Is hip-hop too big to fail?
No, wait — that’s not fair. Let me narrow that down. Is instrumental hip-hop too big to fail? The DJ dimension of hip-hop is hip-hop sans most of the culturally loaded controversy; hip-hop sans the omnipresent riddles of the signifyin(g) monkey (thanks to Jakob Dorof for the lens there); hip-hop, miraculously, sans the authenticity squabbles: leaving a hip-hop, instead, that engages exclusively in its absorptive role. As Cokemachineglow’s Clayton Purdom once ably encapsulated the issue, “hip-hop swallows everything; its very nature is assimilation.” Absorption and appropriation are enticing because these techniques/attitudes appear to profane the invisible walls erected by purists.
But is it me, or are these hypothetical purists fewer and farther between — hiding out, perhaps? What forces are actually mitigating growth or at least creating conversations about growth? That’s all that deserves the unsettlement of a phrase like “too big to fail”: what happens when the appearance of profanity and boundlessness becomes bounded and reliable?
Earlier this year, Stones Throw re-released J Dilla’s Donuts (which came out in 2006, the same year as Night Ripper, incidentally) to a flurry of positive press, which was to be expected provided everyone was comfortable situating the work as definitive in the label’s catalogue and the radial (/bloblike) trajectory of hip-hop. Since the album was always at least Very Good, calling it Great isn’t an edgy act of revisionism. I agree. You agree. Detroit jazz drummer and hip-hop producer Karriem Riggins agrees: the last of 34 tracks on his 53-minute debut on Stones Throw Alone Together declares “J Dilla The Greatest.” And even if I sound flippant, I am — we’re all — serious: the “unbounded” old-school vinyl-dense producer-centric beat tape is a glorious thing.
But I guess what I’d argue is that it is in fact evermore a “thing;” that is, that Donuts succeeded by summarizing and pushing outward the radial (/bloblike) trajectory of hip-hop but that Stones Throw and Riggins’ immortalization of Dilla’s 2006 work, while understandable, actually ends up being a strange sort of bid for purity and authenticity, as if Dilla was closer to the last of his kind than the first. Which goes a long way to explain why stone-cold homage Alone Together, maybe an even better encapsulation of Stones Throw’s traditional “sound” than Dilla, feels different than Donuts did. A sort of Pierre Menard thing; the deftly postmodern mixtape has come a long way in seven years. And I’d be remiss not to grit teeth and open the old scab, the online music community’s peculiar, often apologetic love-hate relationship with the word and concept of “genre”: even though genre should simply furnish us with expectations and provide basic information about listening communities, we always cross our fingers that expectations will be defied, that a piece will wow in any/all context(s) and turn heads from any/all direction(s). (In my experience, the inclusion of harpsichord is one common symptom of this musical compulsion.) Frankly, it’s been awhile since I’ve heard an album so comfortably “everything to everyone” as Alone Together.
Going back to absorption, it’s only because wordless work like this just sponges up “aboutness” (watch us read into song titles and even track lengths when desperate) that I can feel confident saying Riggins’ debut concerns itself with this topic of genre and, more specifically, absorption vs. discretion. There’s an anvil of a 30-second interview clip dropped in the middle of “Water,” in which an NPR-or-somesuch interviewee and a hi-hat interrupts the instrumental. “You know sometimes — well, I’m a big jazz fan,” smooth-voiced, you picture crossed legs and glasses of ice water, “And one thing I try to do sometimes is to tell people […] that are outside of jazz[:] here are some things that are maybe happening in jazz; maybe it’s not as insular as you think, you know.” He continues: “So, last year, we looked at the way that so many jazz musicians have turned to the pop repertoire of the last 20, 30 years. And this year we took, kind of a different thing[,] people like Karriem Riggins, who are right at the intersection of hip-hop and jazz.”
Awkward, right? Not just because he (i.e., the interviewee) treats the entire prospect of “intersection” as exciting and unfamiliar territory, but because the segment reveals that Riggins is entrenched in and gently tugging the sleeve of the jazz listening community, radically revising, I’d argue, the apparent genre of his album. But that can’t be right: jazz is insular, such that when Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots et al. appeared in the 90s, it was not a bold new moment for jazz à la Bitches Brew; it was a routine hip-hop swallowing. Hip-hop survives and protects itself this way. But most traditions veer closer to jazz, protecting themselves by gatekeeping and enforcing occasionally puritanical standards: in the white indie community, I can offhand think of three artists (Maria Minerva, Phedre, Broken Social Scene) who have caused tones of what can only be called revulsion by including a rap verse — segregation, yes, of the subtlest and most dangerous sort. Which is my impulsive response to a far more eloquent artist-statement-by-way-of-vocal-sample in “Alto Flute” espousing the virtue of “this fabulous thing called What Comes Natural”: Alone Together could easily be seen as one of the most “natural” albums of last year, but the “natural” typically comes at the expense of discomfort, and at worst the expense of growth. Consider the predictable response to just about every documented movement in music, including those in jazz before it became a static, insular affair: “this new stuff just ain’t natural.” One person’s natural is another’s curtailed is, in turn, another’s profane.
At less the intersection than some underexplored limbo between hip-hop teleology and jazz tradition, Alone Together as a whole ends up being a curious sluice: not identifiably “retro,” but rarely anything that’ll make your brain fidget. What’s most perplexing about this is how regularly Riggins alludes to the mind-boggling and, yes, forward-thinking wormholes of Dilla’s work. How do these allusions end up so natural today? But when, towards the end of “Voyager I 5000,” one such rattling and squelchy warp devolves into a sample of an early Stereolab Moog freakout, the feeling is clarified: like the Groop’s retro-futurism, Riggins’ future is located through plunder. His is a future without indeterminacy and anxiety, a future that sits comfortably next to the brass of 70s soul.
It may be caving to hip-hop’s cult of personality to say Riggins himself isn’t “present” enough here. But thinking back to his oeuvre — which includes Erykah Badu’s brilliant “Soldier” and other work that has turned warm jazz tones into mysteriously steady and detached things — what coheres is an exquisitely spare vision that makes sense for the man behind the scenes but that melts, warps, layers impressively and indulgently and anonymously in the spotlight. One gets the sense that Riggins could, were he so singleminded, maintain his lively attitude towards plunder and keep producing work of this quality endlessly. The momentum he finds is a powerful thing. As perhaps the most memorable idea-song here, “Live at Bert’s” (foregrounding the approving grunts of a DJ against barely-audible murmur of a jazz-drum freakout) demonstrates, sometimes a classy gesture in the direction of the source is better than the source itself.