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Prefuse 73 - Surrounded by Silence

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Artist: Prefuse 73

Album: Surrounded by Silence

Label: Warp

Review date: Apr. 4, 2005

“If I just said fuck the biters does that sound like I want to talk about it …” Fuck the biters? A curious vocal snip to start the new Prefuse 73 album Surrounded By Silence, no? The most striking thing about Scott Herren’s development as an artist is his lack of biters. His landmark introduction, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, dismantled hip hop’s obsession with repetition – no small deed – and let heads know there was more to life than nodding. In 2001 most producers weren’t exactly getting down to Oval’s 94 Diskont, but Herren learned the same thing from erudite electronica that Bambattaa took from Kraftwerk: the beguiling advancements in European minimalism could make great hip hop when injected with a little warmth.

Over the past three Prefuse 73 full-lengths, Herren has done something pretty rare in this era of technological reinvention: he’s refined his identity. He leaves any ambiguity for his side outfits like Savath + Savalas, and attacks his sound with the precision of a Rolex. There’s simply no mistaking a Prefuse 73 track. Contemporaries like dj/rupture and Four Tet are nowhere near as fragmented, and protégés like Dabrye aren’t nearly as audacious. Silence may just be Prefuse’s Miles Smiles or Nerfertiti, the last of Davis’s pre-fusion albums that took his second classic quintet to its logical conclusion. Countless ideas still meander, tempos overdose, hooks play hide and seek, sticks get tossed for pads (and vice-versa) and a groupie is never far from the boards.

Silence’s highlight reel is a confluence of this aesthetic. The jungle tones of “We Go Our Own Way” are balanced by the perfectly understated Kazu of Blonde Redhead. On the other side of the dial, unheralded Camu croons the soulful banger “Now You’re Leaving” – the type of shit that might hit Hot 97 if airplay wasn’t determined by payola. And Herren lays a dream beat down (with a nice Karen Dalton sample) for another of Aesop’s fucked fables, “Sabbatical With Options.”

Aesop Rock tops the short list of strong emcee performances, the lone downside to Silence. Most disappointing is the GZA/Masta Killer track, a phoned-in waste of potential. The Ghostface/El-P joint might pleasantly surprise elsewhere, but just can’t live up to Herren’s production (although El-P does drop the classic “I put holes in your body heat”). The hit-or-miss Beans sounds just right advising “To emcees I’m not saying you shouldn’t follow your dreams/ But realize when it’s just a dream”, but his “Morale Crusher” runs too short at just over a minute. The reactionary “Expressing Views is Obviously Illegal” tops the instrumentals, matching chimes with an Ali Shaheed Muhammad-like groove; Herren’s vocal manipulation here uses the human voice more effectively than anything on Medulla.

Silence easily matches, and likely exceeds, Mike Ladd’s recent Negrophilia in regard to hip hop’s lack of limits. Herren reaches the future through the past, though, returning to the lost art of emcees blessing – and passing – mics while infusing the blend with disparate styles. The Books bring banjos (who didn’t see this coming?), the girls from On!Air!Library! provide bookish chic and a host of kindred spirits (Pedro, DJ Nobody) wink as they dig choice records from their crates.

For all the A1 collaborations, however, Surrounded by Silence refuses to stray too far from Herren’s previous work as Prefuse, the mark of an auteur intent on confronting tomorrow on his own terms.

By Jake O'Connell

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