The Church Of Me
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, August 12, 2002
It occurs to me that Mary J Blige is saying goodbye in the song "No More Drama." Despite her assertion that she chooses to win, she is sick of hurt, pain and rejection. Is her choice to win the ultimate control anyone can have over their lives? Hence perhaps the "Bold and the Beautiful" theme sample which guides the song - the valium bottle to hand, terminal salvation within her grasp.

It occurs to me that Rob Dougan is postponing goodbye in the song "Nothing At All." "What will we do when we grow old?" "I learn as I go." When he asks the object of his abjection to "walk into the grave" with him, he is merely pleading for a life with her, to learn her "patience and grace" and depart quietly when their natural time comes. Stay with me forever. Help me. Guide me. Eternal salvation within his hold.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .

The Marxist linguist and sociologist Basil Bernstein stated that working class people had two distinct vocabularies – the restricted (that which they are taught and by which they are supposed to abide in public society) and the elaborated (that which they themselves formulate and which they primarily use in everyday life). By that token, Keith Thornton, aka Kool Keith, aka Dr Octagon, would appear to be a fully elaborated person who seems to have bypassed the restricted altogether.

Perhaps there is nothing but a tabula rasa where Thornton himself stands. Or possibly not. In the intro to his 1996 Dr Octagon album on Mo’Wax, his medic porn sampled voice exclaims “I’m not just a doctor – I’m a man!” His female patient doesn’t want him “to explode [with his feelings] all over the room” and decides to take care of him. Role reversal psychotherapy taken to blissful ends.

With the first track proper “3000” this record clearly declares itself as a quantum leap from anything that the Ultramagnetic MCs achieved. “Soul” is replaced by amorphous, opaque stalagmites of sound, anchored by a doubly determined rhythm line. It also excepts itself into a galaxy beyond that inhabited by most of the rest of the Mo’Wax roster – the ominous heatwaves of Eric B and Rakim’s “Follow the Leader” magnified, passed through and seen from the uninhabitable inside of the flame. In addition it must be considered considerably apart from the rest of “sci-fi”/futuristic hip hop, most of which has been content to wallow in a comfortable sub-William Gibson cyberfantasia (Deltron 3000 comes close, but the Infesticons are too damned collecting by half).

The doctor persona is consolidated by various ad break-type interludes. On “I Got To Tell You,” for instance, with a slightly speeded up Pachelbel canon behind him, he lists all the afflictions which he is qualified to treat, culminating in “chimpanzee acne” and “moose bumps.”

Musically, the general template (as with everything under that pitifully inadequate banner of “trip hop”) is that of Rammelzee vs K Rob’s 1983 10-minute epic “Beat Bop,” with its amiable Ze records style funk guitar line, slowly being subverted by oddly astringent percussion, an occasional abstract violin comment and cavernous echo seemingly applied randomly, to fit with the “reality collides and cohabits with abstraction” of the lyrics. What Thornton does is to elaborate on and develop the implications in “Beat Bop,” mixing it in with echoplexed jazz-funk motifs and a more pronounced rhythmic drive which still frequently diverts up unexpected side roads, for example the “In A Silent Way”-type Fender Rhodes on “No Awareness” balanced against the catchy but uncertain refrain of “controlled by green light.” His vocal delivery alternates (as on this track) between matter of fact rhythm and sudden flare-ups of poetic theorising (Copernicus, quantum physics) – Saul Williams with a sense of his own absurdity. “Technical Difficulties” continues the identity crisis, with jibes at Kurt Cobain/Novocaine, Mary J Blige, Keith Sweat and Roger Troutman, culminating in the cry “I’ll battle Ultramagnetic – my own self as well!” He is of course the personification of Kristeva’s Other.

The nearest thing to a “hit” on this album is the track “Blue Flowers” with an endlessly ascending string line like the staircase to the Tower of Babel. Here Thornton declares himself the “paramedic foetus of the East” in charge of the “Church of the Operating Room” and politically “left wing – swing to North.” The idea being to see life, the world, close up, in its truest form. Subverted by an astonishing scratch solo by Q-Bert which rapidly escalates, like an Evan Parker circular soprano solo, and climaxes in an almost inhuman scream (giving birth?). Compare the similar scream which emerges from George Khan’s tenor at the end of Mike Westbrook’s jolly 1968 po-mo romp Release; again, reality breaking through.

A similar Ayler-ish shriek punctuates the track/manifesto “Bear Witness,” bolstered by an endlessly restless double bass line, in front of which Thornton proclaims that, “I created rap music ‘cause I never dug disco.” With a view to subverting the latter, we go into the twisted R&B of “Girl Let Me Touch You.” “I wanna feel you” he croons as the sampled female backing vocal erupts from ecstasy to an ambiguous squeal. “You want birth control?” he says sardonically, “you can smoke a cigarette.” No Dworkin adherent, he. Huge slabs of sampled metal guitar concrete steer “I’m Destructive,” wherein he explores Dahmer-type psychopathy, flicking dog shit at decaying human remains in his fridge, venturing out to throw eggs at the window of a barber shop, and concluding, illogically, by urging the Grateful Dead to “drop the jazz – just rock!” Clearly a mentality which does not dare to be approached, but which does not diminish the newness (apparent even six years later) of the music. The next track “Wild and Crazy” maintains the mood: “The moon’s up – it’s time for experiments.” “Elective Surgery” suggests treatments for “bees flying around your rectum.” Then the last two tracks (excluding the two remixes which end the CD) return to the rapid-fire pseudo-biological reportage which lead nowhere but remain rhythmically purposeful.

