Prefuse 73 (aka Scott Herren) took an unusual path to the role of iconoclast hip-hop producer. Herren’s first Akai MPC sampler came to him through the enlightened self-interest of a visionary mogul during Herren’s early days in Atlanta, where he did time producing Dirty South gangsta rap. But a day job is a day job, and he kept at his own projects in the meantime, first with mellow post-rockish releases under the Delarosa and Asora alias, then as Savath and Savalas. He eventually signed to the Warp label and released the first album as Prefuse 73, Vocal Studies and Uprock Narratives. Herren achieved his first truly large-scale success with the album’s crossbreeding of the intricate melodies of intelligent dance music and post-rock with the breaks and lyrics of independent hip-hop. Others had, admittedly, beaten him to the punch, most notably Funkstörung and Kid 606, but these were dabblers whose primary interests were electronics; Herren made no bones about his dedication to hip-hop as an end, not merely as an embellishment. Besides, noone before him had done it with the same panache and subtlety.
With the second Prefuse 73 album, One Word Extinguisher, Herren brings a deeper, more complex sound, but the same central premise. Like the ‘glitch’ subgenre of IDM which deeply influences him (and which exerted its highest-profile sway on recent releases by Radiohead and Björk), the Prefuse project aestheticizes decay and error by placing them within meticulous arrangements and a medical white context. Though the beats are mostly linear, they veer and lurch out of rhythm just often enough to keep the listener on their toes. The samples are awash in the entire spectrum of fine-grained distortions, popping disconnect, muffled overdrive, and subtle stutters. The majority of the vocals on the album are in part or entirely sliced and diced beyond comprehensibility. In all the corners scurry tiny shards of decontextualized sound, barely audible and truncated beyond conscious decipherability.
But all this surface imperfection neither arises from nor projects carelessness on Herren’s part—in fact, the exact opposite is the case. This is meticulously constructed and flawlessly engineered music, in which there exists no harsh dissonance or even the hint of true chaos; the sonic solecisms which form the core of Herren’s palette have been captured in the wild, then dipped in formaldehyde, their wings clipped, their feet bound. The ghostly dreams of what these sounds once were float just below hearing, forming a warm glow or misty halo. They are constituted into a series of slowly progressing and generally sunny melodies, expressing Prefuse’s role as the ultimate utopianist, a true believer in the perfectibility of humanity and of life. What, after all, shows more control than the mastery of error?
A parallel in the world of visual art is the work of Joseph Cornell, whose eyeless dolls, leafless twigs, and scorched photographs are arrayed like priceless heirlooms behind glass, and through this act of faith come to evoke something other than the brutal truths of time’s passage. The equivalent transubstantiation of Herren’s music is that away from urban reality and into some unlived dreamtime of phat beats and bliss. As with Cornell’s art, Herren himself is entirely absent from the experience of his music. Though the liner notes emphatically state that One Word Extinguisher was entirely recorded using an MPC, it comes across as all ProTools. You can’t “hear” fingers hitting pads, as you can in the music of Premier, Swizz Beats, or Hi-Tek: the music’s surgically exact structure leaves the architect delete from the scene.
Contrast this with the expressive errata of early hip-hop, when sketchy pause tapes were the recorded dreams of something better coming; or with the sound of the RZA, who breathed in the dust and static of history to exhale a dangerous and unpredictable world; or with the more recent productions of MF Doom, whose instinctive and scattershot placement of dusty samples expresses kid-in-a-candy-store glee. Contrast, more concretely, the off-center beat of Extinguisher‘s “90% of My Mind Is With You” with the arrythmia snares of Company Flow’s “Fire in Which You Burn”. Both beats withhold gratification, catch you nodding your head at slightly the wrong moment, and taunt you for it. The difference is that with CoFlo, things threaten to end with the listener trussed in a Brooklyn closet, while Prefuse is, at worst, challenging you with a puzzle he thinks you might find intriguing. For Company Flow riding the off-beat is the flavor of madness, while for Prefuse it is an end in itself.
This draws another art-world connection, this one a little closer to hip-hop home. A new breed of urban graphics has emerged over the last three or four years, gracing record covers, advertising, and magazine splash pages (particularly those of the Chocolate Industries label, Triple 5 Soul and XLR8R—designers include Struggle Inc. and Arkitip). Though the source material is distinctly hip-hop, from urban landscapes to graffiti tags, these signs are recast in bold, often neon monochromes, thrown up against stark white backgrounds, and smashed headlong into one another. The images stir some memory of the knuckle-scraping concrete that graffiti was originally sprayed on, while more explicitly referencing the smooth design and rounded interiors of an iBook commercial. Similarly, rather than being good to breakdance to, Prefuse 73 is great music for when you’re sitting around the flat, daydreaming about being the world’s greatest breakdancer.
None of this is to say that Prefuse 73 lacks soul. The music expresses a kind of soul that flies very high, and looks down on the city from a place in the sun, not celebrating any escape, but musing. It’s a kind of soul that’s more prevalent in hip-hop than you might think: the same thing can be heard in the rhythm of Souls of Mischief’s classic “‘93 ‘til Infinity”, though there it’s approached from an entirely different direction. Rarely has this sort of oceanism held sway through an entire hip-hop album, but on One Word Extinguisher this semidetached perspective really gets the space it needs to stretch its legs, and to envelope the listener in its surreal urbanism.