Shawn Lee: Golden Age Against the Machine

The man who never met a genre he couldn't master tackle old-school hip-hop, delivering a solid effort that is more hits than misses.

Shawn Lee

Golden Age Against the Machine

Label: BBE
US Release Date: Import
UK Release Date: 2014-05-05

Shawn Lee is very much a musician's musician: He can do anything, and uses his talents to basically do anything. Making a video game soundtrack (Bully) that becomes iconic in its own right? Sure. Trans-global multi-genre jazz and lounge-affected tunes done by his "Ping Pong Orchestra"? He's got you covered. Maybe a throwback to classic soul tropes done with reverance and respect? That's pretty much his wheelhouse. Shawn Lee has never been the most commercially visible recording artist, but he really doesn't need to be -- as this, his collaborations with AM, Clutchy Hopkins, and too many other artists to name -- has allowed him not only a cult following, but enough flexibility to simply pursue whatever he wants.

Given that his multiple genre exercises aren't mere imitations as much as they are full-on embodiments, any new project he does comes with a great deal of interest from his fervent supporters. Thus, when it was announced that he was tackling an "old-school" style hip-hop record, a few eyebrows were raised but, for the most part, people couldn't wait to hear what the maestro who knows no bounds would come up with.

The horrendously-titled Golden Age Against the Machine basically lives up to the standards of a typical Shawn Lee record, in that it is very good. Heavy on instrumentals but with enough guest MCs to keep things lively, Golden Age isn't so much an out-and-out exploration as it is an interpretation, as a lot of Shawn Lee's sonic trademarks (reedy drum kits, frequent piano noodles dropped in for good measure) show up here in spades. Although Lee's discography is littered in numerous exercises in both classic funk and soul, he surprisingly shies away from the sample-heavy nature of late-'80s rap and instead aims Golden Age straight for early '90s rap production, a time where a lot of artists and DJs began focusing on creating their instrumentals in-house and without the aide of easy pop song choruses.

Case in point: "Hip Hop Harpe", which as you could imagine, uses a very lonely, almost DJ Shadow-esque harp sample as its base before adding in some boom-clap drums, a heavy bass synth, and enough random sounds and squiggles to make it feel warm and human, even as its tone practically begs any number of horrorcore aficionados to toss their own verses over it (our bet would be on Cage). "School House Funk" uses what sounds like a high school orchestra and horn section to create a thumping wall-of-sound banger that, surprisingly, sounds almost exactly like a leftover track by The Go! Team. The laid-back jazz-affected groove of "Big Bad Wolf", meanwhile, takes its simple groove and plays it out to its logical conclusion without a lot of significant variation, basically continuing that tradition of terrible songs with that same title.

Although there's a nice bit of diversity to the instrumentals, which, although interesting and groove-heavy, end up coming off as a bit dry, what really gives light and personality to this disc is the sheer number of guests MCs on here. "Baby Breakin'" with MC Shawny Shawn can almost be read a slowed-down version of "Rapper's Delight" complete with celebratory affectation and goofy lines like "I got more babies / Than a rat's got rabies!" The extra-dexterous Busdriver delivers yet another one of his tempo-shattering guest verses over one of the liveliest funk grooves on the entire album, and a finally-out-of-retirement Princess Superstar delivers a typically-wry topic song with "I Just Had a Baby", about how now that she has a baby, she should probably get some sort of award. By picking so many rappers with such already-distinct personalities, Golden Age's vocal tracks, for the most part, prove to be worth the price of admission alone.

Admittedly, Golden Age isn't without its share of flaws, as some of the MCs sound positively generic both in terms of flow and actual lyrical content (see: Lightheaded, Braille). Also, for an album that's so geared towards acknowledging the accomplishments of hip-hop's storied history, the use of rap as political firebrand winds up being one vastly overlooked aspects of Golden Age, as the only track that touches on more serious subject matter ("Ashes to Ashes", featuring a decent verse from Andy "the Undertaker" Cooper) comes off as a biographical story with only a few political mentions. If Shawn Lee wanted to created nothing but an old-school party album, there isn't anything wrong with that, but by even bringing in any sort of political bent with "Ashes", it feels more like he's tackling some potentially thought-provoking content with kid gloves, and his need to feature such a strong diversity of styles within a rap framework actually proves to work against him, making Golden Age sound more like the product of outright enthusiasm instead of steady focus.

Still, with its variety of sounds and solid track-for-track batting average, Golden Age Against the Machine proves to be yet another fascinating curiosity to Shawn Lee's epic discography, although far from anything close to his defining work. That kind of issue doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would stop Shawn Lee though; from all we know, he's probably just focusing on what genre he wants to conquer next.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.