Sunday, February 5, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 13: Quasimoto / On Indie-Hop

For me, the comparison applies.

Late last week, I think I came up with a good way to draw out what I really like about indie-rap artist/alter ego, Quasimoto. More on the second half of that descriptor later. Which makes sense by way of dawning awareness – e.g., until this week, I had no idea who Quasimoto was, or how he fit into hip hop. Back to it…

Kanye West slipped a long tail on the end of his debut, The College Dropout, with a track titled “Last Call.” It’s sort of an audio autobiography, his telling of his break into the music biz. It’s not a bad song, by any means, but – brace yourself – he’s clearly the hero of his own story, artist and muse all in one. It’s also the longest track on the album. Like, over twice as long as every other song. (Yeah, yeah, cheap shot. Kanye takes time to tick through his idols, and the people who helped him level up. The man is talented.)

Quasimoto slipped a similar track onto his debut, Unseen; he actually sprinkled his album with a couple songs that loosely fit the label/genre, “personal history.” The main one, though, is called “Return of the Loop Digga.” It kicks off with the kind of contrasts you usually get in rap – e.g., “I am awesome, doing stuff no one else does” – and, just like Kanye’s “Last Call,” it touches on his inspirations. And that’s where the difference comes: instead of delving into who he knows and what he did, Quasimoto talks of offbeat genres (jazz, “1970s stuff,” reggae) and mining used record stores for cast-off vinyl (and vinyl, only) that no one else is looking at. The track comes off less as the story of Quasimoto’s life, than a thank you note to the world for giving him a huge goddamn playground of sounds to play in. He echoes his mini-manifesto on a couple more tracks form Unseen – “Boom Music” (hip hop inspirations) and “Jazz Cats Pt. 1” (jazz homage).

To pick up the loose end in the lead, Quasimoto is an alter ego for Madlib, a guy who (to borrow from Wikipedia), “described himself as ‘a DJ first, producer second, and MC Last.’” Madlib is also, as Wikipedia points out, prolific. After connecting Madlib to Quasimoto, I bounced over to Madlib’s discography to see how much they sounded like one another – e.g. did Madlib, say, use the Quasimoto character as a place to drop the jazzy/weird shit? Did he sound more “normal” in his own work? The answer came in two parts: 1) holy shit, that is a lot of music, and unless I want to spend the rest of my life here…moving on; 2) nope, Madlib sounds pretty “Madlib-y” wherever he goes. And that is a good thing.

I went through a few albums – e.g., Shades of Blue, one of the Beat Konducta collections, and the last of the Madlib Medicine Show(s) – virtually all of them (relatively) short mixes of beats, samples and audio loops. They’re all basically instrumentals, and not full songs; they’re almost 2-minute snippets (if such a thing exists), which isn’t something I usually go in for. When I started listening to The Beats (Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton Soundtrack), after each song started, I kept thinking I’d turn it off by the end of the next track. I made it through The Beats twice, instead, and on consecutive listens. Whatever I liked (pretty much all of it), I figure I’d never get this thing posted unless I confined myself to talking Quasimoto…still, if you can get to Madlib, I strongly encourage you to get to Madlib.

So, why the alter ego? According to that Wikipedia entry (e.g., Quasimoto’s), it was a combination of an in studio fuck-around and a response to some amount of shit people threw Madlib about his voice. As such, Madlib took a very different direction when voicing Quasimoto. That’ll become clear right pretty much right away (something to do with helium, but it’s not helium). Madlib put out a total of three albums as Quasimoto (or “Lord Quas”) – and that goes back to how he views himself (see Paragraph 4) - but I’ll only focus on the first (Unseen, already named) and the last, Yessir Whatever.

If there’s a “most Quasimoto” song between those two albums, I’d go with “Discipline 99 Pt. 0.” It contains all the usual, and best, traits of the Quasimoto sound – jazz/funk riffs, that…voice, and audio-riffing that feels like spoken-word, almost feels like a skit. Unseen is lousy with tracks like this – and Yessir Whatever has a couple – and I think that’s why I connect more strongly to Unseen. I mean, even if I don’t even sorta live it, how the hell can anyone with a flair for…just basic flair, fail to appreciate the audio sample at the end of “Microphone Mathematics” (“The meek ain’t gonna inherit shit. Because I’ll take it”; “Discipline 99 Pt. 0” ends with something even better). More on that later; let’s keep rolling with Quasimoto.

