Cooking Up Beats in Hell's Kitchen
New York's Hell's Kitchen is a neighborhood in flux. Despite the recent arrival of a Starbucks and gleaming new office towers fulfilling Mayor Giuliani's Disneyfied vision of New York, Hell's Kitchen still retains plenty of eclectic grit. So it seems fitting that the DJs known as Ming & FS have called the area home for years. Mixing everything from live instrumentation, tablas and video-game samples to drum-and-bass stylings, the duo's approach to hip-hop is as diverse as the neighborhood itself. And like Hell's Kitchen, which didn't enter the realm of viable hipdom until a few years ago, Ming & FS have recently emerged as unlikely darlings of the underground with their own critical cache. The future of hip-hop, they will tell you, has arrived -- and Puff Daddy and Busta Rhymes are nowhere to be seen.
Junkyard -- that's what Ming & FS call their style, and as any listen to their aptly titled debut, Hell's Kitchen, will reveal, it's a fitting tag. The sound mixes tightly blended scraps of grooved-out hip-hop breaks mixed with serious drum-and-bass. Danceable, intelligent, frenetic, this is not music to cure your migraine; it's music made in ADD heaven. As strict arbiters of hip-hop as art, the duo makes music at the speed of light -- constantly evolving and challenging the listener while broadening perceptions of what electronic music is.
Ming & FS came together in a harmonious convergence at a NYC house party, where Ming was spinning trip-hop and expressing a little 'shroom-induced creativity at the turntable. FS, working at the time as a professional hip-hop producer who remixed tracks for Coolio, Brandy and Channel Live of the KRS-One posse, was similarly affected by the mighty mushroom, and the two discovered a few shared characteristics. Both have roots in the breakdance craze of the early Eighties -- Ming is a former break-dancer, while FS began scratching for breakers at age ten -- and both have formal music training: FS graduated with a degree in jazz piano from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music; Ming studied jazz and completed an audio engineering program at the University of Miami. Perhaps most important, both harbored a disdain for commercial hip-hop and a desire to mix up the status-quo of modern mixology. Three years ago, they began recording break-beat cuts for the Brooklyn Music Limited label and eventually opened their own Madhattan Studio in Hell's Kitchen. Since then the duo has done remixes for Spooky, Omzone, Terra Diva -- even Puffy himself, something some purists view as a betrayal of their non-commercial claims.
"You catch a lot of flak from the underground because you're touching that kind of artist," says FS on the phone, referring to Ming & FS's drum-and-bass remix of Puff Daddy's "All About the Benjamins." Yet the laconic FS makes no effort to dilute his feelings about the state of commercial hip-hop or the pair's borderline subversive approach to remixing mainstream MCs. "If you look at what we did with the remix, we left the suckers off. We left Puffy and Mase off the record, because they suck." No apology necessary, and certainly none offered.
Like many who were born in the first true age of rap, FS was weaned on beats. "From when I was ten, I listened to hip-hop," he says. "Stuff that was funny about the Eighties, like the 'Safety Dance,' I missed out on. I had to learn about that later. I was heavy into Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and EPMD." Ming & FS view early hip-hop as a genre in which the practitioners and the patrons were more accepting of different approaches. When it started, rules were out and mixology was in, something they view as lamentably absent from much of the scene today.
"You'd expect people to be more open-minded," says FS. "But the truth is that a lot of people in the hip-hop and drum-and-bass scenes are elitists." Ming & FS ought to know, as their junkyard sound has left the production wizards in an identity quandary. Not hardcore enough for the East Coast underground scene and too rap for drum-and-bass purists, Ming & FS share an existence in a vacuum with DJ Shadow and precious few others. But are they worried? Nope. These DJs got next -- and they know it. They were signed to San Francisco's Om Records earlier this year after upstaging other acts on the label's Deeper Concentration Tour in February. And at the Om showcase at the College Music Festival in New York last month, Ming & FS happily confounded the crowd with their four turntables and lush live instruments. The show went well enough that the two were "embarrassed by the cheers. It was that loud and awkward," says FS.
Clearly, somebody's listening. But determining just who makes up their audience is a messy business. Is it the drum-and-bass kids? The hip-hop contingent? The dance set? "I think our show audiences are pretty mixed," FS says. "I don't really feel that there is a core audience. I think what we're looking at is a new breed of hip-hop heads...or even old-school heads who want to go back to what the original hip-hop was about, which is musical diversity and being open-minded enough to try new things. Unfortunately, both communities [drum-and-bass and hip-hop] have gotten very closed-minded, although they both sort of came from the same mentality, which was to be open to new and innovative things."
Hell's Kitchen, released on Om Records, offers evidence that Ming & FS do not suffer the same malady. The twosome orchestrated every aspect of the recording at Madhattan, and the programmed beats and electro-themes collide with organic live instruments, including acoustic drums and electric guitar, to arresting, contradictory effect. "Brain Dead Amphibian Twins/Rock Higher" is a good example of the sound: Starting out slowly with a droning horn sample and a pulsing bass line, the track gives in to a vocal sample and breakneck scratching within seconds. Layers continue to unfold as the track devolves into a futuristic-sounding video game replete with Star Wars laser blasts mixed with slayer guitar samples over a bouncing drum-and-bass beat. But unlike a Squarepusher or Aphex Twin, Ming & FS groove throughout. Against a backdrop of electric bass and piano, "Family" (featuring rapper Werdplay) offers a lyric that seems aimed at those who don't quite understand the fusion: "The music we combine continues to run through your mind/The secret to the sweet sound is how I utilize the rhyme."
Ming & FS represent one direction hip-hop might head in coming years -- their sound is at once a futuristic blend of emergent technologies and aesthetics and a revert to the roots of rap. And that's not a bad way to enter the new millennium.
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