Here is what Scott Herren, aka Prefuse 73, says about rappers: “I like to use MCs as another layer of music. You don’t have to get the heavy load of what an MC’s saying that might piss you off, some sort of bullshit you don’t wanna hear about.” We can only hope that he doesn’t mean it as literally as he says it, because it sounds an awful lot like good old-fashioned censorship.
What Herren ends up doing on Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives isn’t quite censorship. There’s nary a moment when anyone from Clarence Thomas to Chuck D could be offended by any of the words or phrases from the (mostly) sampled raps. That’s because most of them are diced smaller than the onions McDonald’s puts on its burgers: they’re in there somewhere, but you have to sift through a lot of cheese to find them. And forget about the burger, because there’s not much meat between these hip-hop buns.
It’s not for lack of trying. Herren sticks close to his goal of deconstructing hip-hop and creating new sounds from old sources. “Prefuse 73” refers to Herren’s adoration of pre-Fusion jazz played from 1968-73 (a rather tight sphere of inspiration, but I digress), and on Vocal Studies he manages to play out an experimental jazz vibe without much effort. He even enlists the help of Sea and Cake’s Sam Prekop, who along with Tortoise and Isotope 217 make up what some critics are calling the new wave of fusion.
The problem is that he takes his fusion and hip-hop influences and chops them up so thoroughly that you never get comfortable listening to them. When the electronic burps and stutters show up on opening track “Radio Attack”, it’s cool and jolty and unique. When it’s still the underlying aural theme on closing track “7th Message”, you will have checked a dozen times to make sure the CD isn’t skipping. The new sounds Herren creates are innovative and entertaining; he simply overdoes it.
Exhibit A is “Nuno”, which begins with a looped melody that is repeatedly cut off only a split second in. Over the top are several vocal tracks, raps and other melodies that are just as mismatched. It’s like trying to listen to four skipping CDs all at once. “Point to B” follows the same schizophrenic pattern of patchworking beats and voice fragments that rarely come together like anything resembling a song.
We’re not talking standard song structure, either. Let the songs get as un-songlike as they want. The problem with about half of what’s on Vocal Studies is not that they don’t sound like standard songs, but that they lack the flow of any good song, standard or not. Even Herren’s experimental labelmates such as Autechre and Richard D. James (Aphex Twin, Polygon Window, et. al.) understand that you can’t just throw things together, slap a title (or not give them a title if you don’t feel like it) on them and call them songs. You gotta have that flow.
He may have also done well to study Bill Laswell’s sublime Panthalassa from 1998, in which Laswell takes the master tracks from Miles Davis’ formative fusion years and creates entirely new and entirely fluid soundscapes out of them. The lesson learned would be that you have to go somewhere rather than trying to go everywhere.
Prefuse 73 manages going somewhere some of the time. “Afternoon Love-in” is a blissful downer that keeps the stylus static to a minimum. The blend of quick horn bursts, warm organ and off-kilter percussion of “Smile in Your Face” may flow like a muddy river, but it never stops flowing.
Not surprisingly, the two best tracks on Vocal Studies are the true vocal studies: on “Life/Death”, Mikah 9 of Freestyle Fellowship disposes of the need for chopping up the rap by keeping up with the frenetic digital pace of his instrumental backing; MF Doom and Aesop Rock are given a bubbly overdub on the stoned “Blacklist”. Ironic that Vocal Studies’ most bullshit-free tracks are the ones where the MCs are left alone. Long live MCs.