Kool Keith

MF DOOM on writer's block; Mos Def/Yasiin Bey paying tribute; Kool Keith dispensing hip-hop wisdom

“I get inspiration from lots of different things, nature … silence …”

MF DOOM talks about how he deals with writers block at the Red Bull Music Academy Madrid 2011.

During the recording session for The Ecstatic

“98-year-old refrigerator” - This is extremely wise & useful (I think).

Six Beats: Godfather Don

Described by Immobilarity1 as “an evil, dark version of Large Professor, production-wise,” Godfather Don fits into one stream in the 90s NY underground associated with Kool Keith (The Cenobites, Ultramagnetic MCs), but is also known for his solo releases as producer and MC.

Despite some Godfather Don tracks tolling thousands of clicks online - “Status” has notched up 1.2 million views - the music I’m seeking out rolls in the tens, or hundreds, if lucky (okay this is a slight exaggeration, let’s say low thousands on average). Much if not most of his music seems to be overlooked. So this is written in part as a desire to balance things out, amid all of the hip-hop hagiography that exists of the usual suspects. Now and always, I’m interested in the artists who get lost in the mix.

Unlike Large Professor though, Godfather Don’s music is not trying to recreate a song in a conventional sense, with the exception perhaps with the first beat included here (and a few other examples of the same). There is nothing remotely symphonic, or lush and orchestral or even “jazzy” (as the genre is commonly misunderstood when applied to 90s-era beats). Nor is there anything slick, or too refined about Godfather Don’s instrumentals. This is music made of clay then perfected into object of beauty.

None of this is to suggest that the music if simple is basic or unskilled. In fact, this music is art because it doesn’t try to be something different to what it is - a hip-hop beat recorded and conceived in a certain environment, within a certain mindset. It sounds genuine, as if you sense the character of its maker (but this might be projection on my part). Added to this, as I will mention below the sound quality is beautiful in itself.

Most of Godfather Don’s music is instrumental hip-hop as deep soundscape, highly introspective dominated by two sonic impulses; speedy and manic, as heard in the delicate, skittery drums and then the broader ponderous weight of other samples, sounds that might be a vibraphone, or an organ (it’s hard to make them out). Added to this the mastery of key hip-hop elements, his drums are especially inventive – very rarely are they pushed to the forefront as you’d expect, usually they’re kind of evasive, hiding out in the recesses - and the quality of the recording of his music, and you have a fine producer; someone to return to, to rediscover.

Jazzy Wayz* - writing on jazz and hip-hop

Jazzy Wayz* (Notes towards an essay)

For a long while I’ve been pestered by a desire to write about jazz/hip-hop connections, moving it towards a discussion that doesn’t just cite samples as evidence of the link between the genres, but rather locates the influence of jazz on hip-hop in terms of the aesthetic.

The writing below - on London producer/musician Alfa Mist's 2017 record, Antiphon is a beginning of this work and reflects some of these thoughts. 

What you’ll find in this ‘series’ – even if that sounds a bit lofty and organised, my ideas are free-form and scattered for now - are occasional notes; writing that I will shape into a more considered piece, or series of pieces, at some point in the future. My focus will be on contemporary acts, to try and move the analysis on from inevitable nods to the recent hip-hop past (Madlib, GURU ...) though they – or at least the sensibility and work of the L.A. producer - will be at its heart, to a degree.

Too often in hip-hop music criticism there is an off-hand reference to an ‘old-school/jazzy/90s’ feel or whatever it might be in reviews, with no real discussion of what this means. It’s become a marker, a point of reference, a kind of shorthand. My goal here is to go a bit deeper, even if this writing will also reflect my process and progress, let’s say.

Disclaimer: the use of the ‘jazz sample’ by hip-hop producers, past and present, has often seemed problematic to me as to understand jazz, to really get it means appreciating the movement of music over time. To notice how elements shift/coalesce/break down/splinter/merge. This development is hard, or even impossible, to achieve within the framework of classic hip-hop production where the sample is just one element repeated and the drums (usually) come first.

