[18 December 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
You remember “Cantaloop”, don’t you? You know, the signature track from UK one-hit-wonders US3? It’s the one that took samples from Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”, looped them, and added some hip-hop beats and rapping. The international smash was the commercial pinnacle of “acid jazz”. That was a long time ago—15 years to be exact. That San Diego’s DJ Greyboy released his debut album, Freestylin’, the same year is a reminder of exactly how long he has been around. It’s also a reminder of how instrumental he’s been in defining and refining the acid jazz/nu-jazz/“West Coast” sound.
Greyboy, neé Andreas Stevens, was the first artist signed to Cosa Mesa, California’s Ubiquity Records, a name that soon became synonymous with nu-soul, funk, and jazz. Now, to mark his parting ways with the label, comes the career retrospective 15 Years of West Coast Cool. Over the years, Greyboy tweaked, expanded, and contracted his sound. But the “cool” is consistent throughout. An admitted “less is more” type of arranger, Greyboy knows how to find a funky yet effortless groove and ride it out. He also has an ear for collaborators. This is the man, after all, who is the namesake of the seminal jazz/funk ensemble the Greyboy Allstars, his one-time backing band.
At 14 tracks, 15 Years of West Coast Cool represents every phase of Greyboy’s career. Cuts are culled from his four studio albums in addition to compilations and singles, and several remixes and previously-unreleased tracks get an outing as well. The sequencing is more or less chronological, which makes a lot of sense. Each of Greyboy’s albums has represented a different approach, and to jumble these up would be just plain confusing.
The sound Greyboy made his name with is fully evident in the first five tracks. Greyboy has claimed he originally intended to collaborate with vocalists and MCs, but couldn’t find any in his native San Diego, so he settled for jazz musicians. Sure enough, Greyboy Allstars co-founder Karl Denson adds his deep, sometimes scorching sax to several tracks. With its heavy, rolling hip-hop groove and sampled “All-right!”, “Unwind Your Mind” sets the template which scores of others would follow. The double-bass groove and flute melody of “Ruffneck” are even meaner, while the piano-anchored “Grey’s Groove” is an early indicator of Greyboy’s interest in Latin sounds and styles. Derek G’s percussive bass and Marc Antoine’s jazzy guitar chords and soloing make “Panacea” the smoothest of the representations of this first stage of Greyboy’s career. If the rhythm weren’t so tight and the playing so flat-out cool, the track could be cited for coming close to the line where acid jazz meets elevator music. Also, Denson’s and Harold Todd’s inspired, dynamic blowing ensure things stay on the up-and-up.
Once you’ve helped invent a genre, where do you go from there? That’s the question the remainder of 15 Years of West Coast Cool struggles with. The busy bossanova of “Mastered the Art”, a collaboration with Italian acid jazz innovator Nicola Conte, does away with the easygoing cool, and is one of the album’s weaker tracks for it. Also, the unwritten rule seems to be that every downtempo, jazzy electronica artist will eventually make a foray into hip-hop. To his credit, Greyboy did so a decade ago, and he acquits himself quite well. “Hold Your Weight”, featuring A.G. of Showbiz and A.G. fame, gets considerable drama out of a tight rhythm and a string loop, A.G.‘s flow making it all seem like butter. The choppy, bleepy remix of “Hold It Down”, featuring Muddie, is interesting only because it’s the least organic-sounding track on the album.
Where Greyboy really finds his second calling is in his collaboration with modern soul and pop vocalists. “Got to Be a Love”, with production input from Quantic and sassy vocals from nu-soul sensation Sharon Jones, is poppin’ in an old-school, King Floyd style. By comparison, the pair of collaborations with Californian indie-folkster Bart Davenport are a drag. The two new/unreleased tracks more than make up for that, though. “Love”, with Nino Moschella on sweet-as-sugar vocals, has become a blogsphere sensation, and rightly so. The steady, minimal groove recalls vintage Hi Records material, proving Greyboy hasn’t lost his knack for expressing more with less. Jeremy Ellis fronts the meaner, slightly psychedelic “Color Between the Lines”. Closer “Missin’ Something” couldn’t have been more accurately-titled. Veteran Shawn Lee lends a hand, but that doesn’t stop the track sounding like a late-period Santana outtake. Really.
Though they can’t help but sound a bit dated, the acid jazz tracks that established Greyboy are undoubtedly the heart of 15 Years of West Coast Cool. The rest is decidedly hit-and-miss, but you have to respect Greyboy for refusing to repeat himself. The post-Ubiquity stage of his career promises to be interesting. On the evidence here, John Legend or Craig David should be so lucky as to have him in the producer’s chair.