'Center of Attention’ Instrumental, Pete Rock/InI (reissue: Center of Attention, Lost and Found – Hip Hop Underground Soul Classics, Rapster Records/BBE, 2003)

(Apologies for the fan-video put up by some connoisseur of moon-pix and other corny stuff like this. I really wish artists would pay someone to put up their music hq/hd online).

There seems to be some kind of back story relating to this release and the earlier (2000) Center of Attention album that had this track with vocals, but let’s leave this for a moment to really listen to this beautiful piece of music.

Hip-Hop producers inevitably are drawn to creating certain kinds of beats that then become their trademark, this instrumental along with a handful of others for me, embodies what I like about Pete Rock’s production, in a pure, essential sense.

First there is the drum sound, which starts on-call, just after 20 seconds. On a most basic level, you can appreciate the sound purely in terms of its quality - how good it sounds - but if you follow it from beginning and end you also notice how clever it is in terms of how it operates within the music.  

Just like in jazz, the drum sound has a dual purpose: it provides the bedrock, the foundation, but also offers commentary on the music. It is never neutral, there are always other dimensions to its presence and this fascinates me. Sometimes the drums separate, unfold (say, just before and after 1’50”). Twenty seconds after it first appears, it stops/starts like a question mark.    

But then, there are also all the details, see, for example, as one listener noted, the little ‘guitar slide’ that continues throughout, at the beginning having more prominence than the other elements and later becoming just one more aspect of the music. From 3’20” til the end the instrumental has everything happening at once, juggling the sonic features, but it never becomes busy, it just continues on its way duplicating a very elegant, delicate mania.

This music impresses me so much each time I hear it as you can hear how it set the tone for all the other producers working in this vein, though few if any are bothered with the same subtlety to the same degree. The hip-hop instrumental made up of a gentle piano sample/the essential beat is so-well known, it’s become a cliché today, but the mathematical precision of the way Pete Rock manipulates his samples is of another class. It is so full of feeling.

Here’s the track with vocals, which is pretty sublime as well.

'Set it’ 421 (In House Entertainment, 1994)

“1993 steppin’ into 1994, know what I’m sayin’ …”

This 12-inch has slipped into the ether, the only reference to it I came across online is from a blog called ‘Hip Hop – The Golden Era':

Not a lot of info about this wax released in 1994 on the label, In House Entertainment by 421, a crew from the Bronx composed of Greyson, Jasun and Raquel. Raquel seems to be unknown, but she also did a feature on the Hard 2 Obtain’s track, ‘A L’il Sumthing’ with Artifacts in 1994. ‘Set it’ is produced by Gambino the Music Man and featured MCs like Naabu from the indie group Niyabingy.

(Nyabingy).

Lots to appreciate here, though, starting with the extended ugly sound that does a two-step like a crazed police siren and upsets the musical peace, without a break. There’s a nice kind of warmth to the music, which is offset by the very loose verses from the MCs. Their voices impress on me, all these years later, as if they’re coming straight from the heart.

That discordant note reminds me of the synth sound in Capital STEEZ’s ‘Dead Prez’, an all-time favourite of mine, one of those talismanic songs (see my piece from December last year on the late, lamented MC) – the use of both are clever in the way they unsettle and offer a contrast to rest of the music, adding definition.

Here’s a video of the group – echt-90s NYC indie all of this. Sweet thing.

‘Won’t Catch Me Runnin’/’Remain Anonymous’ Ras Kass (PatchWerk Recordings, 1994)

Embodying all the key elements of the dirtier aspect of the ‘90s production sound – that exaggerated beat which includes a kind of in-built foundation of a meandering bassline, the tinkling keyboard sound and screechy, hard-to-work-out female vocal sample – the a/side ‘Won’t Catch Me Runnin’ sees Ras Kass present a familiar narrative of hard times.

But the b/side, ‘Remain Anonymous’ takes it to another level.

