When I think of Baltimore I don’t think of hip-hop. Crabs and murder come to mind. If you want to argue with me as a Baltimore native, I can almost guarantee you are not from Baltimore just as much as a Greenwich kid is not from New York. Some of last-years most inspired hip-hop, however, came from a Baltimore-native, or maybe judging by the fact that he studied classical guitar at Berklee and maintains a bourgeoisie fascination with psychedelic rock – Hendrix and the whole Woodstock crowd – it came from a “Baltimore-native.”
Portnoy Edan’s fascination with music began like my own, bored in suburbia, dusting off old records. Unlike myself, he is a one-in-a-million inspired listener: honing his guitar on old Led Zeppelin Riffs, picking up on hip-hop after N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton in 1988, riding his home-spun skills to the top music program in the country, striking out on his own, months short of a degree, but with a new technical mastery of sampling and producing and finally experimenting with lyrics for the same reason he picked up guitar in the first place – it’s lonely in your parents’ basement.
Critics tout Edan as a triple-threat, producing, sampling and rapping, but they should add a fourth to the list – his knowledge of and facility for rock music. Despite the AM bombardment of rap-rock dreck by Clear Channel, few rappers have an ear for rock and roll. Rock seeps into Edan’s records as more than just an unconscious influence. Edan explores the boundary between hip-hop and rock, and in many respects his second album, “Beauty and the Beat,” is a rock album.
Rock exists as popular music because it is reproducible. The most cherished rock riffs of Hendrix are exalted because anyone can pick up a record and tirelessly attempt to reproduce his sound. This almost clichéd description of rock in America has launched countless admirers on their own musical explorations. Learning music is one and the same with learning to copy. From the neat, pre-packaged record, CD’s and MP3’s to the sheet music and online databases of chord changes, this popular medium distinguishes itself from ‘serious music’ by its seeming desire to be cited and copied. It’s a perfect musical form for American and British youth who share a propensity for boredom and nostalgia.
This element of reproducibility is often cited as the weakness of hip-hop. The argument goes: incomprehensible vocalists shout nonsense over mindlessly looped samples. One can almost always detect a hint of jealousy in such rock snobbery, enraged that another music has usurped rock as the most succinct and reproducible music. Let’s face it, twelve-year-olds don’t sing along to the Beatles anymore, they spout Eminem’s vitriol only to have their iPods confiscated. Those same twelve-year-olds make music on Garageband and their Playstations, and the music they make, mashing together looped string and drum samples, is the technologically streamlined bastard child of hip-hop. Computers have replaced unwieldy turntables, and iPods have replaced boomboxes, but the song remains the same.
More than any other artist today, Edan recognizes that if rock is compressed jazz, then hip-hop is compressed rock, and that he can take advantage of this dialectic bridge. His songs are crisp and self-contained, seldom running over the three-minute mark. The lead single, “I See Colors,” begins with the proclamation, “Prince Paul already used this loop, but I’ma keep it movin’ and put you up on the scoop.” With a nod back to the past, Edan says straight out that no one’s done it like this before. The moog effects swell upwards, and Edan unleashes a lyrical barrage full of absurd wordplay (“I take lettuce, onion, tomato, add a dab o’ mayo, plus the fish filet o’”) and gangsta-worthy mean mugging (“connect the dots with all the pussies making records, who couldn’t suck my dick or put the gloss on their upper lip”), all while admiring and one-upping the LSD-soaked riffs.
Between “I see Colours,” and the next track, “Fumbling over Words that Rhyme,” a compressed oral account of rap’s prehistory, Edan proves himself a veritable Funky Voltron, assembling all music rap traditions into a face-melting, 10-cyclinder juggernaut. It’s the wondrous love child of Transformers and the record collection of the brother you always wish you’d had seen through the sepia lens of “Almost Famous.”
“Fumbling over Words that Rhyme,” is the one moment of humility in the album, where the title downplays the power of the music. Even while kneeling at the altar tracing the narrative arc from Mel E Mel to the Five Fantastic to the Cold Crush Four, however, he seems to cheekily swallow that entire prehistory whole. “Torture Chamber” weaves a taught, claustrophobic narrative, making effective use of a guest-spot from Percee-P. Fortunately, Edan avoids the hip-hop faux pas of including too many guest-tracks.
Those tracks that do feature his old friends from Boston seem crafted around thirty-second spots meant to highlight their best attributes. Percee-P snarls “Infernal heating, spitting like I bust a gun, make you suffer from eternal bleeding,” over bone-rattling snares in one of the best torture moments on a record since the opening to Wu Tang’s “Method Man.” On “Making Planets” it’s Def Jux star Mr. Lif’s turn to impress. Over a meandering bass line and between a psych-rock guitar chorus worthy of the laid-back rhymes and 10-pound dreadlocked coif he’s known for, Lif describes the labor (or lack thereof) of making his own planet: “I frolic in the sand with the colony of ants, my particles expand building oxygen and plants.” Clearly Edan views the creative process as something transcendent, taking a wild joy in playing god, creating musical planets out of his celestial toolbox.
In his Baltimore basement, Edan has carved his name across the forty-year span of rock and hip-hop. “Rock and Roll” melds Velvet Underground and Black Sabbath into feedback-frayed banger that would play comfortably in Queens circa ’88, or the Filmore East circa ’68. This kind of mad-scientist approach embodies the best of rock and roll.
Until hearing this album I never would have guessed that looking back forty-years would breathe new life into hip-hop, but then again, I never would have guessed the best MC alive grew up in Baltimore.