Posts from 28th April 2000

28
Apr 00

DEAD PREZ – “I’m An African”; “Behind Enemy Lines”; “Be Healthy”

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DEAD PREZ – “I’m An African”; “Behind Enemy Lines”; “Be Healthy” (From the Let’s Get Free CD)
Tom was right to identify the harsh, stripped-down, drone-based “Hip Hop” as one of the few “undie” tracks where the production equals the integrity and high standards of the artist (though I’d still say Super Human Powers have an astonishing sound). Brilliant as it is, “Hip Hop” isn’t quite the highlight here – that’s the desperate rage of “I’m A African”. The excitement it brings on is that of a people trying against everything to rediscover themselves and articulate their roots to form a new identity, and it couldn’t be more poignantly meant. The first six tracks here – concluding with the mournful “Police State” and wickedly ELO-quoting, flute-driven “Behind Enemy Lines” – are exhilarating and as good as you’ll hear this year. The problem is that the rest of this album epitomises all the worst aspects of “undie” production values – from “Assassination” onwards syrupy female backing vocals become more and more present, “Mind Sex” has an irritatingly twee 70s-ish funk backing, and “Be Healthy” is a real nadir, with its rather offensively and crassly “rootsy” acoustic guitar sound. The sound gradually becomes more and more predictable – “The Message” is quoted (come on, we’ve heard that one too often) on “Psychology”, “Happiness” and “Animal in Man” positively boast how “real” they are with their ostentatiously “classic” flutes and orchestral backing … you can’t fault anything they’re saying, but you wish for a touch of Kool Keith’s irreverence and sense of fantasy … and as for the tedious 70s funk “jam” “You’ll Find A Way”, don’t get me started (although the second of the two unnamed bonus tracks is a partial return to the incredible early form). It seems that when they move from the grimly realistic “Today” side to the well-intentioned idealistic “Tomorrow” side, they regard it as an excuse to sugar-coat and sentimentalise their sound. Depressing.

If the only criteria for appreciating and evaluating pop music was how worthy it all was and how ideologically relevant it was to the problems faced by those creating the music concerned, then this would be the greatest hip-hop album for 10 years. But if I used those criteria and applied them to my political views in a UK context, Billy Bragg would be the best British songwriter of the last 20 years. There are many other elements involved – like modernity, apparent relevance, appreciation of the other elements that go together to create great pop music … and from Track 7 onwards, most of this album falls short. The verdict has to be: worthy and important but

KOOL KEITH – “Rockets on the Battlefield”;”Livin’ Astro”;”I Don’t Play”

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KOOL KEITH – “Rockets on the Battlefield”;”Livin’ Astro”;”I Don’t Play” (from the CD Black Elvis / Lost In Space)
Tom was right – Kool Keith is one of the great refusers of pop, the sort of figure we need for his utter rejection of all conceptions of “hipness”, his recognition of the weaknesses of whatever may surround him, be it the overt inarticulacy of “street” rap, its tendency to reduce its every expression to something completely beyond most human speech (but lacking the elation and escape of great post-articulate pop), or the “authentic”, “rootsy” excesses of the conscious element (of which more soon, sadly). The Prodigy connection that briefly pushed Keith into more widespread consciousness didn’t increase his sales the way it did for the Wu-Tang collective, probably because he was simply too beyond for the indie audience that picked up on “…Forever” at the precise moment the Clan’s consistency and credibility faltered.

These are three of the best moments from last year’s album, which I’ve discovered far too late. “Rockets in the Battlefield” has the best production anywhere here, an excess of radio interference and vicious digital screaming. “Livin’ Astro” is the best track of all – startling computer-game sounds over impossibly tight modern funk, Keith’s voice reaching an exact halfway point between aggression and enviable knowledge (“statues in the rock museum” is the most tantalising concept). “I Don’t Play” is the best conclusion imaginable, and Keith’s emceeing is the most confident and direct it is anywhere on the record. All are utterly removed from, somehow above, the wars that rage alongside them, and all the better for it. Whatever is important to know, this man knows it.