, Nicolette and Terranova as well, but then you can't have it all. In truth, it was a bit of a rush hearing these songs together in one place again, all swirling around the black hole sun that lay at its center. And make no mistake, I'm speaking of Adrian Thaws.

Picture of an older, wiser Tricky
Tricky Now

Where I'm coming from, it simply does not get much better than Tricky. He's on my short list with Adam Ant and Kevin Saunderson, those musical figures that had the biggest impact on me growing up (indeed, right up to the present day). You hear songs like Aftermath, Hell Is Round The Corner, Poems and 6 Minutes as a teenager and it's bound to leave an impression. I suppose that for me, he was something like David Bowie, Rakim and Howlin' Wolf all rolled into one. Upon reflection, I'd admit that — once again — not much has changed!

Young Magic performing live with video projections behind them
Young Magic take the stage.

After a bit of waiting, the opening act took the stage. They were a three-piece called Young Magic, and they plied a sort of hallucinatory dream pop with slightly menacing overtones, centered around ethereal lead vocals. They filled the digital backdrop with a stunning Buggy G. Riphead-esque video loop projected behind them as they played. Exotic imagery and 3D terrain clashed in sometimes rapid fashion, much like the indoctrination video from The Parallax View. The whole experience was a perfect point of entry into the evening, setting the mood brilliantly. Young Magic: definitely one to look into.

Image of 1980s Detroit mixed with contemporary party-goers (possibly at Charivari)
Progressive Detroit of the 1980s.

In between Young Magic's exit and Tricky taking the stage, a bunch of peak-era hip hop like Nas, Mobb Deep and The Pharcyde played over the P.A. I looked around at the crowd, which seemed to be an interesting mix of people, ranging across every spectrum imaginable. I was reminded of Detroit's progressive scene of the early 80s, where a sort of adventurous anything goes spirit ruled the day, resulting in a fantastic mash up of futuristic funk, synth, disco and new wave music that ultimately coalesced in the sort of lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon that happens once a generation (if you're lucky).

Two lights give off a greenish glow in the mist
Eternal Feedback.

I purposefully hadn't checked prior setlists from other shows, because I wanted to be taken completely off guard by whatever would unfold tonight. Would the set be full of older material from the Maxinquaye/Pre-Millennium Tension era, or would it lean heavily toward his more recent material (drawn from an era where he seems to have reignited the old spark with a vengeance)? Would he go off on some unforeseen variation? In truth, any such possibility would have been fine by me: just being here tonight was a dream come true. After all, it had been a long road that took me here...

Tricky stands at center stage as Marta dances in the background
Sarcophagus center stage.

When Tricky hit the stage, he strolled out with his band to the sound of Vybes before kicking into an instrumental rendition of You Don't Wanna (from 2001's Blowback). What it may have lacked in Ambersunshower, the band more than made up in live crunch, with the song taking on a sort of Alice In Chains feedback-soaked voodoo. Tricky faced the drummer, his back to the audience, just vibing out on the music. That Sweet Dreams synth, sawing through the track in deliberate slow-motion, was absolutely monolithic in a live setting.

Without warning, the band dove headfirst into the clipped raw stylings of I'm Not Going (from 2016's Skilled Mechanics). At this point, they were just getting started, vibing up the room as clouds of smoke began billowing all around. A familiar fragrance coursed through the room and Marta walked out of the shadows to take the lead. The song has always come on like one big build up, and in this case it was building up to what would be an incredible night.

Tricky holds the microphone stand in the mist
Tricky: The original hip hop bluesman.

In passing, I must say that I really dig the way Tricky seems to have taken a left turn at some point, veering down this winding path of blues-soaked Gothic without hesitation. One suspects that he's revitalized himself on the arty, new wave-inflected sounds of his youth, particularly things like Japan's Tin Drum, Melt-era Peter Gabriel and The Cure.

Where Massive Attack faltered (losing their identity in the crystalline architecture of 100th Window), Tricky excels. Bringing his own considerable voodoo to the table, he reshapes the sound in his own image. The results sound unlike anything that's come before... a genre that should have existed (you can almost feel the distant memory of it), but never did. Well, now it does...

