Extravagant, outlandish claim alert: this track, ‘The High Light Zone’ from DC-based producer, Damu the Fudgemunk’s two-hour opus, Vignettes might be one of the best pieces of music I have heard, in any genre released this year. If you think of hip-hop production as the assemblage of sonic elements, where the skill comes via the construction and use of contrast, this music goes against any such easy categorisation: it sounds like its flying, pure movement – to stop, start, stop and start again. And has a stunning drum sound, a killer beat.
When researching this piece, I had one key question to answer, one puzzle to solve: was this music sample-based, live instrumentation, a mix of both? I contacted Redefinition Records – the label co-founded by Damu the Fudgemunk (the artist known to his classical musician parents as Earl Davis). I asked my friends; one thought it’d be sample-based, another said the opposite, or that it was made up of live instrumentation sampled and spliced and found this clip posted on Twitter by the flautist, Seb Zillner as back-up for his hunch that showed him recording a part for the record's track 'Solitary Refinement'.
But then my trying to ‘work it out’ runs counter against the experience of listening to this music, which encapsulates such energy that it leaves you feeling transcendent, perhaps even breathless at times because of the essential swing of it, the kick of it. And it is this energy that sets it apart.
Many contemporary hip-hop instrumentals mine a similar territory, it often seems to me. Whether they are following the classic prototype set down by the great masters from the 90s, or burrowing into the super-soft fractured melody-driven style so popular today, you can recognise a formula: start with a dramatic, or mood-setting vocal sample (a comedic skit, or something from the news, the voice of a famous artist to set the theme of the music) and combine three, or so elements that appear/re-appear at set intervals. There is nothing wrong with following conventions, but sometimes it can feel a bit stale.
‘The High Light Zone’ certainly starts with a sample, but the overall effect of the music is closer to a live jazz performance, or poppy electronic music from the 80s/90s, say the extended remixes, or live performances of English groups, such as New Order – not so much for the sound, but the music’s essential exuberance.
New Order ‘Temptation’, live 1987 Glastonbury, BBC Radio 1
What makes 'The High Light Zone' so interesting though is that even if it might seem to be closer to other genres of music – the duration could be that of a live jazz band performance, the snazzy feel could come direct from disco – the hip-hop foundations are plain to see, mainly via the way Damu the Fudgemunk exposes the beat and then allows the music to stop completely at times.
The final two minutes of the piece where one instrument/or one part comes forward and the others recede: this resembles jazz, but whereas the expectation within that genre would be for a musician to let loose with some kind of solo, or improvisation, it's controlled/contained. Here we find the direct point of continuum with the hip-hop aesthetic. This has always been something that has appealed to me in hip-hop production, the way the manipulation of the various elements thwarts our expectations and desires, via the refusal of development and release; the various parts begin, then stop, or are repeated over and over. It’s a kind of anti-music, in essence, punk almost.
This music by 9th Wonder ‘Let me talk’ – released, I think in 2011 - offers up an extreme version of this tendency, aggressively cutting it back at points leaving total silence when you expect the music to build towards its conclusion.
Damu the Fudgemunk has cited a set of clashing, or surprising, influences for this project, name-checking: ‘David Axelrod, The Beastie Boys, Stereolab, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Peaking Lights, Chaz Bundick, Dungen, and dozens of hip hop artists” in an interview with Gino Sorcinelli.
To me, the defining feature of your work – even in comparison to the other producers you’ve mentioned – is that your instrumentals are so subtly crafted. All similar yet so different. The scratches, live instrumentation and electronic effects combine to produce a layered sound on every track.
It’s funny you say that, and I really appreciate you taking the time to analyze it and be an educated listener and consumer. I think if everyone did analyze the things they digest whether its visual or auditory, the art would improve. But having numerous styles in one track comes from me listening to so many different producers, and just being very ambitious, you know? I want to make everyone who influenced me proud. Because I feel like I learned so much from them, I looked up to then. It’s definitely driven by props. I just wanted to do something that impressed them. That’s why I may do some things that sound familiar, or revisit some ideas that I think people will appreciate. Make sense?