Published Jul 01, 2005It's been called "cosmic soul," "progressive soul" and other loose variations on a theme, but none has really stuck; as likely to draw from hip-hop, soul, house, jazz or funk, it's music that remains inherently difficult to define. It can't be ascribed any well-worn cliches; it doesn't centre on a particular city nor scene. And yet many of its practitioners share commonalities most have come up through a hip-hop scene, and use that as the foundation to creatively expand their boundaries. While their music is obviously informed by their hip-hop pedigree, the music produced by groups like Platinum Pied Pipers, Sa-Ra Creative Partners and Plant Life three acts who have received particular attention can't be easily categorised solely as hip-hop. Benji B, a BBC Radio DJ who, along with other tastemakers like Gilles Peterson, has championed the music of these artists on his influential radio show, attempted to describe this music in the liner notes of the recently released Raw Fusion Bass-Ment Classics compilation. "At the core of it, this music is made for, and by, the hip-hop generation. It's soulful but electronic, it's heavy at the bottom but crisp at the top, and sloppy at its best. It's not backpack or jiggy or whatever it's dope basically, that's what links these beats together." More than anything the stylistically distinctive music being produced by these artists is united by a progressive philosophy or approach more than anything else. Who needs a name?
Old to the New
For some, being compared to Outkast might be taken as a compliment. But Jack Splash, lead vocalist for L.A.-based retro-soul troupe Plant Life, wasn't sure how to take it.
"It kinda bugged me out, like What the fuck are people talking about?'" he says, discussing the decidedly positive critical reception for Plant Life's The Return of Jack Splash, recently released in North America after success in Europe and Australia. "A gang of people were making those comparisons so I really paid attention and for me, I realised it's bigger than Plant Life or Outkast. It's a bigger, bigger thing. All the freshest MCs, the ones that I like at least, over the last couple of years have been trying to push it further. That's Pharoahe Monch, that's Mos Def, even Lauryn Hill and Cee-Lo as well, and it's not just about singing, it's about spreading your wings and styling. For me, that's where I came from and that's where our whole style originally came from. I have a strong hip-hop background but I didn't really do that on this record 'cause I don't like to randomly fill shit in there. I wanted the vibe to be consistent."
Splash was an MC and spoken word artist in the West coast hip-hop underground when he met up with Panda 1, a producer who had worked with mic wielders like Aceyalone and Medusa, and in his own group Animal Pharm. Soon they brought in vocalist Dana Deadly, who was in a trip-hop-inspired group with DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill, and DJ Rashida, who was in a group with Tricky, to join the loose jam sessions.
"For me, my style is the Plant Life style and it's just a mixture of everything that we as a crew bring to the table. Classic songs, from James Brown to Sly Stone to Prince to Earth, Wind & Fire. Everything hip-hop dudes have always fuckin' loved. We're just trying to create new shit that people will want to sample. Rather than going back and just sampling, we're just trying to make a groove that will make someone bug the fuck out."
The album instinctively reflects these aspirations and is filled with riff-heavy funk jams and luminous psychedelic soul, bound together by Jack Splash's raw vocals. "I consider myself a vibist instead of a singer," he says. "We've gotten a lot of support from cats I really dug. Mos Def, Cee-Lo and Pharrell reached out and it's funny because they're kinda similar too. It's more about the emotion behind it than singing like Mariah Carey. We like to have fun in the studio. I'm a perfectionist when it comes to the groove and the overall energy, but I'm not a perfectionist about silly little shit. If it sounds wack, I'ma redo it. If there's a little mistake in it, if it's cool to me I might let it run. I argue with some of my musicians too 'cause sometimes they want to be technically perfect."
