Easy Listening for Armageddon

By Roni Sarig

Published July 24, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Since the term was coined, trip-hop has been associated with the moody, noirish sound collages, rap-singing and slow-churning electro-beats of folks like Tricky and Massive Attack -- music that's hip-hop identified, but stylistically miles away from current rap flavors.

With his debut, "Easy Listening For Armageddon," 26-year-old poet Mike Ladd (who emerged from the Nuyorican spoken word scene) offers a different take on trip-hop. Like Tricky, he's more hip-hop in theory than practice; but unlike most trip-hop, Ladd's divergence from convention is driven
first and foremost by his lyrics. While "Easy Listening" is full of trip-hop's musical signposts, the tracks are always spare and elastic enough to accommodate what's really trippy: Ladd's free-form, stream-of-conscious, over-the-top and deep-down-inside verse.

Like most classic rap, Ladd steeps his monologues in African-American culture and politics. But instead of shout-outs to Malcolm X or his 'hood, Ladd's poetry is Afrocentric by simply being self-aware without resorting to propaganda or cliché. While his performances are endowed with a Last Poets-style social commentary that keeps them grounded in reality, there's a clear post-apocalyptic vibe to pieces like the wacky title track, "Blade Runner" or "I'm Building a Bodacious Bodega for the Race War," which borrow from the George Clinton/Sun Ra school of Afro-sci-fi-psychedelia.

Still, the most vital and engaging songs on "Easy Listening" are neither futuristic nor riddled with postmodern references. On both "The Tragic Mulatto is Neither" and "Okrakoke," Ladd explores his connections to the past, from his fisherman granddaddy to his post-bellum roots on the Carolina coast, back to the shores of West Africa. These are not only the most tuneful and cohesive on the album, they are the most soulful as well.

It may be said that by continually directing his gaze backward and forward, though, Ladd seems willing to deal with everything but the present. However, he understands the current moment to be ephemeral, gone before it's digested. So by balancing yesterday and tomorrow -- with a keen sense of the dictum "If you don't know where you've been, you can't know where you're going" -- Ladd's time-space equilibrium lands him squarely in the here and now.

Roni Sarig

Roni Sarig is a regular contributor to Salon. His forthcoming book, "The Secret History of Rock: The Most Influential Bands You've Never Heard," will be published by Billboard Books in July.

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