[16 October 2007]
It’s strange that these two artists have never formally worked together. They share all the same friends, work under the same broad umbrella of “underground” hip-hop and are both rap-label refugees, now under the UK based banner of Ninja Tune Records. Both have also just released the most unassuming records of their career– Blockhead’s is a fan-only limited edition, and Sixtoo’s is a track title-less hip-hop-dub noir mix.
In the liner notes for his debut solo record, Music for Cavelight, producer Blockhead bemoaned the recent attention that Kanye West was then receiving for, what many deemed, his innovative use of sped-up vocal samples. He was rightfully bitter; Blockhead has been producing (mainly with Def Jux rapper Aesop Rock) moody, sample-driven beats with, yes, lots of sped-up chipmunk sounding vocal samples since the early ‘90s. But his latest release, Uncle Tony’s Coloring Book is the biggest departure for Blockhead, because it doesn’t sound like something that should only be listened to after midnight. The vocal and soulful samples are still at the forefront, but instead of the catacomb-like darkness of Music for Cavelight or the urban-groove of Downtown Science, Uncle Tony’s Coloring Book is downright sprightly—even playful. As the artwork suggests, the album finds him working with brighter sounds, forgoing the “depressing shit” (as he puts it) to get his bounce on.
Released almost simultaneously with Aesop Rock’s latest release, None Shall Pass, Coloring Book is largely a companion piece to that record. Although self-released, and although only available for a limited time, Coloring Book doesn’t sound half-assed. As on his past releases, Blockhead is assisted by longtime collaborator Damien Paris on guitar. DJ Signify, who has similar underground hip-hop connections with Sage Francis and Buck 65, does guest scratching on a handful of tracks as well. Some of the tracks fall apart due to too many ideas—“Not So OK Corral” is disjointed, and many of the samples-as-choruses are too far-reaching, just barely matching the song’s melody.
Sixtoo on the other hand, eschews traditional pop melody for overall mood. One of those refreshingly frustrating artists, Sixtoo has been ever-slowly shedding his golden-age roots with sample-less and non-electronic beats. 2004’s Chewing on Glass & Other Miracle Cures was recorded entirely with live instrumentation. Jackals and Vipers is made up of reworked elements originally used in Sixtoo’s live sets. It is intended as a suite broken up into 13 movements, all untitled. Sixtoo’s strength has always been his percussion, and on Jackals the drums and bass are placed high in the mix, with his tape-edits sounding downright noirish with their dub-like reverb. Jackals’ greatest strength (or weakness) is its consistency—its ability to sink into the background.
The biggest difference between the two records is Blockhead’s over-reliance on vocal samples to structure his songs. Sixtoo is more indebted to the less pop-centered electronica and dub traditions of ebb and flow. Both records attempt to break from each artist’s usual typecasting: Blockhead as the vocal sample-driven sad sap, Sixtoo as the Sage Francis producer and sometimes MC. Thus, both are relative successes at being downright stubborn: the usually rap-happy Sixtoo won’t let a single MC grace Jackals and Vipers, and Blockhead at times seems hesitant at trying to sound so jubilant, but forces it anyway. Both records are nice, if unimportant, diversions for artists who are at least trying to ward off stagnation.
Sixtoo - Recording Jackals