Sharps & flats

Who dropped the Bomb? The "Contents Under Pressure" compilation oddly normalizes hip-hop's avant-garde.


D. Strauss
August 26, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Bomb Hip-Hop ringmaster David Paul has crab-skratched a narrow swath since releasing both "Return of the DJ" turntablist manifestos in '96 and '97, but the oft-sampled snippet "All this scratching is making me rich" might finally be a couple of spreadsheets from coming to indie-level fruition. Paul was recently explaining to me that the idea behind "Contents Under Pressure" was to put out a compilation for the folks who weren't quite as taken as he was with beating the shit out of valuable 12-inches. His take on hip-hop is famed in certain circles for its internationalist slant -- his compilations include DJs from all over the world -- but I suspect that his headphones are up to 10 if he thinks that 20 percent less squeak and squiggle on "Contents" is going to convert Mary J. Blige fans to righteous weirdness. You can't sell "Solaris" as "Star Wars," and it's a shame, in this day and age, that we all feel the need to.

"Contents" mines terrain similar to that of previous Bomb compilations, with the style of each track pretty much chosen by the artists themselves. Not unlike drum 'n' bass, which long ago completed its metamorphosis from Peter Lorre into Adam Sandler, this sort of alien hopscotch jam doesn't sound quite as otherworldly to us as it did just a half-decade ago. General cultural nostalgia has caught up with turntablism's specific pre-Def Jam '80s reverie, making today's DJs seem a lot less odd or defiant. What was once a stretch for the imagination is now just a crook of the mind's finger, whether it's a fondness for checkered caps and DJs lording over their MCs or, in the case of DJ Upperkut, a weakness for Revolting Cocks industrial noise and Ronald Reagan vocal snippets.

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It's difficult to pinpoint what "Contents" is missing. Of course immersion in originality is always going to lead to its normalization. And what's more, avant-gardists usually want to get paid after about a half-decade of avant-starving. That translates into a lazy trip-hoppiness that dominates several tracks. Hydrophonic Sound System's "Smoke Still Lingers" steals (as opposed to "bites") the melody of "Rapture," and Pepe Deluxe's "D.O.A." wants to be the theme for "Cops 2001."

Yet a lot of this stuff still possesses the ability to amaze on both a technical and aesthetic level. DJ T-Rock's "Annihilator Robot" is the epitome of new-skool/ol-skool and can also be found on his excellent upcoming full-length. DJ Wrecka's "Praise the Wheels of Steel" throws sampling laws out the window as any serious artist in this medium must do. Critics have a tendency to demand that the partiers become rioters (forgetting that they're first on the rioters' hit list) and often demand progress when all that should be asked is that they move the crowd. But now that the Kangol has been successfully added back to the mix, it shouldn't surprise anyone that it sometimes sounds merely old, not "old." If I suspect that much of "Contents Under Pressure" is only just good enough, it may be because, in the past, Bomb has done its job too well.


D. Strauss

D. Strauss is a freelance writer in New York.

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