Sufjan Stevens is not the most likely source to mine for hip-hop beats. The New York-based singer/songwriter, best known for his state-themed albums “Michigan” and “Illinoise,” makes elaborately arranged chamber pop. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t own a single hip-hop album, and the amount of people who are both Sufjan Stevens fans and hip-hop fans probably number in the hundreds (myself included). Still, Stevens’ music is elaborately produced, so perhaps it isn’t such a crazy idea to sample his material. The instrumentation Stevens uses-acoustic guitar, pianos, strings-are being used by hip-hop producers, so it doesn’t sound alien when mixed with a banging beat.
Montreal producer Tor was thoughtful about which rappers to remix for this album, choosing primarily old school classics like Big Daddy Kane and Grand Puba, and backpackers like Aesop Rock and Brother Ali. These rappers are already associated with more progressive, forward thinking hip-hop, and their voices mix well with the beats. It’s also more likely that the Sufjan Stevens fans that like hip-hop are fans of Aesop Rock or Gift of Gab than, say, Plies. Had Tor gone for rappers who were more street, the whole project would have fallen on its face.
The repetitive piano of “Star of Wonder” fits perfectly with Aesop Rock’s stentorian raps on “None Shall Pass,” and the remix manages to be just as good as the original, even with Stevens’ singing on the hook, which can best be described as, um, angelic. Another repeating piano line is used on “Dumb I Sound/ATLiens,” with a tin whistle on the chorus. The result is something that is more subdued and reflective than the original.
From there Tor takes a big risk by remixing Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s “Specialize.” In general, it’s probably not the best idea for an up-and-coming producer to tackle a legend like Pete Rock, but Tor doesn’t embarrass himself. The jazzy boom bap of the original is gone, replaced by a looped acoustic guitar and a finger snapping beat. The chorus mixes in some old school cuts which don’t sound out of place. “The Tallest Man/I Like It” juxtaposes the horns from Stevens’ “Chicago” with Grand Puba’s horny rhymes. It sounds good enough, but feels out of place and pieced together. Evidently not content with merely taking on Pete Rock, Tor tackles DJ Premier on “Kill/Any Type of Way,” featuring Big Daddy Kane. Tor uses an acoustic guitar and vocal to mirror the original beat. I prefer Primo’s version, but I was impressed with how much Big Daddy Kane’s verses hold up. He sounds like a less crazy DMX, and I wonder if he has a comeback album in the works.
The most impressive track on the album is “Night of the Zombies/Talking My Shit” with Brother Ali. Tor replaces the disco vibe of the original with acoustic funk, and it allows Brother Ali’s fierce flow space to shine. This was the track that finally convinced me to buy some Brother Ali albums, so if nothing else, Tor has created another Ali fan. The album closes with “The Dress Looks Good On You/Make You Feel That Way,” featuring Gift of Gab. The remix maintains the melodic, propulsive vibe of the original, and reminded me to dig out my copy of “Blazing Arrow.”
An EP of backpackers rapping over indie folk beats may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is more successful than it sounds on paper. It’s available for free at www.illinoize.biz, so the curious should go there and stream a few songs before downloading it. Some hip-hop fans might think that this is incredibly lame and wimpy. It certainly isn’t going to win you any street cred or tough guy points. Rick Ross should probably avoid doing a collab with Sufjan Stevens. Personally, I appreciate the mellow, acoustic sound of the beats, and the fact that someone would translate one of the best producers/composers of indie music into hip-hop. Now when is that Andrew Bird remix album coming out?