As well as a round-up of recent noteworthy mixtapes, this edition of Champion Sound sees us speak with LA beatmaker Samiyam, whose new LP on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label was released in late June. The eponymous Sam Baker’s Album has been one of the label’s most hotly anticipated releases, following in the footsteps of an encouraging debut, Rap Beats Vol. 1, and subsequent EPs on Hyperdub and Poobah. Needless to say, the record did not disappoint, and we caught up with Baker to chat hip hop, mixtapes and the LA beats scene.
Speaking with Sam Baker, better known as Samiyam, it quickly becomes apparent that he feels somewhat nostalgic about hip hop. With retrospect this should have been obvious, his loops are lovingly constructed out of potent synth sounds and classic boom bap, coloured with samples drawn from anything from 80s disco to eerie Italo-Horror. If there’s one thing that makes Samiyam’s beats stand out, though, it’s their sheer presence. While each song, beat, or instrumental sketch (depending on how you look at them) may be crammed with intricacies, they’re often dominated by prevailing slabs of gargantuan bass that somehow splits the music in half, yet also holds it firmly together.
“People have all kind of crazy names for what I do, but hip hop is what it is with me,” says Baker, adding, “I’m still riding around listening to Kool G Rap.” With arbitrary genres springing up all over the place, while the recent growth of electronic music has further blurred the boundaries of how we classify music, Samiyam’s purist alignment with hip hop is refreshing to hear. Artists so often seem to resist being pigeonholed or aligned with making one type of music, as if by just making hip hop, or house or indie rock, it is not enough in today’s varied musical landscape. Growing up in the 90’s, however, Baker developed a taste for hip hop in what many consider the genre’s heyday and has stuck with it ever since. Yet, as the conversation moves on to modern rap music, Baker is less enthusiastic;
“Honestly, I’m not so impressed with new rap,” he says, “It's changed a lot and now you have people who gain success by flooding Youtube with 3 million videos.” Pausing for thought, he continues, “there's still some new shit that's dope occasionally, but so much of it is completely contrived shit. It’s like, look at me I'm crazy! Or, look at me I'm a gangster! Fuck that shit. It used to be about style and rappers who were completely full of shit didn't catch on so easily.”
From a production point of view too, Samiyam’s records sound far away from those that are dominating modern hip hop through both the charts and rap blogs. Large strands in contemporary rap music have been infiltrated by pop music’s taste for incessantly loud production, leaving little room for sonic variation and balance. Ironically, while much mainstream hip hop is being driven by cheap sounding drum samples, beats by comparatively small time producers like Samiyam are the sound equivalent of a fillet steak to Lex Luger’s chicken nuggets and chips.
When I put it to Baker that Hip Hop is borrowing some of its style, or lack of, from modern pop records, he seems to agree. “Oh yeah, loud ass trance synths and shit? People rap about topics from pop songs now over shit that sounds like a slowed down Paul Oakenfold track...I’m Lost.”
Attempting to push the conversation into more positive territory, we move on to discussing the Los Angeles beats scene, a city that is home to such varied talents as Flying Lotus, Madlib, Baths and Daedelus. Perhaps it’s just the sunshine, but there’s something about LA that seems to breed talented beatmakers like few others. Baker is wary, though, of overstating his involvement in any kind of scene.
“I’m just interested to hear dope music in general, and I really don't listen to that much new shit, even by my neighbours. I think people get the idea that I’m way more influenced by ‘being part of the LA scene’ than I am in reality. It doesn't matter where we are really, I don’t wear flip flops and I don’t give a fuck about a palm tree, but there is a lot of love out here and that’s what makes it possible in my opinion”
Perhaps this also stands for the rest of the beats scene, and while the artists signed to Brainfeeder can certainly be identified as holding some common ground, each has their own distinctive groove that separates them from the pack. From Flying Lotus’ Jazz influence, to the warped psych beats of The Gaslamp Killer, what marks out Samiyam’s music is out and out hip hop swagger. Tracks like ‘Kitties’ and ‘Wonton Special’ from the latest album are so brilliantly bouncy, simultaneously recalling the hydraulics from Dre’s ‘Still D.R.E.’ video while making them instantly recognisable as Samiyam tracks. Another distinguishing factor is song length, as Baker settles with brief song ‘sketches’ that give him a chance to clear out his musical brain;
“The beat tape format just always makes sense to me,” says Baker, “even when rappers were dope and had shit to talk about I liked to listen to instrumentals sometimes, [and using short tracks] allows me to get a lot of ideas out”.
