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One irony in the recent resurgence of hip-hop dance songs and neon ravers is that in the late ’80s, critics often decried such easy-to-make club music as computer-driven and devoid of musicianship. Today, artists can and do make throwback tracks on iPhones and laptops, making the originals seem like outright symphonies—which is why a triborough trio has dusted off its 808s to make nu-electro music not from software, but from scratch.
Vinyl Life’s self-titled debut reflects New York City’s heyday of breakdancing music, Latin freestyle, and up-tempo breakbeats, celebrating a time when rappers danced and electro was something you heard emanating from boom boxes and public transit, not from public radio. Out this week on the group’s own Tape Theory label, it’s an outward attempt to satirize the push-button ease of contemporary music. The threesome’s studio is practically a museum, full of classic Roland drum machines, Akai samplers, and Lindstrøm synthesizers. “This album is a tribute to those machines,” expains 28-year-old MC Phaze Future.
VL’s members proudly represent three different constituencies: Phaze is from Harlem’s Morningside Heights, studio whiz Butcha is from Queens, and keyboardist Richie Roxx is from Brooklyn. They met while studying music at SUNY Purchase; a professor there, Jim McElwaine, still plays sax with them occasionally. “It’s a cool thing to carry that legacy forward,” Phaze adds. “Real New Yorkers doing New York music.”
The trio inspired longtime hometown publicist Justin Kleinfeld to join Evan Balmer (Ryuichi Sakamoto’s North American rep) and manage the act. “I knew that these weren’t some hipsters moving to Brooklyn with an ‘idea’ to do something ironic,” says Kleinfeld. “These are all NYC-bred boys who grew up with the sounds of hip-hop, house, and techno.” Vinyl Life has rewound the marketing playbook, too, selling vinyl and cassette versions of their debut instead of just giving away free MP3s. Only 30 tapes were produced, with three different artists adorning 10 each. “The cassettes are all hand-painted—very boutique,” Butcha says. “This is tangible.”
While Vinyl Life represent a critique of instant music, their sound isn’t quite so serious, harkening back to the leather-pants party flavors of Afrika Bambaataa, Egyptian Lover, and even the Dazz Band. The attitude is often tongue-in-cheek: On “Take It Off,” the trio implores folks to shed “Christ beards,” Ed Hardy gear, and skinny jeans; clowning push-button musicians, they chant, “Take that Ableton off . . . and that GarageBand, too.” In the same ballpark as Chromeo, A-Trak, and Spank Rock, the trio aims to play a part in promoting “the fusion of hip-hop and electronic that has been going on,” as Butcha puts it.
But they also take that reunion further. A recent VL mixtape cleverly spans the hip-house of rave’s early days (Fast Eddie’s “Yo Yo Get Funky”) and the nu-electro of today (Fake Blood’s “Mars”). And onstage, of course, the trio leaves the MacBooks at home in favor of heavier lifting, hauling vintage samplers, synths, and effects boxes to each show. The result is improvisation and innovation: No two shows, the act promises, are alike. As Phaze boasts, “With us, you see the contrast between music that can be done by hitting the laptop’s space bar, and music that’s performed live, right in front of you.”