[30 November 2006]
Hip-hop was born in the streets, in the hard-knock life of American metropoli, where gang crime, poverty, violence, racism and exclusion were inspiration for what has since branched out into everything from bling bling luxury tales to awkward beats concocted by bespectacled white guys with a near-invalidating geeky appreciation for obscure musical heritage. So where does the fascination with space come from? It goes further back than rap, to the roots of hip-hop in jazz, funk and soul. Sun Ra spent the better part of his strange career ranting, musically and lyrically, about spaceways and celestial orbs, and even proclaimed that “Space is the place” on his perhaps most accessible record. George Clinton deployed funky black “space aliens” from his Mothership. As of late, Blackalicious man Gift of Gab’s Fourth Dimensional Rocket Ship… album carried space connotations, although Gab has said that the title was a reference to meditation.
At the risk of generalizing, this space obsession seems a hallmark of black music, with the very notable exception of the Beastie Boys’ robotic “Intergalactic” extravaganza, which nevertheless was more slanted toward space-age technology on earth and Japanese sci-fi monsters than anything beyond the ozone layer. Maybe escape from harsh realities is half the explanation. In another facet of this, the space reference could be a symptom of how the world is becomingly increasingly weird, with the oddity of space becoming less and less challenging by
But the other half of the explanation is pure and simple imagery, rhyme and ambition to soar to new heights, something immediately clear as DJ Spinna’s Intergalactic Soul opens with the words “From solar system to solar system / ready to blast off again.” If you think you’ve rocked the earth to its utmost, what is the next frontier? Space, of course.
This is where DJ Spinna ambitiously hosts the cruise, conjuring up the image of an airline-style shuttle racing towards the moon, artificial gravity engaged, with an excitable gathering of hip hop and soul musicians and vocalists partying. Spinna provides the beats and
each guest steps up to the live karaoke-party plate.
Spinna’s productions are actually at their best when the “space elements” are prominent—sounds that can vaguely be associated with those we imagine hearing in a sci-fi space ship with flashing colorful diodes. Space itself, of course, has no sound. The title track sets the bar high, with Phonte making it a 50/50 joint effort, the duo letting the track bask in the trademark late-afternoon-sun-kissed understated synth collage that was also beautfully evident on the Little Brother man’s Foreign Exchange collaboration with Nicolay. Spinna gets quintessentially Kraftwerky with the vocoder-kitch of “Computer Love”. “Outta Time” has the Free Radikalz building bridges between Prince and Sa-Ra Creative Partners, like a missing link of sorts, with the same indie-tingled irreverence and raspy chorus vocals. Stephanie McKay shows herself as a real rising star with the best vocal performance and a unique warm voice that never fails in its sharpness, excellently underpinned by a rolling bassline and quirky winged electronic sounds on “Peace and Quiet”. Heavy joins Spinna beautifully on something close to broken beat on “We Can Change This World”.
All this accounts for roughly a third of Intergalactic Soul, with the rest of the songs soaked in full-bodied linear soul or upbeat and warm house rhythms. It’s mostly good, but never as mercurially titillating and interesting as the more spacey songs. Philly favorite Eric Roberson sounds almost like Stevie Wonder on “Butterfly Girl”. The pop house of “Show Us How You Fly” with Tortured Soul can’t help conjuring up images of Moodyman protégé Andrés fused with George Michael, a singer whom Spinna has of course remixed before. N’Dea Davenport perhaps brings in a little too much of the Brand New Heavies tone, rather bland by today’s standards, on “Where Is Your Love?”
Beyond all the space talk, this is DJ Spinna’s first complete and coherent album, working well as a suite and a voyage, with predictable highs and lows. Spinna’s only weakness is that he perhaps casts his net too wide and struggles with the span. He excels in the intricate space-sound frivolousness and can pull off a delicious house track any day but the middle ground succumbs to bland soul. But the good tracks here are definitely good enough to go for. I wonder what would happen if we put Spinna in low gravity and watched the air pressure mess with his head. This producer is obviously at his best when his experimental and daring side is let loose.