Ocean Bridges opens with a spoken-word snippet relaying the need for rappers in the studio (and any musician, really) to occasionally “just shut up and listen” and let the music breathe.
For an album sold on three notable personalities representing different genres and generations – renowned 82-year-old jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp, producer/DJ Damu the Fudgemunk and MC Raw Poetic – this statement addresses the audience’s assumptions and accompanying skepticism towards collaborative records, assuring listeners this will not be a convoluted soundscape in which each artist’s signature takes precedence over the music’s natural progression.
Cross-genre collaborative albums can sell on gimmick value alone, but these musicians aren’t concerned with gimmicks. This is what Robert Christgau would call a “groove record” just as he deemed De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate, with its drawn-out instrumentals and contributions from saxophonist Maceo Parker, a groove record. Like Earl Monroe adapting his game to fit the playing style of Walt Frazier and the beloved early 1970s New York Knicks, Raw Poetic’s true-school verbal precision is restrained within these jazz excursions, adding a subtle flair that augments the music instead of straining it.
The record properly begins with a heart-racing bassline from Luke Stewart, which is overlayed by Damu scratching a heavy-panting sample before Raw Poetic’s vocals coalesce with the percussion section and Shepp’s saxophone scampers lightly through the song’s second half. Shepp sets down his instrument for the next track, “Professor Shepp’s Agenda 1”, an interlude lecture from the jazz great that acts as a thesis for the album:
A lot of our oral history has been lost because our educational system has failed us. The schools are in a terrible state right now, especially in the ghettos where black children are raised. In fact, there’s a kind of anti-academic feeling among black kids… Education has become a bad word, unfortunately, and I think in the coming election… Education will be an item that should be put on the table. Education should be available to everyone, and people shouldn’t have to pay to be educated, anymore than we pay for air or water…
Sheep is undertaking his role in his future of free education, offering the youth a record filled with messages meant to enlighten, delivered over sounds meant to enliven, and making a case for recognizing and respecting the spectrum of black American music. These are commendable intentions, though the record holds up regardless of whether or not listeners discern this purpose.
The penultimate track, “Searching Souls”, is the sonic equivalent of a bellflower blooming in slow motion, featuring a gorgeous supporting role from a vibraphone and possibly the crispiest sax tones Shepp lays down on the record. The downtempo “12 Hour Parking” is the most straightforward hip-hop track, presenting Raw Poetic a rich bass tone and steady backbeat to rap over. In contrast, on more uptempo numbers like “Moving Maps”, his flow slinks around and through the percussive flourishes instead of puncturing through the foundation. Damu offers some choice fader-flicking on “Aperture” and some scribbles and stabs on “Sugar Coat It”, proving the turntable a rhythmic instrument that, if artfully manipulated, can blend seamlessly into the palette of a seasoned jazz band.
And this is a jazz record, not a hip-hop record caked in jazz flavorings like Guru’s Jazzmatazz series. Listeners hoping for the latter will be surprised, maybe even disoriented, but not disappointed. Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term “crossover” doesn’t have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we’re headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.