Beat making is a world unto its own in hip-hop. For all we talk about bars and delivery, there are few rappers that could survive without backgrounds serving as a foundation. But this isn’t a parasitic relationship. Most producers craft their sounds with MCs in mind and it takes a rare producer to make something that can stand completely on its own. It’s those rare producers who become legends. J Dilla’s “Life” doesn’t need a rapper on it to be spectacular in the same way Madlib’s “ALL CAPS” or Nujabes’ “Feather” work as instrumentals. So where does Apollo Brown land? Thirty Eight doesn’t answer that question, nor does it need to. The 20-track release acts as a sampler platter, like instrumental tapas, with Brown dabbling in each part of his range. Consistency doesn’t reign here, but it’s solid work through and through.
The Detroit-based Brown has been producing boom-bap beats since 2008 and quietly gaining respect in the hip-hop community. He’s your favorite producer’s favorite producer. He’s gained prominent fans like Immortal Technique, Talib Kweli, and Pharoahe Monch over the years. Last year Brown was involved in the biggest project of career with Ugly Heroes, a collaboration with MCs Red Pill and Verbal Kent. It was one of the better hip-hop records of 2013 and it was met with quiet acclaim. Thirty Eight has more variety than Ugly Heroes, as Brown doesn’t have to tailor his sound to Pill or Kent. Instead Brown explores his love for film soundtracks, Motown soul, and boom-bap. Brown’s sound jumps around throughout the album, but its closest relative is Ghostface Killah’s Twelve Reasons to Die. L.A. based Adrian Younge did the production work on that great album and it seems like Younge and Brown have been taking pages out of each other’s playbook. Brown’s love of grimy organs and guitars that seem straight out of a ‘70s B-movie match up with songs like “Enemies All Around Me” from Twelve Reasons (hell, one of Brown’s tracks is “Black Suits” and Younge has “Rise of the Black Suits”).
The comparison with Twelve Reasons does bring up Thirty Eight’s biggest weakness. These beats are crying out for rappers. Ghostface and Brown’s fans like Kweli and Monch would flourish on his production. Songs like “Cleo’s Apartment” and “Felonious” demand to have gritty bars spit over them. I’m going to be severely disappointed if a fully fleshed out version of Thirty Eight doesn’t come out within the year. In a way though, it’s a testament to Brown’s skill as a beat maker if I’m salivating at the idea of Ghostface rapping over his work.
Some of these tracks do stand completely on their own and they tap into a deep sense of melancholy that Brown infuses his sound with. Ugly Heroes was easily one of 2013’s most depressing albums, an unflinching look at the rust belt and a bankrupt city that threw its inhabitants under a bus. Yes, Pill and Kent’s weary and sleep deprived lyrics had a lot to do with it, but Brown can craft a crushingly sad background at a moment’s notice. “Life is a Wheel” is a depression-soaked song, built off of acoustic guitar and crying keyboards. Even with the small sampled vocal it’s clear that Brown has mortality on the mind. “People come and go,” sings the haunting sample. That’s the magic at work on Thirty Eight. At its best it doesn’t need maximal vocals to get a mood across. Instead Brown quietly goes about his work and creates some of the year’s best instrumentals. Check this one off as another win for Brown.