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V/A - Urban Renewal Program

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Artist: V/A

Album: Urban Renewal Program

Label: Chocolate Industries

Review date: Sep. 2, 2002

Bang This Shit

The liner notes of the highly anticipated Urban Renewal Program include the following paragraph:

The Urban Renewal Program is the past, present, and future of urban art, music and expression. The program strives to embody the essence of city life through themes of community, graffiti art, transit, and artistic integrity, resulting in a creative platform for the exploration and interpretation of urban life. Each artist’s voice harmonizes with the chaotic roar of the city soundscape to create a dialogue that is both raw and passionate in its message. The outcome is a hybrid collection of cultural references, musical disciplines and artistic aesthetics, following the erratic, never-ending pulse of the city from the cacophony of the early morning rush hour to the edginess of night. This is the daily journey of the urban occupant. It is this journey and its endless destinations that influence and inspire the contemporary artists and designers featured on the following pages.

Explanatory introductions to albums make me uneasy, and this one is particularly scary — simultaneously bold and ambiguous. I’d prefer to let the music speak for itself, but this amorphous paragraph demands attention. Who wrote it? Does the writer really speak for all the artists? I somehow doubt that everyone in the album’s all-star line-up would be comfortable with this analysis of their music, not because of its content but because of its overly-academic tone. It forces a perhaps unnecessarily lofty aesthetic goal on the whole album. Luckily, the selection of artists on the compilation delivers a similar but more substantial message: Prefuse-73, Aesop Rock, Mos Def, Diverse, Mr. Lif, Souls of Mischeif, RJD2, While, El-P, DJ Food, Miho Hatori, Tortoise, Caural, and Themselves. While recent underground hip hop favorites dominate the list, the compilation is obviously directed beyond just the world of underground hiphop. Mos Def’s presence gives the album clout in more mainstream hip hop circles. Likewise, thousands of post-rock fans will probably buy it just for the Tortoise track. Despite the disparate genres, no artist seems out of place, probably because many music listeners are used to hearing these artists together already. I couldn’t help but think of the playlist of a college radio show when I saw the track list, and the album actually supports this impression with frequent samples of radio shows.

Prefuse 73 (a.k.a. Scott Herren) kicks things off with a reworking of “Radio Attack,” a characteristically bouncy instrumental from his 2001 album Vocal Studies and Uprock Narratives. The most obvious addition to the track comes at the very beginning: a recording of some radio DJs promoting the release of Urban Renewal Program by listing off the artists on the album, starting with the big hip hop names. This street-oriented oral introduction to the compilation, as opposed to the printed preface, seems encouragement to judge the album on its ability to keep a party moving. But can it still be “a creative platform for the exploration and interpretation of urban life?” This tension between artistic creativity and the obligation to keep heads bobbing ultimately becomes the focus of the album, and nobody articulates it better than Herren. Despite his highly experimental production and sampling techniques, cut ‘n paste trickery rarely seen this far out of experimental electronica, his irresistibly catchy beats could probably hold their own in a club better than most. Responsible for four tracks on the album, Prefuse 73 somehow feels like the mastermind behind Urban Renewal Program.

After more DJ babble at the end of Prefuse’s track, Aesop Rock steps up to bat. El-P’s dirty, nervous groove contrasts sharply with Prefuse’s production. We jump suddenly from a world of over-processed low-res digital noise to the analog muddiness of a cheap tape recording, two different versions of lo-fidelity. Aesop’s trebly voice cuts through the mix like a surgeon’s scalpel. His flow is easily the best on the album, and the track is one of the few in which the producer doesn’t overshadow the MC. His delivery is noticeably more aggressive than on Labor Days, probably thanks to the unrelenting drive of El-P’s bass drum. An apparent tirade against mainstreamers (“Who stole the mix tapes? Who stole the fame?”) decays into a sarcastic commentary on the sexual habits of rappers. As the beats crumbles into a sea of noise, Aesop imagines a dialogue with his mother: “If it’s got two tits and a vagina, I’ll fuck it. It doesn’t even have to have legs or arms…my mom would be proud...aren’t you proud of me? I’m a rapper.” The discomfort produced by these images mixes strangely with the desire to bounce your head to El-P’s addictive beat.

