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Greyboy: Mastered the Art

Maurice Bottomley


Mastered the Art

Label: Ubiquity
US Release Date: 2001-05-27

All is well, Greyboy is back and dropping bombs. How does this sound -- phat basslines, deep jazzy vibraphone, MCs in full flight and snippets of Henry Mancini arrangements? No? Mexican guitar, breakbeats and scratching, ethereal flutes and Italian cinema orchestral strings? Still not hooked? Then the world of the original Californian acid jazz-beatmaster is not for you. Pity, because this is a triumphant return to his hip-hop roots for San Diego's Andreas Stephens. A feast of future-lounge plus old school beats and rhymes -- this set will hopefully win Greyboy a lot of new friends.

His long-term fan base will initially be suspicious of the ditching of most of the Acid Jazz trappings. They need not fret. Just as the jazz-dance scene has mutated into many genre defying forms in England so it has in its other bases -- be they Toronto, Japan or California. The jazz touches are still very much in evidence but cinema and hip-hop seem to be the current inspirational preferences. Given this, Greyboy has an advantage in that he started from hip-hop and switched to jazz and rare groove samples largely through being unable to find suitable MCs. Anyhow, he sounds very much on home ground throughout this fresh and lively record. What should please everybody is the leap forward in production values. Crisp and confident, this is as mellow as we expect the West Coast to be yet has more of a kick than recent work by Nobody or the Om/Mushroom Jazz crowd.

Ubiquity never release a really bad record from their various labels. However rather too much of their output has been of the OK and Interesting variety. Here they have their hands on something exceptional. From the two very different versions of the title track, by way of the impressionistic instrumental pieces to the relatively down-the-line rap cuts, everything here is in perfect shape. Sample plus live, acoustic-electric, organic-digital or whatever oxymoron is currently being used for this type of music -- Mastered the Art is by far the most consistently successful example to emerge this year.

Much of this is down to bringing the best out of a limited number of key artists. Dave Pike plays meaty, heavyweight vibes and keeps the jazz end of things in the frame. Multi-instrumentalist and Greyboy All Stars member Elgin Pike adds variety and class. MC Mainflo rides the beats with suitable fluidity and gives the record bite. Greyboy himself works turntables and samples with considerable technique and great inventiveness. All contribute to that rare but much sought after state where there is ambience aplenty but buckets of funkiness.

Pike excels on the title track and a gentle jazz-funker, "Bath Music". The latter is a chill-out compilers dream -- lush strings, and female voice underpin a fine work-out from the vibraphone. The bulk of the instrumentals are slightly spacier, cinematic affairs although the Spanish guitar led "Smokescreen" is exquisite and provides the album's other melodic highlight. "Hold It Down", "Uknowmylife", "Dealin' with the Archives" and "Ghetto Boogie" are the main hip-hop efforts. The last named has a real old fashioned bounce but the others fuse a free flowing vocal style over a dizzying array of sounds. The Easy Listening samples and a penchant for acoustic instruments ensure not too great a disparity with the non-vocal numbers but some bubbling bass and effective rapping add energy. All of these elements come together on "Mastered the Art" itself. A repeated rap chorus, chop-funk guitar, vibes and a whole heap of exotic sounds combine to make a tune that shows how hybrid stylings should be approached.This is an object lesson in the mix and match end of dance culture.

There is a bonus track -- the remix of the title track. It is rather more straightforwardly Latin-dance-jazz than the rest of the album and does not quite fit into the careful unity of the rest of the set. But guess what? It's really good. I will be amazed if this slightly housey bossa nova does not become a favourite with the right DJs. Icing on a very palatable cake. All in all if you like the mix of genres pushed by magazines like Straight No Chaser or people like Gilles Peterson and DJ Smash, if you value subtlety and imagination in your dance-based music, this is well worth checking out.

San Francisco is currently the source of some of the finest and the most creative contemporary dance music. Labels such as Naked Music, Om and Ubiquity are spoiling the soulful-jazz end of club culture. A criticism has been that the product is just too smooth and soporific. The balance here is, I assure you, perfectly poised between the relaxed and the robust. Greyboy was the first artist that Ubiquity signed and for some time their most well-known. He has now also proved himself their best acquisition musically. The title's boast is, for a change, not a vain one.

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