With an amazing rhyme that tackles well-trawled territory – about how Ras Kass lords over all others – it has an unextinguished energy, while capturing perfectly a kind of urgent paranoia in the delivery even if it sounds supremely confident, as it opens:

Western Hemisfear, stand clear ock
Cause now the sun sets across six-hundred and six septillion tons
Come correct, I project like a telepathic caption
Four meters over soundwaves
I comes off with positions like pornographics
Twenty questions - animal, vegetable, or mineral
What am I? Atom - amphibian, invertebrate, or mammal?

Name-checking his peers (Western Hemisfear), apparently questioning himself, while making a pop culture reference to a TV show, but also as comments on the lyrics page note, Ras Kass is also suggesting that he holds the Earth on its axis: ‘six-hundred and six septillion tons’ is the literal weight of the planet, he carries on his back like Atlas.

Much of the lyrical content in ‘Remain Anonymous’ is extremely dense (littered with references to public figures from the time, filled with puns and plays on words) but on the basis of its poetics it’s equally impressive. Notice the repeated phonemes, some offering an exact rhyme some partial in the line: ‘Cause/now/sun/across/hundred/tons’ which is then carried over into the following lines and the joke about the word ‘come’. 

I scribble incredible rhymes to rhythm, nepotism
Your prism couldn’t invent
Too many MC’s get deals from who ya down with, or where ya represent
But since I house more niggas than section eight
State statements about your state
Although my state of mind fornicates breaks
Your magazine ad got you souped up
Test-y like two nuts, marketing gimmicks
Catch wreck like Sam Kinison, convincingly
Cause what nigga got props in the industry don’t really interest me
My motto is: the bigger they are, the more politics involved
And I revolve at a rate to make your occipital skull plate dissolve
Techniques delve deep..
(Slick Rick sample: “How much you’ll never knooow”)

That moment around 1’30 with the Slick Rick sample is so cool as the producer, Vooodu – apparently this was his first release – steps back from the previous high-intensity maelstrom of sound effect to let it seem a bit patch-work, to change in mood again ten seconds later.

There’s a wild and beautiful intensity here – made up from the lyrics/delivery and music – that makes this track hard to ignore, decades on.

Two important tracks from the 80s are sampled on the track: Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s ‘La Di Da Di’ (aka ‘This might be the most sampled/interpolated hip hop song ever,’ according to one YouTube poster having been sampled on 500 different hip-hop releases); ‘Part-Time Suckers’ from Boogie Down Productions

alongside Pete Rock/CL Smooth’s ‘The Basement’ from 1992 and Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Method Man’ (1993). 

I seen the scene from the outside lookin in through a window pane
Pain; hypertension ruptured the varicose vein
The vainglorious breaks I be, perpetratin omnipotent reign
I rain acid, grate your crew to steak meat
The stakes increase on break beats, your fleet fleets run
When I'm rippin ya Kubrick's, meaning deceased, rest in peace
Pieces of my nebulous flex paralyzes oblongatas
To witness my linguistics like a Muslim takes jihad or not
Since A&R only sign gangster rap acts
Don't get it twisted stereotypin by geography West coast syntax
I signify for C-Arson
The city North of Long Beach, Southwest of Compton ...

All this juice evaporates - what it boils down to
Is the "yes yes y'all," and only that makes a rapper great
Fuck rhetoric and repertoire, demographics and heavy rotation
Slowly the lyrication makes sense
Fuck fame; I snuff that ass out the frame
It ain't Snoop Dogg, so what's my motherfuckin name?
"The arra-arra-R, A, ella-ella-S" (keep it goin)

"You don't know me and you don't know my style" - Method Man (x6)

Yo, wack MC's - it's O-V... E-R
I be R, the nigga who killed your P.R
For the brothers with skills who can't get a record deal
Remain anonymous.. (*fades out echoing*)

Fades out echoing

Massive Staff ‘Suspect’/’Payback’/’So Demandin/’Situations’ (Nasty Newark Air, Safehouse Records, 1994) plus Fabuloso ‘Radio Active’   

Start with ‘Suspect’ with its nice little bassline swing and vocal theatrics, moving into exaggerated monster, channelling Prince Far-I growl – Dancehall-esque, transferred to the US context. To ‘Payback’ – the music running behind it is just great, with that man hitting metal in the foundry effect.