Another nervous radio DJ introduces the lead single. Prefuse 73 returns with another trademark beat, but this time Diverse and Mos Def lay down rhymes on top. The production sounds a little too busy and distracts from the MCs, whose smooth styles have to compete too much with background beeps and stutters. The interplay between Mos Def and Diverse resembles a lesson more than a collaboration; Diverse sounds okay until Mos chimes in with his buttery, effortless flow. The next track, featuring just Diverse and lacking Prefuse’s wizardry, lags considerably. The straightforward production of Fakts One on “Welcome” is a welcome change, and Mr. Lif’s delivery matches its simplicity. While their contribution is enjoyable enough, its lack of musicality stands out.

Urban Renewal Program seems to be faltering by the end of the sixth track, but another unique producer/MC collaboration gets things kicking again. RJD2 lays down an infectious, quirky beat for Souls of Mischief. I instantly pictured a music video: the Oakland crew stands side-by-side on a factory assembly line, confidently delivering rhymes as robotic arms and enigmatic machinery bang out the beat. It’s the catchiest track on the album, and it gets better with every listen. Unfortunately, RJD2 follows it with one of the more blatant DJ Shadow rip-offs in recent memory. He mixes a haunting sampled conversation with soft, eerie instrumentals, interrupting periodically with bursts of aggressive orchestral breakbeats, a technique Shadow developed fully on Endtroducing.

After a solid track from El-P, the album departs from rapping for a bit to showcase some very interesting instrumental contributions. DJ Food’s track is surprisingly techno-ish, and the duo also seems to incorporate some new sounds into their palette. Most noticeably, the distortion and filters on the drums resemble El-P’s familiar grit. Prefuse 73 pops up again, this time producing a track for Cibo Matto’s vocalist Miho Hatori. Hatori’s vocals are simply adorable, shy yet expressive and full of hooks. The return of Prefuse’s unmistakable sound couldn’t come sooner. The two were made for each other. Tortoise’s presence on the album is pretty exciting, but it takes a while to get into their song. After so many tracks of banging hip hop beats, their light, playful instrumental almost floats away. Only after repeated listens does it reveal itself as actually in line with the hip hop aesthetic developed throughout the album. I’m just excited that Tortoise wants to be a part of the musical landscape Chocolate Industries is trying to map with Urban Renewal Program.

By the end of the album, this landscape begins to take shape. The final track greatly enhances it with the inclusion of the influential anticon family. Themselves contribute a track that adds a whole new emotional dimension to the album: mystery. As musicians, Prefuse 73, El-P, and RJD2 manage to cover a lot of ground, but the three-part, 10-minute final track is the epic that the album needs. Jel and DoseOne create a song that evolves and slowly reveals its power. Starting off with ambient noise (which, interestingly, contains more samples of radio DJs) and mystical, exotic instrumentation, they build to a sublime climax.

If we assume that there indeed is a mastermind behind Urban Renewal Program who sees a coherence in the artists selected and the track order, we have to ask, “What is the relationship between the tracks?” It’s certainly possible to envision a battle-of-the-producers scenario. The producers really stand out, even on tracks with strong MCs, and their different styles are laid out side-by-side. But the album doesn’t feel competitive. I’d rather look for the aesthetic similarities that tie all the artists together. The presence of Tortoise adds considerable difficulty to this project. A small sentence buried in the liner notes helps out: “Headphones required to all the DJs world wide. Bang this shit.” Exactly. Despite all their avant-garde production techniques, embittered hip hop politics, and intimidating musical resumes, the artists on this album want you to get down to their music. They’re not willing to sacrifice that ambiguous rhythmic element that makes heads bob up and down and forces hands into the air, and this obligation is key to Urban Renewal’s success.

Perhaps this unifying thread explains the constant radio references. After all, if a DJ can order tracks in such a way that they take on new meaning, if the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts, then the DJ (or in this case, the label?) becomes an artist himself. If you consider the self-referential dilemmas introduced by the fact that voices on the album actually refer to the album itself several times, the layers of meaning at work really start to add up. Urban Renewal Program isn’t completely effective on any one level — it doesn’t quite “bang” as much as it could, and conversely it has trouble living up to its lofty self-defined artistic goals. But just trying to reconcile these two aspirations is admirable in itself. There is definitely a mastermind behind Urban Renewal Program, and if that mastermind is Chocolate Industries, the label itself deserves some artistic credit for such an intriguing compilation.

By Ryan Abernathey

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