DJ Zeph has seen Jay-Z perform live on television, and DJ Zeph is not amused.
"God damn, it was so boring," the revered Bay Area turntablist says. "Dudes standing around in white T-shirts and baggy jeans and towels -- there's like ten of 'em onstage, and none of 'em have any stage presence, and they're all downstaging each other and talkin' all over each other. Man, I remember when 'The Humpty Dance' came out, goin' to see Digital Underground perform. Those guys were just killin' it, man -- they had this really elaborate stage show worked out, they had props, they had guest appearances, they had all of this stuff, and it was a show."
If you want to impress DJ Zeph with the one-dude-standing-onstage-rapping routine these days, you'd better be Rakim. And even then, you (Rakim) had better hope Zeph is in a good mood.
Of course, avoiding the tried-and-true, but tired DJ/DAT player route means putting together a live band, and that, as the more astute among you may have already realized, is slightly more difficult than blowing flying pigs out your ass to attack the fat man passing through the eye of a needle.
So a round of applause, please, for DJ Zeph and the steadily growing and incomparable Variable Unit. The full-on bass-drums-keys-turntables-etc. local hip-hop collective has pounded out three full-length records in the past, oh, nine months, culminating with the new Mayhem Mystics, backing up North Oakland rapper Azeem.
Put that pathetic N.E.R.D. album down this very instant. Mayhem whips the proverbial cheetah's ass, and will gladly do the same for yours. It's a record so great it might trigger a complete paradigm shift -- all live band hip-hop, all the time. "Backing an MC with real quality music -- there's a void of that in hip-hop," explains producer and multi-instrumental guy Gregory Howe. "I love hip-hop, but there's only so much of a real kind of edited, produced rhythm section I can take. I really like to hear people in there fucking with the beat, and really personalizing it."
Mayhem -- coming on the heels of November's all-instrumental platter Cold Flow and last summer's politically charged guest-rapper-laden Handbook for the Apocalypse (all three out on Greg's SF label Wide Hive) -- represents the peak of Variable Unit's personalizing and fucking with the beat. Though largely a studio-rat project to date, Variable Unit's jazz-funk-soul gymnastics on Mayhem -- beats and basslines and bleating horns snapping like sharp teeth through fresh organic carrots -- may vault the group to the also-proverbial Next Level. If you hired a crane to rip Yoshi's completely out of Jack London Square and drop the jazz club, intact, in the center of Berkeley's People's Park, VU could blow the roof off the joint nightly for a month straight.
Greg rightly credits Azeem for a great deal of the latest project's juice. After fabulous guest appearances on Apocalypse and DJ Zeph's self-titled solo album, the rapper raises the conscious rapper game to a higher consciousness on Mayhem. "Azeem is content, man," Greg raves, launching over the phone into a verse from the record's first cut, "Seals": Consumed souls united on the astral plane confused herded together by the angels and watchers who all wait patient for the news this is the harvest some receive light some receive darkness.
But don't give Azeem all your attention (do, however, read Close 2 tha Edge this week). The term "backing band" doesn't cut it where VU is concerned. We might not encounter a more lush hip-hop production job this year, funky and tight but still demonstrably breathing. Bassist Matt Montgomery dominates whether on the upright or electric, although he is constantly fighting off assaults from turntablists Zeph and DJ Quest, keyboard/Rhodes masterminds Jacob Elijah Aginsky and Kat Ouano, and various coconspirators on flute, gong, and vocals.
It's a loose-knit, constantly evolving membership (hence the name), but Greg is ready to make it a little less variable and a little more public. "It's no longer a producer's project," he says. "These are a lot of great musicians who are now becoming more cohesive. It's gonna be a band that's gonna start giggin'. It's gonna start happenin', man."
Greg is already scouting out future collaborators: He raves about Blackalicious vocalist Omega, comparing her to a character from The Warriors. But Variable Unit is the entity to watch, viciously down enough to snare hip-hop lifers but funky and fluid enough to snare jazzbos and even jam-band fans. Both Greg and Zeph employ the word "jam" carefully, distancing themselves from formless, mindless, endless noodling. But if Greg manages to get this live-band aspiration off the ground and VU drops more gems like Mayhem Mystics, the Bay's own Roots phenomenon may set the world aflame -- drum machine-precise, but beating like a human heart.
It has been done to some extent, but to a greater extent it has simply been attempted. Though far preferable to Jay-Z in this regard, live hip-hop experimenters Digable Planets didn't impress DJ Zeph either. "I went and saw them at the Fillmore, and the band wasn't stretching out at all," he says. "The band was trying to play the way the record sounded -- they had these hip-hop produced beats with these loops, these samples, and here comes the band playing those loops and samples, not sounding like a band. A band shouldn't have to play a loop. Some of the James Brown stuff even sounds like a loop, just over and over, but it's funky, and you can tell it's live."
Just like ol' James, when VU starts fucking with the beat, you'll know.
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