Anybody who has come into contact with Esau’s 2000 release “The Debut Album… The Farewell Tour” remembers a rapper that likes to take chances, not least with his suggestion to “everyone that buys this CD to dub at least 5 copies for your friends.” Well, Esau is about to take some more chances as he presents “The Debut Album… The Farewell Tour” completely remixed in the drum-n-bass format. “The Drum and Bass Album… The Farewell Tour” may very well qualify as “the first hip-hop album in history to be totally remixed with drum-n-bass tracks” (as the label boasts), although it has to be mentioned that Adam F’s “Kaos” (featuring a high-profile list of US rappers) has been remixed by UK drum-n-bass authorities such as Roni Size, Origin Unknown, Mickey Finn and Dillinja. Then again, “Kaos” wasn’t a middle-of-the-road hip-hop album to begin with.
Arguably, this record might fall on more competent ears than mine. But I do consider myself not completely ignorant to the drum-n-bass phenomenon. Also labelled jungle or breakbeat, and like so many other forms of music splintered into too many sub-styles for even insiders to keep count, drum-n-bass came into existence in the early nineties after a rapid succession of dance music styles (acid, techno, hardcore) in the UK rave scene. Compressing the earth tones of dub, the polyrhythmic foundations of dancehall, the funky breakbeats used in hip-hop, and the mesmerizing grooves of house and techno into a highly kinetic structure stripped of almost anything but drum and bass sounds sped up to beats per minute well beyond most people’s receptivity, drum-n-bass seemed to capture the decade’s paradox duality: radical yet functional, modest yet exuberant, riotous yet pacifying. Music that can only be programmed on a computer yet once you hear it it feels like a tribal call. It is important to understand that drum-n-bass requires able composers. As much as the genre remains a playground for beat freaks, there are rules to be observed. The most imporant of which isn’t even technical: you have to be radical in your approach. There’s an overall sharpness to drum-n-bass that will let the music lose much of its appeal if it’s absent. We’re talking, after all, about music that brings you closer to a heart attack than any other.
All of this is placing quite some responsibility onto producer MikeD who has been selected to remix 15 of the 19 tracks available. Put to the drum-n-bass test (find the most potent sound system available), “The Drum and Bass Album… The Farewell Tour” is both surprising and disappointing. MikeD (The Unoriginal, as he likes to dub himself in reference to the Beastie Boy of the same name) clearly grasps the concept. The opening “Stop Being Blinded” (the original tracklisting has been rearranged) pairs a frantic beat arrangement and a mechanical groove with a calming keyboard layer. Unfortunately, the first rapper you witness over this strange soundscape, whose commanding delivery fits nicely with the barrage of beats, isn’t Esau but Da Wizard of Aahs. Once Esau comes in, his flow more meandering and melodical, it suddenly doesn’t seem such a good idea to put him in a drum-n-bass environment. Thankfully, Esau displayed different deliveries throughout his album. The more boom and swagger he originally laid in his voice, the better Esau works over these type of tracks, as evidenced by “Me & My Baby”. With its lilted hook, this song packs enough verve that this remix wouldn’t even have felt out of place on the original album.
Exhibiting his versatility, MikeD strikes all kinds of drum-n-bass poses. He does it particularly well on the wicked “That’s Real” and the trance-influenced “U.R. Destine”. On “Ahh!” he comes across like an early ’80s version of The Neptunes, staying in tune with Esau’s tongue-in-cheek tale about why he prefers vinyl over CD’s. For “What More Can I Say?” he filters the original’s ingenious sample but makes the mistake of distorting Esau’s voice (he does it again on “Boo”). “Independents” should serve as an example of how not to do it: horrendous keyboard sounds crossed with hectic beats. Drum-n-bass or not, this is basically stuff you can find on any experimental producer’s resume, nothing but underground trash. The same goes for “I Got All That” – apart from the fact that it’s hard to take any beat serious when the lyrics are a straight parody. As for the ambitious “First”, that one was already hard to follow in its original state. Unfortunately MikeD doesn’t do anything to make Esau’s tour de force of historical firsts come out any clearer. Overall, you’d be hard-pressed to find a remix that works better than the original. “You Ain’t Fly” may be a viable candidate. With a groove that could have been transferred from Slick Rick’s “The Ruler’s Back” and some steel drums and horn stabs thrown into the mix, this one is pure fun as Esau disses the big ballers of ca. ’97-’98 Boogie Boys style. Although, making fun of Silkk the Shocker and asking Puffy, “let me do a joint with Mase” sounds rather dated in 2003.
Other contributors include Tek, who flips Greg Nice’s “I originate” phrase for his take on “Original Duplicator”, and Gnonsense, whose version of “I’m Going to Hell” lets you discover the cross-genre approach of producers like Timbaland and Swizz Beatz. In the end, “The Drum and Bass Album… The Farewell Tour” is more than bleeps and bubbles but it’s not the mind-altering experience one could have hoped for. When you hear guest rapper BlackMel proclaim that battling him “is harder than rapping to tracks with no drums”, you can’t help but think that rapping to tracks with +too many+ drums can be hard too. Not to mention that one can’t shake the suspicion that at least some of these drum patterns haven’t been programmed by the remixers themselves but were culled from other sources. But even though the project is a hit-and-miss experience, its existence alone is radical enough. With the inclusion of “2 Many MC’s”, even fellow North Carolinians The Nobodies and Yaggfu Front get sucked into the drum-n-bass frenzy. The vocals tend to suffer under this treatment as much of their intimacy is lost in the uncompromising mix. The voice becomes a mere technical element. But since MC’s and drum-n-bass are an entirely different (and difficult!) chapter, we’ll applaud the effort undertaken by MikeD, Esau and Mends Recordings. Still, if you want to support Esau on his prolonged farewell tour, I suggest you get the original first.