Sunday, May 5, 2019

resonators 2019 - episode #016 - 'fan-tas-tic vol. 1' by slum village

So here's something that probably doesn't get highlighted enough when it comes to the indie hip-hop of the late 90s, and a problem to that age that just isn't as applicable today: distribution. Yeah, Soundcloud and Bandcamp and YouTube are overflowing with acts which means that oversaturation could prevent you from even being heard... but in 1997, pressing CDs or vinyl or making cassettes costed money, and if you were on an indie label, that was something you often didn't have.

Now I've talked about limited distribution before in the last season of Resonators with hardcore punk in the 80s, but if you want a golden example of a project that would only become widely available commercially years later, we need to talk about the Detroit act Slum Village, a Detroit hip-hop trio that in 1996 consisted of childhood friends and MCs T3, Baatin, and producer Jay Dee... who you might better know as J. Dilla. Now it's important to highlight that even early on, J. Dilla had already attained some considerable fame thanks to production work - already he had credits on the fourth Tribe Called Quest album, as well as for Busta Rhymes and The Pharcyde a year earlier - but keep in mind we're talking about the mid-90s and a highly localized scene outside of the major meccas of American hip-hop, where producers might be well-known if their style and sound was unique enough - as Dilla's was - but they wouldn't quite have the same notoriety as even Dilla would achieve a few years later. As such, the initial run of this project was extremely limited, primarily a run of cassettes that wouldn't receive a CD or vinyl pressing until the 2000s - but if you were in the underground hip-hop scene in the late 90s, this was a project that spread like wildfire, especially in the wake of several songs getting revamped for the 2000 album Fantastic, Vol. 2. But given that we have digital distribution, I wanted to go back to the source, back to what really set the scene on fire and had this trio hailed as the next coming of A Tribe Called Quest - so here we go, this is Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 by Slum Village, and this is Resonators!

So here's the interesting thing I discovered upon going through old coverage of this album, which I also observed in how this album is organized and sorted on streaming sites: if you're listening to this, you're here most for the early production work of J. Dilla. No joke, in some places it's even slotted under the alias Jay Dee instead of actually of Slum Village - and that's very telling in a surprisingly unpleasant way. Yeah, this is another one of those Resonator projects in which if you're looking at it in terms of legacy, in what it did to establish Dilla's career in the underground as a producing legend, it commands respect... but it's not just a beat tape or a collection of instrumentals, and if you're considering the project as a whole, it's absolutely a project where the MCs delivering bars sink the album considerably.

Now granted, some of this is a matter of managing expectations - at the time, T3 and Baatin pushed back considerably against the comparisons to A Tribe Called Quest, because while the grooves might have been similar, the rapping and subject matter absolutely wasn't; they were aiming for looseness and far lower stakes than the conscious bars from Q-Tip and Phife, instead aiming for braggadocious bars and a whole lot of sex jokes and references delivered in a way that almost sounded like a freestyle. And on the one hand, there's merit to that: if this album was looking to cultivate a groove-driven, easy-going vibe, there's no reason that that content had to be socially conscious just because A Tribe Called Quest did it, especially given how more of these songs flit and flow across scratchy fidelities and jumbled ad-libs; for guys looking to hang out and chill, Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 can slide into that position pretty quickly. And given how J. Dilla's work has always felt like a patchwork blur of grooves and ideas stitched together with incidental connections, more on the vibe than cultivating a direct connection, I means I'm going to be a little more forgiving of how fragmented this can be, because even if it does meander, it's not done in a way where it feels obtrusive or overlong or jarring from song to song - again, more about cultivating the right atmosphere than making direct, interlocking points. Now part of that would normally mean you wouldn't get standout tracks - hell, it's unsurprising that even Slum Village was considering this more of a scratch tape with songs that would be expanded and developed for the sequel three years later like 'Fourth & Back' and 'I Don't Know' - but there are some real gems here, like the dusty gentle guitars and supple bass of 'The Look Of Love', the more developed jittery low-end off 'This Beat (Remix)', and the faded whistle and clap of 'Fourth & Back'. And there are running instrumental motifs that I like - the 'Fantastic' callback shouldn't work four times - much less back to back like between '2' and '3' - but it does, and when you get the sinuous soul sample behind 'Players', there's a real warmth that makes it work.