(An instrumental version of this album was subsequently released – “The Instrumentalist” - but the vocals, whatever the content, are integral to the drive of the music)

Now, after Dr Octagon you would be forgiven for thinking of Kool Keith as anything other than “him wot dun Smack My Bitch Up wot the Prodigy sampled, like.” Subsequent records have hardly been mentioned anywhere, let alone reviewed.

Well let me mention at least one – his 1999 album Black Elvis/Lost In Space. Lyrically, his viewpoint, particularly with regard to the ladies, is about equal with that of Jay-Z. But whereas musically The Takeover, though irresistibly catchy, is linear, comparatively straightforward and spotlit (and sublime), the music on BE/LIS is mulitdimensional, weirdly ethereal, echoing and resounding; 4AD hip hop filtered through Ornette’s harmolodics. And it is an absolute masterpiece which you should seek out at once.

Why? Well that’s the question KK repeatedly asks in his opening peroration, with particular regard to arrogant rap superstars acting like pricks. The music is distended and evolves into the song “Lost In Space.” Tempting to see this as a possible entrant for the film title song (certainly beats Apollo 440’s lacklustre effort). And this isn’t straight sci-fi futurism; here, “lost in space” is the individual, undecided about his real self, wandering abjectly in a society to which he can gain no real entry. This comes into focus on the track “Livin’ Astro” where he indeed proposes himself as the “black Elvis” wearing the wig on his side (?) and having Marilyn Monroe on his back (!), this all being underscored by a sampled Southern banjo.

With “Supergalatic Lover” we move into 21st-century Philly soul, an absolutely seductive groove usefully disrupted by the out-of-pitch organ stabs. With “Master Of The Game” the ante suddenly ups and a ferocious (double?) bass attack starts to power the music (with a subliminal nod to jungle?). Roger Troutman, dissed by Dr Octagon, even guests on vocoder here. Interesting to play this back to back with Nelly’s Country Grammar album; a very similar approach to hyperreactive, rebounding bass/rhythm attack.

Then to the awesome “I’m Seein’ Robots” which, though lyrically decidedly un-awesome (dirty girl has her number called, as in the spoken coda to Oran “Juice” Jones’ “The Rain”). This has already been justly celebrated by my favourite European, but should be reinforced here: phenomenal, abject dub, leaving you to guess the rhythmic undertow most of the time, yet still sweeping you into its vortex.

And musically it just keeps getting better; naturally subversive in terms of bitonality (I don’t think I’ve ever heard the latter explored so fully and uncontrivedly in recent pop as here) and sonics in general. Like its nearest rock equivalent, The Fall’s The Unutterable, you are left slack-jawed, astonished as one mindblowing track succeeds another.

“Black Elvis” the song – which should be played everywhere this coming Friday, along with Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues,” but of course won’t – is set in determinism rather than pretension. KK visualises himself walking down Broadway, waiting in Bloomingdale’s for Celine Dion to have her nails done, but with the reality aside “shooting up in a project hallway.”

Early-‘70s Miles Davis seems to be a welcome reference point here, too – check out the forlorn sampled trumpet wail punctuating “Maxi Curls” and the utterly desolate saxophone (cf. Public Enemy’s “Show ‘Em Watcha Got”) subverting the otherwise ebullient “Fine Girls.”

The wholly bleak “The Girls Don’t Like The Job” (Holiday Autos set to song, a cynical boss whose “secretaries don’t like his ways”) sounds like a mutated excerpt from Dark Magus set to a stealth-ridden rhythm – where one would really have liked Miles to travel when he returned to the ‘80s, rather than the Luther Vandross backing tracks with which he actually did return. The quality continues through “Clifton” (not “Clinton” though the man George is the unmentioned inspiration behind all KK does, of course) assisted by the “Noggin’ Nodders from Oakland” who sound awfully like OutKast, and the wary deceleration of “All The Time” (where Destiny’s Child SHOULD have evolved to) and “I Don’t Play” even though he clearly does.

I remain uncertain about the rest of his oeuvre: other recent albums of his are entitled Sex Drive and Spankmaster, with covers to match (the one for BE/LIS is superb) - if you’ve heard them, please let me know if they are worth hearing – but this is a work of genius which, typically, no one has really properly followed up.

One thinks of the ending of “Beat Bop” where Rammelzee solemnly promises to “go to church, become a doctor or a lawyer, even a desk clerk – anything you want me to do, because for me you are the only one, and I trust you” before studio time runs out and the track fades to a halt. As with most worthwhile art, it’s always worth keeping your options open.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .

. . .