Nightmares on Wax -
Flip Ya Lid
Nightmares on Wax -
I hope I don't get too conceptual on this one, but I want to mention something about the communicative power of music. I'm not talking about lyrical content or 'the way a song makes you feel;' this is about ideas.
I was asked in a job interview once, what's the difference between good design and bad design. I paused for an appropriate amount of time to think and then said, "Design" just means that someone has thought about the problem to be solved. A good design actually solves the problem; a bad design doesn't. (I'm sure my pitch actually went up towards the end, like I was asking if that was the right answer.)
A lot of art and design get so tangled up in the concept, they forget all about the problem. Now, I have my fair share of noise records, art-rock and glitch-core, but more often then not, their records fall into the 'sounds like a modem in a garbage disposal' critique so prevalent of avant garde music. But as some sort of artist-designer-musician hybrid, I can't always get into that.
When I first heard Nightmares on Wax, the musical brainchild of DJ EASE (aka. George Evelyn), I thought to myself, "NOW is going for the same thing I am with music." That's a loaded thought if ever there was one. What's NOW going for? What am I going for? How can I tell this just by the music? What's in the music that makes me think that? What am I responding to? Of course, I don't unpack the thought; I just keep grooving and wait till I have to blog about it for careful introspection.
So as I research NOW, I come across a lot of the ideas we have in common. I realize that we have similar concerns in music production and having attempted to solve similar problems, I can recognize them when they appear.
George Evelyn grew up in Leeds listening to his father and sister's soul tapes. He's a bit older than me, so when the b-boy crossed the pond, Evelyn was there for early hiphop records and breaking crews. Though I can still remember buying MC Hammer and Kid and Play tapes, and having my mom drive me to the BEST Grand Opening to see Sam the Olympic Eagle and a break dancing performance in the parking lot, I don't think it's quite the same. In fact, my true appreciation of hiphop didn't come from the streets or MTV, it came from a graduate's thesis released as a book, Making Beats: The Art of Sample Based Hip Hop
. So when I launch Garageband to make a beat today, I'm thinking some of the same thoughts as NOW when they recorded their 1991 album, A Word of Science: The First and Final Chapter
. "The album had to be something that identified with the b-boys," says Evelyn, "We wanted to do tracks that had hiphop beats but experimented with ideas."
NOW didn't release anything else for the next five years. George spent his time compiling his own personal collection of dusty records out of carboots, obscure vinyl and soul samples into his own version of Ultimate Breaks and Beats on two-inch tape. And the result was Smoker's Delight
; an album that proved NOW was a contemporary reinterpretation of soul/hiphop rather than a techno group. And this next quote reaffirms my own attempts with blips and deconstructed sounds, "Although a lot of people labeled NOW as an early techno group or bleep group, we never did," says George. "As far as A Word Of Science
went, there were so many different elements of music in there. It's an evolution from that album to this album. Everything was always about being funky. That's why the idea for Smoker's Delight
is nothing new. I just wanted to do something with hiphop."
You'll notice NOW (and myself) never claim to be making hiphop, just recognizing how important, influential, and fun the music can be. And recognizing that we are outsiders to the culture, but that we do have something to say, something to bring to the table. It isn't about exploiting the soul classics laid down on vinyl before I was born. It isn't about re-treading the same ground as soul, funk or hiphop.
"Today's music is inspired by whatever has gone on before. That's what fascinates me. Soul music is the earliest form of hiphop. That's why I want to create it. It might seem like recreating what was done in the past, but what I want to do is merge soul and hip hop together. That's why I'll bring in the live aspect of what happened back then into current hiphop trends. That's the angle I'm arriving at."
But one key element NOW retains even with live musicians is the drum machine. It's not because NOW couldn't find a good enough live drummer, it's the sound of the beats that makes NOW. And George is very conscious of that. It's a far cry from The Roots being heralded as more legitimate because they play instruments; it's attempting to bring the entire history of hiphop into focus. It's about recognizing the disaffected youth music continuum. It's bringing the soul into hiphop and the hiphop into soul... and not forgetting the funk in-between.
Goddamn, Nightmares on Wax have some good ideas... and it's what I could hear through all the layers of "Flip Ya Lid." Maybe a simple way of saying it is, "This guy loves hiphop but isn't just making more of the same." (You can also hear a lot of dub influence on this particular track, which is another genre I feel is misunderstood.) It's downtempo but still chock full of soul and defies you not to at least bob your head if not scrunch up your face.
"Pudpots" seems to better encapsulate the ideas addressed in this blog. You have a beat that is totally hiphop, but not an unoriginal old school nostalgia or Timbo knock-off. Featuring a great horn-line and progressive structure, you can almost see men in all-black Blues suits, funky soul brothers in afros, and b-boys with shell toes all getting down to the same beat.
The rest of NOW's latest album, "In A Space Outta Sound," explores even more musical material. Referencing Vocal Jazz on "Damn,” more Eno-esque atmospheres on "Passion," a smidge of Motown on "Chime Out," and 'exotic' tribal polyrhythms on "Deepdown" and "African Pirates." None of the songs sound the same, but they all offer up alternative solutions to the same problem, how to take hiphop forward as an outsider.
(Buy In A Space Outta Sound