Ideas are something Sam Baker’s Album is not lacking, and as we begin to discuss mixtapes he argues this is one of the strengths of that particular format. “It’s a good way for somebody with a lot to say to get some extra shit out there, but it also can be a good way for some talentless shitstain to flood the world with their voice.”
Perhaps it’s fair to say that Baker’s love of instrumentals is driven not entirely by a love of beats in their raw form, but also of high standards when it comes to rap music. You get the feeling that there could have been the possibility of a full Samiyam album with vocal collaborations, if not for the frustration of working with second rate verses. Asked whether he would mind finding his beats cropping up on a mixtape without sample clearance, he laughs, before proclaiming, “It depends on who’s rapping over them!” With beats this good, his paternal instincts are completely understandable.
Sam Baker’s Album by Samiyam is out now on Brainfeeder.
Lil Wayne – Sorry 4 the Wait
Fresh out of prison and back on the mixtape scene, this stop gap release from Weezy is a welcome gift to tie us over until the oft-delayed Tha Carter IV. Having built his reputation with some superb mixtapes in years gone by, expectations for this one are high, but does Wayne live up to his potential?
In short, the answer is no, but that doesn’t stop this from being a largely enjoyable listen. At his very best Lil’ Wayne is almost untouchable, throwing away classic punchlines at will and impressing through clever wordplay and unique phrasing. Sorry 4 the Wait, on the other hand, lacks some of the spark and personality which makes Wayne a special talent. Following the same format as his No Ceilings tape from 2009, the beats here are culled from recent hits in rap and R&B which he attempts to put a new spin on. At least that’s idea. But while with No Ceilings Wayne had used popular beats as a platform to outclass his contemporaries, here he fails to make the same impact. Take opener ‘Tunechi’s Back’, for example, which should mark Weezy’s triumphant return, and instead sounds like more of an imitation of the original (‘Tupac Back’) by Meek Mill, which in itself sounds like an imitation of Maybach Music founder Rick Ross. It’s a decent rendition, but no more interesting than the dozens of others floating around Youtube.
This is not to say Sorry 4 the Wait is not a fun listen, and there are a few great moments here that suggest Tha Carter IV will not disappoint. A freestyle over Drake’s ‘Marvin’s Room’ is a particular highlight, showcasing a woozy sounding Weezy with gentle tones reminiscent of ‘I’m Single’ from last year’s I’m Not A Human Being (my favourite song from that album, incidentally). Elsewhere, Wayne sounds best when you can hear him enjoying himself, such as on Kreayshawn smash ‘Gucci Gucci’, and then Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ on the mixtape’s title track.
As Sorry 4 the Wait comes to a close then, all is forgiven, but let’s hope Tha Carter IV gives us something to get properly excited about.
Green Ova Undergrounds – Chandelier
Keeping up with Bay Area collective Green Ova Undergrounds is a tiring endeavour. While I’m all for productivity, so far in 2011 they have released eight mixtapes in as many months between their various groups and solo projects. Regardless of how strong these mixtapes might be, releasing music at this rate is hardly ever a good idea; I’m a huge Madlib fan, for instance, but keeping track of his one-a-month Medicine Show series last year was a battle that only the most dedicated will have won.
Predictably, then, there’s a lot of fairly run of the mill stoner rap to wade through in order to unearth the moments of inspiration. June’s Chandelier tape is perhaps the most interesting of their recent output, entirely produced by Julian Wass of LA alt. Pop outfit Fol Chen and an unknown (to me) collaborator L.W.H. While perhaps not the most obvious musical pairing, the beats here are both varied and imaginative, bringing the best out of the Green Ova Undergrounds camp. Most noticeably, this tape is a departure from muffled lo-fi territory, and at its strongest, hints at what they’re capable of given a bit of direction. The highlight for me is ‘I Gotta Youngin Doe’; with its strained emotive vocals over a melodic piano backdrop and jittery hi hats, it’s up there with the best they’ve produced so far. If these guys ever settle down and make an album’s worth of this stuff, they’ll be on to something quite special and unique.
Pill – The Diagnosis
While Maybach Music Group’s Self Made Vol.1 compilation from earlier this year proved to be a decent label showcase, it’s perhaps Atlanta, Georgia’s Pill who has so far shown the most promise as a solo artist. A consistent mixtape performer over the past couple of years, Pill sounded the best on the compilation because his style was distinct among a group of rappers still finding their voice. The label has a talented but varied roster, and even a should-be established rapper such as Wale sounds confused over at Maybach, just as he did all over his debut on Interscope in 2009.