The crew dropped into three songs from Tricky's latest, Ununiform, starting with the staggering twilight dirge of New Stole. Firmly in the tradition of post-hip hop blues like Broken Homes and Singing The Blues, it finds Marta in fine form, taking on the vocal duties from Tricky's latest foil Francesca Belmonte. It manages to be cinematic and totally stripped-down at the same time, something that Mr. Thaws has handily mastered by this point. The Only Way followed swiftly, rounding out the first trio of songs from Ununiform, and finally Tricky was front and center.

Tricky manipulates the microphones as he sings (bathed in ultraviolet light)
Manipulate the room, juxtapose the inputs...

I wasn't prepared for the man's intensity in a live setting, which often took the sound in a significantly different direction from what had previously appeared on record. He was a man possessed, moving wraithlike and punching the air as he delivered his words, often in a shrieked punk-singjay tone that he rarely employs in the studio. He grasped two microphones, one with heavy slapback echo and the other more-or-less straight-up-clean, singing into both of them at once.

He moved the mics at various distances and angles to manipulate the sound of the room, dragging their stands with him across the stage as he moved. A tune like Parenthesis was ideal in this setting, with its dirge-like pounding chorus offering Tricky the perfect storm to inhabit like a spectre. All week, I'd been envisioning him playing Money Greedy live (which wasn't meant to be), but he did imbue each of these songs with that same sense of barely controlled fury.

Marta standing in the mist as Tricky sings in the background (the lights in a Purple Rain)
Marta sings torch songs in the mist.

The one cover version of the evening was an awesome take on Courtney Love's Doll Parts, delivered by Marta, and it was an incredible reading. It's actually another one from the new record, which isn't totally surprising. One of the many things I always dug about Tricky was his musical omnivorousness — you could picture him vibing out to Smashing Pumpkins, Gregory Isaacs, Gravediggaz and Kate Bush back to back — and the way it could be felt on his records.

It was something that I noticed increasingly as time passed by (although in retrospect it was always there), and circa Mission Accomplished (if not For Real and Contradictive on Juxtapose) I remember feeling this strange post punk/new wave element taking shape in the sound. In truth, it had probably been there since Black Steel...

Tricky points to the sky while guitarist plays and Marta dances in the background (everything aglow in crimson)
Brand New You're Retro

This shadow buried deep within the sound reached its apotheosis on 2014's False Idols, which against all odds turned out to be his finest record since Maxinquaye. Rather appropriately, the setlist focused on this post-reinvention period, only occasionally digging further back into the past. All but three songs were from the last five years, and a solid third were from last year's Ununiform. False Idols is clearly the point of inflection. The sparse, desperate sound of Nothing's Changed submerged these proceedings deep into the doldrums before the 4/4 pulse of Here My Dear pushed back above the waterline, only for it all to sink back beneath the sub-zero bass pressure of Running Wild.

Tricky grasps the microphone, looking to the drummer, as Marta dances in the background (beneath the infrared glow)
Microphone Fiend

Digging into My Palestine Girl (from the Adrian Thaws LP) made perfect sense in this context, it's slithering guitar figures sounding like a distant cousin of Massive Attack's Dissolved Girl. Of course, the guitar presence here is far more informed by post punk than the quasi-metal shapes of Mezzanine. Another slashing, bluesy guitar figure drove the no-nonsense 4/4 pulse of Dark Days, its killer hook taking the room by storm. And then, just as quickly as it had begun, the tune concluded and the band left the stage.

Tricky reaches toward the heavens
His reach exceeds his rasp...

I should mention that the crowd was going absolutely crazy at this point. It was clear that this was a room full of die-hards. It turns out that I wasn't the only one here who Tricky's music has had a serious impact on... not by a long shot. And all of us were up for anything. Everyone began chanting, Tricky, Tricky, Tricky! in unison. Then, the band came back out — sans Tricky — for the encore, kicking into Overcome. Needless to say, Marta took the lead.

