European MC’s. Such a fading taboo. One so mighty as Clint Eastwood once named jazz music “the only truly American art form.”
Well, Mr. Eastwood, welcome to rap. It is unquestionably a product of the late 20th century urban United States, with central intelligence developed in New York City and southern California. But our European allies have long proclaimed a fetish for all things hip and hop. When Original Pirate Material floated across the water from The Streets of the Old World, the collective minds of some U.S. hip-hop fans opened to the possibilities of Europe’s fractured but reverent take on the American institution.
So lands DJ Vadim, the Russian Percussion, propelled by the strength of erratic beats that splinter faster than the former Soviet Union. The first album that springs to mind when running through The Art of Listening is Anti-Pop Consortium’s brilliantly titled Arrhythmia, a collection of almost ridiculous start-stop measures that challenge the idea of a single repeated groove. Vadim’s first track “Till Sun’s in Your Eye,” follows a similar pattern, led by an almost dub-like bass bouncing uneasily between snare and pause. And no DJ album would be complete without the fatherly ’50s-style narrative track, this one reminding consumers that listening while stoned is an essential experience, and “most heads consider it second only to sex.”
Oriental harp and operatic vocals enter on track two to accompany the heavily-accented MC Vakill, making light of Vadim’s ability to avoid the common turntable tendency toward instrumental R&B. Though the drums and bass dominate, it’s in-between the breaks that the most interesting elements seep from Vadim’s beats. A single staccato can do untold wonders for a rhythm track, and Vadim mines everything from Brazilian percussion to vintage Stooges in animating the freestyle-like rants of great MC’s from both sides of the ocean.
Not surprisingly, one of the standout raps comes from Blackalicious’s Gift of Gab, whose Blazing Arrow from 2002 was slick and clever well beyond the rest. Gab makes generalizations about the limits of his occupation (“MC/ rhymer/ whatever you call it”) while ghostly voices howl around him. Though his lyrics display higher intelligence than the average rapper, the sounds of pronunciation trump content, reverberating around their own unusual rhyme contortions.
Vadim is now a man of Jah. Nowhere on USSR: Repertoire or 1999’s Life on the Other Side is there a backbeat jam to match “Ghetto Rebels” or Demolition Man’s “Who Me,” The Art of Listening‘s first single. Aggressive anti-authority sentiment among these reggae lyrics points to Vadim’s progressive political stance. His wider mind was famously displayed on “Your Revolution,” Life on the Other Side‘s neo-feminist rant by New York performance artist Sarah Jones.
On Art of Listening, Vadim eschews both the personal politics and the overt misogyny of big name hip-hop by featuring MC Yarah Bravo. Her two tracks hide their punch under a deceptively smooth veneer, delivered by a rhyme-sayer who’s more concerned with the state of day-to-day affairs than the latest single by the new pretender.
One can only imagine the difficulty of streamlining a group of such disparate sounds, but Vadim does the job with incredible efficiency, containing all elements within a modest sixty-five minute capsule, which is almost unheard of in the rap world. Are there any alien techniques here? Any revolutionary spewings of uncontestable truth? Probably not. But you won’t find this much diverse hip-hop talent anywhere else.
– October 2002