The Diagnosis, then, is unfortunately hampered by a fairly scatty selection of beats and results in a mostly uncohesive mixtape. There’s no doubt that Pill performs best over gritty street rap, and when given these beats, as on openers ‘Stayin Down’ and ‘Scottie Pippen Tim Duncan’, he delivers as usual. From here on though, things are a little more hit and miss. While signing to Maybach may have opened him up to collaborations with the likes of Gucci Mane and Pusha T, Pill sounds lost over party rap and it shows. He’s just too energetic a rapper to sound natural over a track like ‘She like to Party’, and if he was at a party, you feel he’d be the one getting carried away and subsequently thrown out.
Although Maybach’s ever expanding roster continues to look good on paper, let’s hope that it’s more distinctive artists such as Pill and Stalley don’t end up getting lost in Rick Ross’ not unsubstantial shadow.
The Game – Hoodmorning (no typo): Candy Coronas
In contrast to Weezy and Pill, no such identity crisis can be found on The Game’s latest mixtape, Hoodmorning (no typo): Candy Coronas. While many people use mixtapes to try out new ideas, The Game has used the format to continually re-assert his presence, making gangster rap with no added frills. Teaming up with DJ Skee again for a collaboration that worked so well on Brake Lights and Purp and Patron, The Game has impressed once more with another exceptional tape. He’s now released well over 50 free tracks in the last two years of consistent quality, and you have to wonder what he’s holding back for The R.E.D. Album which drops later this month.
Highlights this time around come from the Cool & Dre produced ‘Infared’ and ‘Red’, as well as supposed Jay Z diss track ‘Uncle Otis’. To me though, the track plays more like a free for all, as The Game playfully pops shots at everyone including those scheduled to appear on his forthcoming record. Perhaps most poignantly, Game takes aim at hipster rap sensation Kreayshawn, mimicking the chorus to ‘Gucci Gucci’ before confronting her liberal use of the N word; “Lil white bitch better stay in ya place / You call me a n****, I’ma put the K in ya face.” Here’s hoping he’s held back some of this heat for his album.
Astronote – Weapon of the Future
Parisian beatmaker Astronote channels Detroit through his hard hitting new project Weapon of the Future, offered as a free download via Bandcamp. Following in the tradition of the likes of Dilla and Black Milk, Astronote samples live instruments to create a vibrant mix of pianos, strings, horns, and most importantly, devastating drums. He’s certainly not the first producer to be influenced by this sound, but Astronote’s delivery is convincing and he emerges from the album as very much a producer to look out for.
While the vocal contributions here (Trek Life, Magestik Legend, Rasco) don’t really offer much other than light distraction, if you’re listening to this you’re probably in it for the beats anyway. With that in mind there’s not really a dud amongst the bunch, as Astronote throws everything at the production yet somehow keeps it sounding tight and controlled. Highlight ‘Guns A Blaze’, for example, builds a rock-steady beat from some chimes interspersed with an almost comic tuba sample, yet with added drums still sounds hard as ever. If this is your thing there’s also a recent beat tape and remixes available from Astronote’s Bandcamp, so dive in and enjoy.
Paul White – Rapping With Paul White: The DJ House Shoes Mixtape
Essentially a warm up mixtape for his forthcoming record Rapping with Paul White, this half hour mix by DJ House Shoes previews material from that release as well as a decent amount of non-album exclusives. Paul White is a versatile and imaginative UK producer, so it’s great to see him winning support all across the rap spectrum and collaborating here with some talented MCs. This will be White’s first ever full length vocal project, and with a list of guests that includes Guilty Simpson, Jehst and rising Detroit firecracker Danny Brown, you can be sure it hits all the right spots.
Back to the mixtape, though, and the exclusives include an eclectic bunch of unused instrumentals, as well as remixes of the likes of Nas, MED and A Tribe Called Quest. It’s a neat showcase of White’s ability across a wide range of styles, incorporating everything from psych rock to soul and funk, as well as quirky interludes chopped from film and TV. It seems wild that some of the unused material here was ever left on the cutting table (closer ‘Up Close’, particularly), while remixes of album tracks (such as Danny Brown collaboration, ‘One of Life’s Pleasures’) only scratch the surface of what made it onto the record. A promising tease of a mixtape then, but rest assured there are plenty of surprises left on the album which drops later this month.
Kyle is on Twitter, here. He will mostly be tweeting his gut reactions to things, and then making wild, hyperbolic claims that he will later regret.