While Splash laments that he has been pigeonholed as a player because some of the songs revolve around love and sex, he's right in pointing out that plenty also highlight political issues, racism and homophobia, bringing contemporary social commentary despite Plant Life's throwback tendencies. "We can't just fight to change racism and be homophobic. Maybe it's a bit better, as far as racism is concerned, than it was 30 years ago. But people are still walking around with an ignorant mentality about a lot of other things. I don't believe you have to be gay to say, Dog, this is wrong.' I don't think you need to be soft to respect women. I'm not saying I've always had that mentality, but when I was younger I didn't know any better. I was crazy sexist when I was younger, 'cause I really didn't know any better; I had that bitches and hos' mentality, straight up. I'd be the first person to proclaim that because I didn't know any better. But once you learn, all that shit is just silly to you. So when I'm out there being free stylistically and people say I'm gay, I crack the fuck up. You have no idea who I am. I'm not really walking around judging people. To each his own, just get the dirt off your shoulder, don't even trip and watch what happens."
Platinum Pied Pipers
Looking for the Perfect Beat
"People just want to be able to put you in a box," says Waajeed of the Platinum Pied Pipers. "It was just important on this jump-off, my first baby, to not be typecast, so people won't be able to say, Yeah, that's the cat that's gonna do this' or You don't expect them to do this.' My career is going to be based on all different types of shit. I wanna do house, drum & bass, hip-hop I want to do it all, so I wanted to set the curve properly out the gate, so you'll expect anything from this cat." At face value these statements might seem a little premature, given that the Platinum Pied Pipers have only just released their outstanding genre-blurring debut, Triple P, but having grown up around one of hip-hop's most influential current producers, you can understand the need to articulate his own space.
Waajeed is a founding member of respected hip-hop outfit Slum Village; he grew up with production maestro Jay Dee and the other members in Detroit, and was their DJ until he left the group after receiving a scholarship to art college. Despite issuing records on his own Bling 47 label, Waajeed continued to work with his former crew, appearing on Jay Dee's Welcome To Detroit and Slum Village's Trinity. He began work on his Platinum Pied Pipers project with multi-instrumentalist Saadiq after meeting him through ex-Slum Village member Baatin, a mutual friend.
So why wasn't this project solely another hip-hop group? "It was too easy," Waajeed says. "I'll never take the easy way out. We could punch out a hip-hop album in a week and get it on the street. This album was two years in the process. Every time I sit down in front of my machine or whatever I'm using to create, I just try to reinvent myself. So to do just another hip-hop album wasn't true to my approach. More importantly, it wasn't true to my character. I always want to switch it up. It's just a reflection of who I am, it's what I'm about."
While their early twelve-inch releases featured vocalists like Dwele, the project has morphed into a rotating assembly with a cast of several vocalists and MCs, and Waajeed trying on a different musical outfit for nearly every song. There's an air of restlessness and attentive proficiency that permeates the production, bolstered by performances from newcomer vocalists like Tiombe Lockhart and Georgia, MCs Invincible and the aforementioned Jay Dee and special guests like Sa-Ra Creative Partners. The Platinum Pied Pipers' sound collapses soul, hip-hop, jazz, funk, house, techno and bossa nova into an accomplished and refreshing synthesis that doesn't come off like a self-conscious mathematical application of musical styles. It's the polar opposite of formulaic music, which is often lyrically targeted on the album, boldly addressed in particular on efforts such as "Your Day Is Done."
"Y'all can get out the way, we hope y'all saved some money, y'all got platinum plaques and shit, running around with mink coats, because basically I'm here to evict this bullshit that's happening out here man, it's some garbage," says Waajeed, describing the philosophy that informed the particular track. "There's a lot of great stuff and I think I can attribute a lot of that good stuff to the underground. But we're here to platinum pied pipe one person at a time. That's what we're here for."
Addressing these issues so boldly is indicative of Waajeed's progressive approach to making music. The group recently moved to New York from Detroit without even stopping to buy a couch and Waajeed is getting ready to release music by artists featured on the Platinum Pied Pipers album, as well as his second volume of BPM instrumentals, which he indicates will be heavily inspired by Kraftwerk and a recent trip to Dusseldorf. "We're all looking for the perfect beat," he says. "That's what inspires me every day to just keep pushing myself, and put myself in a place where I'm uncomfortable and try to make something new. It may come out wack, but it's the attempt to find the perfect beat, to find something new to expand my consciousness. Just trying to be in a different place."