The value of the sample works on the basis of its sound, its capacity to echo and work with other sounds, so it can’t really embody movement (even if producers, of course, play with this sonic element, stretching and manipulating it, giving it form. It’s electronic – there is no pure, unadulterated sound; it’s not the sound of wind on leaves outside on a tree). 

Of course there is movement in hip-hop instrumentals. Indeed, the skill and finesse of the producer lies in the way they are able to capture the spirit of live performance, or if not that to manipulate the sonic elements in such a way that there is development and change. Perhaps if I were to sum up the nature of this inquiry it would be this: to understand better the essential nature of movement and development in jazz and hip-hop, in a musical sense. 

I would not like to give the impression that hip-hop is a kind of blocky construction - sample 1, sample 2 and repeat - even if some of the least imaginative examples of the genre can be just that, boring and predictable.   

And yet there is a tension here, in that the idea of taking a snippet from a jazz composition and then repeating it just because it sounds good arguably goes against the very essence of jazz; moreover, it could be said that it also shows a lack of understanding, or disrespect to past musicians and their intentions.

Whereas the great jazz musicians of the past wanted to recreate the essence of freedom and collaboration, in the hands of average hip-hop producers a ‘jazz sample’ has the potential to be used in a way that enacts containment, entrapment. Caging a bird in wire, and then clipping its wings.   

This may be why it is, in fact, relatively rare to see pure, unadulterated jazz samples being used by key producers in the past or present.

Other less 'weighty' genres, prog-rock/Funk … and music from other eras, the 70s of course but also the 80s, or sampling other hip-hop tracks seem to be preferred. (Some of the 90s greats did rely on jazz compositions as their main source, it seems, and became known for this. This is why, I’d suggest, it’s become such a short-hand reference for critics as they are still in that mindset of seeing the world through a golden-tinge).   

Perhaps taking a jazz sample was seen to be too easy, too obvious by those seeking out musical challenges; see Kool Keith’s comment in this video interview posted in 2014 about how he tried in his solo work to move the production sound forward by using ‘new’ records, back in the 90s so as to not ‘just’ rap over a Ron Carter sample (at 5 mins), for example … Or maybe it reflected mixed feelings among producers who loved jazz in a really profound way, on a spirit level.

One last thing: I’m interested in writing this as well because of the way people have been responding to my work, here on this site and elsewhere (see my article on Weldon Irvine published in Ambrosia for Heads earlier this week).

It makes me so happy, for example, to see how one piece on Pharaoh Sanders’ Harvest Time, which is little more than a few paragraphs is being shared alongside the hip-hop writing. There seems to be a kind of renewed interest in the jazz/hip-hop nexus these days. It is also arguably a period of renewal for both genres, with new blood being recognised and new voices coming through. This, of course, appeals to me and I want to contribute to this moment. 

So here, then, is my first missive on the truly transcendent record Antiphon by London based producer, Alfa Mist that is certainly conscious of this landscape, while allowing the imprint of the artist to shine through; just like any classic jazz release from the past, of course.

Keeping it nice and pure and forever personal.   

In praise of: Koala, L’Orange (Mello Music Group, 2016) w/ref to 2015 Kool Keith project  

Have to confess that this ep, released by L’Orange had already half won me over on the basis of the title alone, easily pleased one might say. (Even if koalas are the least hip-hop animal you could imagine - dozing all day on their eucalypt high and then emitting a very deep, low-level grunt when they wake, unless it is music of this kind that maps out your hip-hop headspace).

L'Orange's Koala is a tender and thoughtful album, built on an original premise. Providing the foundations – all the key squeaky, high-pitched vocal sounds/samples – is the music of Joanna Newsom, and her 2010 record Have one on me, in particular.

Below the YouTube video are the following comments from the artist:

'Koala is a personal tribute to love and love lost- a fragile meditation on depression and passion. Solidarity in solitude, we are not alone.'

Even if we break,
we are rebuilt with gold
to show that we are not defined
by our construction.
We can wear
our cracks
on our arms and faces
proudly.

(Oh my). Koala is dedicated to Keely Latterner. I contacted L'Orange for a comment regarding this and he replied: 'Joe Latterner (Kon Sci)'s wife passed away late last year. He was my mentor and friend when I was growing up. He was a big influence on me and I can say I would not be where I am musically without him.'

