A funny thing happened to mainstream hip-hop on indie hip-hop's way to the mainstream: It became the new indie rock. Frustrated with the underground's dogged insistence on rhymes and substance and all things anti-bling-bling, the pasty soundboys in T-shirts and wallet chains who have for years fetishized Steve Albini's razor's-edge guitars and Dave Fridmann's cloud-nine new-school psychedelia have turned to the top of the hip-hop charts for sonics that make them go "uhh." Makes sense: With the indie pack's puritanical polemics necessarily holding them back from big-dollar productions, where's a gearhead to go but the moneyed playfields of Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, the Neptunes and Irv Gotti?
Detroit playa Jay Dee knows this; that's why he's gone full-length with the first installment of English label BBE's The Beat Generation series, a set of albums from marquee-name knob-twiddlers that will purportedly feature discs from Pete Rock, Jazzy Jeff, James Poyser and King Britt, among others. Jay's not the first producer to do the album thing: Timbaland's released an album under his own name and two with wack MC/childhood pal Magoo, and King Britt's just issued the second part of his blast-from-the-past trilogy of high-concept mix-tape fairy tales. But that hasn't stopped him from assembling 40 minutes' worth of the organic, spliff-stoked bump 'n' grind he's brought to recent joints (get it?) by Common, Erykah Badu, Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes.
Good thing, too. Jay's made his name crafting starkly minimalist tracks built from little more than rubbery bass, cracking snare reports and buttery electric piano (his remix of Macy Gray's "I Try" is an exquisite study in restraint), and on Welcome 2 Detroit he's not afraid to give a little to get a lot. "Think Twice," his reworking of bop trumpeter Donald Byrd's tune, is his moment to shine: A lethargic jazz-soul groove underpins high-hat ripples and trumpet peals while twinkling keyboards ride over the top, flirting with the past without bowing to overtly retro whims. Like his fellow Soulquarians (the jazz-loving, R&B-saving, real-instrument-wielding, live-show-playing posse that concocted D'Angelo's Voodoo), he's figured out how to enliven a contemporary form with historical ingredients. That Jay doesn't have much to say--"The Clapper," while a characteristically stellar track, proffers tired gun worship and admonitions to cease "faking the funk"--seems an afterthought. After all, do you know a Shellac fan who listens to the words?
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