When you hear an Alchemist beat, you know it. He’s refined his style over 15 years and hundreds of productions, from Prodigy’s thug-rap high-water mark Return of the Mac to brilliant loosies for Dilated Peoples (“Worst Comes to Worst”), Nas (“Book of Rhymes”) and Raekwon (“Surgical Gloves”). His sound moves between two poles. There are the loops woven out of all manner of sample fodder, like the superior Israeli Salad instrumental suite he released earlier this year that excavates records purchased during a trip to Israel. Then there’s his coldly synthesized gangster music, best displayed on Mobb Deep’s mid-’00s hit “Got It Twisted”, and seemingly inspired by New Wave pop and ’80s crime soundtracks like Giorgio Moroder’s Scarface and Tangerine Dream’s Thief. Both types of Alchemist beats are clipped and chopped like vintage DJ Premier, yet they also rumble at a leisurely West Coast tempo.
Alchemist does consistently entertaining work, but it’s become predictable after over a decade and too much music—so far this year, he’s dropped Israeli Salad and Retarded Alligator Beats joints, and now comes Gangrene’s You Disgust Me. Yet Al’s Gangrene project with Oh No gives both a chance to subvert their well-worn templates into something more dynamic. The two complement each other: Oh No likes to flip vinyl from exotic sources, too, whether it’s Dr. No’s Ethiopium or Exodus into Unheard Rhythms, the latter built around Galt MacDermot’s catalog.He tends to be underrated—it’s unlikely that most people who heard Dr. Dre’s Compton and its “Issues” track know that Oh No also sampled Turkish folk singer Selda’s “Ince Ince” with his 2007 track “Heavy”, which Mos Def used for his 2009 single “Supermagic.” And while his dependence on traditionalist sample loops runs deeper than Alchemist, he uses rhythm more dynamically.
Both Alchemist and Oh No approach Gangrene’s You Disgust Me as an excursion into weed-hazed hip-hop psychedelia: Snippets of whacked-out voices, culled from some late night VHS videodrome, and dudes talking greasy over digger’s delights. (RIP Sean Price, who drops a jewel on “Sheet Music” alongside Mobb Deep’s Havoc.) It’s a formula that Gangrene established over its two albums, Gutter Water and Vodka & Ayahuasca, light themes that bracket the usual backpack thuggery. The thirteen tracks add up to just under 40 minutes, and often seem to blend in with one another. Peaks like “Noon Chuckas,” and how its ominous big band buildup smooths out into a female voice’s hypnotic glissando, sound indistinguishable from knuckleheaded errata like “Driving Gloves,” and Action Bronson’s brain fart about needing “a bitch with a pussy like like a Little League glove.”
As rappers, the words Alchemist and Oh No say are less interesting than the sound of their slangy, chippy voices riffing over the blappers. Their peak You Disgust Me moment arrives on “The Man with the Horn”, which draws equal inspiration from Miles Davis-styled melancholy, and New York noir vis-à-vis Travis Bickle audio. Al visualizes himself as a loner wandering the streets, “stumble out the bar, vision blurry/ Humphrey Bogart, face underneath the rim of my derby.” Oh No adds, “It’s looking like a scene out of Vegas/ It’s nighttime, and the jazz jukebox is playing.” It offers a glimpse of what Gangrene could be if it was more than just headnod music stuffed with weed jokes. Both are more than capable of crafting memorable hip-hop music, even if they’re too focused on cranking out bangers at an industrial rate to notice whether anything they’ve made stands out.
If hip-hop is jazz, then Curren$y can be described as a traditionalist. His debut album, Pilot Talk, is pure braggadocio, with rhymes about fancy cars and free-flowing liquor and free-loving women. The music, loving produced and arranged by Ski Beatz, sounds like an update of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, all the way down to the New York session musicians recruited to crank out mellow grooves. It’s as if Curren$y reinterpreted the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers’ Delight” for the new millennium.
Late last year, Stones Throw Records announced that it would release a full-length album of tunes by its veritable resident producer Madlib in 2010 . . . every month. Dubbed Madlib Medicine Show, the 12-part series sounds like a rap nerd fantasy.
Ever since his critically lionized Quasimoto adventure, 2000’s The Unseen, when he adopted a helium voice and crafted adult cartoons straight out of Fritz the Cat and Le Planete Sauvage, the L.A. musician has defined an idiom of crackling sampled loops, slightly buggered raps, and thick clouds of weed smoke. Over 15 years deep into a career that kicked off with a cameo on the Alkaholiks’ 1993 debut, 21 & Over, his enigmatic vision perseveres, even as the idealistic underground scene he once occupied — remember back in the ’90s when his old group the Lootpack chastised wannabe gangsta rappers on “The Antidote”? — has turned cynical, becoming obsessed with the same guns-drugs-porn-money quadrant it once criticized the “mainstream” for.