(I’m trying to locate the original track I heard from Massive Staff that struck me as ‘jazzy wayz’ with a sample and chaos and it all working together. I must have written the track title down somewhere).

This must be it: ‘Situations’

Yes. Listen to those minuscule sounds, those trumpet elements that sound like they’re playing out in the background, as the chords build the basis and the MC seems unaware, pronouncing and announcing with that certainty as around 2 mins the music changes direction, the musical elements shift.

Coda:

Hi-Tek (“Breakin’ Bread,” Hi-Teknology, Rawkus, 2001)

Often the artists/releases, across jazz/hip-hop that click with me tend to be the ones that garnered ambivalent, grudging responses to their work when it came out; Hi-Tek’s debut solo album from 2001 is a case in point.

Writing music reviews isn’t easy, especially when working under pressure, but it’s hard to understand the luke-warm responses this record received. Take, for example, the response to this track, “Breakin’ Bread” which I think is phenomenal, perhaps even an example of a perfect hip-hop song from that era.

One contemporary reviewer was prompted to say: ‘On the radio accessible Wannabattle collective track Breakin’ Bread we are given an entertaining posse cut over a beat that changes up enough between verses to keep from getting repetitive.’ (Ah thanks). The AllMusic review, meanwhile, covered the territory well enough, but ends on this note, wondering if after this release Hi-Tek will ‘claim his rightful spot among hip-hop's elite soundboys’. The first line of the review reads: ‘Since breaking in quietly with fellow Cincinnati residents Mood in the mid-'90s, DJ Hi-Tek's climb up the crate-digging ranks has been a slow one. (Cheers, then).  Here's yet another in the same vein.

Ranking, ranking, ranking: assessing worth of music in terms of their rank, lining artists as if they were greyhounds chasing a hare is a defining element of much hip-hop criticism. Responding to work like this has long seemed problematic to me, as this way of assessing the value of art leaves little, or no, room for nuance. 

Within this frame-work, how are brave, artistic ‘failures’ to be assessed, the kinds of projects that may not be the artist’s ‘best’ (sic) but still important in the way they gesture towards a future development in their career, or the genre as a whole? Or what about the releases that connect with you for reasons that are deeply personal, not immediately obvious to others?

Not everything needs to be so public, so collective, so shared.

In other cultural contexts, you might have critics ranking new releases – books, films – or even giving out stars but this is not the focus. It’d be highly unusual, for instance, to find a literary critic expending energy wondering if Wyndham Lewis beats Jean Rhys, or if Ezra Pound is the greatest (writer) of all time? It just doesn’t happen.   

So, what makes me like this track by Hi-Tek then, what distinguishes it from all the others from that time, most of them better-known and better-respected/loved? For me, the interest lies in its expression of something that I’ve always believed is essential to hip-hop as a genre, and something that defines it: the spirit of collaboration. My very first piece that I wrote on hip-hop for this site, on Pete Rock, began with this idea …)

The title makes this explicit, where the language of Christianity and language of the street come together :

(to) break bread

1.    1.

celebrate the Eucharist.

'as we gathered to break bread, a sense of thanksgiving ran through us' and from Urban Dictionary: 'to share ones belongings or assets with another person.' The lyrics enact this spirit as well, making connections: referring to the Pete Rock via the sample from ‘Tru Master’ from 1998 (and sampling Common as well later on).

