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PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

El Jefe: El Jefe’s Amorphous Phormula

El Jefe
El Jefe's Amorphous Phormula

Rock and hip-hop have not thus far been the best of bedfellows, even ignoring the (now thankfully subsided) wave of nu-metal that filled the charts with music whose raw instrumental power was as undeniable as its repetitive, simplistic nature and knucklehead lyricism. You could lay the blame for this at various doorsteps: the differing backgrounds and interests of the artists, for example, to say nothing of the genres themselves. Or there’s the emphasis on the rhythms of the vocals in hip-hop, standing out from the backing and contrasting as much they complement it, whereas rock generally focuses on the melodic lines and seeks to blend the singer and the instrumentation as a homogenous whole.

Of course, there’s also the sad tendency of the respective fan bases to regard each others’ genre as not “real” music, although this has slackened off lately as hip-hop devoured radio-play and the charts, its domination bringing with it eventual exposure to lesser known hip-hop artists and hence a more intelligent, comprehensive take on the culture; whilst on the flipside MTV-centrism brings with it a certain acceptance of the white mainstream, leading to, amongst other things, Coldplay being both sampled and quoted on Brandy’s new album. Of course, there will always be idiots in denial, but then I’ll always need a group of music fans to vent frustration at (take note Slim: 12-year-old girls are too easy a target), so I guess we can just agree to not get along.

The only band really straddling the divide are The Roots, whom El Jefe predictably cite as influences, and even they, titans though they are, don’t always pull it off. Why anyone would prefer “The Seed 2.0” over Cody ChestnuTT’s much more organic, intimate original is beyond me. And this is important, because whilst El Jefe draw with some success from both rock and hip-hop (along with reggae, ska and dub), they critically lack the instrumental drive and the lyrical ability to embody the true strengths of either, coming off as both distant and musically vague.

It’s a fairly hard harsh to a collective featuring 3 MCs (half the band’s number) for me to state that my favourite track is the instrumental “Interlude”, which — to add insult to injury — is only about two and a half minutes long. But let’s focus on what they do well here because the musical backing doesn’t vary much in mood throughout the album. There’s an atmosphere of dark dubby expansiveness, with pretty guitar ripples and fine if unspectacular horn playing, anchored by some crisp simple drumming that lets everything breathe. It’s not rocket science, but it is sensual; I could see Chino putting in a “Digital Bath”-style performance here. Apart from “Nature’s Signs”, which tries to nu-metallise an Ozomatli-esque theme and doesn’t really convince, the tracks are all of similar quality; unarresting but seductive soundtracks to rain-lashed nights.

What they are not, on the other hand, are great hip-hop tracks; apart from anything else, they are based around drumming, not beats (if you don’t understand the difference, go and listen to funk and then an RJD2, Nu-Mark or Shadow composition) and tend to drift rather than propel, which would be ok for a couple of tracks but palls over the album as a whole, especially as the MCs here have nothing like the vocal presence required to power or beguile by themselves. By far the worst is MC Daryl, also the band’s horn player, who sounds like a highschool jock attempting to imitate Chali 2Na’s “monsta voice” in order to impress a younger sibling. He really can’t flow, and hence chops up his lyrics into miserably agrammatical chunks: “…and while mostly do it for we/also in it for y’all/and for the haul/and fact that others accept us humbles/makes giants feel small/also beckons the call…” No.

Remaining MCs Nomad and The Wiz are better, and together they do cook up some interesting, deeply considered lyrics and concepts, such as the internal vs. external philosophising of “1/2 Self 1/2 Expression” and the highly graphic trips on various drugs that comprise “Mushroombeat”. However, they also take themselves terribly seriously and tend to come off as grumpily pretentious lecturers rather than righteous, impassioned poets, as perhaps best evidenced on the bewildering and annoying “Nightmare on Cesar Chavez” trilogy. Quite frankly, El Jefe need to either go entirely instrumental, which might seem a shame but would probably produce some superb late night music, or put some serious propulsion into their backing and focus on what “rocking” the building (not to mention the mic) means in hip-hop terms. Either way, Daryl’s horn should remain firmly stuck in his trap, but for the moment this remains an indecisive sprawl that irritates more than it promises.