The results were undeniably psychedelic, with the drunken, dizzy sway of the chorus crashing like waves across the room. Sun Down followed, with Tricky back in the mix now, it's staggering beat flowing seamlessly into When We Die. On record, it's a gently unfolding chanson, featuring the triumphant return of Martina over its filmic drift. Live, it was a guitar-crunching epic, with Tricky drawing the full power of his punk-singjay vocals.

Tricky wheels it back again for the climax of the night
Don't Push Me Cause I'm Close to The Edge

Then, the mother of all basslines starts rolling across the stage, and a drastically reworked version of Vent is upon us. Tricky's going crazy, the music's flowing through him at this point. Just like when it kicks off Pre-Millennium Tension, heard by me for the first time all those years ago, everything feels wrong. She's the one, makes me feel these ways. Sheer paranoia creeping in from every angle, unstable drums threatening to collapse beneath the track even as they propel it forward like a lurching soldier. She hides my Ventolin. It all cuts out for a moment before the band wheels it back again for the climax one last time. That bassline rolls on...

Late night photo of American Plaza Station (taken from Kettner Blvd.)
American Plaza Station

Then, it's all over. Like a true gentleman, Tricky thanks the crowd before retiring backstage for good. Everyone seems somewhat stunned, clearly blown away by what they've just taken part in. I weave through the crowd, through the anteroom and out the front door (where the doorman is asking if anyone has seen Korben Dallas), down India Street past American Plaza Station, slowly making my way back to the car. In the crisp night air, I can hear an echo of every spin I've given Tricky's records from day one right up to this morning. There's a lifetime in there...

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

    TV007: Edge Of No Control

  1. Killer Mike Bun B, T.I. & Trouble Big Beast Williams Street
  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 Ahlill The Transcending Soldier, phonosycographDISK & Jerome "Bigfoot" Brailey Freestyle Journey Axiom
  14. Lil Wayne Remember Me Cash Money

    B.G.

  15. Mantronix Bassline Sleeping Bag
  16. Public Enemy Go Cat Go Def Jam
  17. Vince Staples Fire Def Jam
  18. DJ Spooky Prince Poetry & Pharoahe Monch of Organized Konfusion Rekonstruction Outpost
  19. Genius/GZA Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest & RZA 4th Chamber Geffen
  20. Divine Styler The Scheme Team Tongue Of Labyrinth Rhyme $yndicate
  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.

Two Steps From The Blues

A selection of murky blues and dirty beats mixed by DJ Slye

I recently came across this riotous, blazing mix1 by Woebot that he terms this grungey, mutated R'n'B-derived sound. In a weird bit of synchronicity I've been crossing a similar terrain lately. In truth, it's a place where I dwell much of the time.

I've recently been ruminating on this intersection between post punk, trip hop and the blues that's sort of tangentially related to some of the shapes he throws in this mix. This is partially down to working my way through A Cracked Jewel Case2 — long stretches of which run parallel to my own fascinations and obsessions in sound — but also it's a very definite strand of sound that's pretty central to my own musical make up.

In fact, I've long had a loose selection of tracks rolling around that all occupy a similar space in my mind and thought, Why not throw them all together in a mix and see what happens? The end result is a bit of a low slung, moody affair... but then I wouldn't have it any other way.

LISTEN NOW

    Two Steps From The Blues

  1. Skip James Cypress Grove Blues Yazoo
  2. We start out deep down in the Mississippi Delta, way back in 1931, with Skip James and some of the mightiest blues ever laid down. This is an ancient, desolate sound: loneliness captured on wax. There's this haunting character to James' vocals — his playing too — that really puts you in the room with him.

  3. Goodie Mob Brandon "Shug" Bennett Cell Therapy LaFace
  4. Fast-forward 64 years and Dirty South enters the popular consciousness. This paranoid crawl through shadowy imagery of black helicopters, looming fences and the security state features state of the art production from Organized Noise, yet there's an unmistakable grit here that ties everything back to the Delta.

  5. Drugs Brain On Drugs Kraked
  6. Psychedelic soul from the turn of the century. Various players from the contemporary touring lineup of Parliament/Funkadelic get down in the studio with this strange slab of hallucinatory sprawl. In many ways, this is like the midpoint between SA-RA and Moodymann. There was even an excellent deep house remix of this tune on a 12" by French duo Château Flight.