[Hi-Tek cuts it up]
"It's like the A to B to the C, it's easy as.."
"1-2-3"
"DJ"
"Hi-Tek y'all" -] Inspectah Deck
"Collaborate, break bread with.." -] Pete Rock

The original lines from Pete Rock’s verse: ‘A rap nigga, show respect, write rhymes that connect/Collaborate, break bread with Kurupt and Deck ..’ Also sampled on the track: Elmer Bernstein’s ‘Rejected’ from 1962 and Run-DMC’s ‘Beats to the Rhyme’ (1988).

That core notion of hip-hop production then is given another dimension here lyrically and musically. Information on the MCs is a bit sketchy, with not all references mentioning all of the artists: Homeskillet, Crunch Ex. and Mood (Donte/Main Flow) all offering up 'Big Ohio status.' Listen to Crunch Extraordinaire:

I'm +Live+ and +Fortified+ like Kweli and Mos Def
Practice the incredible, shit ain't even competable
Due to that I'm technical, TKO's I got those
I got control but I'm reckless in studios
I got Harmony and Thug tendencies all in my Bones
No need to be flashy, for heads to recognize me
Hi-Tek throw them joints that magnetize me
We global, East, West, North, South, we robo
Hands that touch mic's get smacked cuz that's a no-no
Who rock the mic? Yo, we take the whole show
When heads hear this piece they call off with no shows 

Coda:

Like it when Hi-Tek says in relation to the Elvis record that he wouldn’t have normally picked it, but that the sound quality was really good on RCA at that point, in 1973 (and then later bursts into song, providing a brief Elvis impersonation; nice) 

‘76’ Roc Marciano (Reloaded, Decon, 2012)

Quattroportes slide off through a time warp
Been getting money before dinosaur
Diamonds is on, llamas is worn
Write rhymes on island resorts
Dimes who snort
Some guys who slide a line inside a Newport
Push a fly two door like Too $hort
I’m just an artist with a tec
Hard as a baguette

Two reasons to love this song by Roc Marciano, if you are looking to be convinced: the essential genius of the choice of sample, the immediately identifiable 70s anti-love-song by 10cc and how its used and the wonder contained in the way Marciano delivers his rhymes.

Add to this, the core lyricism and indestructible mood of the track too.

There is a repeated three, or four steps forward style to the way Marciano presents his words that is extremely distinctive and powerful. He speaks the content in a way that is theatrical and unnatural – not unlike the way French people speak English, breaking up sentences constantly, with lots of pausing for emphasis.

Certainly, there is much attention given to the intricacy of the wordplay, and yet Roc Marciano speaks as if he is stating something simple, essential – uncontested and true. This gives an enormous power to the tale being told. The way the content is said forces us to listen and this makes it seem timeless, out of time, as if a message passed on from some kind of sage.

This is where the song is so redolent for me, as it is the combination of said delivery and the fractured-imaginative content of the lyrics that fits perfectly with the dominant mood of nostalgia; but the question, though is nostalgia for what and when? (Marciano was born in 1978).

Leave that question unanswered. Let the tension remain, fully aware that the final line of the track is: ‘Don’t let it be left unsaid.’

Speaking personally, just for a minute, this song evokes memories from my lived experience of going to New York as a younger version of my self - catching the plane alone, waking up to see ice on glass, the chests of red squirrels quivering; the steam everywhere, rising from the concrete – because of the intense emotion it contains. Pretty much nothing else in recent hip-hop comes close.  

Then, of course, this ‘nostalgia’ is tied to the sample, the so-obvious 10cc sample … (a song that could carry the subtitle, 'Spirit of the 70s') 

I keep your picture
Upon the wall
It hides a nasty stain that's lying there
So don't you ask me
To give it back
I know you know it doesn't mean that much to me
I'm not in love, no no …

Using this sample arguably goes against the grain of the production mindset, as it’s so recognisable, so well-known. Check out Pete Rock’s take on the same raw material in ‘Comprehend’ feat. Papoose from his record, NY’s Finest (Nature Sounds, 2008)

This is cool, especially when Pete Rock chops it up, breaking it up and down and all over the place, but the atmosphere is completely different to Roc Marciano’s interpretation four years later. In ‘76’ the sample is central to the music, but remains in a kind of suspended development, as if it’s always on the cusp of becoming … We all know the song, what comes next, but it’s stopped, there.

