California’s Bay Area, which includes the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, is hopping with musical activity, but when it comes to hip-hop, the area doesn’t always get its due. The Bay Area has been home to prominent talents such as E-40, Digital Underground, Too Short, Zeph & Azeem, but when we’re talking about United States hip-hop geography, the spotlight goes elsewhere: New York, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles. Sometimes Texas gets a nod. Sometimes New Orleans and Chicago are mentioned. Big things have been brewing in Detroit lately. There’s California love in hip-hop, true enough, but there ought to be more discussion about the Bay.
Since we’re talking about things that are underrated, we should include the production work of one DJ Amp Live, perhaps best known in underground rap circles as the man behind the boards for Zion I, the duo of Amp Live and rapper Zumbi. Together, they’ve carved a niche for themselves, skillfully wielding what might appear, on the surface, to be a carefree aesthetic — but is actually a slick brand of thoughtful lyricism and futuristic production. Albums like 2005’s True & Livin’, 2006’s Heroes in the City of Dope (a collaboration with fellow Bay Area wordsmith The Grouch), and 2009′ The Take Over provide the proof of Amp Live’s creativity. The Take Over, in particular, was a solid example of the Oakland, California DJ’s knack for fusing disparate musical elements into something cohesive and greater than even the technique that makes it all work together. Not only does he do this within individual tracks, he can make it happen over the course of an album, which is difficult to plan and tougher to bring to fruition.
Outside of Zion I, Amp Live dedicated himself to remixing Radiohead’s In Rainbows. The resulting mix, Rainydayz, merged smart and snappy instrumentals with form fitting rhymes from Too Short, Zumbi, and Del the Funky Homosapien. One of the high points, “15 Steps”, received a drastic revamp, born again via Codany Holiday’s silky vocals and Amp Live’s intuitive watch as a bold and soulful R&B standout. He exercised similar influence over several tracks he liked from Why?’s Eskimo Snow.
To his credit, Amp Live is more than a beat maker. He usually creates soundscapes and aural adventures. The music tells a story, capable of either standing alone or supporting lyrics. His 2010 solo release, Murder at the Discotech, contains these hallmarks, but the musical story is less cohesive, more in tune with the diversity of the producer’s palette than with the intersections. While the title suggests a wanton musical assault on the dance floor, or perhaps a funk-freaky homage to Agatha Christie, the final product ends up being fractured, at times laborious.
The premise was supposed to be simple yet effective. Take a great producer (Amp Live) and let him roam slightly outside of the zone for which he’s known (hip-hop). Here, Amp Live features into the realm of dance and electronic rhythm. Murder at the Discotech doesn’t succeed in killing Amp Live’s rivals in the competition for club supremacy, but it does offer a suitable showcase for the DJ’s forays into new wave, electroclash, and techno.
At its most reaching and extravagant, Murder at the Discotech is the music of the machine, an attempt to find soul in the robotic, to inform the present with a glimpse of the future. That means squiggly synthesizers and wormy basslines, as well as all manner of whooshing, clicking, and buzzing. The compositions are further embellished by drums that crash, clang, boom, and penetrate. It is loud and whirring, stubbornly repetitive and clamoring, but also thematically scattered in a way that undermines any sense of narrative purpose. Just because you can craft an album with electronic flourishes and spectacles, while mixing in hip-hop and new wave, doesn’t mean you should do it.
Songs like the “Auto-tune-is-activated” track “Gary is a Robot” (featuring Trackademicks and Mr. Micro), which you might recognize from the DJ Hero videogame, and the Mickey Factz-assisted “Turn It Up” make a strong case for Discotech‘s robotic sensibilities, while Hot Right Now goes far in the right direction regarding hip-hop. Hot Right Now is a grand posse cut featuring left coast heavy hitters Dude Royal, the Grouch, Fashawn, Eligh, Bambu, Zumbi, and Chris Young. For the most part, this is as good as it gets in terms of subject matter and thematic unity, as each emcee presents some variation on the concept of “hotness”. It doesn’t help, though, that the opening three tracks — the intro, “Blast Off”, and “About to Blow” (with K. Flay) — basically operate as introductions so that the album doesn’t really take off until the aforementioned “Gary is a Robot”, the fourth track.
Beyond that, the best tracks are either instrumentals from Amp Live (“Chick Pop”, “Mad Man”) or, unexpectedly, new wave concoctions. The instrumentals are sufficiently quirky, boasting guitar licks, choice snippets of vocal samples, and epic momentum. “Chick Pop” is like a faster version of Eminem’s background in “Lose Yourself”. “Mad Man” is a foreboding slice of dystopia. The new wave tunes, “Money Back Guarantee” (featuring My First Earthquake’s Rebecca Bortman) and “Bravest Heart” (featuring Golda Supanova), are surprisingly catchy, even if they don’t fit the mold of the other tracks. You’d think, with a strong lineup of guests and a bounty of ideas, that Murder at the Discotech would be a sure-fire winner. As it turns out, a few of the inspired moments come from unlikely sources and from Amp Live’s total reliance on his musical acumen. This suggests possible projects for Amp Live, as in an entire Santigold-style new wave effort or a purely instrumental work. Either of these would remedy Murder at the Discotech‘s seemingly random tapestry, allowing Amp Live to fully explore his creativity with the type of focus these LPs would demand.