Eccentric Breaks and Beats
The Numero Group hates bootleggers, as do most labels that still expect to be paid for the music they put out. But Numero's staff have even more reason to be pissed than their peers at more conventional operations. Running a reissue label that unearths decades-old, beyond-obscure music that frequently never saw a proper release the first time around, they do a staggering amount of extra labor for almost every record they put out: not just research, including protracted detective work in far-flung locales, but restoration, whose steep technical challenges sometimes include rescuing a signal from magnetic tape that's crumbling to dust and turning it into music that's not only listenable but meets Numero's stringent standards for fidelity.
These days "bootlegger" usually just means "pirate"—someone illegally copying music off the Internet or selling unauthorized CD-R copies outside the Mega Mall. But the Numero folks apply it to the likes of underground hip-hop producer Madlib and R & B revivalist Mayer Hawthorne, both of whom they allege have sampled Numero releases or put them on mixes without permission. (Madlib and Hawthorne are both on Stones Throw, which hadn't replied to an inquiry by press time.) Though the laws on derivative works and fair use are fairly clear-cut, in practice they're also widely challenged or outright flouted, and some argue that they're outdated in the open-source era. But the Numero folks have no use for that gray area, and when they came across Eccentric Breaks and Beats, a collage of samples from some 70 Numero releases constructed with no legal clearance whatsoever, they leapt into action.
"We've been bootlegged before, certainly," began a March post on the Numero Group blog that went on to blast Madlib, Hawthorne, and several others by name. "But this really takes the cake . . . Over the course of seven years . . . one extremely creative fan began to build a mega-mix of his favorite loops, breaks, and vocal snippets, chopping them all up and piecing together an incredible musical narrative—a 40-minute, saw blade-labeled 12" boot that was pressed and seeded to a handful of DJs and producers. Naturally, word got back."
But then, "with our cease and desist letter ready to be dropped in the mail, an interesting thing happened: We kinda got hooked on the flawlessly arranged pastiche."
So they decided the best recourse was to bootleg the bootleggers—right down to their tongue-in-cheek spelling of the label's name as "Numbero." Their release of Eccentric Breaks and Beats comes out June 8.
In this case bootlegger signifies something much closer to what it's traditionally meant: someone who puts out music, whether live recordings, collections of demos, or "lost" albums, that legit labels don't want to release and that hard-core fans lust after. This type of underground entrepreneur, while no better than a pirate in the eyes of those with a financial stake, has arguably done wonders for labels and artists alike. The latter have had their reputations burnished by albums that never would've seen daylight if they hadn't been bootlegged first—Dylan's Basement Tapes, Prince's Black Album—and the former have long milked cash cows that bootleggers helped introduce to the business, like the live album, the rarities collection, and the box set.
But I'd consider Eccentric Breaks and Beats a value-added bootleg even if Numero didn't stand to profit from reissuing it. It's not just a knockoff best-of collection or something similarly vulgar and exploitative—it's a work of art in its own right. When the Numero folks tracked it back to its makers—starting at the pressing plant, where they seized the masters that would eventually be used to press the reissue—it turned out to have been the work of Shoes, a shadowy production group that's earned the respect of club DJs over the past five years with white-label edits and remixes of songs by Al Green, Miles Davis, Amerie, and others. If Eccentric finds the audience it deserves, Shoes will get some respect in the civilian world too.
Collections of breaks and beats are usually just that: album sides full of looped drum samples and instrumentals for DJs to cut up. Eccentric can be seen as a heartfelt tribute to that format—as well as to the minor hip-hop production trend of sampling Numero releases—but it's also impressive just as music. Its sprawl of abstract hip-hop soul evolves and unfolds kaleidoscopically, with drum breaks fading into delay, organs burbling in psychedelic workouts, and voices edited into incomprehensibility and set adrift through the ether of vinyl crackle. The depth and breadth of the sounds says a lot about the quality of music that Numero's put out so far. The fascinating structures that Shoes have built out of them says a lot about their talent. The two should get together for an Eccentric Breaks and Beats Volume 2, and this time make it legit.
Greatness Opens Doors
At the end of April young rapper G.O.D. Jewels won a lot of new fans with "All Things 'Go," an anthemic tribute to our city that gives the Kanye-chipmunk treatment to a sample from Sufjan Stevens's "Chicago" and flips it into elegiac, synth-drenched soul. (In his lyrics he compares Chicagoans to the '85 Bears and the '05 White Sox, among other things, and himself to the Bulls threepeat and . . . Jeremy Piven.) Like the rest of the tracks on Greatness Opens Doors, which dropped in early May, it's clearly the work of an MC looking to be taken seriously as a potential Next Big Thing—with his smart, smooth, unaggressive style, he could be positioning himself as the midwest's answer to Drake. To back up his aspirations he's got a no-sweat flow and great taste in beats, and occasionally he pulls off something really brilliant—on "Old Folks" he raps about his family's history with the Folk Nation alliance of gangs over a slowed-down sample of Peter Bjorn and John's "Young Folks." If he steps up his writing a notch—though of course that would wreck the Drake comparisons—that door might just open.
IN TALL BUILDINGS
In Tall Buildings
Most postcollegiate indie-rock bildungsromans traffic in an obnoxious combination of solipsism and cheap philosophizing, but on his solo debut, University of Michigan grad Erik Hall matter-of-factly follows the transition from student life to adulthood. He spent his Ann Arbor years playing with excellent bands like Saturday Looks Good to Me and His Name Is Alive, and on In Tall Buildings he matches a pop sensibility inherited from the former to an ambitious sonic palette taken from the latter. (He's also a member of post-Afrobeat group Nomo, but I'm hard pressed to find any obvious aesthetic connection there.) His spacious, handcrafted pop, awash in synthesizers, reverb, and bedroom-recording static, evokes rootless melancholy without wallowing in it.
Restraint is one of the toughest things for a musician to learn, but the payoff is big. The subtle hooks on the Interiors' five-song Teeth EP would get smothered if the band used the well-worn alt-rock formula of loud-quiet-loud; instead they keep their tunes reined in, protecting the fragile melodies and adding a taut feeling of suspense, right at the edge of anxiety, that might be the most compelling thing about them. The late-Fugazi-as-indie-pop approach of "No Maps" and "Please Don't Leave Me Behind" makes a great case for not turning everything into a big deal.