“Y’all ready for some live shit? Welcome. Welcome to the D, baby.”
With these opening lines we enter the wonderful, bass-heavy world of the remarkably busy Jay Dee.
In the past year or so he has produced and/or provided beats for Tribe Called Quest, Common, Erykah Badu, Slum Village and Guru. Now he has his own effort out, the first in a series of breakbeat projects from the Barely Breaking Even crew. Look at that list of artists again. Whether hip-hop or neo-soul they represent the quality end of the market. Jay Dee is up there with the best and, along with Common and others, is busy putting some freshness and variety back into an increasingly stale, because so overcrowded, scene.
Though it was intended as a breakbeat collection, Jay Dee has made a straight-up hip-hop record here. However, the emphasis on the beats (and the music, generally) outweighs that on the rappers. This is refreshing, as the dice has been heavily loaded in favour of the lyrics and the MC as pop-star in recent times, to the detriment of the genre. The rappers employed for this project are mostly little known and Detroit-based, and they enhance the music rather than burying it beneath their egos. There is nothing particularly earth-shattering about the words—the usual subject-matter, the standard take on life—but there is a competence and conviction in the performances that satisfies. For the record, as you will be hearing more of them, Dee’s guests are Phat Kat, Frank-n-Dank,Blu, Elzhi,Beej, Hodge Podge and Lacks. Jay also contributes—as J-Dilla.
Three things impress about the overall sound—the mixing of live instruments and samples, the uncluttered feel of each track, and the diversity of musical influences. If that sounds like the sort of list often mentioned with regard to new-soul acts such as Jill Scott and D’Angelo then I would suggest that is because Jay Dee represents the same tendency within hip-hop. This album has all the rawness and speaker-shaking bass you need but it has an unhurried eclecticism that sets it apart.
For example, there is a bossanova track. Don’t laugh—there is—and it’s good. There is also a reworking of Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice”, which is as deep and jazzy as you could want. The trumpet and trombone add a touch of class. When did you last say of a rap record—check the trombone on this? Then Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Brazilian Groove” gets a re-rub that more them matches the original. Some of the tracks (“B.B.E.” and “Y’All Aint Ready”) borrow from Detroit’s techno culture and would not be out of place on a Planet E compilation. “African Rhythms” needs no explanation. The remaining cuts are more conventionally inspired but avoid the obvious or the over-familiar, musically if not vocally.
Lyrically, “Thug Life” narratives dominate but tracks like “Pause” (Frank-n-Dank over a minimalist arrangement) and the Phat Kat cut work well and have a raw “old skool” appeal. “Shake It Down” and “The Clapper Song” will please orthodox heads, and should pick up airplay. There are the usual “slice of life” interludes, which never do much for me, and on what is a relatively short CD are an indulgence. I can’t honestly say there are any rhymes that made me sit up, but Hodge Podge and Lacks spit out some effective “realness” over an almost bluesy guitar riff. All of the contributions have an immediacy and a “live” feel that give them a boost.
In the end it is Jay Dee who wins most of the plaudits and who is obviously in total creative control of the project. Musician, MC, composer, producer—he even reviews each track on the liner notes (he likes what he hears). This is the work of a master of technique and mood. There is a definite “less is more” sparseness about Welcome to Detroit and a sense that each element in the music really matters. The lack of frills and the care and attention to the right groove fits in with the ethos of BBE. Although the choice of Jay Dee to open this ambitious series will surprise some, it is both a suitable and satisfactory one.
How it will work for the breakbeat crowd, I cannot say. I get lost amid all the talk about “open” and “closed” beats. But beats there are aplenty, very few with even a hair out of place. In the final analysis, it is that assuredness and craftsmanship that makes this much more than yet another rap album. Jay Dee has done his home town proud. There are some innovative figures lined up for “The Beat Generation”, as this project is to be called. They include King Britt, Viktor Duplaix, Jazzy Jeff, Marley Marl and DJ Spinna. This set has given them all something to live up to.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.