Saturday, February 11, 2017

Classic Elements (1998)

This is a bit of an unexpected project, a compilation of late-'90s hip-hop from the Pacific Northwest on the K label (I got the album just a few years ago in a grab bag purchase from K and later found it on Napster too). K is a worthy purveyor of regional music but has tended more toward white strains of punk mutating into grunge, with some leanings toward folk (Beck, Modest Mouse, and Built to Spill have all found homes there, along with label head Calvin Johnson's house band Beat Happening). There's some enjoyable fake funk from the Dub Narcotic Sound System, a Johnson side project, but not much in the way of hip-hop (at least, not in my grab bag). But I thought Classic Elements turned out to be one of the best albums of the 25 or whatever they sent me. I plugged the names of the 16 artists here into Wikipedia and got returns on only five, four of which are dubious: Blak (an artist who appears to be someone other than the one on this album), Nobody (again, likely not-to-be-confused), Ski (more confusion, probably not this artist), Source of Labor, and Soulstice (a popular name, though this act again appears to be something other than the two artists described). Well, what else could you expect from an album that's nearly 20 years old, and released on a regional / niche label outside of its specialty area? Hip-hop has turned out to be something like doo wop or punk-rock, infinitely branching out in dozens of directions simultaneously as the potential for money, fame, and/or self-realization drew artists by the thousands. What we have here, with a sort of uniformity of tone even though several different producers are involved, is an insulated muffled sound that feels encased in soundproofing with limits on the highs and a lot of wallowing around in the lows, which sets it rumbling through your head or room. The one act here I can learn anything about easily is Source of Labor (co-credited with Beyond Reality), whose front man was named Wordsayer (who "some credit with personally moving hip-hop out of Seattle's Central District and into the rest of the city"). The Source of Labor track, "Aunt Anna," features a brief speaking clip from someone's great-great-aunt Anna, from Alabama. The track appears to be about the business of making hip-hop myths and connecting them with American myths, a sort of early essay at Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott territories. My favorite (though it's close) is "A.N.I.T.A.," which bemoans "just another night in Tacoma alone" (so technically it should be "J.A.N.I.T.A."). I love the local reference, and can imagine the slick rainy streets that accompany the mood. Another winner when shuffle serves it up is "What's Ya Definition," as in, "what's ya definition of who-manity?" I love the tricky way it scans. If nothing here entirely soars, at least there's not a stinker in the bunch. The whole thing works as a beguiling late-night treat, a mood-setter and friendly vibe, with hooks, homely truth, and melody.

1 comment:

  1. Silas Blak put out this great single in 2015, "Cops On My Back." Looking up something ab him I noticed he appeared on this collection. There isn't much ab him online I could find, either, but he was noticed by The Stranger last year for one of their Genius Awards.