[12 February 2004]
Barely Breaking Even (BBE) sounds like a record label started by musical purists, archival nerds forever in pursuit of cullers with the right ear and dusty gems wrongly collecting cobwebs in some off-the-beaten-path collector’s shop. Although they’re not exclusively known for musical archeology, it certainly seems their forte. For people that dedicated to the hunt and thrill of discovery, I have nothing but the utmost of admiration. Given the current dull pack of hacks that populate urban format radio, it’s absolutely criminal that a flawed gem like this double-disc of previously unreleased Pete Rock concoctions was allowed to go unaired for so long.
But at one level, it’s not difficult to understand why these albums weren’t released. Pete Rock has no peer when it comes to the seamless graft and the spare pull of tightly cut samples with beats that boom through the basement of your speakers. Yet, without any stellar performance on the mic, the contrast in talent inevitably averages out the record. While INI (made up of Rob-O, Grap Luva, and Marco Polo) innocuously thread their rhymes through the tracks, there’s never really a moment when they seriously compete with the background. Though I guess if an emcee can’t hold their own against the beat, they may as well make their presence comfortably wallpapered. Throughout INI, I kept getting the feeling that I was at an impressive open mic night, where obvious rhymes were cobbled together on the fly and self-reflexive tangents followed to the point where they ceased to be worth listening to, but never quite shitty enough to dislike.
Hip-hop has come a long way since the early ‘90s, developing an awesome array of cadence, baffling intricacies of rhyme structure, a hyper-literary narrative sensibility, and even an avant garde movement that has challenged every sonic assumption and spun out into incredible experimental frontiers. Within that context, it’s difficult to judge INI fairly amongst their contemporaries since their shelved project left them out of the fray. Having said that, even with Pete Rock’s back propping, INI clearly underwhelm.
Where INI fails to carve out innovative rhyme territory, Rock more than compensates with his own deftly sculpted flow. “Fakin’ Jax” takes beat construction to the level of a natural science. With an echoing slice of horn that Rock blows in like dry ice fog, he builds a track around a bassline that’s a warm, fuzzy, tapped-out rhythm. The basslines on Lost and Found tend to sound like they’re coming from your downstairs neighbor’s stereo, muffled but deep, edgelessly climbing up from the bottom of the track with slinking ease. Rock is the Feng Shui master of DJs, with the lower reaches of his songs all soft water and the drum beats all snare and air. There’s virtually nothing sharp and nothing percussive that’s not thoroughly pillowed. “To Each His Own” perfectly displays Rock’s maximalized minimalism. On this track, the keyboard percolates up like a music box sinking in a lake, but with only a couple of notes that are toyed off each other. The sense of glide and presence that comes from such relatively simple meshes highlight the jazz blunted skill with which Rock seduces the listener using the sparest amount of bombast.
On the second album with Deda, the vocals fare even worse. Deda has the hint of a bur in his voice, a trait that allows him some territory amongst the beat, but it’s not a pleasing contrast. At this point, I simply amused myself by creating an imagined roster of collaborators who could have given that missing frosting that a truly amazing emcee can bring. It would be fascinating to hear this disc with people who could have seamlessly melded into the scheme, such as any member of Diggable Planets or Atmosphere. Even better, to hear someone tackle these beats who could act as a thorny foil in the haze, someone like Busdriver or Buck 65, who would actually go toe to toe in a king of the hill bout for ear time by building some friction.
Deda’s album did cause me to think about the way that Rock incorporates jazz into his music. With tracks like “Baby Pa” and “Blah Uno”, a few pings of pianos pebble through the track and build these gorgeous backdrops with just a few rain-dropped notes. Whereas much of jazz hip-hop, like Diggable Planets, bowed down to the point of submerging the hip-hop, Rock prefers the relationship in reverse. Rather than drop an entire jazz underbelly or record some kind of live instrumental, he siphons only the choicest of snippets, a note here or there that’s doubled back on itself or blown out like smoke over the beat. But it’s definitely the beat that his samples serve and not the other way around, which is perhaps what makes critics spill such fawning praise over a man who has made more of a claim stake than a hybrid.
But two discs of Pete Rock almost overkills in its velvety polish. I would recommend piecing it out like good European chocolate. The lounge looseness and the downtempo beats can come off as in need of a jagged edge that isn’t licked clean. The word elemental kept recurring as I listened to these CDs, with all of its implications of core and necessity, the way the word conjures up an unseen essence. With stratospheric drums and murky, watery bass, it’s hard not to see that the missing forge in this trinity is an emcee worthy of grounding it all. INI and Deda’s mediocre presence on Lost and Found knocks a few front teeth out of an otherwise gleaming grin of an album. Pete Rock was better served by 1991’s Petestrumentals, where the absence of emcees eliminated any wind drag on his incandescently talented craftsmanship.