It has long been standard operating procedure for 12″ versions of singles to include both the instrumental (which is to say, vocal-free) and vocal (which is to say, instrumental-free) edits of the title track. The rapper Jay-Z made the vocals off his entire Black Album available sans backing tracks, and deserves credit as a result for midwifing the cut’n’paste magic of DJ Danger Mouse’s infamous Grey Album. Not to diminish Mouse’s achievement, but Jay-Z’s open-source beneficence did free Mouse up to focus on constructing a bed of sound from the Beatles’ White Album.
Just about every hip-hop 12″ offers both “a cappella” and “instrumental” versions, from Eminem’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” (which is fairly lackluster without his Gollum-like emotional switcheroos) to Public Enemy’s underappreciated “Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need” (which, in its vocal-free form, works toward a rewardingly chaotic close). Acts including De La Soul and Deltron 3030 have released some of their entire albums in vocal-free versions, making for fine instrumental hip-hop. At a time when the beats of producers Timbaland and the Neptunes are routinely as recognizable as the voices of the singers who float atop them, it’s surprising that collections of their raw tracks aren’t readily made available in commercial form. A CD full of Neptunes productions, minus the singers? Now that’s what I’d call Behind the Music.
In any case, more than one-upping those readily available 12″ B-side treats are the occasional opportunities to download all the individual constituent parts of a given song — not just the vocal and the backing tracks, but each separate looped snippet: say, the drum track, the bass line, the piano, etc. This is exactly what Skalpel, the Wroclaw, Poland-based production duo, has done for “Break In,” off its recent self-titled Ninja Tune Records album. Skalpel, true to its name, has segmented “Break In,” a jazz-fusion electronica song, into 27 individual pieces, a veritable home-studio erector set. It’s part of a contest they’re running (details here), asking fans to produce remixes of the track. The due date is April 23, 2004, so get your laptop fired up. (The prize is a trip to Warsaw, though the details appear to limit the offer to intra-European travel. A winner living in Duluth or Kyoto may incur overseas travel as an out-of-pocket expense.)
The 27 “Break In” parts range from a half dozen drum tracks, to bits of string, piano and bass playing. (They’re all in “wav” format, which most MP3 players can handle.) Tellingly, the longest track by far is a 47-second segment named “ambient,” a bed of jazz-ensemble haze (and which makes good listening all on its lonesome). The track next closest in length is less than half that, a funhouse assemblage of reverb-enhanced vocals, like a sound check at Disney’s Haunted Mansion. Seven of the “Break In” tracks are so short that they’ll register as 0:00 on most MP3 players, but they’ll still play properly.
Oddly, one bit is missing from the “Break In” sample hoard: the intro vocal that intones, on the Skalpel record, “Hello everyone, I’d like to take you on an imaginary trip. … Pretend you can see everything happening in your mind.” Anyhow, fans of Skalpel who listen to the remix-ready sample wav files will gain a deeper appreciation for the duo’s skills. To hear the original version, check out the stream on the album’s webpage on the Ninja Tune Records site, here.