Our latest look at dusty instrumental hip-hop, techno and bass includes Alex Zavala (pictured, above), Paul White, Comma and TOKiMONSTA.
By Dominic Umile
In September, instrumental hip hop pioneer DJ Shadow will issue his first artist album since 2006, and we’ve only just seen the release of producer/turntablist J-Rocc’s debut, after more than a decade in the game. A couple of months ago, people went understandably bat shit for a chunk of Twitter-dealt rare tracks from New Jersey beatmaker extraordinaire Clams Casino, and as rapper Prodigy finishes up a prison sentence, talk of his crew Mobb Deep’s landmark The Infamous is more prevalent than it’s been in years, with conversation focusing on the grim, impenetrable mood of the critically revered production as often as its confrontational lyric content. The enthusiasm for intelligent new beat records is palpable, even as producers are more often nostalgic than not — referencing the hard boom bap of ’90s era hip hop classics while working in nuances that contemporary production methods and an increasingly available Web trove of sample-ready nuggets will allow.
Often menacing and deceptive as to which tack he’ll take next, Chicago producer Alex Zavala spun a set of mesmerizing beats for Vessel, a guest-heavy 2010 album from Dark Time Sunshine, an experimental hip hop duo featuring Zavala and rapper Onry Ozzborn from Grayskul. The Dark Time Sunshine Vessel Instrumentals is a mind-blower; while critics near and far called attention to Vessel‘s blueprint when the original record first surfaced, the productions have far more room to breathe on this 2011 version without emcees crowding the tracks. Perhaps the release of the beat edition will help spotlight the original, especially since more attention is being given to lesser-known hip hop artists of late (even if it’s to dutifully repost press releases for predictable and tedious Odd Future projects).
Zavala’s productions are lively and lush, breezy powerhouses of secondhand analog keyboard textures and dusty drum loops. “Primor” is, like a lot of the Instrumentals entries, noticeably rooted in classic hip hop sounds. There’s a tambourine/snare roll-loaded break that Zavala could’ve snagged from any of those heralded Dusty Fingers collections, but its flourishes are many—a vocal snippet plays through, with brass bursts, scratches from Portland, Oregon’s DJ Zone and various backward-flipped clicks peppered here and there. While Def Jux luminary Ace Rock unsurprisingly proves dizzying on the original, I’m going with the instrumental, specifically for the sinister choral textures that surface upon closer listens as well as for the spiraling spaceship tweets that are nearly impossible to detect in the record’s previous format. “Defender” drives in a similar fashion, with familiar classic funk breakbeats tumbling beneath it. Zavala fleshes out a playful melody with worming moogs and glitzy synth accompaniment, just as he does for a somber “All Aboard,” which seems to have been built with an entire bank of drum samples. The artist has evidently spent years digging for specific pieces to weave into this hyper-melodic project, and Zavala’s work ethic proves enviably robust after seven consecutive rounds of it in the headphones.
Zavala The Dark Time Sunshine Vessel Instrumentals (Fake Four, Inc./Fieldwerk)
For a trip that showcases a similarly fickle sampling ear, psyche-mining (actual) sound librarian and beatmaking Londoner Paul White strung together a never-better-named debut for One Handed Music in 2009. The Strange Dreams of Paul White is a weird, adventurous record for anyone who’s frequently revisiting their Madlib, early RJD2, or Onra Chinoiseries vinyl. Each White-penned nugget shamelessly bears its sewn-together blueprint in familiar cult cinema samples (Wild At Heart, The Warriors) or odd bits nicked from prog LPs, fitted with b-boy drum breaks or swirling Boards of Canada-type electronics. At the end of April, the last physical copy of The Strange Dreams… was sold, so the whole thing is available for free download now. Also check out White’s 2010 guest mix for BTS Radio.
Paul White The Strange Dreams of Paul White (One-Handed Music)
Much farther west of the apartment studio that Alex Zavala toils in, an artful scene of producers and DJs in California has yielded fruit through a variety of beat music experiments. San Francisco-based Ryan Gilbert goes by “Comma,” and turns out clinical, digital-sounding instrumentals on his EP Colortronics, where percussive techno chirps and glassy synths meet in the style of Shigeto’s recent Full Circle or the Lorn album on Brainfeeder. In fact, Comma’s tendency toward more electronic textures and hollowed bass tones (hunt down a garage-rooted club track called “Coyote” he cut last year for his debut on Frite Nite, producer Salva’s label) render him a better candidate for my first Beats Working column, where I discussed releases that are more closely related to bass music.
Comma Colortronics (Frite Nite)
There is a lot of space on Comma’s “Mezcal Hologram,” which is a dubstep tune in the vein of Skream’s work, with heady flourishes materializing halfway through in queasy pitch shifts and vintage synths. The remix of “Mexcal Hologram” from UK producer Om Unit is fascinating and busy. Its infrequent 808 clicks line up nicely against the deep, clapping primary pulse and comparably dark undertones, as if he pulled all light that might’ve been emanating the original. Because of how often my mind wanders to other artists during a spin of Colortronics, it’s a challenge to pick Comma out of a lineup of the folks that are rolling out similar and more often stronger material. “Evil Snag” stands out on the EP for its smart balance of hip hop and elements more often associated with bass stuff, which is the sort of thing that Los Angeles-born Jennifer Lee does under her TOKiMONSTA pseudonym.
Wispy lullabies on Lee’s Creature Dreams are nostalgic and quite bewitching — “Little Pleasures” and “Darkest (Dim)” find vocalist Gavin Turek’s verses rolling atop a hazy mesh of live guitars and lethargic drum loops that would hardly sound out of place alongside Tricky’s “Aftermath” on the next DJ KiCKS. The rest of Lee’s debut for Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder imprint is wordless, populated only by micro bleep patterns, carefully chopped organic percussion snippets, and wayward violins. An unexpected pickup in tempo or glitchy drum stretch in “Stigmatizing Sex” proves spooky and welcome. It’s a combination that Lee pulls off with finesse for the EP’s 29 minutes, where a sultry array of knocking beats is as suitable before you leave the apartment Friday as it is when you shuffle out of subway home, in the streetlamp-illuminated early hours of Saturday morning.
TOKiMONSTA Creature Dreams EP (Brainfeeder)
BLURT contributor and blogger Dominic Umile lives, writes, and drinks in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter: @DominicUmile