Jefferey Logan aka Jel, full-time producer, is part of the Anticon commune and label famed for their socio-political consciousness, and renowned for their use of the thesaurus and their fear of the Wu-Tang Clan. Soft Money is Jel’s first full length studio album, and sees the full time producer cutting his hours to have a dip at rapping aided and abetted by guest emcees Oddnosdam and Wise Intelligent, to create a curious mixture of finely tuned hip hop, noir trip hop and leftfield big beat electronica. So in keeping with tradition when we get a full-time producer making his first solo album the question we ask is, er, can he take the rap?
Jel manages to find sounds and samples that add real spice.
The feel to this album is that this is no conscious decision for Jel to start emceeing, his contributions with the mic are short and scattered — he fills in where he needs to and lets the guest emcees mingle at the beats table should they desire. Album opener “To a buy a car” drops in with sum booming key boards and a syncopated splaying drum machine evoking the current vogue in sum hip hop quarters for straight up spare beats of the late eighties. This is Jel’s strength. Combining his penchant of organic early technology and drum machines — he made a mini-album in 2002, “10 Seconds”, solely with an SP-1200 — with live drumming Jel updates the some times rah ta ta tat of mid-eighties hip hop naturally making it tighter and more dynamic but also sinewing between the two sounds sometimes several times within the space of an individual song. As it is with his beats Jel’s flow is uncomplicated in general and doesn’t aim for speed or any rigorous verbal dexterity. Having said that it sounds good. Whether, it’s an ode to his productions skills — the micing of these vocals, slightly muddied, slightly distant — or simply being careful with what you got Jel manages to avoid wet pants and a red face, as he instructs us “not to buy this product because we don’t need it, if this picture wasn’t pretty then you wouldn’t see it”. Fair enough, it wouldn’t be Anticon if there weren’t some shout out to anti-commercialism, yet there is at times a failure to realise that people like ‘pretty pictures’ regardless of what their made up of and that stands lyrically as well; and this is where the pop goes flat. On later songs in the album such as “WMD” where Nosdam quips anti-Bush/capitalism buzzwords “we dumb to see whats happenin with George W Bush and his corporate American cabinet/they wage war the sacrificing of the poor”, lyrically the songs fail to go past sub-standard sloganeering and lack the substantial intrigue to keep us afloat.
It’s all bout oil, rite? To point out the obvious hip hop has always had an uncomfortable relationship with capitalist virtues: on the one hand it’s spat and slapped at the rich for neglecting the true values in life whilst with the other hand secretly aspiring to that very status and values. More so today, the very source of much hip hop has become intertextual, driven by lyrics filled with celebrity name-checking, wry commentary on the fast life and iconism all derived from this visionary world of the rich and famous. So it runs, that when Wise Intelligent raps on WMD, “It’s pitiful, this rhyme ain’t political it’s commercially deflating to be highly critical”, he has a point. Sort of like biting the hand that feeds you, but in an artistic sense as well as a commercial one; political rarely provides that pretty picture of the rich and famous that people aspire to. This is where the challenge lays with political rap artists, to paint the political in such a way with narrative, satire and subtlety, so that the message becomes intriguing and even subliminal, kind of like Mr Dubya does. Take heed brethren.
The album’s flow is too often stuttered by the electronic input giving it the feel of an obscurities collection rather that a fully moulded debut album.
Anyway irrespective of the quality of the rap game, a great deal of the tracks on Soft Money are taken up by a mixture of electronic interludes and trip hop each of which display at times an impressive degree of variety. “All Day Breakfast” takes on an eastern ambience with ‘other-worldly’ stretched string sounds arched over stacked beats creating a sound that is vast but eerily calm. Elsewhere on “No Solution” and “Thrashin” the sound moves away from the DJ Shadow feel created on “All Day Breakfast” slightly closer to Boards of Canada with loud clipped beats that are echoed around delicately looped guitar riffs, interspersed with distant muffled vocal samples. At times these tracks sound overtly slick without enough promise of a hook that could sustain us but Jel still manages to find sounds and samples that add real spice. Examples include the heaving creeping base of “No Solution” and the beautiful scratching sound on “Thrashin” that sounds like he’s using diamonds on corrugated iron. However, whether it is down to an over keenness to display such variety or the fact that a lot of these electronic compositions after initial promise, struggle to go places, the album’s flow is too often stuttered by the electronic input giving it the feel of an obscurities collection rather that a fully moulded debut album. The final track is a case in point. Whilst offering some wry humour through the high-pitched chipmunk samples, it displays both Jel’s prowess on the mixing board and also his lack source material for meaning and narrative. Through a gradual speeding up of a voice sample dictating “sample my words speed it up now, you’re going to get a classic on your hands” — yep, ironic — and a little bass-line, Jel nonchalantly conjures up a track. This stab at the simplicity of some hip hop in the industry achieved, Jel quickly closes out the track and with it the album, leaving the listener on a slightly awkward or bemused footing.
Hooks and rhymes will no doubt come for Jel in the future or be offered through the shape of further guest emcees. Jel definitely has the beats, I’d just like to see him with a different clientele where the relationship between lyrics and beats could be more furious or simply more ecstatic. Jel ‘n’ Jay Zee…? Well, it has a nice ring to it.