Typically the way to acclaim in hip-hop beatmaking is minimalism. From Larry Smith (R.I.P.) stripping (recorded) rap of its bespangled disco outfit with Run-D.M.C.’s first albums (followed by Rick Rubin ‘reducing’ instead of producing L.L. Cool J’s early efforts) to the abstract works of art of dancefloor favorites like Timbaland, Lil’ Jon or DJ Mustard, less has practically always been more on rap records. Even the traditionalist’s picks such as J Dilla, DJ Premier or Hi-Tek usually created sparsely furnished or at least, by general musical standards, monochrome soundscapes. There was a period in the mid-’90s, when Bad Boy and Death Row were the top labels and The RZA could do no wrong, when a fuller instrumentation became the standard, but over the entire existence of the artform, the sound has always come back to the basics, the boom of the drums and the blast of the bass that shake venues to their very foundations, that drown out a car’s engine, that affect the listener’s heart rate and breathing frequency. At some point, however, beatmakers felt the need to emancipate themselves from strictly playing support, and instrumental hip-hop was born.
At least that’s one of the names it goes by, perhaps not everybody’s favorite but still a name that I think can be worn with some pride if the artist doesn’t want to disassociate himself from hip-hop completely. Still there’s been developing a different, a proper kind of pride. In a promo video comprised of tour impressions, Dexter of the Betty Ford Boys shares his amazement with the crowd that people celebrate beats, just simply beats, as they do at this instance. He’s right. Beats – and nothing but beats – getting an enthusiastic, live and direct response is a relatively new phenomenon.
Perhaps only now the emancipation of the beatmaker is complete. To be specific, the Austro-German trio of Dexter, Brenk and Suff Daddy try to steer a middle course. Betty Ford Boys is very much a rap-influenced project, their tracks sampling rap vocals from the vaults. West Coast rap is one thing they all seem to be able to agree on, and at times their second album in two years sounds as if DJ Pooh, Soopafly and Daz Dillinger got together for a stress-free jam session without rapper egos involved.
That’s not to say that the production is flat out retro, but it does have vintage hues. Compared to “Leaders of the Brew School,” “Retox” is less public intoxication and soundtrack to cruise up and down the coast, instead going, at least according to the promotion, for a darker and heavier sound. There are still the clear spells that provided a carefree atmosphere last time as “All Up On My Nutz” comes “with the cool and mellow shit fo yo azz” (so says MC Ren), and funk remains an indispensable ingredient, see the Quik-quoting “The Recipe,” or “Everyday Part 2” with its rubbery bassline.
The West Coast is also the musical reference point for “What They Do” (no relation to the Roots song of the same name), which finds itself somewhere between the chopping techniques of Madlib and the more fluid stylings of Fredwreck or Blaqthoven. Whereas the slightly surreal but highly bumpable “Insanity Clause” would feel completely at home in Oxnard’s creative climate. Also, an album from the instrumental-spiritual nephews of Tha Alkaholiks wouldn’t be complete without a least a few minutes of drunken swagger, and “Shut Up” and “The Recipe” fit the bill. As far as vocal sampling sources go, Slim Thug and Lil’ Jon too lend (unbeknownst) their unmistakable voices, while “Physical Fitness” may be a bit too heavy on Kool Keith (as fondly as I remember “Poppa Large”). “The Symphony (Jeep Volume)” is one beat that strikes me as too old fashioned – without even recalling ’90s jeep beats or Marley Marl, as some would have guessed. At the other end of the timeline there are also a couple of highly contemporay beats, such as “Higher Than You” (with the rhythm section suggesting dance steps) or “Hypnotize ‘Em,” a dense arrangement of musical mood swings.
As for the allegedly darker tone, opener “Two” would certainly set something of that kind up with its metallic bassline and combative forward motion, even though the building dark momentum is killed by the next track. “Raymond’s Lament” is a heavy-duty instrumental, a machinery at work where wake-up drum rolls clash with grinding sounds. “Henny Lean” would be perfect for E-40 if he ever wanted to go into a more organic direction but still keep his heavyset sound.
Unlike its predecessor, “Retox” is an actual, real, offline collaborative effort as the trio retreated to some Bavarian hinterland recluse to record the project. Keeping the abstraction and experimentation factor low, they came back with tracks they can tour with but still improvise on. A nuanced but still cohesive package that features everything from gospel vocals to intricate rhythm sections, “Retox” may be a refill, but it’s definitely no rehash.