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The Detroit Experiment: self-titled

Duncan White

The Detroit Experiment

The Detroit Experiment

Label: Ropeadope
US Release Date: 2003-02-18
UK Release Date: 2003-03-17

The Detroit Experiment is a great idea; there can be no doubt about that. The premise is this: producer Aaron Luis Levinson and Ropeadope Records invite Detroit's finest jazz, soul and hip-hop musicians to an extended jamming session in the White Room studio in downtown Detroit, which should in some way capture the 'essence' of the city's music.

Ropeadope's greater intention is to 'Experiment' in every major US city -� The Philadelphia Experiemnt has already been successfully conducted. There is plenty of mileage in this ambitious scheme (although a UK equivalent wouldn't last long: The Coventry Experiment?) and Detroit seems an obvious choice after its massive recent exposure in 8 Mile. With a backdrop of Motown and soul and innovation in electronic music and hip-hop, Detroit is as famous for putting music on your car stereo as it is for making the car itself. So it is with reluctance that I must be forced to admit that the experiment doesn't quite work; the litmus paper didn't go blue.

Here is the sweeping manifesto: "This is not a record for those who like neat little boxes. This is a record for those who wonder what would happen if Miles Davis jammed with Radiohead and A Tribe Called Quest."

This is a lie. This is a record for those who wonder what would happen if some distinguished session musicians noodled about together and then had it all mixed by a pair of semi-obscure producers (Levinson is one, Detroit native and techno innovator Carl Craig the other).

There are flashes of unity, where everything comes together. Marcus Belgrave's trumpet is predictably perfect on "Space Odyssey", which has great rumbling hip-hop backdrop in its opening segment. Then it just deteriorates into straightforward jazz. The re-working of "Think Twice" is probably the most coherent track on the album, by turns accessible and challenging -� full of urgency and insidious rhythm. The unabashed funk of "Church" is another highlight �- invaluable if they ever try to make Starsky and Hutch Do Detroit.

It all goes wrong with "Revelation". It sounds like lift music. Regina Carter's violin solo grates with the over-luxuriant production. The result is unlistenable �- I'd probably end up hitting the lift alarm in a bid for mercy. The flute-driven "Midnight at the Twenty Grand" suffers from similar ailments, albeit not as chronic. Both tracks made my life appreciably worse.

There is a heavy jazz bias, doubtless due to the credentials of the jazz musicians that have agreed to take part, and their respective solos tend to dominate, rather than complement, tracks. There is a curious aversion to vocals, and when they do finally arrive on "Too High" they are preposterous, both lyrically and in delivery. Detroit's electronic music scene is relegated to the backdrop and there is too little diversity on a project with these kinds of ambitions.

Only "The Way We Make Music" gives hip-hop full rein, and then there seems to be no fusion with any other aspect of the Detroit sound. However, MC Invincible's rapping is tight and well supported by the Athletic Mic League. The choice to release this as a single is misleading though; nothing sounds remotely like it on the rest of the album.

The crux of the problem with the The Detorit Experiemnt is such. What you have is a collection of people who can play their instruments extremely well, are revered for their technical expertise, but are not fundamentally creative. Sure they have worked with a lot of creative people (Prince, Miles Davis, The Roots and, well, Seal) but they have always been executing someone else's ideas.

Therefore, the bulk of the responsibility ends up falling on Levinson and Craig, and one of them isn't even from Detroit. They seem to hold their musicians at a reverential distance and rather than trying to blend a distinct 'sound', opt instead for a collage. I'm sure musos will nod their heads wisely and find plenty to 'appreciate' in this collection. Musical dexterity will be admired, but, really, this is passionless, directionless music. Irrevocably less than the sum of its parts.

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