I don't really listen to mainstream music. I know that might come a shock to long term readers of this blog (trigger warning: sarcasm!), but still it was kind of a revelation when i really put it all together. I don't like mainstream rock music, being stuck fully in the "indie" world. I find commercial dance music to be tedious, but have waxed poetically about my love of Autechre.
And hip-hop, the genre that dominates America these days? Most of it fails to impress. But i enjoyed De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest... I enjoy underground hip-hop. I like sample based music that is built from old soul and jazz records. I guess that is kind of an old-school sound, but i find the modern autotuned "rap" of Kanye West and like to be depressingly awful.
I say this because Days With Dr. Yen Lo is an underground hip-hop record made by Ka, a rapper from Brooklyn, and a producer who goes by Preservation.
Preservation has built the record out of samples of the original 1962 version of the movie The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Yen Lo being a character in that film. Samples of dialog from the film wander in and out of the songs, sometimes leading in to a track, sometimes surfacing as counterpoint to Ka's lyrics. The rest of the music consists of samples from seemingly taken from old records (although i know that there are computer programs that can do that to MP3s, so it is impossible to say if Preservation really was spinning records...). There are strings and drums and keys and horns, all with that fuzzy old record feel, sometimes slowed down, looped quietly.
Ka's raps are often buried in the mix, or almost so. He is on par with the sounds, his voice floating through the movie dialog and the old record samples. His voice is subtle, understated. He doesn't yell or sing through autotune, he kind of mutters his lyrics, his voice a rhythm layer in the songs, words flowing quietly.
The overall effect of the record is like listening to your father's record collection while the movie plays in the background and a friend talks about life, his day, etc. This is not a hip-hop album of strong beats and loud rhymes.
I find it really engaging, and have listened to the album over and over again. However, i played it for my girlfriend (a self-admitted Deadhead) and she kind of rolled her eyes at it, so i guess your mileage may vary.
I like it because it is not really like anything else out there. If you hear current hip-hop on the radio and wonder why people listen to that stuff, go and listen to some of this. This is the underground, the introspective side of music, and i like that. Ka and Preservation made this record because it's what they do, not because they hope to have a Top 10 Hit and a Grammy for it.
It's like what i do: track down, listen to, and write about music. I guess that, in a way, what i do sitting here at a keyboard writing this is similar to what Ka and Preservation are doing: we are alone, in our own little worlds, not really paying attention to what everyone else is doing, but still doing our best to try and communicate.
And, sometimes (as in this somewhat rambling review) failing. But you have to try.
This is ambient hip-hop. If that idea sounds interesting to you, go and track this down.