The lack of development, the resistance to fulfilling our expectations, is key to the power of this music and why it’s so evocative of human emotion, whether it is nostalgia or longing (which are, after all, the same thing perhaps). The video is a perfect fit, directed by Jason Goldwatch, with its washed-out tones and the blurry lack of definition of a Lumet film, or the amateur ‘home movies’ captured on Super-8. Liked this exchange below the video:   

Sicilian Pride19772 years ago (edited)

what was the 1970s effect used on the video?

hustlaave2 years ago

Increase blur, Color Grading (curves adjust blue channel to lower blue and raise yellow) add film grain, add jitter

'Young don, son'’s under the arm
He treats Lamborghinis like bumper cars
Got scars, chains around the neck like scarves
Your limbs hang out of threads like yarn
I’m the next big thing
Chickenheads cling, the bedspring king
Run the ring, my head is on top of the pyramid
Pictures of me and all my affiliates
We lit phillies like idiots
Kill the lineage, let them know what it really is
Niggas is penniless with skinny ribs
I fire semis at too many wigs
I feel like Billy the Kid, skinny big
You literally live as a guinea pig
If the Timbs ain'’t on deck you know the Pennys is
Your finger still penny pimps
You make me pull the Mac Milly out the Fendi trench
In any event, hold the 12 gauge that’'s heavy as shit
For every clip we let steadily rip
Push your afro back to '76 motherfucker
Hold up, any good year baby
Those some great years baby
’75, 76 know what I'’m saying
’77 and into the 80’s I’m saying word
Seen a lot nigga, word up
….

Dump with the feds like I'’m on a dead with' one in the head
Don’t let it be left unsaid.' 

Live Recordings: ‘Mary, Don’t You Weep’ Aretha Franklin (Amazing Grace, Atlantic/Rhino Entertainment, 1972)

Recorded 'Live' at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, Los Angeles in January, 1972. With the Southern California Community Choir.

Personnel: Aretha Franklin - vocals, piano, Chuck Rainey – bass, Cornell Dupree – guitar, Kenneth Lupper – organ, Pancho Morales - percussion, conga, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie – drums, Southern California Community Choir - background vocal

Amazing Grace won the 1972 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance and is the biggest selling pure Gospel album in history.  

Oh Oh Mary
Oh Oh Mary

Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn. 
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep.  

I went to this recording session. It was announced on the soul station in LA on Friday nite that Aretha was recording live that weekend & people were welcome to come, so I scraped together my dimes for gas & high-tailed it down there Saturday in my white Pontiac Bonneville which got 8 miles to the gallon. To add to the drama, Mick Jagger was up in the front row clapping & yelling. Aretha’s father ran the show & the title says it. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. 2 sessions — Saturday & Sunday. Seems like a dream now. What a moment in time. When Aretha was in her prime she could make you hallucinate. When she ran a scale it was like a huge firetruck drove by with all the sirens blasting. W-O-W...I remember her father saying...Aretha is a “stone singer”.  Well, yes. Testify. I was there & must say I agree 1000%.
— Comment below the YouTube video (Esquibelle)

Well, Satan got mad and he knows I'm glad. 
Missed that soul that he thought he had.
Now, didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep.

Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn. 
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep. 

I went to the second session, that Saturday evening and you’re right, seems like a dream now. When Aretha was leaving the church, so many people shook her hand. She was so gentle and a little timid back then.
— Comment below the YouTube Video (Harold Walker)

Well, one of these nights around twelve o'clock
This old town's gonna really rock
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 

Oh, Mary, don't you weep.

