These days, it seems like rap incorporates throwback-to-the ’90s types, with their samples, brand new shell toe Adidas and borrowed lyrics, those crazy Southern crunk people, a bunch of uninteresting heirs to the bygone “bling-bling” era, and finally, the geeks who earned their street credibility at, of all places, band camp.
It’s not enough to just marry James Brown breaks with a hungry new R&B hook singer anymore. If you want to fit in these days, you better find a glossy producer who knows a thing or two about instruments. Not the kind you program, son, the type you can pick up and actually play. Blame it on the rise of the super producers and pseudo rock stars N.E.R.D., who after a quick performance on “Ellen” got giddy after modestly confessing to being ex-band members. (No one laughed, which they might’ve ten years ago; and some girl in the audience shrieked.)
So, now it’s seductive to know the difference between a real, live kick and snare versus a programmed drumbeat. Get ready, world, the classically trained trumpet-touting kids are about to be the next Big Thing.
Chops, a renowned underground producer with Mountain Brothers (the first Asian American hip-hop trio to sign with a major label) makes music as slick as the newly-hip Pharrell and Chad. He fell in love with music in grade school (and mastered various instruments with “the focus and discipline of his idol Bruce Lee”, according to the press release). He calls himself “The Magnificent Butcher”, which, when it comes to beautifully layered beats, he is. He also sounds suspiciously like a band camp case. Dubbed “The Chinese Truth” by Wu-Tang’s Raekwon and heralded by the likes of hip-hop heavyweights DJ Premier and Kanye West, Chops seems best known for using live instruments in lieu of sampling and producing truly creative, quality hip-hop. Though he released his first solo album Food for Naught last year to little acclaim, Good Vibe has billed Virtuosity as his debut.
And as his first official debut, this 26-track album is just about flawless. Well-known lyricists featured on Virtuosityinclude Chops, who’s as talented on the mic as he is behind the boards, Planet Asia, Mystic, Talib Kweli, Raekwon, and Bahamadia. The bridge between each song gives Chops a chance to show off his wares, blending jazz, funk and a tinge of Muzak with a touch of scratch, a little bit of bass and an occasional violin. Lyrically, this is a nod to the underground folks, but there are shout outs the mainstream crowd, too — even if the music is sometimes mismatched with a mediocre rapper. That’s an honest misstep for a guy who has played instruments for James Brown and Bob Dylan and produced for the likes of Mystic, Bahamadia, Grand Agent, and Princess Superstar. The music is guaranteed to be more compelling than some of the lackluster performances here, but you can still nod your head to the whole album without skipping a track, which saying a lot these days.
Chops’ advanced production skills are at their best on “Comin’ from the Lower Level”, featuring Phil the Agony, Ras Kass, and Talib Kweli, because it’s a perfect blend of a spare Wu-Tang sample, scratching, and a hot beat thumping under fanciful strings. Planet Asia’s “Niggarachi” adds a nonchalant narrative and commentary on materialism to a similarly unique track. Other noteworthy moments on Virtuosity include Raekwon’s swagger-worthy verses on “What’s F**kin’ Wit Us” over some guitar chords that sound straight out of the wild, wild west and Mystic’s “No Pressure” matches her mellow voice with an equally melodic and light instrumental.
As nice as the 11 brief interludes on the album sound, and as creative and downright pretty as some of the music is, there are a few mediocre songs that disrupt the superior flow of the best. But, hey, the whole cool and hip thing demands a few less-than-brilliant moments. Besides, all of Virtuosity is a better and more quality listen than most of the crap you’ve heard on mainstream radio, television, or even that one time at band camp.