[21 February 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If you have no clue as to whom UK bass legend Dobie is, chances are you aren’t into electronic and hip-hop. Even if you are, you might be forgiven for glazing over him entirely. You see, Dobie, whose real name is Anthony Campbell, is a guy who generally doesn’t usually step out onto his own and covet the limelight. He’s only released one bona-fide full-length album before now in the past 15 years, 1998’s The Sound of One Hand Clapping. (A reworked version of that record came out in 2004, and is categorized as a mutant cross between a remix and re-imagining of the original LP, rather being something comprised of new material.) Usually, Dobie is a guy who is content to sit behind a mixing desk and work on other people’s stuff. After notably being associated with Soul II Soul, he wound up producing London Posse and remixing the likes of Bjōrk, Tricky, Warren G, Neneh Cherry and Bomb the Bass. Not bad for a guy who started out in the ‘80s as a skateboarder and a photographer. Well, finally, after a couple of EPs released last year, Dobie is back into full-length territory with his new album, We Will Not Harm You.
It’s quite the eclectic record, one that purportedly sits in the hip-hop world, but literally incorporates everything but the kitchen sink. It’s said that this record brings in influences as diverse as techno, house, dub-step, Latin, two-step, jazz, soul and funk, but it’s usually very hard to tell these touchstones apart because Dobie slyly usually changes track mid-song and places layers upon layers of diverse elements into the mix. In fact, in an interview with MTV Hive last year, Dobie casually remarked, “I suppose it’s just me being brave enough to go where I wanna go, and not trying to follow what everyone else is doing. That was a big thing for me with this album. I was hearing what was going on out there and I was like, ‘I don’t really want to make a record that sounds like that.’ I didn’t want it to be a total grime record or a total house record. It’s just me doing me. In making this record, I haven’t really listened to a lot of music over the past year or so. I just went off of whatever came out of me at that time.” Indeed, We Will Not Harm You sounds exactly like a guy willing to go off on whatever tangent he desires. In fact, it’s often hard to pin-point what might be a sample used on the record, and what’s actually something that was played live in the studio.
However, for all of the oddity of the album, it does come with its peaks and valleys and is a somewhat flawed document. The bafflement occurs right in the first song, “The Beginning”, which starts out with dual voices intoning, “What is soul?” and “We will not harm you”, the latter becoming a mantra that is chanted throughout the remainder of the long-player. However, the spacey keyboard sounds feel as though they really belong on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, rather than a hip-hop release, so the record starts off a bit on the wrong foot. A little better is follow-up “Blip 124”, with its keyboard pings and heavy bass-heavy percussion. But the album doesn’t really pick up steam until the third track, “Stan Lee Is a Hero of Mine”, and we all know hip-hop loves comic books, right? (Please see the Wu-Tang Clan.) The piece starts out with a young girl giggling and laughing over a squelchy keyboard line, before entering in with the drum ‘n’ bass. A jazzy piano line eventually finds its way into the song, and it twists and turns in all sorts of directions, a pure labyrinth of sound. Then, “She Moans”, the album’s single, skitters wildly all over the place, with a paranoid Latin-style percussion starting out the piece, before a Radiohead-esque distorted keyboard line wanders in and slides around. It’s compelling: a musical journey that careens widely all over the map, before taking another turn into the dark and grime-infused sounds of some UK rap.
The album actually works best in the middle section, and, not surprisingly, some of the shortest songs on this 13-song record are found there. The two-minute “Then I Woke Up” reprises the young child’s laugh and “We will not harm you” lick, before dove-tailing into a dark hymn that sounds remotely industrial. It works as a bleak interstitial piece, culminating in a Jimi Hendrix-style guitar freak out. “Somewhere Over There”, another two minute-plus collage, takes a jazzy piano line and melancholy strings to create and craft a thing of raw beauty. However, the clutch of longer material in this section is generally strong, too. “The Chant” uses a female vocal and wraps around it a futuristic soundscape, and, overall, it feels like something that might be soundtracked in a low-budget horror movie – at least, initially. “Magenta” is a funky ditty with a deep bass keyboard lick providing much of the melody and rhythm, and sounds as though it was picked up on the dusty streets of Casablanca. “Crunch Factor No. 5” is another spaced out blippy keyboard workout with star-reaching drums, and while it isn’t entirely successful as it feels a little languid, you have to appreciate the reach of Dobie.
A problem with We Will Not Harm You is that, at times, Dobie seems to run out of highway, and just ends songs mid-stream, rather than building upon them and taking them to what might be a natural conclusion. It’s as though he’s throwing as many styles against the wall to see what stays there, but then doesn’t really know what to do with the mess (so to speak) he’s created. Still, the record is a fruitful journey through a real smorgasbord of musical influences, and there’s enough here to generally compel listeners. While We Will Not Harm You is a bit of a mixed bag in some respects, and a seemingly repetitive one at that at points, there’s just so much going on here that you have to really spend some time with the record just to pick it apart and make sense of the diverse elements that Dobie brings into play. However, it should provide those who like a little sonic adventure the answer to that seemingly Jeopardy-like question: Who is Dobie? With We Will Not Harm You, a record seemingly 15 years in the making, here’s your answer.