What I appreciate most about music of that decade is the very fact that instruments and voices were pure. No pitch bender, nothing mechanical, no tweaking, nothing artificial..................just pure music.
— Comment below the YouTube video (Monique Purcell)

Cheer up, sisters and don't you cry. 
There'll be good times bye and bye.
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep.

Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn. 
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned? 
Oh, Mary, don't you weep. 

Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn. 

Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned?

Oh, Mary, don't you weep. 

'Gharbzadegi’ Robert Wyatt (Old Rottenhat, Rough Trade, 1985) plus live performance, 2002

It's so easy to decide on a name
It's a name caller's game
It's so easy to look down from above
Helicopter vision
Get the picture when you're outside the frame
Retrospective my eye
Call it art and you can say what you like
It's a name caller's game
Your perspective describes where I stand
Out of line, out of mind
Calling myopia 'focus', of course,
Makes it easier still
Gharbzadegi means nothing to me
Westernitis to you
...We get so out of touch
Words take the place of meaning

So sweet this drum-beat, splintered and fragile like birds’ bones and the instruments taking the part – the piano repeating a few notes over and again to provide the foundations, (apparently, arguably) echoing Coltrane

with an English accent, poetic-abstract lyrics conveying a radical critique (damning ‘Westernitis’ – Gharbzadegi in Farsi … or Western Imperialism) sung so carefully and consciously as if it were a lullaby; could any listener ask for more? 

Listening to this you can see the deep influence Robert Wyatt had on Radiohead; I could pick any of their earlier/less-commercial tracks to provide proof of the fact, the influence of the Soft Machine alumnus seeps from their music (the way they use momentum, or not – and lyrically as well, the off-hand allusions to politics and the overriding emphasis on the creation of mood).

Wyatt’s song ‘Gharbzadegi’ is labelled ‘rock’/’progressive rock’ on websites of record, but this is jazzy, of course it is; in the way draws attention to the materiality of the instruments and the parts -  focussing on sound as quality in and of itself. 

The way the music disrupts our expectations of the parts the instruments should play (the piano provides the foundations, as if it were a bassline, but then the flourishes and exuberance); in the way the parts rise and fall, the gentleness of it all; the submerged momentum.  

As for the concept: Gharbzadegi 

Gharbzadegi (Persian: غربزدگی‎‎) is a pejorative Persian term variously translated as "Westoxification," "West-struck-ness"[1] "Westitis", "Euromania", or "Occidentosis".It is used to refer to the loss of Iranian cultural identity through the adoption and imitation of Western models and Western criteria in education, the arts, and culture; through the transformation of Iran into a passive market for Western goods and a pawn in Western geopolitics.

The phrase was first coined by Ahmad Fardid, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tehran, in the 1940s. it gained common usage following the clandestine publication in 1962 of the book Occidentosis: A Plague from the West by Jalal Al-e-Ahmad. Fardid's definition of the term as referring to the hegemony of ancient Greek philosophy, differed from its later usage as popularised by Al-e Ahmad.

Al-e Ahmed describes Iranian behavior in the twentieth century as being "Weststruck." The word was play on the dual meaning of "stricken" in Persian, which meant to be afflicted with a disease or to be stung by an insect, or to be infatuated and bedazzled. "I say that gharbzadegi is like cholera [or] frostbite. But no. It's at least as bad as sawflies in the wheatfields. Have you ever seen how they infest wheat? From within. There's a healthy skin in places, but it's only a skin, just like the shell of a cicada on a tree."

Al-e Ahmad argued that Iran must gain control over machines and become a producer rather than a consumer, even though once having overcome Weststruckness it will face a new malady - also western - that of 'machinestruckness'. "The soul of this devil 'the machine' [must be] bottled up and brought out at our disposal ... [The Iranian people] must not be at the service of machines, trapped by them, since the machine is a means not an end."

Live performance taken from the 2002 Robert Wyatt documentary Free Will and Testament

Words take the place of meaning …

Coda: