Takara Digital is a new, Japan-based record label releasing out of print and otherwise rare hip-hop. Takara was founded in 2016 by Yuzuru Kishi, and has already published albums from late greats including J Dilla and Big L, as well as still-kicking figures like Pete Rock and MF Doom. As of this writing, there are already 10 albums in the Takara catalog. One recent highlight is The Nineteen Ninety Eight Split EP, which is half the Speedknots and half N.Y. Confidential. Of the EP’s 16 tracks, four are instrumentals (my primary focus as a hip-hop listener). According to the brief accompanying liner note, the two halves of the EP were originally released separately. These are collectors’ items. On Discogs.com, the Speedknots vinyl has sold for as much as $300, and the N.Y. Confidential for close to two thirds of that amount. All the productions are seriously old-school, emphasizing instrumental samples, found sounds, and surface noise. A standout is the slow-paced, loose-limbed “Knotz Landin (Instrumental).” The vocal has a wacky delivery, part Beastie Boys, part Basehead. The instrumental is pure atmosphere, a little organ snippet on repeat above a rim-shot beat, some syncopation provided by what sounds like a broken speaker pushed past its comfort level. The whole thing has a slightly ominous, circus-after-midnight vibe.
Album originally posted at takaradigital.bandcamp.com. There doesn’t appear to be a website for Takara Digital, just the Bandcamp page.
Damu the Fudgemunk is a remarkable hip-hop producer, his cuts balancing 4/4 listenability with tasty confections of off-kilter grace beats and textural expressivity. Now the Redefinition Records label has collected 27 Damu cuts from the 2000s to create How It Should Sound Volume 1 & 2, a two-LP (and downloadable) collection. Much of the music predates Damu’s 2007 debut album, Travel at Your Own Pace. The earliest piece, “Gestation,” from 2003, puts a loping beat below melting horns and a low-slung bass guitar. Like DJ Premier, Damu favors jazz samples truncated for head-nodding loops. Listening to him at his best is to appreciate the malleability of the source material, both in its unintended reutilization and the way the transformations bear the imprint of the appropriating creator.
The SoundCloud account of Ghost, the beat master — that’s the account name: “Ghost, the beat master” — is fairly new. There have been four tracks posted in the last few weeks since it opened for business. It follows one account itself, and it has four followers so far. (It would have five, but SoundCloud limits you to 2,000 follows, and I’ve maxed out. Somehow I’ve managed 2,002, but it won’t budge further. I need to delete an account from my feed for every one I add. It’s a hassle. But SoundCloud has bigger problems these days than my streaming appetite.)
The tracks by Ghost are all beats, not beats in the generic sense, but beats in the sense that they’re intended for re-use, perhaps most expectantly by vocalists, but also to serve some alternate commercial purpose, like backing an advertisement, or providing some drama to a short bit of filmmaking. The tracks are solid. They come with tags distinguishing the genres (two “trap,”” one “Electronic EDM,” one “Hip-hop &rap”), but they’re of a piece. The downbeat is hit hard. The tempo is attractively slow. All of them could be considered, to varying degrees, instrumental hip-hop. Vocal utterances, largely non-verbal but occasionally slurred statements, are part of the mix, more texture than text. “Trap, set & match” is dirge-like, with gunfire and suttering digital snares. “Sample secundo” adds an arcade flair. “Process” layers in sludgy horns — think early DJ Premier — and enough voices to suggest a street scene. And, with a touch of Kanye West’s (and others’) favor for sped-up shrill melismas, “Bad BPM” plays with anthemic keyboard horns and drum trills. More genre-dedicated listeners will catch references lost on me, no doubt.
The account is very much a calling card, with an email address for potential transactions. “Trap, set & match” may be the highlight. It has silences the others avoid, and drops in samples as much for atmosphere as for rhythmic accent:
Classical Rmxs is as it sounds. The new Bstep collection, two dozen tracks total, is a beat-heavy selection of snippets of various classical-music pieces set to downtempo, hip-hop-informed metrics. Bstep is Ben Stepner, who previously took a favorite by proto-minimalist composer Morton Feldman, “Triadic Memories,” and rendered it into something loungey and soulful, and just a little bit funky. Often on Classical Rmxs, as in “Black Dragon,” the music’s vinyl context is as much a part of the end composition as is the music itself — the sway of the surface noise is on repeat, right along with the handful of purloined notes that serve as its core. “Strange Days” pulls from a full orchestra, a pixel bit of static serving as a percussive grace note. Not all the source audio is instrumental. On “Qigong” it appears to be choral sample, rendered spectral in its misty repetition. Nor are all the additions simply beats. On “Qigong” there’s a sudden, occasional, truly funky emphasis in the form of an r&b grunt. It’s quite a pleasure to get lost in the small segments that Stepner focuses on, tiny moments from long-form works turned, themselves, into voluminous chasms where beat machines run free.
The video’s reveal comes 33 seconds in. Up until that point the camera has been slowly gazing around traditional Kyoto, Japan: the vaulted roofs, the red gateways, the concrete structures, the sculptured foliage, the constructed waterways. The wide-angle, perfect geometry of the shots, and the slow motion in which they appear, at first have the feel of a video-game cutscene, but for all the perfection, this is real. This is Kyoto, in all its preserved beauty. The stroll is accompanied by a beat, the heady semi-swagger of solid instrumental hip-hop, the way instrumental hip-hop can be tinged with nostalgia. The nostalgia of instrumental hip-hop may often be for the very early 1990s, and the nostalgia of Kyoto may be for several centuries earlier, but they pair well. Hip-hop and Japan have a longstanding relationship, a sense of mutual regard, so the matchup makes sense. And then at 33 seconds, into view comes British producer Ally Mobbs, propped up on the edge of low wall, pounding gently if insistently on an MPC 500, the portable beat machine, his head bobbing. He’s as lost in the music as we are. The difference is, he’s making the music. We get barely five seconds before he disappears from view, the camera wandering back on its own way. At 51 seconds he appears again, and remains in view, until the very end (the video is 1:34 long, but the music is over at about 1:28). There is no sound besides the music, no footsteps or birds. The headspace of the music is the headspace of Mobbs himself, who’s performing the track — recording the track — live while the camera is filming.
• October 13, 2016: This day marks the start of the 250th weekly Disquiet Junto project.
• November 16, 2016: I'll be sharing the mic at Adobe Books in San Francisco with my fellow 33 1/3 author Evie Nagy for an evening hosted, from 7pm to 10pm, by Marc Kate (facebook.com).
• December 1, 2016: A likely speaking engagement. Details to come.
• December 13, 2016: This day marks the 20th anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• January 5, 2017: This day marks the 5th anniversary of the Disquiet Junto.
• Ongoing: The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.
• My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury, is now in its second printing. It can be purchased at amazon.com, among other places.