9th Wonder

In praise of: ‘The High Light Zone’​ Damu the Fudgemunk (Vignettes, Redefinition Records, 2017)

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.  

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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

While in a 2014 interview with Passion of the Weiss, he replied to the following question

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?

Rapsody 'Betty Shabazz' prod. 9th Wonder (Jamla is the Squad, Jamla Records, 2014) & recent collaborations with Anderson .Paak

The cadence is one of the most important part of a hip-hop song. Your voice is another important element. I used to rhyme with a high-pitched voice, so I had to find the right tone of my voice that wasn’t too high and not too low that I sound like man. Once you master flow, everything falls into place. I think my flow is poetic.

Before I started writing rhymes, I was writing poetry. I was in love in high school and got my heart broken, and I started writing poetry. I wasn’t known for talking about my feelings. I was reading the dictionary one day and I came across the definition of rhapsody. It’s poetry spoken with great emotion, and that is what music is to me. Poetry is my foundation.
— Rapsody, Interview with Alexandra Phanor-Faury, Ebony magazine in 2016

(Here is Rapsody's video for 'Betty Shabazz', with a multitude of multitude of views: I prefer to skip videos if possible, it’s just a preference of mine not necessarily universally shared ...)

Unquestionably, for me, the highlight of the showcase of talent from North Carolina - and elsewhere - produced by 9th Wonder/hosted by Statik Selektah, Jamla is the Squad, is this track by Rapsody, ‘Betty Shabazz’ which has an amazing moment at around 3’15” that is pure magic and possibly one of the best, or one of my favourite, rhymes in recent hip-hop.

Toying with, playing around with the ‘on’ sound, speeding up and falling apart at the same time and full of real joy, made manifest in Rapsody’s delivery. It’s unexpected and special and makes the song, ably supported by the chilled out music behind it.

I ain’t heard nothing hot since Control dropped
They taking longer than Detox
They don’t wanna Vol-tron and so on
Pour on, feel my forearm, wear it like Luanne Rohan
Heart on sleeve, chief smile because we move on
Mistubishi Galant, dupont
Been a mutant since mama slipping coupons for croisannts and croutons
Do some damage, get at em like I’m a neutron, bouton
Pass on em, recycle em like a Mormon
I rained, it ain’t storming

The verse ends with a reference to sexism to step over it: 'I’m ignoring all that female rapping shit’s ignorant/Competing with every emcee, come step if you wanna see us rap.' I really love this, especially the line: ‘Pour on, feel my forearm, wear it like Luanne Rohan’ just on the basis of the sounds of the words, Rapsody's facility with language and happiness to be found there.

‘Betty Shabazz’ starts all-dreamy Xanadu, with Blaxploitation notes descending and is beautifully recorded (if you listen to it with headphones you’ll notice this, the way the sound deepens at certain points, intensifies with the faux-backing vocals effect, increasing in density almost). A wonderful grace contrasts with Rapsody’s signature style; in that the musical deep space offers up a feathery bed for the knives of her delivery.

Such contrast is also why her collaborations with Californian musician Anderson .Paak work so well and is such a clever move. In many respects, they are the perfect match because they are so apparently different. While Rapsody’s persona is direct, to the point, possibly lacking ambiguity, Paak’s musical universe is lyrical, 70s-emotional and highly expressive (with lots of silvery turns; his music is gold lamé and chandeliers, Rapsody's is in a recording booth, headphones on). It makes sense for the two artists to work together, as the music they produce brings out something latent in the other, while smoothly upsetting gender stereotypes along the way.

See, for example, Rapsody’s verse on the track ‘Without you’ on Anderson .Paak’s album, Malibu that made me laugh; it’s hilarious in some parts (being funny was not something I had associated with her).

Or the over-the-top erotic charge, that remains light-hearted on ‘OooWee’ from Rapsody’s Crown, also released in 2016 …

Compared to the rest of the record which was just a bit too straight for me, when I heard this, I thought this is just great; so different, fresh and full of life and liked it immediately.  

When Kendrick Lamar was asked in an interview, why he chose to have Rapsody as the sole featured artist on his record, To Pimp a Butterfly, he replied simply: ‘She’s talented’. Impossible to disagree, especially as Rapsody continues to display her artistic gifts in unexpected ways, moving forward.

Here’s Rapsody talking about how she started out and her meeting with her colleague, 9th Wonder who has championed her work from the beginning.

EBONY: You have a core following who know you and know how much work you’ve been putting in to get to where you are today. For those who just discovered you on To Pimp a Butterfly, can you share with us what drew you to hip-hop and emceeing?

Rapsody: I wrote my first rhyme in the fall of 2005. I knew I wanted to be a rapper when I was 5. When I saw MC Lyte’s video for 'Poor Georgie,' I knew that is what I want: to do that. Seeing her doing it made me see that a girl can do it and be really good at it. I don’t think I had the confidence or the push growing up in a small country town in South Carolina to go after it. There is not a lot of culture or art there. My parents wanted me to get a job that would support me. It wasn’t till I was in college that I pursued it.

It took me being around people to get me motivated. A best friend of mine was rapping in a group, and he said let’s start a hip-hop organization. Hip-hop was missing on campus. We did it with four other guys. We would have rap battles, parties and a free show. Everyone either rapped, made beats, breakdanced or did graffiti. I was the only one who didn’t necessarily have a talent. 

A lot of times, if we had an event, I would host. For the last three or four years, I was writing poetry. So in the middle of a show, I may do a spoken word piece. One day I was hanging out with them while they were recording a mixtape. I had written a rhyme and they told me to try and get in the booth just for fun. I got in and recorded two songs for the first time. They put it on the mixtape.

One the guys was interning with 9th Wonder at the time. He told 9th Wonder about us and asked if he could come talk to us. He came and listened to the tape and gave us his criticism after every song. I sat as far away from him as possible. I’m scared he is gonna hate what I did. He listened to the song over and over. He looks at everyone and points to me and says, “that is your star right there.”

He listened to it again two more times after that. That’s all I needed to go forward. I mean, this is 9th Wonder! And he has worked with one of my fave artist, which is Jay Z. If he is telling me I have something, now is the time to go for it. He took me under his wing. I signed with him in 2008, and he has been pushing me ever since.

(…) He gave me a list of eight albums to study. He said, “Don’t listen to them like you normally do. Don’t listen to what they are saying but how they are saying it, how they are breathing, what words they put inflections on and where.” That’s exactly what I did.'