I have a confession to make: I am in love with Hershey’s new Smores candy bar. I realize I shouldn’t eat so damn many of them, and yet I can’t seem to stop myself from putting one in the basket every time we go to Wal-Mart. Hell, they’re only 38 cents at Wally World. At that price, it’s almost throwing money away not to buy one.
There’s something about how they take all the different flavors involved in the Smores project—the chocolate, the marshmallow and the graham cracker—and blend them into an incredibly subtle melange. If you exert even the slightest effort its not hard to differentiate the individual ingredients, but its far better to simply allow the candy bar to become something greater than the mere some it’s parts.
What the hell does this have to do with anything? Well, these thoughts have entered my mind as I sit contemplating the X-Ecutioners latest disc. The X-Ecutioners are Total Eclipse, Rob Swift and Roc Raida, the latest incarnation of the mighty X-Men, one of the greatest competitive turntablist crews in the genre’s short history (they don’t call themselves the X-Men anymore for obvious reasons). As DJs, the X-Ecutioners’ work is hybrid by definition. Multiple sounds and flavors mix and commingle to create new and different sensations. Their tools are the turntable platters on which their records spin, and their music is the music of a mongrel mindset, beautifully postmodern.
Records by turntable artists usually come in two flavors. First, there’s the “guitar hero” template, featuring the kind of intense scratching wizardry that wins DMC championships. These are of limited interest unless you’re a hardcore aficionado, in the same way that only serious guitar freaks are likely to dig Yngwie Malmsteem’s latest wank-fest. The second flavor is the rare but highly esteemed instrumental hip-hop album. Call it trip-hop or electronic music, but artists like DJ Shadow and RJD2 craft their soundscapes from a hip-hop point of view (even if, obviously, they go far afield from any puritan conception of “two turntables and a microphone”). With their first two major-label releases—Revolutions and 2002’s Built From Scratch—the X-Ecutioners have introduced a third template: the DJ album as pop crossover vehicle.
Built From Scratch featured prominent cameos from members of Linkin Park, Xzibit, Big pun and Biz Markie. In a similar manner, Revolutions is jammed packed with guest appearances by the Blue Man Group, Ghostface Killa, Black Thought, Cypress Hill, dead prez, Fat Joe, Slug and Rob Zombie (and that’s just the major guests—there’s a rapper on most tracks). It’s an interesting quandary, since one of the X-Ecutioner’s stated goals is to restore the art of the DJ to its rightful prominence as one of the foundations of hip-hop. Some of the collaborations are interesting, but many of them serve only to obscure what should by rights be the star of the show: the X-Ecutioners’ unparalleled skills on the one-and-twos.
The album begins with “The Countdown Part 2”, featuring the aforementioned Blue Man Group to unknown effect (I say this because the BMG are famous for banging strange homemade instruments and making fantastically odd noises—no odd noises are evident here). It’s a clever and energetic piece of work, a funky slab of rock and roll by way of a slicing crossfader. “Live From The PJs” featuring Ghostface, Black Thought and Trife is a retro-tinged old-skool MC showcase. There are momentary nods to classics such as De La Soul’s famous Native Tongue remix of “Buddy” that will please any long-time hedz.
“Like This” is a surprisingly agile breakbeat workout, featuring a fun rap from Anikke. It’s got a really nice bassline and I think, of all the tracks here, it would really blossom if they parceled it out to the right remixers. “C’Mon” is one of a handful of MC-less tracks on the album, and as you would expect it’s jam packed with noises and scratches, a claustrophobically dense party track from deep in the heart of the urban jungle.
“Let Me Rock” is the first of a handful of rock crossover moments, featuring the skills of the upcoming pop-punk combo Start Trouble. It’s a deft piece, utilizing the individual strengths of every element to create a surprisingly canny whole. If all rap rock was this propulsive, maybe the genre as a whole would be so universally awful.
“The Regulators” flips back to hardcore hip-hop so fast your neck will snap, but its worth the headache. It’s got one of the best beats on the disc, a bouncy analog breakbeat that shuffles along with bruising efficacy. “Space Invader” is another instrumental, this one featuring a darker, borderline industrial edge, complete with crunching guitars and weird vocal snippets. “Old School Throwdown” is everything the title would lead you to expect, a DJ battle set to one of the funkiest beats on the album. Its also one of the wankiest tracks on the album but it works because the X-Ecutioners never lose sight of the overriding song structure—there’s a lot of noodling but it all comes back to the beat and thereby keeps your interest.
The album’s worst misstep is “(Even) More Human Than Human”, a cover of White Zombie’s schlock-metal classic of the same name. Despite an intense performance by Slug from Atmosphere, it never quite succeeds in channeling the same frenetic energy that has made the original such an endearing staple of hard rock radio. Again, they follow a rock crossover with a sudden return to hip-hop, this time aided by dead prez in a backpack banger called “Sucka Thank He Cud Wup Me”. The album ends with “Ill Bill”, a catchy instrumental built atop a strong rock hook, with a chorus of funk guitars and cackling vocal samples thrown into the stew.
I find myself pleasantly surprised by just how catchy and accessible the album is. I came to the table with a sackful of misgivings about the project, and I still maintain that there’s something slightly odd about the way they have so methodically set about crafting the perfect crossover vehicles. I can forgive them the occasional misstep, however, because it’s plain that they are trying to cross over for all the right reasons. They’re not trying to sell millions of records by selling out, they are merely hitching their genre to a more accessible sound in order to spread the word. I have no idea whether or not Columbia is making their big-label money back from their investment in the X-Ecutioners, but I hope the group can continue making albums like this for quite a while. With a few exceptions, they seem to have their particular hybrid style down to a science.