Various Artists: Chrome Children

Various Artists
Chrome Children
Stones Throw

I don’t really know enough to say for certain, but if I had to guess, I would say that the indie hip-hop scene reached some sort of tipping point within the last couple years. Whereas the music was always present in some form, quite a few talented producers and MCs have come to the fore en masse in such a way as to give the impression of a unified movement, even if such a “movement” is really nothing more than the result of a lot of individual hard work paying off at roughly the same time. Peanut Butter Wolf’s Stones Throw Records is more or less at the epicenter of this movement, and Chrome Children is a consistently good sampling of some of the best music to be found anywhere across the spectrums of hip-hop and leftfield electronic music.

You will notice that I said “good” and not “great” — unfortunately, while there is a lot to recommend the disc, it suffers from the same illness as almost every compilation of this type ever released. Thankfully, there’s not a bad track to be found, but at the same time few rise to the level of excellence. That’s pretty much the definition of a label comp: you’ve got a few all-stars and a much larger B-team, competent backbenchers who can produce good work on their own, but who suffer from close proximity to obviously superior talent. The superior talent in this instance comes in the form of producers Madlib and the late J Dilla — in fact, although J Dilla only appears on four out of the 19 tracks, it’s safe to say that his memory permeates the entire disc. Madlib appears in some capacity on six tracks, two in collaboration with Dilla.

Like many musicians before him, Dilla has become far more widely known since his untimely death than at any point during his life. If any one sound can be said to encompass the disparate sounds currently gathered under the indie hip-hop banner, it’s his: polyglot, eclectic, grounded in a firm understanding of old-school beat mechanics, but otherwise as far-reaching and potentially incendiary as any other musician working today. Appropriately, Dilla’s “Nothing Like This” is the most out-there, mind expansive jam on the album: two-and-a-half minutes of booming toms, echoing prog-rock flourishes and synthesized cacophony. If you didn’t know it was ostensibly a hip-hop track, you might easily mistake it for a Chemical Brothers B-side, or, Dilla’s own vocals notwithstanding, a collaboration between Radiohead and DJ Premiere. It’s got a massiveness that could not be more at odds with the mainstream of contemporary hip-hop. It sounds like nothing else, and makes you regret the man’s untimely passing all the more.

Madlib runs a close second to Dilla in terms of his influence and reach. His collaboration with MF Doom under the Madvillain moniker is represented with a new track, “Monkey Suite” — hopefully implying that the Madvillain project will amount to more than just a one-off album. It’s appropriately off-kilter and spooky, like vintage RZA production seen through a fun-house mirror. Madlib showcases his, well, limited MC skills on “Take It Back”, over an appropriately dinky beat by Dilla. Dilla also gets to sing, sort-of, on the heavily-vocodered Jaylib track “No $ No Toke” (really, it’s so short it’s practically a skit).

But, as I said, once you get back past the contributions of these two behemoths, it’s hit and miss. Peanut Butter Wolf only appears once, with a frankly bizarre remix of Baron Zen’s “Turn Around” that skirts the realm of electro breaks, with weird vocals reminiscent of Pharcyde’s “Passing Me By”. I don’t know who Georgia Anne Muldrow is, but her brief track (“Simply A Joy”) is strong enough to have me ready to plunk down for a full LP — modern beat science meets old-school girl-group vocals, the kind of retro-futurist novelty that sticks in your head long after the novelty wears away. But there’s also stuff like MED’s “All I Know”, a perfectly passable indie rap that I will probably never feel the need to hear again. Instrumental funk by the likes of James Pants (“Do A Couple of Things”) and the latin-crazed Young Jazz Rebels (“Nino’s Deed”) make for interesting departures, but I don’t know if their respective sounds could support full-length releases.

The album comes with a DVD featuring excerpts from the Stones Throw label showcase at the 2006 SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Madvillain is in fine form, and the performance stands as a nice corrective to the image of live hip-hop as, well, horrible. Perhaps an intimate club with well-calibrated sound is simply a better showcase for the music than a crowded colosseum filled with screaming children waiting to see Fiddy perform a 20-minute set punctuated by gunshot sound effects. In any event, even though the DVD necessarily curtails Peanut Butter Wolf’s performance (for legal reasons), it’s still a pretty cool artifact. Much better as a bonus DVD than these things usually are.

Chrome Children was produced in conjunction with the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim brand. Thankfully, this release is bereft of the cartoon character skits that marred the otherwise excellent Danger Doom release (I like Adult Swim as much as the next guy, but I don’t think I needed to hear MF Doom rapping alongside Master Shake). One mild disappointment is that the animated video clips Adult Swim produced to accompany the album are not included on the DVD — probably held back for inclusion on a future release. Also, Danger Mouse, arguably the point man of the current indie hip-hop renaissance, is notably absent despite his affiliation with both Adult Swim and MF Doom … but I guess he can’t be everywhere.

If you’re devoted to J Dilla and / or Madlib, well, you’ve probably already got a copy of Chrome Children blasting out from your stereo. While you can’t quite escape the notion that these two producers carry a great deal of the appeal, there is no doubt that this is still an immensely appealing disc. It will most certainly linger in the memory longer than your average disposable label compilation.

RATING 6 / 10