Traditionally, hip-hop has always been music that tells you to get up, get into it, and get involved. From throwing parties to discussing politics, hip-hop is essentially a social happening, meant to move the masses and eventually bring them together, whether they want to raise their voices and pump their fists or just shake a leg. But one cloudy late afternoon a couple of hip-hoppers woke up and didn’t feel like getting up, getting into it, and getting involved. And that’s how hip-hop discovered its apathetic side. The initial starting point of this movement is impossible to pin down, but fact is that over the years hip-hop has developed an introspective, sometimes even introverted branch where the beats are a little bit slower and more somber, the rappers less in-your-face and their outlook less optimistic.
This is just an observation, neither complimentary nor critical. Hip-hop steadily advances, and if it didn’t, it would have to. Still, when the collective known as Anticon hit us over our heads with their controversial “Music for the Advancement of Hip Hop” in 1999, many of us thought that for a bunch of mostly white newcomers, Anticon acted far too pretentious. One of its contributors was New York’s DJ Signify, who shortly after released “Mixed Messages”, a tasty blend of rugged beats, rough breaks and turntable turmoil. The 1200 Hobos member also has various mixtapes to his credit, spanning from 1996 (“Signifyin’ Breaks”) to 2003 (“Teach the Children”). With his latest project, “Sleep No More”, he resumes his foray into the darker regions of the rap world where concrete sounds suddenly turn into abstract shadows.
Don’t think one minute that we haven’t been there before. Rap has been dealing with the harsh realities of life almost from day one, and while most ghetto spokesmen are driven by the will to survive, they cover the pitfalls of human nature in great detail. Likewise, what used to be mainly derived from funk has evolved into a music encompassing all sorts of moods, from the most playful to the most painful. For “Sleep No More”, DJ Signify has chosen to close the blinds, fittingly introducing the album with composer John Cage citing Hindu mystic Sri Ramakrishna: “Why, if God is good, is there evil in the world? He replied: To thicken the plot.” Whether the plot ever thickens on “Sleep No More” is debatable, but it sure is a far cry from the pop rap that’s been dominating the airwaves lately.
Accompanied on his trip by vocalists Sage Francis and Buck 65, DJ Signify uses every known method to churn up his soundscapes. “Fly Away” introduces us to his mixture of stubbornly pounding beats, static, distortion, reverb, bleeps, scratches, spoken word samples and ever-shifting layers of sound. Even when he uses a sample that once graced a Big Pun single (Terror Squad’s “Whatcha Gonna Do”), it feels dark and dried up (“Five Leaves Left (For Lauren)”). But just when you think “Sleep No More” is going to be all gloomy and gray, you begin to realize just how subtly DJ Signify trumps that notion. I could swear I heard a rubber duckie squeaking in there somewhere. And there’s noticeable irony in the “Peek-a boo” trilogy, a succession of short instrumentals shifting from quirky funk to tumbling drums to distant organs. However, there’s no denying the fact that most people will still perceive “Sleep No More” as a rather bleak affair.
As far as the vocal tracks go, sadly the ones featuring Buck 65 once again reveal the man’s vocal limitations. Even if you accept that a song like “Stranded” has to be radically different from what radio plays, you can’t help but wonder what could have been with someone more at ease with the actual delivery of this haunting tale of a couple stranded in some backwater town:
“To say the place was sketchy is putting it loosely
The owner was out of breath and sweating profusley
He lived in an appartment that was connected to the front desk
I could see into his bedroom and a woman who was undressed
A terrible sight, with his dirty shirt and black sandals
he looked like Peter Fonda and smelled like Jack Daniels
Our room was a bad dream, floor to the ceiling
burn marks everywhere, the wallpaper was peeling
the bathroom was crawling with roaches and beetles
the sign above the toilet read ‘Don’t Flush Your Needles’
the towels were all yellow, the bathtub was filthy
somebody wrote on the wall the word ‘guilty’
Unable to speak, our thoughts were in brackets
we called it a night and slept in our jackets”
Another example of Buck’s fine writing and simultaneously flat delivery is “Winter’s Going”, and while DJ Signify doesn’t do anything to brighten up the scenery, he plays his part well by providing the song with gentle guitar playing and various other melodical bits fading in and out. The fact that all of Sage’s and Buck’s narratives feature female companionship suggests that they are following some kind of storyline, but that seems not to be the case. Even so, “Sleep No More” works for what it is, a melancholically buzzing clock radio that makes you sleepy but won’t let you sleep.