Two Turntables and a Bunch of Microphones
DJ solo albums are to hip-hop what Jimmy Page solo albums are to rock. There’s no doubting the talent involved, but taking that talent out of its usual collaborative context and making it the sole focus of an album’s worth of material is another matter. DJs and guitarists seem to be at their best when they’re providing the foundation for MCs and lead singers; when they’re out in front, the songwriting doesn’t always live up to the prodigious technical skill. Ironically, when sidemen and producers make solo albums with the intent of showcasing themselves and getting their proper due, they usually end up highlighting their shortcomings.
To avoid problems like these, a lot of DJs, guitarists, and producers turn back to collaboration when putting their “solo” albums together. That’s what New York’s DJ JS-1 has done for his third solo outing, Audio Technician. While the slew of guest artists produces some structure and a few real gems, it also results in a nearly schizophrenic listening experience. It’s hard to establish a tone with so many cooks in the kitchen.
Quite literally, Audio Technician alternates between vocal tracks featuring guest MCs and instrumental turntablist extravaganzas (which often feature guest DJs). It’s worth noting that JS-1 is equally adept at providing mind-blowing scratchathons and scaling back to deliver tight, focused tracks for his MCs. There’s not a wack beat or sample in sight. But sometimes JS-1’s friends let him down.
The title track, for example, wastes one of the albums best loops—an icy cool, descending orchestral figure—on some pat guns’n'bitches rhymes from L.I.F.E.Long and Immortal Technique. On “Bringin’ Back NY Rap”, Bl-One and Jak Danielz namecheck everyone from 2 Live Crew to Gang Starr. The chorus is catchy and JS’s soul-tinged production is on target, but the nostalgia feels like a novelty—kind of like a hip-hop version of that awful Bowling for Soup song where the teenyboppers reminisce about music “way before Nirvana”. Most of the rest of the raps touch on familiar themes: boasting, braggadocio, suspicion of the music business. Oh instrumental version, wherefore art thou?
On a couple of occasions, everything does go right and DJ and MC combine to produce something coherent and special. On “In’N'Out”, JS lays down a fluttering, calliope-like loop, while React delivers one of Audio Technician‘s few memorable verses when he proclaims, “A rhyme like mine’s hard to find / Like Dick Cheney”. Even the sampled chorus is insightful and thought provoking: “Hearing the truth often hurts more than the fact it exists”. React is on point once again on “Flying Guillotines”, calling JS “...a throwback / Like them square-shaped black and yellow Pittsburgh Pirate hats”. JS lives up to the hype with an almost G-funk rhythm and a wicked bit of Spanish guitar. The most unique vocal, however, comes from JS’s production partner, Dub-L. On “The More U Got”, Dub dishes out quirky slacker rhymes (“I drink atop a white horse like a depressed hero / Then I go home and eat a gyro”) with a nerdy delivery that channels prime Tommy Chung.
On the instrumental tracks, JS usually teams with his old partners DJ Spinbad, DJ Slynke, and Rahzel. The results are some prime, albeit typical, cutups. Snippets of songs and vocal samples are woven and dropped in with laser-guided precision. The tempo often changes on a dime, and everyone from Pat Benatar to the Smiths to James Brown is made use of. The scratching is amazing; like all master craftsmen, JS doesn’t even sound like he’s trying and never loses control of his skills. Everything is natural and fluid. The most striking instrumental, though, doesn’t feature much scratching at all. “BX Streets” instead employs Rahzel, a brooding bassline, female samples, and ambient sound effects to a haunting effect. Demonstrating a surprising diversity even for JS, the track beats Moby at his own game.
As a whole, Audio Technician is impressive, but at least a third longer than it needs to be. On order for next time: more React, more Dub-L, and more of JS-1 doing what he does best.