[23 August 2009]
Unlike Trevor Horn, Phil Spector, Quincy Jones, Kanye West, or J Dilla, music producers these days seldom garner much attention. If they’re not singing or rapping themselves like Will.I.Am, they’re usually seen as an appendage—albeit a necessary one—to the people who command the mic. To gain a name in their own right, underground producers may host their own club nights and rely on the good services of radio and club DJs. But for better or worse, many fail to crawl out of the outer reaches of mainstream earshot like the Calvin Harrises and Diplos of the world.
DJ Vadim (Andre Gurov) falls into this subset. This scarily prolific Russian-born, London-raised producer has averaged two works a year since starting operations on the DJ circuit in the mid-‘90s. His talents have been coveted by music makers of every stripe: Kraftwerk, Super Furry Animals, DJ Krush, the Roots, and even Prince, to name a handful. Yet aside from diehard fans who can tease Vadim’s beats from the underground din, he remains “The guy who produced the Sarah Jones track that got banned by the FCC” to his American DJ Magazine-reading audience and “The guy who has hosted a few BBC radio shows” to his British listeners. The censored track, by the way, is “Your Revolution” from Vadim’s 1999 album USSR: Life From the Other Side”, but that’s another story. True Vadim fiends might also know that the producer is a Latin Grammy award nominee. But that’s also another story.
The good thing about remaining in the edified heights of the underground is that you can peddle material that’s classified as weird and wonderful without being admonished for it. This was certainly true of USSR: The Art of Listening, Vadim’s 2002 answer to Malcolm McLaren’s 1982 Duck Rock (and yes, the producer does have an USSR series of work). A whimsical yet strangely coherent brew of hip hop (courtesy of MCs like Taskforce and Moshun Man), quirky sampling, Oriental, Latin, and Afrobeats with a smattering of jungle, the album was a kick in the teeth to those who portended hip hop’s disintegration into the quicksands of tripe and distaste. 2007’s Soundcatcher, Vadim’s first LP after he left Ninja Tune for BBE, furthered this cause, with the producer trotting out ragga-meets-reggae-meets-hip hop as easily and as accomplished as some of us are at tying shoelaces.
His latest LP, U Can’t Lurn Imaginashun, is by the standards of said albums a conservative effort. Once again it brims at the seams with special guest MCs and vocalists and it sticks its fingers into various worldly pies. But it’s stripped of The Art of Listening‘s sonic angularity and Soundcatcher‘s visceral manifestos (e.g., “Ballistic Affairs” and the cheeky “Milwaukee”) and left field experimentalism (e..g, “Fear”). Rather, it’s a basket of radio-friendly condiments that tarnishes Nelly’s sung yelps and Black Grass’s poptastic reggae sentiments with Diplo’s digital filth. And yet, because of its populism U Can’t Lurn Imaginashun will make much less of an impression than, say, Diplo’s and Switch’s borderline insane global affair Major Lazer, Guns Don’t Kill People … Lazers Do . In other words, something more akin to what Vadim used to do.
That said, the radio-friendliness of U Can’t Lurn Imaginashun does offer the casual listener—on the off-chance she finds it—a breezy, top-down cruise through reggae, ska, soul, and good ol’ hands-in-the-air dancefloor filler. The ragamuffin opener “Soldier”, with its repeated “I’m a soldier” refrain and Big Red’s speed-rapping over Latin guitar strums and a reggae thud sticks to the brain like fluff on Velcro. As for the lascivious-in-the-club “Saturday”, if it weren’t for the slick Auto-Tune-spun chorus, you’d be forgiven for thinking it hailed from a 2002 NOW compilation. Similarly, “That Lite” would be candy for R. Kelly listeners if it weren’t for the chorus sung by a guy who sounds like Ron Isley if he were a eunuch.
The flaw with these unchallenging listens is that they distract from the few honest to goodness offerings peppered throughout the album. These include “Beijos”, a beautifully woebegone piano-driven song with a slow-burning hip hop beat and the wispy vocal colourings of Heidi Vogel; “Maximum”, a Gallic ragga track propelled by the Shaggy-like tenor of French rapper La Methode; and “Hidden Treasure”, a soul-shaking dancehall number featuring the Jill Scott-esque Sabira Jade on vocals. The album even ends nicely with the cryptically named “Tu He Ma Ne Toddy”. Introduced by an Indian-sounding vocal refrain, it’s characterised by a languid beat and morose melody fabricated out of synth stabs and the ghost of what appears to be a Native American flute.
Being radio friendly isn’t bad per se, only that if you’re trying to cross over to the mainstream at the risk of overturning your fan boat, the fish in that stream may not come in for the bait when pounded by bucketloads of similar bits of bread. In that case, you become simply MOR and that can’t be good for a producer who’s remixed Paul Weller.