In England, a country fanatical about beats, homegrown hip-hoppers are criminally underrespected. While speed garage, drum’n’bass, and the much maligned trip-hop—all children or grandchildren of hip-hop—hold sway over the British masses, those who choose to practice the primordial sounds face an uncertain financial future, not to mention public ignorance. Yet U.K. hip-hoppers press onward, releasing vinyl, mixtapes, and CDs with little formal distribution, relying on a small cadre of fans for their rent money. A recent spread on “U.K. Rappers and Their Rides” in British hip-hop humor zine Fat Lace featured grinning artists in beat-up coupes, on bicycles, and on foot. Unsigned, hella broke, and proud.
Unassuming DJ Vadim is probably as close as the scene comes to an international celebrity. Nevertheless, his first LP, 1996’s U.S.S.R. Repertoire (The Theory of Verticality), didn’t do the genre any populist favors. A U.K. transplant from St. Petersburg at age three (hence the Soviet fetish), Vadim labored quietly in his deep South London home, making abstract EPs and quietly attracting the notice of cognoscenti on both sides of the Atlantic, his hypnotic blends suiting the era’s tripped-out U.K. tastemakers just fine. Accordingly, U.S.S.R. Repertoire was intricately detailed, if occasionally stagnant. It was like 70 minutes of those vocal-free segues on mixtapes—scratches, beat variations, dynamic syncopations, reconfigurations—those carefully constructed gaps that entice so well, you almost don’t mind the lack of lyrics. When voices did chime in, they were the disembodied ones of hip-hop past—Grandmaster Flash, KRS-One, and, naturally, O.C.’s “Time’s Up,” the obligatory boot-stomping anthem for New York’s purest purists. On “My Radio,” a scratched-up Chuck D chimes in: “Radio/Suckers never play me.” But where Chuck was righteously lambasting media hypocrisy, Vadim’s appropriation was worn more as an arrogant smirk.
This time around, Vadim still won’t be played, but he ain’t really trying that hard. With his second LP, U.S.S.R.: Life From the Other Side, and his work on the Isolationist project, he’s opted for live talent and quicker BPMs over cut-and-paste true-school snippets and soporific cadences. Yet his cues are no more mainstream than before. On Other Side, he scours the American and British independent scenes for rap’s finest anticommercial talent; on The Isolationist, he partners with NY’s avant-garde rap trio Anti-Pop Consortium.
El-P from Company Flow kicks off Other Side belligerently. “I’m less of a robotic entity than a technologically enhanced man,” he announces on “Viagra,” which—in contrast to its name—clocks in at an unsatisfyingly brief three minutes. But its title certainly reflects the potency of the sound—vocals from El-P and fellow CoFlower BMS, complemented by rupturing, rapid scratches and fader work from both Vadim and British turntablist Primecuts, a member of the DMC world champion Scratch Perverts. Such cacophony is a far cry from Vadim’s early atmospherics, and it’s kept up throughout the album. “Viagra” is quickly followed with another lyrical slap session, this time from North London’s intelligent hoodlum, Skinnyman. Like a shadier El-P, who dissects bureaucracies as neatly as he does MCs, Skinny offers the enlightened vision of London thuggery: “It’s like a big tourist attraction for monopolies to run/They come to spend their money so they’re bound to get done/By any local ghetto youth who’s waiting out on Camden Lock.” Later, Vadim is aided by vocal contributions from Swollen Members, Dilated Peoples’ Iriscience, U.K. old-schooler Blade, and NY poet-diva Sarah Jones, whose vicious skewering of the hip-hop patriarchy, “Your Revolution,” finally sees a home on record. To match this talent, Vadim contributes his most energetic production to date, ranging from the commanding string section on “English Breakfast” and the gallivanting bassline on “It’s Obvious” to vintage 45-rpm soul on the winkingly titled “How to Exercise the Turntable Record Player.”
On the Isolationist’s debut LP, the lessons in future history begin early on; the intro implores the listener to “Come with us/Leave your wheat fields. . . . come with us to where man has never been.” Such sentiments are well in keeping with Anti-Pop tradition, which includes a smattering of consistently mind-and-language-bending EPs. The histrionics continue here, with Beans, Priest, and M. Sayyid creating new lingual arrangements from the shards of a collapsed genre or, as Priest puts it on “Timeless Void,” “restart[ing] civilization from a one-cell amoeba.”
If Anti-Pop are handling the revolutionary manifesto, Vadim has demonstrated his ability to build the accompanying soundtrack. On “Settle Down (We Rap So Fresh),” he scavenges through past hip-hop archetypes for his palette, incorporating early-’80s kick snares, mid-’80s boasts, and early-’90s subterranean dubs. These influences are evident throughout the album, all mulched together into a particular aesthetic that eschews today’s bombast, musical and otherwise (“Why you working so hard to be hard and not creative? Did you smoke so much weed you forgot?” inquires Beans on “MD 81”), and aims straight for the next sonic world. On “Hydrogen Slush,” Beans offers the most concise statement of deft mike controlling in recent memory, boldly instructing “Your ears are my punching bag.” It’s also the neatest summary of Vadim’s progression to pugilism, from his pillow fights of old.
DJ Vadim plays the Cooler November 27.