Once upon a time, in a land not all that far away, the notion that sample or mix-driven music could reach the level of art was viewed as logical, even inevitable. But money and popularity breeds conservatism, which helps explain why the majority of today's hip-hop producers are more interested in copping the slamming beats of current radio smashes than in mutating them into new forms. It's also why too many mixologists think any sound that makes ravers stop twitching for an instant and cock their heads in surprise should be avoided at all cost. Praise be, then, to the folks at Shadow Records, who, judging by these three releases, still see the value of following Robert Frost's advice about taking the road less traveled.
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Gumi, who comes to Shadow courtesy of Artefact, the French label that introduced the planet to the wizardry of DJ Cam, exhibits a keen sense of drama on Mixing a Ghost. "Spyworm" fuses swirling strings and a mysterioso flute with a thumping beat that marches ever deeper into the heart of darkness; "Innerscar," remixed by Kid Loco, is all hooky keyboards, shuffling rhythms and droning voices; "Hide and Seek" sprinkles random Easternisms over a soundscape that builds and builds during nearly six increasingly suspenseful minutes; and "Darkstar" gets interstellar, thanks to a beguiling blend of sci-fi effects and psychedelia. On downtempodojo, Saru, aka Los Angeles-based producer and DJ Steve Branson, delves even deeper into the bowels of turntable funk: "Posterity" is a minor-key expedition replete with a jazzy bass line and sampled grunts and shouts, "Bamboo Shadow" revels in looped percussion and echoey studio tinkering, "Jade" moves old-school dub in a decidedly new-school direction, and "Suck in Love" takes a charming, almost folky guitar figure on a space odyssey. Finally, the Total Trauma collection runs the drum-and-bass gamut, from spare workouts (Manifest's "Underworld," Techlevel 2's "Tracker") to full-scale techno opuses (DJ Surreal & Parameter 2's "Kuttlefish," the 5th Assassin's siren-driven "Interface").
The pleasures inherent in these discs are probably too challenging for the mainstream, which helps explain why Shadow remains a cult label. But if creativity were music's most important criteria (and wouldn't it be a better world if that were true?), its releases would be on top of the charts.