  7. Mark Stewart + Maffia Survival Mute
  8. The massive geometric rhythm here has always reminded me of the desolate, wide-open spaces of certain old electric blues records. I think the Maffia certainly do have a bit of the blues in them — filtered through an angular, cyberpunk shaped prism, but there nonetheless — and their early recordings as the Sugar Hill house band bear this out. See also No Wave and Cabaret Voltaire.

  9. Martina Topley-Bird Too Tough To Die Independiente
  10. Taken from her solo debut after parting ways with Tricky. Quixotic is of a piece with Tricky Kid's earlier records — thoroughly imbued as they were with Martina's indelible presence — and this track in particular makes the strong blues nature of her microphone presence explicit. Ensconced within the grinding rhythms of this gnarled bit of modern blues, she seems as comfortable in the form as a Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday.

  11. Dr. John Black Widow Spider ATCO
  12. Martina's voodoo-steeped soul segues into the New Orleans swamp-blues of Dr. John, from sophomore album Babylon. In his autobiography, Under A Hoodoo Moon, Dr. John states We were trying to get into something... with visions of the end of the world — as if Hieronymus Bosch had cut an album.3

  13. Tricky 6 Minutes Island
  14. The first half of Angels With Dirty Faces is among the densest, most atmospheric music in Tricky's oeuvre, rivaling even the Nearly God record and his collaboration with the Gravediggaz on The Hell EP. Much of the best trip hop is suffused with the spectre of the blues, and this rolling monster of a track — with that nagging looped guitar figure — is positively drenched in it.

  15. Howlin' Wolf Who's Been Talkin' Chess
  16. This is likely my favorite blues song bar none, taken from my most treasured blues LP of all time by my absolute favorite bluesman. That endless, tumbling rhythm seems to predict machine music in its precise repetition, while its stark shapes and spooked-out mood prefigure both post punk and trip hop's modus operandi, respectively. As usual, Wolf himself tears through it all like a man possessed.

  17. Terranova Cath Coffey Sweet Bitter Love Copasetik
  18. The geometric rhythms in evidence here throw similar shadows, only now as if seen through a blurred lens. Sweet Bitter Love, taken from Terranova's first album, is of a piece with their earlier Tokyo Tower record. The title track and its b-side Clone seemed to encompass jazz, blues and Krautrock in one stroke while remaining trip hop through and through. Here, the sumptuous blues tone of Cath Coffey's voice inhabits the bleak soundscape with a gravity all her own.

  19. Gil Scott-Heron Me And The Devil XL
  20. This is the lead single from Gil Scott-Heron's final record, and it hits you in the chest straight out the gate with it's apocalyptic tone and cinematic force. The deep, smooth croon of his seventies records has grown into the rough and ragged voice of a man who's seen one thing too many — this is 21st century blues.

  21. Dark Comedy In My Home Poussez!
  22. The second Dark Comedy record, from 2005, just might be my favorite thing Kenny Larkin has ever done. This is deep and moody electronic blues from Detroit, a primal swamp of a record with more than a dose a black humor to it... made all the more unsettling in its juxtaposition with dead-serious subject matter on the flipside. In My Home recounts an episode around the time of his Metaphor LP — ten years earlier — when he was shot in his home during an attempted robbery.

  23. Ray Charles It's All Right Atlantic
  24. The original soul man's second album, and a true masterpiece of piano-laced rhythm & blues. This one's of a piece with the Howlin' Wolf selection above as some of my favorite blues music ever, with Charles here in the process of shaping it into what would soon become soul music. The Raelettes' exquisite backing vocals haunt this track, the dense atmosphere of which evokes the same sense of dread one might expect in a killer trip hop cut some 35 years later.

  25. Tom Waits Clap Hands Island
  26. L.A.'s odd man out, this is the second in Waits' trilogy of avant garde eighties records. This tune always stayed with me, its spooked chords unfold over rolling percussion that sounds as if it were played out on hollow bones, the man's raspy croon smack in the middle as he unfurls another one of his dead end backstreet tales. They all went to heaven in a little row boat, that line always gets me. Pure dread.