All of that being said, when I said this sounded more like a scratch tape or like demos than a fully refined project, while some of that is part of the charm it is hard to ignore how shaggy and tossed-off a lot of moments are, and I'm not excluding the production here. The volume layering can be inconsistent like with 'Estimate', the pickup of the vocals can range wildly in quality, 'How We Bullshit' is not the only example of just the guys goofing off in the studio, and it's hard to ignore how many of these songs are outright unfinished - mostly because they include the second verse or even second half of the song later on the project! Now there were reasons for this: interviews suggest Dilla assembled the beats in a matter of days, all the MCs actually built their rhymes off of nothing but a metronome, and they only had one Digital Audio Tape machine, so there wasn't room for retakes, and I will give the group a lot of credit for working off of such limited means with such a tight timetable - the fact it sounds even remotely credible at all is a testament to a lot of raw skill. But I'm reminded a lot of the stories of rushed recording that surrounded Husker Du's Zen Arcade and I find myself frustrated for what it means for a final product so celebrated today, even if the group themselves didn't really intend this for wider consumption, just to build industry buzz until they could refine more of it into Fantastic Vol. 2 - I don't think even they expected that this would become a cult classic in many quarters. But I do have a line in how many excuses I will make, and that's where we have to talk about the MCs. I'm not saying T3 or Baatin are bad rappers - again, given the limits of how they recorded this project, it is impressive... but the Tribe influence is blatant and the second you start peeling into the actual content, it rarely holds up. If they're not rapping about being hustled or being more real than their competition, it's explicit sex references, which aren't exactly delivered with the sort of slick coolness that you'd hope to get over Dilla's production. And this is where the conversation surrounding misogyny comes up with Slum Village... and honestly, I'm kind of on the fence about it than I think I should be; it's absolutely sleazy and crass and honestly kind of gross at points, but it's plainly positioned at women who are into that and can reciprocate, the girls who watch as much porn as they do as implied on 'The Look Of Love'. But on the flip side it's really hard to deny how much these songs default to 'stealing your girl' narratives, especially on most of Baatin's verses, with the dehumanizing text outright implying how disposable these women are, or just treated as holes for them to put their dicks in. At best we get 'The Look Of Love', but at worst we get 'Beej N Dem' with that intro, or the majority of '5 Ela Remix' and 'Players', or Baatin's verse on 'Fat Cat Song', or the weird warring pimp narrative of 'Estimate'. And just when you think they won't go, the homophobic slurs come out on 'Pregnant: T3' and it's really ugly, if utterly unsurprising.

So as a whole... look, I completely understand why Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 is considered a cult classic in underground hip-hop - one of J. Dilla's first ever projects, and the feat of its creation on a shoestring budget with the bare minimum of equipment and budget and distribution, that deserves respect, and it's not something I think many of my generation will understand or appreciate in the same way. That said, scarcity doesn't imply quality, and it's hard to avoid the feeling that this was a warm-up to a much more refined product that would be released later that would be more cohesive and hard-hitting, and even then, the lyrical shortcomings are hard to ignore. Hell, step outside of the pornographic nature of some of these tracks - once your album references a meatsock you're in certain territory - isolated from the grooves there's not a lot of wit or bars that leap off the page, which is what happens when you have an album that feels more freestyled and loose. And thus for me... look, it has its time and place, but it's a very strong 6/10 and really more for those interested in the history of J.Dilla and Slum Village than the average consumer. On grooves alone i would recommend it, but just temper your expectations a little bit, that's all.

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