Pity, then, the poor eighth-grader who must now contend with hip-hop stars the Roots. Their "human turntablist," who calls himself Scratch, has taken the "one body, infinite sound possibilities" agenda to the limits of physical feasibility, mimicking everything from beats and bumps to the wickety-whir of a DJ scratching vintage vinyl. It is a logical extension of the Roots approach — in which a live band produces sounds other hip-hop acts would snatch from a record crate — but it's got to be hell to reproduce in the cafeteria while the jocks are watching.
Scratch has just released a solo effort called The Embodiment of Instrumentation (Ropeadope), and if we're to believe the liner notes, it is an all-vocal album. (The notes avoid mentioning the obvious horn section on one track ...) Pushing an already credulity-straining feat into superhuman territory, the artist claims not to have sampled himself to keep the sounds and tempos consistent. Personally, if I got one perfect drum click on tape, I'd loop the bugger into a steady backup track and move on; but Scratch boasts: "If you hear a tiny mistake, yeah, I was doing it with my mouth ... straight through ... for three-and-a-half, four, five minutes."
Lest all this virtuosity grow tiresome, the beatmaster recruited MCs and poets to lend their gifts to different tracks, resulting in a record that is a full-fledged entity in the hip-hop world, not just a novelty disc to freak out your friends.
If certain DJ aficionados have taken a perverse interest in doing for themselves what machines do with such efficiency, another kind of musician happily throws himself behind the scenes, tweaking transistors and plunking on Powerbooks until the machines almost appear to replace the artists using them.
To hear musical anthropologist David Byrne tell it, many Northern Europeans, trapped for long, lonely winters in a dreary climate, have become "the first people on earth to create and live in complete harmony with their machines. They have learned to think like machines and, reflexively, have developed machines that mimic the seeming quirky randomness of the human mind." Or, more poetically, "I have seen the future, and it is squiggly."
Byrne's Luaka Bop label has just released a collection to document this techno-musical phenomenon, called The Only Blip Hop Record You Will Ever Need (a promise belied by the "Vol. 1" appended to it). Featuring a cast of characters ranging from the fairly well-known (Mouse on Mars, To Rococo Rot) to the obscure, this little piece of plastic-coated aluminum contains enough fizzy, blippy, fuzzy-clanky sounds to keep an army of music journalists hovering over their own laptops for weeks.
Blip hop — which is as fun a name for any for this quasi-genre — is somewhere between ambient experimentation, dance music, post-Subnotnick-and-Stockhausen "classical" composition, and the sound a cricket would make if it were bred with a Theremin. It tends to be enjoyed by people with thick glasses and oily hair, who, when the music is presented "live," stand motionless with hands in pockets facing a stage where nothing appears to be happening. But that's no reason for you not to like it, I swear.
This record has the unimpeachable track-to-track flow familiar to fans of Luaka Bop's compilations (and those fans are legion — I've met numerous people who, whether they've heard of the artists or not, instinctively purchase anything with that little spiky, all-seeing heart logo); though the track list is a world away (literally and stylistically) from the decidedly organic delights of the Brazil Classics series and The Soul of Black Peru, it has the same ability to sift through a mountain of unfamiliar artists and come up with an hour-long portrait of a scene many of us didn't know existed.
If the whole thing sounds a little too William Gibson for you, the warm-blooded compilers did plant one all-human recreation of an Autechre gem in between the digital treats, featuring Zap Mama vocalist Maria Daulne performing with — who else? — Scratch.