Unseen sort of announces its campy tendencies with “Welcome to Violence,” but it finds it feet with “Microphone Mathematics.” When “Good Morning Sunshine” drops at Song 5, the album hits its stride, with the offbeat samples, the dark/sunny vibe that Madlib works like an eclipse that he somehow controls. The repeating phrase, “good morning, sunshine,”  introduces something that goes through the whole album: it comes out in “Come on Feet,” “Put a Curse on You,” and “Phony Game,” a sly, almost cartoonish chorus that only feels like some mess-up between sinister and silly, precisely because it sounds like a cartoon. Those weird little, for lack of a better word, hooks would come off like gimmicks if the music didn’t hold up, but Madlib’s left-field samples and languid pacing create a sound that’s distinct and conscious, one that’s settled and content in what it’s doing. Quasimoto won’t make any but the most dedicated people dance, but it’s a great listen, just something to sit with and absorb.

Quasimoto hits “normal” hip hop notes and tones, and even on Unseen (see “Astro Black,” if from an angle), but its overall vibe tracks closer to songs like “Low Class Conspiracy,” “Real Eyes,” “Astro Travellin,” and, for me, the flat-out amazing24-7.” That one starts like “straight rap,” but shifts into a new, lighter sound just after the first minute, only to end on a (bleak?) 70’s funk tone fade-out. That one, I can listen to again and again, just to try to figure out what moved him here and there.

To (finally) shift to Yessir Whatever, I feel…OK calling that less inventive than Unseen, and that has everything to do with knowing that Madlib hasn’t lost a step as a producer (see the…1, 2…5th paragraph). That said, Yessir Whatever holds up better than fine: the second track, “Seasons Change,” would fit into Unseen without anyone blinking, and I love the funk/easy-listening sample mash-up of “The Front.” (After a 13-year gap, that’s goddamn impressive.) I could be imagining it (I know Unseen better than Yessir), but Madlib (the deeper, cooler) voice seems to show up more often on Yessir. And the balance of the album as a whole tips more toward “typical” rap songs (see, “Planned Attack” and “Brothers Can’t See Me”); the samples on the latter, in particular, lack Madlib’s typical richness and inventiveness. “Catchin’ the Vibe” feels the same when it starts, but, layer after layer, the musical/melodic palette fills in; it still feels like mainstream(-ish) hip hop, just with a couple wholly welcome embellishments.

If Yessir Whatever feels like a lesser album, it operates on the same logic as 6’4” being shorter than 6’6”; sure, it’s a distinction, but both are pretty goddamn tall and the difference doesn’t mean a whole lot. As much as any artist I’ve heard in hip hop, Madlib comes at the genre from a fresh, even unique, angle (if not, education on the matter is welcome). Nothing about him feels wholly typical and, for a certain subset of people, that matters. May as well address that…

I came to hip hop from indie rock, and that shows up all over in the stuff I like in hip hop. A lot of bands that I loved growing up, and when I first moved out, played around with audio clips the same way Madlib does (e.g. Naked Raygun’s "Slim," Mudhoney’s “Sliding In and Out of Grace” and, for skits, The Pixies’ “I’m Amazed”). The other overlap comes with making music, as Madlib/Quasimoto puts it in “Return of the Loop Digga,” “that’s more for me and the peeps I’m down with.” I’m probably some version of a hipster – a concept birthed in indie rock (even as even that has evolved) - if a proto one (because, old), so really specific preferences make all kinds of sense to me. But I think what drives me crazy about where the usage for “hipster” ended up is, to pick up a theme, how cartoonish it is. And I’m going to invoke Pabst Blue Ribbon to explain that.

The whole thing with Pabst, at least among the people I knew, came about for a very specific reason: we drank a lot and Pabst (and Black Label, and Lucky Lager, and Schmidt, and…just keep going) was a hell of a lot cheaper by volume, so that's what we bought. Apparently (and, honestly, I’m not even sure I buy this), drinking Pabst became more affectation than economics – that’s to say, it was viewed as something people did as a cultural marker than as an accounting practice for heavy drinkers.

The same logic applies to music: I don’t like music because no one else listens to it, and I don’t immediately hate a band the second it gets popular. There’s actually something much simpler at work: I like “rock” and “hip hop” (and “blues” and “country,” etc.) the same way: I know what it’s supposed to sound like, but I will always, always want to hear approaches to any genre that sounds like someone trying to do something new, or at least different, with it. To give a real-world example of the opposite, Poison (80s hair band) sounds like mainstreaming Motley Crue – e.g. taking the next step on the same idea (partying and sex) for commercial and/or meeting groupies purposes. That’s not even sort of a weird step to make, but it is a commercial choice.

The flipside of that argument is why I’ll pretty always connect to a guy (Madlib/Quasimoto) who approaches a genre (hip hop) with the “art” up front. I say that as someone who’s still very much invested in the “pop” part of pop music – i.e., it doesn’t take too much experimentation – in fact, it only takes “Revolution No. 9” – to turn me off. Because of that, or in spite of it, Unseen ranks really, really high on the last of hip hop albums that never quite stop blowing me away. I recommend it to just about anyone who likes his/her pop music at least one step from what’s expected.

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