  27. Bobby Bland I'll Take Care Of You Duke
  28. More spectral blues-bathed soul. A key record in that continuum, and a stone cold classic. This is another one of those tunes, where the atmosphere just swirls around you — encircling your entire field of vision — as Bland's piercing vocal climbs through its murky slow-motion organ runs. Later covered by Gil-Scott Heron in fine style on I'm New Here, the same record that houses Me And The Devil.

  29. Otis Rush My Love Will Never Die Take Unknown Varèse Sarabande
  30. Electric blues shot through with that same steely cold sense of mystery you'll find in Who's Been Talkin' and I'll Take Care Of You (indeed much of the downbeat blues music from this era is cloaked in it). Otis Rush is a giant vocal presence, his guitar figures hang there in suspended animation like glyphs on a brick wall. I'm always half expecting this song to show up in some Tarantino film.

  31. Aretha Franklin The Thrill Is Gone From Yesterday's Kiss Atlantic
  32. Smoldering southern soul from the great Aretha Franklin. The swelling Hammond that shades into her piano's wraithlike progression, paired with backing vocals from The Sweet Inspirations — steeped in that same haunting flavor that The Raelettes lent so effortlessly — provide the perfect environment for Franklin's deep soul stylings. This has long been one of my key downbeat soul numbers. Indeed, in my mind this forms a loose tetralogy with Who's Been Talkin', It's All Right and I'll Take Care Of You, songs whose spectral ambience inform whole swathes of my taste in music.

  33. The Jimi Hendrix Experience Voodoo Chile Reprise
  34. Supercharged rock-hard blues from Master Hendrix. From that first sustained note, bending into the heavy silence, this just builds and builds like a great flaming galleon adrift in slow motion across the night sky. Steve Winwood does serious damage here with his smoldering Hammond runs (glowing like embers in the darkness) as Hendrix's blazing guitar figures arc across the soundscape. The night I was born I swear the moon turned a fire red. Very likely indeed.

  35. Jelly Roll Morton Winin' Boy Blues No. 2 Rounder
  36. Back in the early days of Napster, a good friend of mine offered to download a couple tunes for me (I didn't yet have access to that sort of thing at the time). My two requests were Soft Cell's Tainted Love and anything by Jelly Roll Morton. This is the tune that he turned up, and it stuck with me for years until I eventually tracked it down on volume four of this Library Of Congress set. To this day, it still knocks me out like it did the first time I heard it. That whimsical melody and Morton's rich croon — it's just perfection.

Skip James - The Complete 1931 Session Goodie Mob - Soul Food Drugs - A Prescription For Mis-America! Mark Stewart + Maffia - Mark Stewart Martina Topley-Bird - Quixotic Dr. John - Babylon
Tricky - Angels With Dirty Faces Howlin' Wolf - Howlin' Wolf Terranova - Close The Door Gil Scott-Heron - I'm New Here Dark Comedy - Funkfaker: Music Saves My Soul Ray Charles - Yes Indeed!
Tom Waits - Rain Dogs Bobby Bland - Two Steps From The Blues Otis Rush - The Classic Cobra Recordings 1956-1958 Aretha Franklin - Spirit In The Dark The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Electric Ladyland Jelly Roll Morton - The Library Of Congress Recordings, Volume 4: Winin' Boy Blues

Credits

Mixed By: DJ Slye.

Inspirations: Tricky, In The Studio With The Special AKA, Woebot's I've Got Blisters On My Fingers!1 mix, A Cracked Jewel Case2 by Kevin Pearce, Trip Hop: The Blues Of Our Time

Footnotes

1.

Woebot [Ingram, Matthew]. I've Got Blisters On My Fingers! Woebot. Hollow Earth, 20 Aug. 2016. http://www.woebot.com/2016/08/ive-got-blisters-on-my-fingers.html. Accessed 22 Aug. 2016.

2.

Pearce, Kevin. A Cracked Jewel Case. Your Heart Out, 2016. Digital.

3.

Rebennack, Mac and Jack Rummel. Under A Hoodoo Moon New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1994. 155. Print.