Hip-hop, now more than three decades old, is pretty much postmodernism at its finest. It’s a genre that can process, absorb, and transform any other genre, a movement that traditionally emphasises rhythm over melody and harmony, which effectively turns pop music on its head. Through the funk era, through party and house music, ’90s gangsta and rap rock, and into electronica, pop rap and the rise in popularity of non-American rappers (to be brief; this is, afterall, just a lede), the only consistent threads through the evolution of hip-hop are the use of samples and the focus on lyrical wit. This (lyrical wit) includes, but is not limited to, musical and pop cultural and literary allusions (‘intertextuality’) and references to one’s past or current work (‘reflexivity’) – all the trappings of breaking down art (‘postmodernism’) to analyse how it works.
Quakers, a hip-hop project assembled by Portishead‘s Geoff Barrow (here known as Fuzzface), 7-Stu-7, and Katalyst, is a 41-track stab into what could be called experimental rap. The album has about as many people contributing to it as it has tracks, but it remains amazingly consistent in terms of lyrical content and delivery. So the experimental bit is in the production, which is so complex as to warrant its own paragraph.
Quakers will transition from a fairly tight (yet fairly traditional) beat on Big Cat to a loose sample of a marching band playing a Radiohead tune on Fitta Happier without batting an eye. (And to accentuate the obusion, the main track sample is the band playing The National Anthem, not Fitter Happier.) Most of the tracks lean towards the lo-fi, the weird, the unexpected. But considering Barrow’s background, it makes sense. This is one of three albums he’s releasing during 2012, along with Drokk: Music Inspired By Mega-City One (with Ben Salisbury) and a second BEAK> release (with bandmates Billy Fuller and Matt Williams), but it’s very apparent listening to Quakers that he relished the oppurtunity to put together these beats.
Fun little sound experiments ooze out of every song. Before any one thing has a chance to get stale, the album’s already halfway through the next track. There are also a few instrumental interludes (instead of skits, thank goodness) for those with even shorter attention spans. With a relative paucity of hooks (compared to standard hip-hop tunes), Quakers has so many lines packed into it that it takes a few listens to even process any of it.
The MCs span most imaginable flows. Synato Watts starts the album out with a quick, hard Eminem meets Dr Dre gangsta delivery on Big Cat – “I’m not playing hopscotch in a box, but I pop glocks off quite often that times it’s just too impossible to watch ’em.” Jonwayne brings a smooth flow (ala A Tribe Called Quest) to Smoke – “I think forward like a mortician, the more victims I get, the more my sickness is a business”. And What Chew Want finds Tone Tank lazily scatting along with a melodic hook and then rapping about goofy stuff like Das Racist – “I got that Caesar style, I got that Caesar style, I told the barber no, no, no, don’t give me a Caesar style.”
The sum is certainly greater than the parts here. In an album that rushes by, these songs don’t have much of a chance of standing on their own. But, strangely enough, as short and freespirited as the tracks are, the album itself is a behemoth that takes some listening dedication to unwrap and to assign meaning to – and it’s an effort that’s well worth it.