Crate diggers know. They search for album covers the dull green shade of ripe Castelvetrano olives. The letters “KPM” are crammed in the top right corner in the sans-serif typeface equivalent of a mod lounge chair. A London address and telephone number fringe the bottom in a font you might squint to read if you want to inquire about purchasing “Piano Parchment” as theme music for your TV series adaptation of novels about veterinarians living in Yorkshire in the 1930s. Slotted between, say, a leather-fitted funk band fronting a spaceship and the technicolor splendor of a disco 12-inch, the utilitarian greensleeves of KPM records don’t catch the eye. Unless, of course, you’re a staunch record collector and/or true-school hip-hop DJ.
In which case you’re privy to the sonic flavors laden in these records. It might be a tuneless techno predecessor sloshing across stereo channels like drunken UFO cross signals. It might be a strings-doused summertime prance or the night’s last cigar. It might be a synthesized scream or a subaquatic cruise in a Cadillac with stained-glass windows. It might be the opening music to American Monday Night Football.
For decades, hip-hop producers have been looping, chopping, galvanizing, or cutting up samples from KPM’s sound library. KPM has embraced this, teaming up with the record label Def Pressé for the KPM Crate Diggers series, for which hip-hop producers are given free rein to sample anything and everything in the KPM archive and create albums built entirely from KPM library samples. The series will include upcoming releases from sure-shot producers Large Professor, Stro Elliot of the Roots, and Chris Dave of the Drumhedz. The first installment, Damu the Fudgemunk’s Conversation Peace, was released this September, and the second, Deca’s Source Material, releases this week, 19 November.
Formed in 1956, KPM was the quintessential sound library of incidental music composed for licensed use in film, radio, and television programming. Colloquially termed “library records”, the LPs that make up the KPM catalogue were recorded by session musicians on a work-for-hire basis. These records are sought after by DJs and hip-hop producers drawn to the assortment of sounds and styles, the warm analog sound quality, and their relative obscurity.
Damu the Fugemunk Time Travels
Earl Davis, aka Damu the Fudgemunk, is one such DJ/producer. Davis started DJing as a teenager in Washington D.C., spinning beats to rap on since nobody in his neighborhood knew how. He purchased his first sampler, the Boss SP-303 Dr. Sample, at age 17. Twenty years later, Davis is a prolific producer and multi-instrumentalist. He worked on Ocean Bridges (2020) with luminary jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp, and produced countless beats for MCs, including the late MF Doom, and instrumental beat tapes. Damu’s How It Should Sound series is especially potent. He remains an ardent crate digger, developing his ear and his record collection from which he pulls samples and inspiration.
It makes sense that Davis was deemed worthy of the keys to the KPM library. But he was surprised, and a tad suspicious, when he first received an email from KPM in August 2019. The proposition: Fly out to London, bring a sampler, spend a week immersed in the KPM archives, make an album.
“I thought they were B.S.ing,” Davis says. “I was like, ‘What are the odds?’ DJs and producers, we try to stay off the radar. So for KPM to hit me up, the first thing I’m thinking is, ‘Is this a setup?’ But it turned out to be legit.” He flew to KPM headquarters in London in January of 2020, where he spent a week surrounded by thousands of lookalike LPs tagged with sticky notes.
“They all have the same cover. So it’s not like you see a record and think, ‘Oh, that’s the one with a duck on the cover. This one has the truck….’ It was challenging, given that all the records looked identical. I used catalog numbers and my own cataloging system of [sticky] notes to keep track of things that caught my ear. I went through thousands of sounds. It took me almost a month to catalog and organize all the samples I gathered before I started working on the album.”
Going into the dig, Davis was acquainted with the bigger names in the KPM archive, composers like David Snell, Brian Bennett, Alan Hawkshaw, Keith Mansfield, and Duncan Lamont. He’s a fan but not a buff. For Davis, the initial appeal of the KPM Crate Diggers project was the sense of mystery and discovery, the adventure of listening through stacks of rare, forgotten, and barely heard sonic artifacts.
What emerged is an alternate history of popular music.
“It was really a travel in time,” Davis says. “[KPM] starts in the late ’50s going up into the ’60s when music was evolving at a very rapid pace. Everyone was inspired by everything at the time. The music of the 50s was more orchestral, or big band kind of swing-pop. Then you had the percussion era and the invention of stereo. The big band is now a rhythm section. Now you’ve got the mod and the 60s sound. There’s boogaloo. There’s rock. Now there are electric guitars and synthesizers.
“I’m literally listening to this evolution happen…. You can really see how technology influenced music, from the way things were recorded to the anatomy of the music and the ideas…. To go through all of [these records], you see not only the eras, the trends, the different sounds, but then just the textures in general.”
“Although the library is vast, it’s a reminder of how my brain is wired, as someone who buys records and DJs. I love a little bit of everything. If it’s good, if it moves me, I’m interested in that. So when I thought about making [Conversation Peace], and I had access to all of this music, I wanted to make sure it represented not only my taste but pretty much what was there.”
Conversation Peace opens with a cast-iron drum break lacquered in vibraphone chimes and a swell of strings ebbing in and out of the foreground, occasionally rising over Raw Poetic’s flow. “Goddamn it feels good with this hip-hop vibe,” Raw Poetic raps in a tone confident and composed amongst the surge of harmony. Damu chirp-scratches a snare hit, panning his turntablist flourish between channels. The song fades with a croaking horn, a reverb-shrouded piano melody, a sprinkling of vibraphone. There’s a whole lot of sound going on.
“I’m proud of Conversation Peace because it highlights a bit of everything, from the Moog and synthesized sounds to the orchestral sounds, the rock sounds, some of the sound effects, percussion sounds. I didn’t want to go in one particular direction. I wanted to highlight a little bit of everything I heard because so much was available and so much of it was good,” says Davis.
Conversation Peace lavishes in aural textures. The album’s rich palette suggests Damu approached this curatorial exercise by challenging himself to soak in as many sounds as possible without muddying the production. There’s a sensuousness of tone color that reveals a producer reveling in his source material. The album builds from the foundational tension of Damu locked in a literal library of sonic treasures, trying to keep his cool enough to make artful music that honors its source material without overbearing the listener.
On this front, he succeeds. What’s impressive about Conversation Peace is how the record balances so many rich instrumental flourishes without slipping into maximalism. Though clocking in at under 40-minutes, it’s a sonically ambitious record. This is best encapsulated by the final track, “Four Better or Worse”, which is split into four parts, each featuring a different MC, and ends with Damu singing over an ornate uptempo jazz voyage. The production is lush but nuanced. This is boom-bap hip-hop as a dimly-lit jazz club, complete with burgundy walls, amber bar lights, and an aura of urbane cool. The album posits that Damu’s job as a producer isn’t to get lost in the sounds of KPM’s archives but to guide his listeners through it. He gets down but keeps his head.