***

Now, I’m not sure if this statement I’m going to make is 100 % correct, but I can’t think of another hip-hop album that has taken this approach of offering up work as a homage to another contemporary artist. Certainly, hip-hop is all about making references (to musical forebears; to well-known lyrics; to cultural stances; to shared norms). 

Often these acts of ‘homage’ are a musical version of an Oedipal struggle, where the sons are out to kill (or replace/undermine) the fathers, but L’Orange’s work is light years away from the classic macho brag-rap, staking out territory about who’s number one. 

And has no connection to any form of referencing that we are so familiar with, drawing on the achievements of past masters: the idea of making connections with a living artist, to offer up his work as if it were part of a conversation is intriguing. In this music, L'Orange is relating/responding to the work of another artist, subtly drawing attention to its qualities, while creating something new in its place: the essence of hip-hop. (And, of course, it matters that this artist is a woman, as well, you know … never mind).

For me, though, this record is original in a musical sense first and foremost. I particularly appreciate the way this music offers up so many fresh drum sounds – even if it’s been labelled, ‘genre: Boom Bap’ on one site - and the way the elements slip/slide and fade into each other. There is something new in this, something enlivening and something necessary. As I wrote when listening to it for the first time, it’s a ‘glorious piece of Romanticism spliced’.

This music is moving on from hip-hop production as form and structure - that is so familiar it could be seen as grid-like - to music that expresses a sensibility that is deeply lyrical. In this regard, it reminds me of Onra’s rehash/recreation of the Chinese voice (see my recent writing on Chinoiseries part 3).

Take the opener, ‘Easily’ on Koala, the musical parts work together beautifully but also in a kind of conflict, with the beat coming in at times with the piano to disappear at other times, enacting a musical form that remains unclear, almost unfamiliar. But there’s also a deep sensuality here: an erotics of music that stems from – and celebrates – tension, while allowing the music simply to just be.  

The beginning reminds me of The Beatles' 'I am the walrus' (here is a weirdo-take that appeals to me, labelled '8-bit version'). If you listen closely to 'Easily' you can hear that the music follows a traditional form (similar to jazz); just before 30 seconds there is a shift, at 2 minutes with the return of the piano it deepens, appears to be insistent. As a piece of music, there appears to be a fine sense of order, or structure, but at the same time it carries with it a false sense of certainty, or security: the centre does not hold (and yet there is pleasure to be found here in all this movement, swimming around itself).  

***

Check out this great interview with L'Orange from ‘TinyMixtapes’ with L’Orange marking the release of his 2015 record Time? Astonishing! with Kool Keith (also released on Mello Music Group) where the North Carolina-born, Nashville-based producer speaks about the way he feels drawn to early be-bop, or ‘hot jazz’ and how his work with the legend-MC was underpinned by a ‘guardian angel-type time travel idea.’

I pitched the idea to Keith about doing a project about time traveling, because a lot of my stuff is very somber, it’s very dark, it may have some quirkiness to it and some comedy, I hope, but it’s a very dark tone, and so for this one I did want to escape that a little bit and escape myself a little bit. And doing a project with Kool Keith, there’s no way I’m going to get on the phone with him and say, “I want to do this project about a writer who drives himself mad alone in his room and dies.” You know? I’m not going to do that, so I came up with this concept that sort of came [from] this recurring dream I had where I was being followed by a time traveler who was always two minutes in front of me. I sort of became obsessed with this guardian angel-type time travel idea.

Sometimes in music, I think, the easier the concept at its core, or the easier the premise, the more you can expand on it and [have] people still be able to digest it. So I pitched this idea to Kool Keith about doing this time travel record, but what was really important to me was that we could explore the ideas about a man without time, while still allowing Keith to be abstract and indulge in his non-sequitur style and do what he invented, really. I wanted to put Keith in a position to be himself, and do the same for me…

He was feeling it, and he introduced a couple concepts about space travel tied in with that. I liked that, because the way I envisioned it was him moving purely to the future, like he ate breakfast and was like, “Alright, what am I going to do today? I’ll go to the future.” So yeah, he really embraced it.