[24 July 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Shawn Lee is very much a musician’s musician: He can do anything, and uses his talents to basically do anything. Making a video game soundtrack (Bully) that becomes iconic in its own right? Sure. Trans-global multi-genre jazz and lounge-affected tunes done by his “Ping Pong Orchestra”? He’s got you covered. Maybe a throwback to classic soul tropes done with reverance and respect? That’s pretty much his wheelhouse. Shawn Lee has never been the most commercially visible recording artist, but he really doesn’t need to be—as this, his collaborations with AM, Clutchy Hopkins, and too many other artists to name—has allowed him not only a cult following, but enough flexibility to simply pursue whatever he wants.
Given that his multiple genre exercises aren’t mere imitations as much as they are full-on embodiments, any new project he does comes with a great deal of interest from his fervent supporters. Thus, when it was announced that he was tackling an “old-school” style hip-hop record, a few eyebrows were raised but, for the most part, people couldn’t wait to hear what the maestro who knows no bounds would come up with.
The horrendously-titled Golden Age Against the Machine basically lives up to the standards of a typical Shawn Lee record, in that it is very good. Heavy on instrumentals but with enough guest MCs to keep things lively, Golden Age isn’t so much an out-and-out exploration as it is an interpretation, as a lot of Shawn Lee’s sonic trademarks (reedy drum kits, frequent piano noodles dropped in for good measure) show up here in spades. Although Lee’s discography is littered in numerous exercises in both classic funk and soul, he surprisingly shies away from the sample-heavy nature of late-‘80s rap and instead aims Golden Age straight for early ‘90s rap production, a time where a lot of artists and DJs began focusing on creating their instrumentals in-house and without the aide of easy pop song choruses.
Case in point: “Hip Hop Harpe”, which as you could imagine, uses a very lonely, almost DJ Shadow-esque harp sample as its base before adding in some boom-clap drums, a heavy bass synth, and enough random sounds and squiggles to make it feel warm and human, even as its tone practically begs any number of horrorcore aficionados to toss their own verses over it (our bet would be on Cage). “School House Funk” uses what sounds like a high school orchestra and horn section to create a thumping wall-of-sound banger that, surprisingly, sounds almost exactly like a leftover track by The Go! Team. The laid-back jazz-affected groove of “Big Bad Wolf”, meanwhile, takes its simple groove and plays it out to its logical conclusion without a lot of significant variation, basically continuing that tradition of terrible songs with that same title.
Although there’s a nice bit of diversity to the instrumentals, which, although interesting and groove-heavy, end up coming off as a bit dry, what really gives light and personality to this disc is the sheer number of guests MCs on here. “Baby Breakin’” with MC Shawny Shawn can almost be read a slowed-down version of “Rapper’s Delight” complete with celebratory affectation and goofy lines like “I got more babies / Than a rat’s got rabies!” The extra-dexterous Busdriver delivers yet another one of his tempo-shattering guest verses over one of the liveliest funk grooves on the entire album, and a finally-out-of-retirement Princess Superstar delivers a typically-wry topic song with “I Just Had a Baby”, about how now that she has a baby, she should probably get some sort of award. By picking so many rappers with such already-distinct personalities, Golden Age‘s vocal tracks, for the most part, prove to be worth the price of admission alone.
Admittedly, Golden Age isn’t without its share of flaws, as some of the MCs sound positively generic both in terms of flow and actual lyrical content (see: Lightheaded, Braille). Also, for an album that’s so geared towards acknowledging the accomplishments of hip-hop’s storied history, the use of rap as political firebrand winds up being one vastly overlooked aspects of Golden Age, as the only track that touches on more serious subject matter (“Ashes to Ashes”, featuring a decent verse from Andy “the Undertaker” Cooper) comes off as a biographical story with only a few political mentions. If Shawn Lee wanted to created nothing but an old-school party album, there isn’t anything wrong with that, but by even bringing in any sort of political bent with “Ashes”, it feels more like he’s tackling some potentially thought-provoking content with kid gloves, and his need to feature such a strong diversity of styles within a rap framework actually proves to work against him, making Golden Age sound more like the product of outright enthusiasm instead of steady focus.
Still, with its variety of sounds and solid track-for-track batting average, Golden Age Against the Machine proves to be yet another fascinating curiosity to Shawn Lee’s epic discography, although far from anything close to his defining work. That kind of issue doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would stop Shawn Lee though; from all we know, he’s probably just focusing on what genre he wants to conquer next.