Mike Ladd’s work over these last 25 years has extended far beyond the reaches of his home base of hip-hop. Never one to fully forgo his hip-hop roots–the very ones that have nourished his career as a trafficker of Dada-tronic poetry–Ladd has helped to expand the perimeters of his chosen genre through a bold reconfiguring of his influences. If, for example, Aceyalone sees the Juice Crew as the grounding platform for his too-cool-for-school hip-hop, then Ladd checks them as a structure to be demolished by the force of his Kandinsky-like hand.
Such a personal vision of creative prowess hasn’t always earned Ladd a favored rank among listeners. Less-discerning purists have accused the rapper/producer of working in margins that dangerously recede from a more unadulterated form of hip-hop. But Ladd has worked tirelessly to reimagine the constituents of any music he’s explored. His sophomore effort, 1999’s Welcome to the Afterfuture, stands as a seminal work of leftfield hip-hop, and his subsequent projects have seen him cutting swathes through jazz and various other music from around the globe.
It isn’t surprising, then, that the Boston-born France-based musician should try his hand at a more unalloyed version of electronica on his latest project, The Dead Can Rap, alongside producer Remi Rough. Ladd has experimented with electronic music in the past; a drum ‘n’ bass tune centerpiecing Afterfuture and later blueprinting the punktronica of 2004’s Nostalgialator. This time he indulges even further and, with producer Rough, pulls up a wealth of succulent groove, nudging the think tank of his polemic poetry onto the dancefloor.
“The production on this record was 99% Remi,” Ladd says. “[He] came out of hip-hop, but clearly Thom Yorke has been in his rotation for years.” Ladd speaks of the album’s Kid A-like electro-noodlings, which supply the many shadings to these 13 numbers. Rough has been known primarily as a visual artist, working as a street artist in the ‘80s and then later earning space in galleries worldwide. His venture into music extends to his days as a member of a band called Reptiles during the ‘90s.
“Remi and I met back in 1999 or 2000 in London,” Ladd recalls. “I would collaborate [with him] from time to time. Rem was primarily a visual artist based in graffiti but already branching out. He’s one of those guys who are driven, successful, and remain very caring and loyal to old friends. When he asked me to make a record, I’d have been a fool to say no. He’s really helped me to keep on the grind.”
The Dead Can Rap’s self-titled album spans a production that integrates various electronica styles, though the beating heart of the album pumps the true blood of hip-hop. Ladd is not unmindful of his origins; his street-talk is always rooted in the culture of the turntablist MC. On the electrified plod of “Annual Report”, Ladd’s rap creeps assassin-like toward a dangerous center of curlicued, synthesized funk. Rough’s London brogue, meanwhile, sidles into the number with insouciant calm. The groove is a rubbery, squelchy throb, generous and full. Other numbers invite guests of various renown.
“Remi got at Open Mike Eagle, and I’m very grateful for that,” Ladd says of the featuring rapper, who makes an appearance on the spare Blaxploitation funk of “Imitations”. “I’m a big fan and have been meaning to link with him through [rapper] Busdriver, but my little corner of life was so consuming, I never got to it. Luckily Remi did. I’m thankful to them both.”
Malik Ameer, an American rapper, poet, and literary editor based in France, guests on two tracks; the woozy, tongue-in-cheek strut of “My Little Pony” and the atmospheric, tabla-tapped “God on Opiates”. “Malik is another muse-god,” says Ladd. “When he showed up in Paris, he pulled me out of the strange creative place I was in just by being around. He and M. Sayyid from Anti-Pop Consortium are the two folks I see the most out here [in France]. Brain savers. Malik is also a phenomenal poet and brilliant editor.”
Electro-slams like “Bakelite” and “21st Century” keep the dancefloors full, but Ladd and Rough take a few interesting detours off the beaten path. Synth-bouncers like “Thirty Two Thou” make for uneasy but always intriguing listening. The album’s most alluring number is a slice of gothic darkwave called “Renaissance”, yet another stylistic exploit Ladd can tuck under his belt of many conquered genres.
Ladd’s raps are the humming conundrums they have always been; peculiar stanzas of Dada-speak that are born from hip-hop as much as they are the works of Modernist poets. He articulates his rhymes with a voice that sounds as though his words are carried by zephyrs. As usual, politics and the world-at-large are the matters troubling his mind. No room for love songs here. “The lyrics are a mix of what’s always going through my head – critiques and predictions of the present and the near future,” he explains before adding rather opaquely, “…combined with a celebration of the mundane.”