RR first checked in on Dub Sonata’s work back in 2007, where his production was positively compared to “other prolific up-and-comers like Chops, Jon Doe, and Snowgoons.” As such there was little doubt that someone on RR’s writing team would check out his next album, looking forward to whatever rap artists he chose to collaborate with. What ill emcees would Dub Sonata bring to the forefront on his up-and-coming beats?
As it turns out NONE. “Nights In Cuba” is not just the title of this album, it’s quite literally what this CD is all about. Somehow the New York based producer took a trip to Cuba on vacation, which despite its highly close proximity to the United States is not the easiest thing to do. Officially (and ridiculously) relations between the two are still strained, and there’s a travel embargo which prevents United States citizens from flying there directly. Fidel Castro long since stopped being a threat to the States, going all the way back to when the Soviet Union dissolved and the communist state lost its chief financial supporter, but decades of acrimonious relations and a strongly vocal ex-patriate Cuban community in Florida make normalizing relations nearly impossible. Therefore even though tourism is actually supported and encouraged by the current regime, you actually have to go to a second country first (typically Canada) in order to legally fly in and out of Cuba.
“Nights In Cuba” comes with one of the thickest liner note inserts you’re likely to see in some time, chiefly due to the fact it includes 28 pages of photographs taken while Sonata was there. Photographs weren’t the only thing Sonata took away from the forbidden island state though – he’s reputed to have found “a gold mine of records” while there and returned to the U.S. with “a crate full of dusty Cuban gems.” Unintentionally this smacks of colonialism, when American and European imperialists professed to be looking out for the welfare of the people they conquered while simultaneously stripping their lands of all natural resources. I’m not here to cast aspersions on Dub Sonata though for two reasons – I’ve always held that sampling is not a crime where you should be forced to pay at legal gunpoint or else, and I’m not sure how D.S. could in fact pay any Cuban artist he sampled from anyway. It’s as illegal to trade or do commerce with Cuba as it is to fly there, though that has never stopped anyone here from sending American cash and support to their Cuban relatives by various means. Still I have to concede it would be impractical at best and nearly impossible at worst to not only track the artists down but set a fair rate for compensation when there’s no organized Cuban equivalent of the RIAA.
Fortunately for both the listener and the producer there’s a broader context than the legalities of “Nights In Cuba” or the difficult relationship between Cuba and the United States. As D.S. says himself “this album is meant to tell a story” and the 19 songs of the album do that very effectively. The latin sounds of the “dusty Cuban gems” that Sonata samples from are blended with hip-hop beats and samples, creating enjoyable instrumentals with lengthy titles like “January Nights on the Malecon in Havana Cuba.” The cutting and scratching in tracks like “Centro” is reminiscent of any turntablist album from the likes of Cut Chemist or Kid Koala, and the Wyclef Jean sample saying “Boogie Down Bronx overlooking Cuba” seems entirely apt. The songs tend to blend together into one long Carribean melody, though you can pick up the needle and drop it anywhere for an enjoyable experience, such as the jazzy salsa flavor of “Where U From” or the somber and reflective melodies of “Que Lastima,” changing up in style and presentation throughout the track.
“Nights In Cuba” is a hip-hop instrumental record with Cuban swing and soul, undoubtedly what Dub Sonata intended, but it’s also something of a political statement intentionally or otherwise. While it’s easy to imagine a situation where the resources of Cuba would be exploited due to the overwhelming size of the American economy, it’s also not hard to imagine that people long suffering under a restrictive communist regime wouldn’t enjoy the free exchange of capitalism. The beautiful melodies heard here can only have been recorded for the pleasure of and at the discretion of El Presidente Cubano, and that’s surely not what any of the artists would want given a choice. They would rather their music is heard by the masses worldwide, and that perhaps they even be allowed to earn a fair amount of dolares if it’s pressed and sold legally to everyone. That doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me, nor does “Nights In Cuba.” It sometimes sounds like reggae, it sometimes sounds like the troubadors of Mexico, and sometimes it even sounds like the jazzy musical nightlife of South Florida – but the ultimate conclusion is that it sounds GOOD and everyone should hear it.