In 1933, the Belgian cartoonist Hergé announced that his popular creation Tintin — a fearless, globetrotting young journalist whose exploits appeared in the pages of Le Petit Vingtième — would, on his next adventure, be heading to China. In Hergé’s two previous Tintin stories, his hero had cleaned up organized crime and graft in Chicago, then cracked down on an international opium ring, in a tale that took him from Egypt to India. The Blue Lotus, which began publication in the summer of 1934, would bring Tintin to Shanghai to finish off that same opium ring and uncover the identity of its mastermind along the way.
In 2013, Damacha — a talented young American hip-hop producer and evident Tintin enthusiast — announced on his Twitter account that he too would be heading to Shanghai, where he is currently in graduate school. Damacha’s newest release, Ding Ding, is a pay-what-you-want project from Hot Record Société steeped in references to Hergé’s intrepid young reporter: Ding Ding features a number of samples from the early 1990s TV version of The Blue Lotus; Damacha created a 20-minute accompanying video constructed from clips of those same 90s Tintin cartoons; and many of Ding Ding’s song titles are culled from Hergé’s oeuvre. “Rackham’s Hammer,” for example, gets its name from Red Rackham, the pirate who plays a central role in The Secret of the Unicorn; “Rajaijah” is named after the dementing poison used by the villains in The Blue Lotus and its predecessor Cigars of the Pharaoh (both of which, by the way, also have songs named after them); and “Tchang” takes its title from a young boy Tintin befriends after saving him from the flooding waters of the Yangtze.
In a way, there is a fair comparison to be made between comic strips and beat music: both typically come in bite-sized portions, both are repetitious and loop-based, and both often present a reductive expression of a single idea. Perhaps we can say that comic strips are to Stendhal what beats are to Stravinsky. There are a lot of young hip-hop producers populating SoundCloud with one or two-minute instrumentals, many of which fail to distinguish themselves. But as with comics, some beats strike an elemental chord — some can be just as associative, suggestive, and filled with significance as any four-movement symphony.
In my estimation, Damacha’s music is an example of instrumental hip-hop done right. His Bandcamp page is filled with releases that are worth your time — from last year’s China-themed EXCELLENT TEA 棒棒茶, to this year’s Auspicious Clouds — and his two contributions to rapper Chester Watson’s recent Tin Wooki are both highlights.
The strongest element of Damacha’s music is its potent ability to establish an immediate mood. The songs on Ding Ding are all short, simple, and sample-based, but within seconds, each one suggests some feeling or elicits some image in my mind. On opener “Taiping Road,” for example, Damacha samples a tip-toeing melody from a harp or zither-like instrument over a burbling low end and rickety old percussion. The track evokes mystery, pure and simple — the aural equivalent of Tintin stealthily walking Shanghai’s night streets. Later, “Yung Phoenix” juxtaposes a muted trumpet sample alongside furtive vibraphone and coquettish purrs, resulting in a charming mix of intrigue, sex, and humor, like a perfect two-and-a-half-minute audio distillation of the first Pink Panther film. There is no doubt that Damacha’s vocal samples — from The Blue Lotus and elsewhere — help to set these moods. But the beats themselves carry significant narrative weight, just as Hergé’s art tells a story regardless of the accompanying speech balloons.
There is one song on Ding Ding that is explicitly textual: on the final track, “烟花,” a Taiwanese rapper named Simon Chen delivers verses in Mandarin over Damacha’s production. When Damacha posted a video for this track on his Facebook page last fall, he explained that Chen’s lyrics are difficult to translate into English, but are about a feeling of nostalgia for some of the places Chen frequented as a child. No such translation is needed for Damacha’s production. The beat features a sweet, lilting woodwind and strings reminiscent of early Daedelus and immediately evokes, if not exactly nostalgia, then something very much like it.