I’m going to hide this tape when we’ve finished. If none of us make it, at least there’ll be some kind of record.
—from first proper album track, “Body Double”
Fuck the idle threat/hip-hop has always been violent…
—I Self Divine, “I Want It All”
Hip-hop music thrives on tension, on menace, on intensity. It’s there when Jay-Z quotes Carlito’s Way with swaggering intent, it’s brooding in the shadows when Mobb Deep gets blood sprayed on daughters, it fuels M.O.P’s ascent into ever more ludicrous fits of homicidal mania, and when Tupac and Biggie took the stage at The Tunnel seemingly so long ago, it must have crackled in the air; a flash fuse of rage, despair, and testosterone that coated the bodies with sweat and stung the back of the throat like cordite.
It’s a tension incipient as much in the simple-yet-lethally-effective pattern of expectation and release set up by kick and snare, by syllable manipulation and couplet completion, as it is in the cruelly confined competition of the New York inner-city streets where hip-hop was born. Personal space, cultures, languages, territories, all overlapping and spilling into each other with the smell of foods in the air and the hum of the bass through the tarmac and cheap housing walls; hell, the music itself is a cramming together of huge, expensive record collections into one cheap piece of vinyl, spinning on stolen power as it whisks musical history into a colourfully viscous splatter of now. Hence, perhaps, the trends towards bright colours and rough blends in clothing, as well as the huge emphasis placed on representing your home turf, on being “with it” and “real”; we’re always most emphatic about that which we secretly know to be most tenuous, and doubt causes tension.
Within this clattering conflict of an industry ant nest, DJs are either going to play their own trumpet at maximum volume and vibrato, fighting for air space above the bustling tarmac, or they’re going to be humble and fulfill their craft out of a sense of empassioned duty, and not because it marks them out. Omega One, NY veteran and graf writer, is one of the latter breed. Any hip-hop head worth their salt knows that it’s his production behind Aesop Rock’s “Sick Friend”, “Skip Town”, and “Coma”, making him responsible for some of the MC’s greatest moments over a period of three albums. Perhaps not as widely known is the fact that the nightmare vision of working life on the cover of Labor Days is also his work, as is the cover of his debut on the reputable Nature Sounds label, a strange yet oddly attractive blend of sci-fi monsters, fantasy landscape, fractals, Escher designs, and patchwork, presented in a range of pastels (graf is the visualisation of hip-hop music, let’s not forget that). You’ll also have heard him cutting and scratching all over Blockhead’s heralded Music By Cavelight, as well as backing up such NY mic juggernaughts as Method Man, RA The Rugged Man, and Immortal Technique. Boy got chops.
Before dropping this album he put out a mixtape with Blockhead, the humbly amused We Didn’t Invent the Remix, and also a dub reggae one with DJ Ayres. The latter becomes relevent shortly, but let’s stick with Blockhead for now, as his crepuscular compositions are a grand example of hip-hop music that crept out of the night and into the musical consciousness of the masses with the appearance of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing; and here tension is derived not from urban proximity but rather from the fact that the city lights glimmer far in the distance, and in contrast the surrounding natural darkness feels closer. Outside city limits, the reassuringly monotonous club beat is often replaced by skittish drum patterns, pitched in the uncertain rhythms of the nerves; yet without the immediate pressures of the metropolis, the pieces can unfold into atmospheric lushness over the silence. There is frequently a sense of travelling through an unknown but beautiful landscape, and whilst this may lack the intensity of being caught in a mic booth spittle shower, it seems fair to note that it’s hard to appreciate the subtler power of a sunset when your “window opens on a brick wall”.
Omega One’s tracks have a sense of thick depth and a loping fluidity that will make fans of dub reggae feel instantly at home even as they are taken through sci-fi thriller vistas of angst and steady momentum. He is brilliant at supplying just enough complexity to bind you into the rhythmic weave of the track, while allowing enough time and space for the effects, scratches, dialogue samples, and melodic embellishments to breathe as part of a natural whole. He’s also adept at assembling compositions whose drums and melodic lines mesh into a satisfying flow, such as might otherwise be provided by an MC, with the result that many of the tracks here present a formidable rejoinder to anyone still unconvinced that hip-hop instrumentals are a coherent and complete musical form in their own right.
That said, the merging of these two forms of tension into one glimmering, simmering whole, which Omega One pulls off to a greater or a lesser extent on almost ever track, is aided and abetted by the presence of MCs on two tracks: Minnesotan I Self Devine on the stop-start double bass and swirling strings of “I Want It All” (Warren G parody, anyone?), who absolutely kills it in utterly uncompromising yet intelligent style; and ODB successor charisma-diamond-in-the-raw LoDeck, who, on album closer “Coup d’Etat”, vents his frustration at the vapidity of modern MCing. Bemoaning this betrayal of the craft’s essence is hardly inspired innovation, but rarely do you get the impression that the pain being felt is for the waste of possible art, rather than the venter being denied his rightful supremacy. “MCs done let me down” laments a sample over the lilting piano and guitar. You gotta feel that.
On the instrumentals we get an accomplished mix of the electronic and acoustic, from the preternatually bright piano on “Memento” to the guitar and string motifs on “Mom’s Revolver”, that seem to unspool into double helixs, the assured Far Eastern menace of “The Hashishin”, a sweltering brew of looming string fades, squelching organ, scuttling percussion, and psychedelic guitar, and the peacefulful NASA bleeps and deep tones of “Joint Operation” (as a rather gnomic sample assures us, being in space “is, like, way out”). If the meat of the album is undeniably the middle third, there are no duff tracks but merely less intrusive ones, and anyone who enjoyed Blockhead’s album will find much to immerse themselves in before the compelling tension of the music dissipates back into the thick night air.