Monsters aren’t what they used to be. Once fierce creatures that gave shape to our deepest fears have been reduced to caricatures. At what point did monsters lose their potential to scare the hell out of us? Is it the fact that our society shed its superstitions, stopped believing in the supernatural, in demons and devils and ghosts and ghouls? Were it bad b-movies that gave us too many silly, amateurishly animated monsters? Were it Scooby-Doo and the gang finding out that behind every monster scare is a human scam? From Maurice Sendak’s classic children story ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ to the Pokemon universe monsters have, maybe rightfully, become the allies of kids, but they’ve also been made the source of our amusement. _The Munsters_ and _The Addams Family_. _Sesame Street_’s Cookie Monster. Nickelodeon’s _Aaahh!!! Real Monsters_. Pixar’s _Monsters, Inc._. They’re just too cute.
Maybe that was to be expected from a culture that sends kids to ask strangers for candy the very night that spirits are said to connect with the physical world. The only monsters that still give us the chills, it seems, are the ones in human form. As the ancient Hebrews knew, ‘Adam le’adam Ze’ev.’ ‘A man is a wolf to a man.’ While this is not the exact conclusion it boils down to, Sharkey and C-Rayz Walz offer an explanation of the title of their collaboration project “Monster Maker” by inviting a multi-cultural crowd onto its opening track to tell us that “este mundo es un creador de monstros,” that “this world is a monster maker.” What exactly they mean by that remains unclear, but what is clear is that the two didn’t sit down to draw up apocalyptic visions.
Early on, the album sets the tone with a cheerful voice welcoming us, “Hey everybody, gather round, boys and girls” over the upbeat soul clap of “This Ol’ Twisted World.” Few beats here share the symphonic structure of this opener, but what they all have in common is a constantly changing make-up where a wealth of sounds and melodies coalesce into a layered whole. All the while the tracks retain their rhythm and are distinctly set apart from each other, collectively setting an excellent production standard.
Washington, DC-based producer Sharkey gets associated with some big names, but on “Monster Maker” fully dedicates his creative energy to New York rapper C-Rayz Walz, whose only corporate credentials consist of acting as a coach for unlikely rap hopefuls in MTV’s _Made_ series. The musical tide usually subsides when the rap parts come in, but even when he has to tackle a lowered wall of sound, it is still one hell of a challenge. But with his punchy, wide awake delivery Walz proves to be a worthy opponent of what the title of Sharkey’s 2004 album dubbed “Sharkey’s Machine.”
“What can’t be done is what I’m doin’ / even in still life I’m still movin’,” Walz proclaims on “My Way,” sending his enigmatic musings and messages over a rhythmic rattle accelerated by ascending trumpet and voices, space effects, and a short but effective cello chord. Not relegated to one or two novelty appearances, the sung vocals have been made an integral part of “Monster Maker.” Song after song features vocal support from the likes of Kokayi, Maia Banks, Belly Moon, Heidi Martin, and last but not least Sharkey and Walz themselves. The hooks generally represent the brighter side of the pop spectrum, but they can just as well compliment a somber tune like “Pain to the Picture,” blend subtly into Sharkey’s sound fabric, or rise to a gospel choir level of intensity.
Singer Maia Banks carries “Might She Shoot,” contributing to the track’s dark Caribbean flair, escaping unscathed as slow-motion machine gun drums ricochet off the vocalists. She supplies the dry “Forgotten” with female sensitivity, answering Walz’ wordy accusations towards an ex-lover. She is also prominently featured on “Jumping off at the Jump Off,” a somewhat aimless club track whose saving grace might just be the Method Man sample. The club setting for the purposely primal “We Speak Animal” is more underground, combining hammering mid-’80s hip-hop beats and basic guitar work. Instrumentally, it could pass as a 2K update of Run-D.M.C.’s “Rock Box,” but the hymnic vocals from Kokayi who encourages club goers, “Let me see you run the jungle,” make the track tailor-made for clubs that have a little bit of everything in their mix. As Walz puts it: “In sync with the planet’s playlist / keep the instinct basic / can you smell and taste it?”
“Electric Avenue,” however, is unabashedly pop, and not just because it remakes the Eddy Grant hit of the same name. Still Walz’ everyday struggle scenario grounds the song in reality: “Out in the street there’s violent beefs / helicopter birds, rhino jeeps / scuffed up shoes from tyrant’s feet / no peace when the wino speaks.” Traditionally, rock and rap are more familiar with each other, which should easily grant a track like “That Moment Before Crazy” access to a rock club’s sound system. Grinding guitars and a rolling piano set the stage as C-Rayz teams up with brother from another mother Vast Aire for some imaginative battle posturing.
On “Loss of Niche” Walz is joined by rapper Zooks, both riding the highly physical beat with distinct styles that cause Walz to quip, “Few cats create they niche with true style / that’s why I’m still Shining like Shelley Duvall.” This one sneaks up stealthily, getting in gear with lots of low end rhythmic elements (including a choppy cello), and ending in an unexpected orchestral finale.
Officially billed as “Sharkey & C-Rayz Walz are Monster Maker,” the two link up similarly to how DangerMouse and MF DOOM formed DangerDoom, or how the former hooked up with Cee-Lo in the highly successful Gnarls Barkley duo. That is to say that “Monster Maker” consciously rides the wave of collaboration albums. What makes this project unique is that it establishes a working interface between indie pop and underground rap. Various recent projects also went for a fusion of styles, from Fort Minor to Timbaland’s “Shock Value,” and most notably the Gorillaz albums, but none have dared to be as fun and catchy and at the same time drop the lyrical load a rapper like C-Rayz Walz is prone to deliver.
On “My Way,” the MC hollers, “What up Creator? Creativity!” Reminding us that creation, whether divine or human, requires creativity, “Monster Maker” is a shot of artistic creatine hip-hop needs to once again flex its muscles. Almost too layered to pass for hip-hop and too rhythmically aware to pass for pop, it will not please everybody, but such is the nature of the beast.