Text Alfonso Gomez
THE CASE FOR THE LONE DJ
Hip hop’s backbone, while inconsistent depending on whom you spoke with, is invariably anointed to the DJ – after all, it was the DJ who controlled the parties before knighting hypemen with mics (thus born was the MCs). With the recent reveal that Grandmaster Flash conned himself into the history books, having had nothing to do with the recordings of the two LPs The Furious Five had made, and the realisation that production duties don’t necessarily fall to the DJ, oftentimes rappers themselves make the best beats (see: RZA, El-P), the hip hop DJ is an archaic concept at best. However, Dae Kim’s </3? inadvertently falsifies that modern notion to a point.
Yes, inadvertent and only to a point – aside from two tracks, Dae’s ambigramically titled debut is far from hip hop; his launch party had ambient electronica maestro, euseng seto (FKA flica), as the very first opener. That isn’t a throwaway fact, </3 belongs more to that same canon of electronic music with glitch, ambient, musique concrete persuasions than of the genre he is more associated with prior to it. From the faint crackly pops of fireworks sampled on ‘Firework in the Middle of Summer’ to minimal scratching on the record (thank fucking God), it’s clear that Dae is the best kind of hip hop DJ, one that doesn’t limit themselves to the genre – outright ignoring it at times – or even feel pressured to conform to its tropes, à la Kid Koala, DJ Krush, Shadow, et al. No wonder then that Dae’s artiste page on Facebook says “electronica musician from KL,” as opposed to “hip hop DJ-producer from KL,” all the while still repping hip hop collective Rogue Squadron and his group The Bat Cave just above the statement.
Unfortunately, while Dae’s foray into ambient electronica is generally commendable from the moment the sun is set on ‘Ill-Mole’ (no points to whomever can guess the meaning of the word), the weakest track on the album features two of his crewmates. ‘Sure or Nah (feat. Gwa & Saphuan)’ isn’t necessarily a bad track – the production, Dae had dubbed “weird” before, is current and on point in its sound; this isn’t yet another Golden Age-channelling beat. But as is the case with hip hop, the rapper(s) make or break the track. Here, The Bat Cave’s affinity for channelling Minnesotan crew Doomtree is in full-effect, but Saphuan and Gwa simply do not have the gusto of the likes of POS and Mike Mictlan – it doesn’t help that the chorus and hook are uninspired, an element local hip hop tends to half-ass, what not with being too busy keeping it real with the generic rapping. A more capable – or interesting, at the very least – rapper would have helped, and true enough the second hip hop track, ‘Tao’ with Supa Mojo, fared much better. Ignoring her guest verse on ‘#AV’, that whole endeavour didn’t do anyone justice, here Mojo’s rap acumen is musical – the structure of her flow plays as much importance as the words; pay attention to the beat switch at the 2:16 mark.
As good as ‘Tao’ is though, </3? is ultimately a concept album about heartbreak centred around ambience. The inclusion of two rap cuts feels jarring, and ultimately undermines the cohesion and thematic scrutiny of the record – ‘Rainy 46’ would have benefited a lot if it weren’t following up the abominable ‘Sure or Nah’, and ‘Firework in the Middle of Summer’ would have complemented its atmospherics better than the aggression of ‘Tao’. Perhaps if </3? were less thematic, the rapping would have worked better as opposed to sounding forced – like Dae needed to represent hip hop in some manner. Having had commented that hip hop DJs don’t always understand how to use the turntables in a musical manner, and conceding that scratching isn’t a necessity, perhaps an understanding that MCs might ruin your musical ambitions could be the next step.
This isn’t a condemnation of vocal work though, the best track off </3? is still ‘Baby Blue’, the lovelorn Ryota Katayama-featuring single that had it been released anywhere else in the developed world, would have indubitably become a breakout hit. The type that the blogosphere (Pitchfork, Pigeons & Planes, Indie Shuffle, and the like) would hype to no end, even. And second to that is bonus track ‘Hmm…’, which had Dae taking the reins on the mic, surprisingly adequate in his singing to boot. By the time the album reaches that point though, there is an unshakeable feeling that this project is incomplete – too short, too little. Concept albums, it turns out, don’t benefit one bit from being truncated into an EP-length record.