Sa-Ra Creative Partners
Freaks of the Industry
Despite having very few official releases let alone an album bearing their name, Sa-Ra Creative Partners have managed to create intense word of mouth buzz through their endearingly offbeat music, power moves, sartorial flair and philosophies.
"We have all studied and marketed ourselves," says Om'mas Keith, one third of Sa-Ra. "We like to call ourselves spin doctors, we're masters of our universe. We've been marketing ourselves as individuals prior to forming Sa-Ra for years and years."
Indeed the trio made up of Keith, Taz Arnold and Shafiq Husayn aren't exactly newcomers. Husayn was the in-house producer for Ice-T, helming tracks such as "New Jack Hustler" during his artistic peak, while Om'mas Keith, a trained jazz musician, was an engineer on records by Mobb Deep and Foxy Brown. Taz Arnold was a consultant on Dr. Dre's 2001 project. Soon after Arnold finished working on that record, the trio joined forces to form Sa-Ra and produced tracks for Jurassic 5 ("Hey") and Pharoahe Monch ("Agent Orange"). Sa-Ra's own officially released music includes their debut twelve-inch, "Glorious," where the futuristic electro bounce and fuzzy synths, coupled with layered vocals used to cosmic operatic effect, are clearly influenced by the p-funk of George Clinton; it's made an arresting first impression on DJs and underground groove aficionados.
Yet Husayn insists the sound on that record is about three years old and is only one aspect of the Sa-Ra sound, which has evolved in the interim. "Cats have grown," he says. "We weren't really artists at first. We weren't singers. Om'mas has a musical background, he comes from a jazz family; Taz and I grew up in hip-hop. The difference is that we turned ourselves into artists, 'cause cats didn't really fawn over the tracks at first. People didn't really know what to do with them. So we turned around and guinea-pigged ourselves."
The group strategically approached tastemakers, handing them CD-Rs bearing sonic influences that ran the gamut from early Prince to Steely Dan, banking on the fact the CDs would be bootlegged and proliferate. Eventually, their CDs assisted in landing them several remix and production projects. Yet despite the shameless positioning of Sa-Ra Creative Partners as a quasi-corporate entity, the music remains leftfield and decidedly off-kilter. The group have been living and working together in the same house, creating in a studio where they all play instruments and rarely sample.
"It's gotta have certain qualities. It's gotta be unconventional; we definitely take an unconventional approach to our production style in how we go about doing vocals," says Om'mas Keith. "We might start our vocal stacks up with the highest harmony first and the most dissonant note first and build around that. You sit down at the piano, you play a chord, you listen to the voices, you pick your notes it's like simple math. That's a big secret to give away, it really is it really can be broken down into a mathematical thing. We're really methodical and scientific in our approach."
Math and science are not the only disciplines the trio draw upon. Taz Arnold refers to the group's music as "Afro-electronic magnetic spiritualism." The term Sa-Ra itself translates as "offspring of the most powerful energy in the universe" or "child of the cosmos," and when they were approached to collaborate with Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, it was seen as the next step.
"We're some brothers who actually will [our work] into existence. We have magical powers. We believe that," says Keith. "Every combination of words that we have put into play has manifested, from working with Jill Scott to having a major label deal. We manifested all that. I may be a bit loquacious. I may be a bit long-winded. But I just want people to know that we are the epitome of what this industry sees of creative executives."
The trio will get to put this claim to a formidable test as the newly appointed heads of Rawkus, the long-dormant label that was once synonymous with independent late '90s hip-hop. While a mix-tape, Dark Matter & Pornography, is currently circulating and they have recently signed to Kanye West's label, the next thing on deck for Sa-Ra Creative Partners is an album for Ubiquity slated for the fall that will reportedly incorporate their penchant for jazz and experimental music. According to Keith, "we're providing the sound for this next generation of cats that are kinda post neo-soul, and heavily influenced by what Andre  and NERD did. In addition to that, we're well studied and well versed in the language of the masters and the forefathers of this music shit. From Fela and Louis Armstrong, from punk to Monk. Our repertoire is extensive like that."