On the album cover sits a lovely black lady with a luxuriant afro, dolled up in early disco hotpants and top, perched forwards with a look of relaxed awareness and hooked up via headphones to a “futurist” deco hifi of that era. Against a minimalist white background, it’s an appealingly retro-futurist, anachronistic image, a vision of colourful funk standing out against a calm but bland backdrop. On the back stands Approach himself, framed by a wire passageway open to the skies, laced in down-to-earth b-boy Adidas sports gear, holding a huge, vintage boombox that could be the chromed, graffitied twin of the one that graced the cover of Radio.
Obviously, Approach is staying well locked into hip-hop’s funky past, unconvinced by the future it’s ended up with. He’s on the right label for it, his peers being trueschoolers J-Live and The Unspoken Heard, both of whom place the emphasis on earnest, conscious attitude, lyrical skills and warm funk-, soul- and jazz-laced rolling beats. As the man himself says on an interlude whose title plays homage to DJ Shadow’s breaks source, underground legend David Axelrod: “my brain is autographed by Kool & The Gang”. And hey, he name-checks Wallace & Gromit too, so we know we’re not dealing with someone who takes his flavour too seriously.
Which is why the title of this enjoyably groovy and accomplished album is a bit of a puzzle, especially as anyone who’s heard J5 and the sonic era they hearken back to (that’d be just about everyone then) won’t listen to these party boombap compositions and think “Wow, this is a real change”. Neither does the feel, tempo or flow of the tracks alter that much, whilst his robust lyricism serves the same underlying message: be aware, enjoy yourself, don’t try me. But heck, maybe it’s just an excuse to be able to call himself the “Ultra Pro”, and besides, doesn’t ultra actually mean beyond? Whilst it’s not going to amaze anyone, what Approach has cooked up here showcases such a mastery of the tasty basics that it will remind even those who feel that J5 ran out of inspiration a while ago just why those old basics have a timeless appeal.
One of the main reasons for this is that, whilst he’s sticking determinedly to the golden sound, and his charisma and mic skills are hardly a challenge to Chali 2Na (or for that matter J-Live), he is actually moving things along, by involving live instrumentation seamlessly with the beats and samples of his own productions. What the tracks lose in comparison to the pared-down dancefloor workouts of Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark they more than make up for in their laidback fluidity; there’s a wonderfully organic atmosphere of musicians grooving together just for the shared feeling that suffuses even the harder-hitting tracks, eliminating any traces of 9th-Wonder-style “it sounds good but it’s just looped samples” ennuie.
Tacked on at the end of the 13 tracks of the album, which weighs in at a surprisingly concise half an hour in this era of bloated filler surplus, are a further 20 minutes of remixes from a varied gang of Approach fanciers. Whilst none of these are jaw-dropping, none of them are bad or overtly commercial either—the Rondo Brothers’ remix of “Funk Reaction” may well be featured on NikeGoddess.com right now, but it doesn’t stand out particularly and in fact I think I prefer the original. New Yorker DFA darlings Automato do their liveband Casio thing for “Slide Back” and Def Jux sound engineer Nasa proves that a slightly more serene version of their usual fraught backdrops works surprisingly well with the feel of oldschool MCing. It really is all good.
Whilst Approach’s MCing is more likely to come over as the contributions of a talented band member vibing with his colleagues than the thoughts of a striking personality who will set your ear on fire, he never comes less than correct, and with his musical focus on keeping the soul live he’s clearly taking hip-hop’s heritage a small slinky step in the right direction. Quality.