[18 November 2008]
Just the idea of Shawn Lee and Clutchy Hopkins collaborating is enough to make any fan of their solo work drool uncontrollably. Both of these oddballs have crafted some of the best hip-hop-influenced instrumental albums over the past few years. And to call them prolific would be an understatement. Hopkins has put out a pair of records since he first hit the scene and Lee seems to never stop recording. They both released albums this year: Hopkins’ Walking Backwards and Lee’s latest entry as the Ping Pong Orchestra called Miles of Styles.
Their fantastic output aside, both of them remain in the underground spotlight for their respective weirdo tendencies, especially Hopkins. His identity continues to be a mystery, though pictures have surfaced since his first album that he is an elderly man who sports an impressive gray beard. Some listeners contest that he is actually Madlib, DJ Shadow, or another super-producer. But right now, all that matters is that he has not wavered from crafting excellent jazz-hop instrumentals. That goes double for his album with Lee, titled Clutch of the Tiger. Although it isn’t as progressive as one might hope, it is still a fine representation of their talent. And it would certainly turn some heads at a wine or dinner party.
This album might be highly representative of their past efforts, but it is also indicative of a new direction for Hopkins and Lee. This is both of them at their oddest. Even when the tracks seem straightforward, a weird element will creep in and switch things up dramatically. Be it a guitar or flute, it somehow works its way in and takes over the entire track. Like “Bill Blows It”, which kicks off with a flute and then succumbs to a trumpet before the two instruments trade off who wants to steal the show. But, strangely, the most impressive element of the song is the guitar work, which grooves along with the bass. Similarly, the cleverly “Leon Me” has an interesting application of electric guitar that takes the smooth, lounge-ready song to another planet. Also, many tracks on here tend to feature a brooding, almost haunting organ that creeps around in the background. But “Two Steps Back” and “Bad Influence” are the most organ-ridden of them all. “Two Steps Back” is heavy on piano as well and it sounds like something you would hear on a haunted house soundtrack. For “Bad Influence”, Lee and Hopkins utilize industrial drums and wailing vocals to add more layers of fright.
Those tracks aside, though, there are plenty that fall in line with what you have heard from these eclectic men before. “Full Moon” and “Things Change” would fit right in on Hopkins’ Walking Backwards, with the latter carrying a heavy Middle Eastern vibe. Others, like “Dollar Short” and “When I Was Young”, share the same familiar influences, though they focus more on the percussion, particularly handshakers and hip-hop-esque drum beats. And it’s those drums that call on all those hip-hop references that Lee and Hopkins garner. Their music is more in the realm of jazz and world than boom-bap. But both of them are notorious for using live drums akin to the classic snares and bass drums heard throughout the hip-hop world of sampling. Other than that, though, these guys are clearly honing their craft outside of hip-hop—unless, of course, you actually think Hopkins was behind that bootleg that put MF DOOM bootlegs over Hopkins’ instrumentals.
While listening to this album, one other thing becomes devastatingly clear: This is what elevator could and should be. Hotel owners around the world, throwaway all that boring garbage you play through those awful speakers and throw some Clutch of the Tiger on instead. Your patrons will be very glad you did. But don’t blame me when they start having dance parties in there, though that’s a given considering some of the grooves on here. And by no means is that meant as a slight to Hopkins or Lee. It is merely a testament to the fact that their music should be played wherever and whenever for one and all to hear, even if they could stand to mix things up a bit.