Aggressive bears, loaded shotguns pointed at my face, near-fatal cliff falls, 140 gallons of beer, and 72 hours in the great outdoors have finally given me the perspective to review DJ Shadow's much-hyped new release The Outsider.
The Bay Area producer's first album in four years comes out this week, and it will win him less new fans than it will alienate old ones, largely because of two opposing forces in music: 1) The law that says artists must evolve or die. 2) The reality that human beings despise change in any form.
The old Shadow (aka Josh Davis) emerged in the early '90s from the cowtown of Davis, blowing up with '96's all-instrumental, all-sample, drum-based Endtroducing. He followed it with a stunning Thom Yorke collaboration on '98's Psyence Fiction and 2002's equally stunning Private Press. Sandwiched in there is his role in founding Quannum, one of the Bay's most notable hip-hop labels, thanks to Blackalicious and Lyrics Born.
In the four years since Private Press, the Bay Area's leading light has been overshadowed by the region's homegrown rap phenomenon: hyphy. Everything in Oakland is hyphy this, hyphy that right now, and the backlash has begun. But outside of the Bay very few people know what the hell hyphy is, especially the fifty drunkards from Sacramento, Utah, and thereabouts who've gathered in the wilderness 160 miles northwest of Oakland for Bro Campout 2006.
Organized by a bro from college who never signed up for a single class, the campout is on year six. The debauch now includes three campsites on fifteen acres of a pine-studded peninsula, totally isolated from nosy cops and bitchy families but not bears.
In short, these snaggle-toothed, pot-bellied, horseshoe-playing inland mutants provide the ideal focus group for The Outsider. They are completely ignorant of Shadow's recent hype, clueless about hyphy, Shadow's move into hyphy, or any other musical movement since headbanging. In essence, they represent middle America, and Joe 24-Pack stopped buying CDs sometime after high school.
This reality rings untrue to journalists, musicians, and fans who live in the perpetual new music bubble. But most Americans raise kids and lift their trucks' suspensions in lieu of following the latest Brazilian dance group.
Bro Campout 2006's daily playlist closely resembles that of 107.7 the Bone mixed with a recently released '90s compilation, Buzz Ballads. It's as bad as it sounds: Live, Third Eye Blind, Sublime, Soul Asylum, Candlebox, and the Gin Blossoms ad nauseam, plus some Frank Sinatra, Bob Marley, AC/DC, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
This is what happens to male musical tastes once the drive to appear cool and impress girls peters out. Do not, I repeat, do not underestimate the power young girls exert upon the American male music consumer.
Take hyphy, with its uptempo mix of trash synthesizers, simple repetitive melodies, and some crazy dude shouting at you to Blow the whistle! or Gas, break, dip! or Put ya stunna shades on! It cannot be opposed. Nubile breasts will bounce, collagen-free asses must shake, and Bro-types take mental note of what's on the radio.
By midnight, the handful of underage girls at the Bro Campout are sloppy drunk in honor of an injured girlfriend who slipped and fell seventeen feet off a cliff face into eighteen inches of water and managed to not die. "I want to get hyphy," exclaims nineteen-year-old Haley, humming the four notes to E-40's "U and Dat," all bright eyes and loose-fitting hippie clothing. "Try and catch me ridin' dirty!" her girlfriends sing and dance.
Now is time for the test.
Of the seventeen songs on The Outsider, five can go straight to rap mixtapes, KMEL, and KYLD. I skip to the hyphyest of the bunch, "3 Freaks," which features the stupid-genius chorus Turf Talk and Keak da Sneak!/Turf Talk and Keak da Sneak!
Turf Talk and Keak da Sneak are both hyphy allstars. Now they are singing their own names as the chorus to a hit song. Take note, self-deprecating indie bands. It's all about product placement.
As Haley bounces, skeptical looks shoot my way from the bar and campfire areas. She again demands "U and Dat" by singing the melody. Murmurs of "fuckin' rap" emanate from the darkness.
Up next, hyphy-as-hell "Turf Dancing," followed by "Droop-E Drop" and "Dats My Part." But the hyphy girls don't know the new lyrics, cadences, or hyphy voices, and I know this is a failed test. Middle America has always balked at outsiders.
The test ends when some batshit crazy girl named Eden starts screaming unintelligibly at the top of her lungs in the dark. The camp assumes she's being mauled by the family of bears who've raided tents and eaten most of the food two nights in a row. So scared are we that a bro I've named "Mountain Man" John due to his love of bare feet, firearms, and shirtlessness immediately raises a red-hot shovel he'd been roasting in the campfire out above his head and charges into the night after the bear, wooden handle aflame.
All we can see is the red spade bouncing into nothingness. All we can hear are Eden's hysterics over E-40 saying That's my part!
The crowd has had enough. Gay jokes are made at Press Play's expense. All assume that hyphy drove Eden mad, and soothing country replaces thizzed-out beats.
The Outsider may work in a Jack London Square club or Broadway sideshow, but it doesn't translate to the Valley, Davis, Sacramento, and beyond. The album showcases unrelated songs destined for all manner of folky college radio, Coldplay-ish Live 105.5, bluesy 107.7 the Bone, and even some soothing Star 96.7 crap. But it has no true home.
"I believe that in this iTunes, mixtape world people can handle the diversity," Shadow states on his Web site.
Fair enough, because consumers will immediately tear The Outsider apart and reassemble it in the proper iPod genres. Which is a shame, because Shadow's cohesive vision used to be a big part of his brilliance.
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