For all its reputation as an industry town, Los Angeles has long nurtured local and underground talent over the radio waves. Sure, we might be neck-deep in Clear Channel these days, but media monopolies aside, L.A. has given us everything from the old Greg Mack “Attack” mix shows on KDAY in the ’80s to the always entertaining Fantastic 4 on KPWR. And then there’s this li’l program called We Came From Beyond that’s been a part of the L.A. hip-hop scene for 15 years now.
Mike Nardone’s Beyond (Sunday 11 p.m.-2 a.m. on KXLU) has always been way out in front of hip-hop’s (r)evolutions, whether championing Cypress Hill before the stoners discovered them or helping break the Freestyle Fellowship out of South-Central. Nardone’s new We Came From Beyond Vol. 2 disc follows up on his 2001 compilation as a snapshot of the mercurial hip-hop underground, and this time he scores over a dozen exclusives from artists like the Visionaries, Medaphor and Aesop Rock.
Like almost every hip-hop compilation ever released, Beyond 2 is a mixed bag, but Nardone scores more hits than misses. Even so, J-Live’s “School’s In,” while an excellent song from this NY rapper, is an odd choice since it’s been released at least twice before. Wildchild’s “The Justice” is surprisingly cluttered, sounding like a cutting room reject from his better Secondary Protocol album, while Aloe Blacc’s “Not the One” is a forgettable generic memo on macking.
More enticing is Planet Asia and Kut Masta Kurt’s supercharged “Golden Age,” a quick-hitting flurry of beats and verses that’s one of the best songs either artist has released in ages. The unjustly overlooked Dr. Oop and his Black Love Crew get tweaked off the quirky funk of “Afro Joint,” while the East Coast’s Vast Aire takes the stage dramatically on the unsettling “Why Is the Sky Blue?” Beyond 2 balances moods as well as artists, offering up moments of humor such as J-Zone’s smack at freeloaders, “Chump Change,” or People Under the Stairs’ harrowing tale of romance, “Cholo Dad,” but the set gets serious with the subtle politics of Lifesavas/ Declaime’s soulful “Government Cheese” and Apani B. Fly MCs’ reflective meditation “Ain’t What You Thought.”
Of the fellow Angelenos on Beyond 2, the one conspicuously missing is Madlib, unquestionably the most prolific L.A. hip-hop artist of the last few years. This summer/fall alone, Madlib will be everywhere, producing albums with Detroit’s Jay Dee (known together as Jaylib) and New York’s MF Doom (Mad Villain), but right now he has Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note.
On paper, the collaboration between Madlib and the venerable jazz imprint makes instant sense. Madlib has already crafted a
sizable catalog with his neo-jazz Yesterday’s New Quintet, and Blue Note gains access to a new generation of music fans through Madlib’s large following. However, Blue Note already did this kind of thing — and arguably better — in 1996 with its remix project The New Groove. The concept was identical: Tap some of hip-hop’s best-known producers (Diamond D, Large Professor, Q-Tip, etc.) to dabble with a selection of Blue Note’s best-known songs.
Shades of Blue often matches the caliber of The New Groove, especially Madlib’s richly textured take on flutist Bobbi Humphrey’s “Please Set Me at Ease” or his disco fever remake of Donald Byrd’s “Stepping Into Tomorrow,” but much of the set is divided into two types of songs, neither particularly compelling. The first are YNQ covers, such as Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” or Reuben Wilson’s “Stormy,” and these suffer from sounding like every other YNQ track Madlib’s ever recorded. His repeated use of SP 1200 drum loops gives these tunes a funky but clunky feel, and his arrangements are competent but nowhere near virtuosic (not yet, at least).
If these don’t do enough, the other half does too much, as Madlib uses the original Blue Note tapes in remixes of masterful songs like Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew” (“Mystic Bounce”) and Monk Higgins’ “The Look of Slim” (“Slim’s Return”). Madlib usually leaves the original arrangements intact and then layers on looped drum tracks and a flurry of scratches, but this mostly detracts from how sublime the initial song was. For example, cutting in yells of “ho” and “rock the house” over Bobby Hutcherson’s mellow masterpiece “Montara” is a distraction, not an addition.
Like the vast bulk of jazz/hip-hop albums that come before it, Shades of Blue generally falls short in both genres. The ambition is admirable, but the uneven execution might leave fans feeling their own shades of blue.
MIKE NARDONE | We Came From Beyond 2 (Razor & Tie)
MADLIB | Shades of Blue | (Blue Note)