North Carolina

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?

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.'

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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).  

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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.