Alan Marman probably didn’t intend to be the invisible man of hip-hop; it’s just a symptom of a production style that has focused on shedding modern hip-hop of its pop leanings. As the Alchemist, his resume reads like a who’s who of East Coast hip-hop, with his bruising Bronx beats filling in the deep album track positions for greats like Nas, Guru, Mobb Deep, Kool G Rap and Big Pun. Still, despite his best efforts – solo records decorated with thuggish images of himself, his name spread across in large, imposing lettering, for example – appropriate recognition has eluded him. Fine hip-hop connoisseurs may give Alc his respect, but most still couldn’t pick him out of a crowd.
Generally a producer stepping out from the small print of inner booklets to the front-and-centre spotlight is a shaky prospect. For the likes of the Neptunes and Timbaland – whose era-defining beats made superstars of so many – the lure of making the move from behind the mixing desk to try to achieve the kind of recognition they had gifted on so many lesser talents was probably the primary motivation for the muddled, famous-friend-featuring compilations Clones, in Pharell’s case, and Shock Therapy in Tim’s. But at the other end of the spectrum, you have a selection box of bite-sized beats like Donuts, perhaps the most lauded solo release of J Dilla’s sparkling career. This form has become an increasingly tempting option from hip-hop producers, and it’s the category that lays claim to Russian Roulette, a gap-less 40 minute run of short instrumentals spliced together with movie quotes, TV spots and the occasional rap verse.
A concept record, Russian Roulette draws its samples and sound bites from various Russian-themed sources, with a particular affinity for how the old Soviet Union was portrayed in American pop culture (there are several nods to Ivan Drago, Rocky’s mountainous Soviet nemesis in Rocky IV). While driven primarily by these samples, the record is not a scratchy, Dilla-esque dig through dollar bin vinyl. Production actually remains relatively clean throughout, and while it’s a concept record at heart, rarely do the Russian samples equate to what you’d expect. Traditional Russian folk music is occasionally drawn upon, but for the most part, the album is a glammy freakout through what resembers Moroder electronica, Saturday morning cartoon themes, 8-bit scores, smoky blues guitar and RZA-like kung-fu movie instrumentation. A good example of this funhouse of different flavours is “Training Montage – Getting Stronger”, where Joan River’s famous interview with Rocky IV star Dolph Lundgren is undercut with twinkling keys, snappy drum machines, chipmunk soul loops and dramatic instrumental breakdowns. In fact, there’s too little repetition to truly call these ‘beats’. Instead, Marman stuffs so many sonic tricks, grooves, dead ends and surprises into every track that the orchestration is constantly chopping and changing, keeping listeners constantly on their toes.
Unlike his previous solo records, Alc doesn’t make the move from mixing desk to mic (like so many of the great producers, Marman is a willing but flawed MC), but there are guest rappers dotted throughout. Rather than recruit his more famous collaborators, he turns to a series of emerging MCs, only the best of which make a real impact. Action Bronson’s loose style runs free on the sombre sci-fi harmony “Decisions Over Veal Orloff”, while the always hot Danny Brown brings some real energy to “Flight Confirmation”. But guys like Fashawn, Evidence and Big Twins somewhat succumb to Alc’s audio onslaught, belittled by these loaded tracks.
The majority of the album doesn’t contain lyrics, so subject matter is scant. Voices are just another instrument for the Alchemist to add to his mad concoction of sounds, as he cuts, chops and skewers his way through 40 minutes of concentrated hip-hop harmonies. Whatever his intentions for the project and his vision of himself in the wider rap world, for this wizard, Russian Roulette turns out to be less about stepping out from behind the velvet curtain, and more about the magic he can weave from behind it.