Surrounded by Silence (Warp)
In 2001 Scott Herren first presented his calling card as a hip-hop producer: familiar rappers and vocalists, unfamiliarly sliced and diced. On Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, his debut album as Prefuse 73, he occasionally sampled recognizable phrases, but more often he strung together seemingly random syllables, making them part of an overall sound that was both stuttery and strangely fluid. He'd invented a sort of aural cubism: he captured the music, cadences, and rhythms within words but stripped them of their content. Prefuse 73 was instrumental hip-hop--with vocals.
On each of his full-length releases as Prefuse 73 since--One Word Extinguisher (2003) and the new Surrounded by Silence--he's advanced a fresh and immediately appealing vision of what hip-hop production can be. Broadly speaking, most producers fall into one of two camps: those who use mainly synthetic sounds to shape sleek, futurist beats (Timbaland, the Neptunes) or Atari'd-out crate diggers mining jazz and soul stacks to make beats crackling with the sound of old vinyl (Madlib, DJ Premier). Herren doesn't fit into either aesthetic. He avoids nostalgia but doesn't fetishize synthetic precision; his hard, propulsive beats run through a tonal palette that favors smooth, mellow jazz and lounge samples. His tracks are likely to include glitchy enhancements, but he also strives to create an organic, full-band sound, layering keyboards, vibes, and woodwinds to create a lush, sweeping funk.
Herren hasn't changed his core approach for Surrounded by Silence, but the album features fewer instrumentals and more guest vocals than usual; it's an album of collaborations, a sort of Genius Loves Company for the indie hip-hop set. He's cast a wide net: guests include rappers Aesop Rock and Beans, the Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface, GZA, and Masta Killa, and indie rockers Alejandra and Claudia Deheza of On!Air!Library! and Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead. (Herren apparently digs rock groups that include twins.)
Innovation and inclusiveness have their downsides, though: Surrounded by Silence is the sound of Herren testing his ideas about how to produce songs with unreconstructed vocals, and the results are decidedly mixed. A producer of instrumental hip-hop is a one-man band, but adding a rapper or singer requires more minimal tracks to accentuate the vocal lines. On the hyperactive "Hide Ya Face," Herren layers a hypnotic lead keyboard line that sounds like a spume of guitar feedback over flutes and woodwinds. The instrumental lines mix uneasily with the vocals, which have their own problems: Definitive Jux label impresario El-P, a great producer but a so-so rapper, is embarrassingly outmatched by Ghostface.
If he's not doing too much, he's doing too little: other songs suffer from the sort of shapelessness that marked some of Herren's earliest records. The discs of electronic music he released under the names Delarosa + Asora and Savath + Savalas were spare works, driven by texture and atmospherics instead of rhythm. Each has its share of surprises and moments of enchanting harmonies. But when Herren loses the beat he loses his way--he's too often prone to the misconception that ethereal ambience can compensate for a lack of melody or structure. On "Pastel Assassins," for example, the Dehezas' vocals sound unanchored above the drifting synths and lightly sputtering beats.
Surrounded by Silence works best when Herren is careful to stress rhythm and leave some empty space for his guests to work in. The superb "Now You're Leaving" consists of little more than a few plucked bass and guitar notes, and some hand claps, and that's enough to allow S.A. Smash's Camu Tao to belt out the song's infectious R & B chorus and show off his knack for soulful (if slightly off-key) singing. "Now You're Leaving" is a breakup song, and Herren's restraint lets Camu Tao strike an appropriately melancholy note.
Similarly, "Just the Thought" layers multiple rhythm tracks but confines the melody to a few sustained keyboard tones. The verses, by Masta Killa and GZA, aren't either rapper's best work. (Masta Killa doesn't inspire much confidence with his opening line, "It don't take long to write a song.") But they sound comfortable on the track, which is unusually brisk and relaxed. "Pagina Dos," a collaboration with the Books, is similarly austere, built on little more than banjo, beats, and a handful of vocal harmonies.
These simple songs are a sign of growth in a musician who seems to be afflicted with the beat-production equivalent of overwriting. Herren is skilled at merging the cool, muted sound of prefusion jazz (hence the name) and post-rock with the visceral thrill of a driving beat and a three-minute song structure. But until now he hasn't tried to focus his talents on writing a straightforward hip-hop track.
Surrounded by Silence suggests he's up to the task. Most often the reaction to the synthetics that drive mainstream hip-hop is a retreat to a supposed golden age of early-90s Native Tongues-style jazz and soul loops, and though they sounded great the first time around, they feel confining a decade on. Herren's found a new region that might yet prove to be the source of the next generation of hip-hop production. He hasn't quite nailed it down himself yet, but when he steps away from the board a little and just lets the music play, he approaches pop perfection.
Prefuse 73, Battles, Beans
When: Thu 5/12 and Fri 5/13, 9 PM
Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
Price: $12 in advance, $15 at the door
Info: 773-276-3600 or 800-594-8499