Until I spotted his latest release “Breakdance” on the virtual shelf, I was oblivious of Smoov-E’s existence. Internet information on the rapper is inconclusive but I do get the impression of someone who takes the music seriously but not necessarily himself. Smoov-E reps NorCal and cites, among other musicians, early ’90s Bay Area rappers as an influence. His musical works go beyond one specific genre, but there is one instrument he seems to be particularly fond of – the drum machine.
According to Smoov-E’s most prominently placed career resume, ‘his collection of both vintage and modern drum sequencers continues to grow and has been evident in all of his work.’ It is certainly evident in “Breakdance,” his tribute to early 1980s electro and hip-hop. We can therefore assume that every 808 heard on this album comes from an actual Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer. Either way he assembles all those toms, kicks and snares in vintage fashion, and that goes for the entire arrangement of bass stabs, synth lines and anything else needed to evoke that brief era in electronic music that would have such a lasting effect on dance music (including rap/hip-hop).
Smoov-E also remains faithful to the rapping and rhyming style of electro, affecting a monotone, almost ‘robotic’ flow (often via filtered vocals) while maintaining a humorous note last but not least due to completely basic and random bars. Sometimes his brags have a sexual undertone, but there’s little actual vulgarity. Hence a number of tracks are total throwbacks – opener “Computer Rhythm” reaches thematically back to electro’s inception, when electronics began to permeate everyday life, while musically Smoov-E sets the time machine to 1983 with stuttering percussion, a bouncing bassline, laser-beaming synths and that spellbinding Egyptian Lover delivery:
“Cream leather jacket, Lasonic boombox
Pants pegged up, red high tops
Key chain necklace, fresh Reeboks
White bandana, Mickey Mouse watch
Hit the play button, you can hit rewind
She left me her number, said call it anytime”
The electro icon isn’t merely evoked but an official guest on the title track, joining the host in running down a list of breakdance moves. Smoov-E emcees throughout the album, and although some tracks, like “Computer Rhythm” or “Rappin’ Robot” (two standouts), have longer instrumental sequences, he should have trusted his beatmaking skills more and talk less. It’s not that he’s not up to the task technically (in fact he’s pretty good at it), it’s that he embraces the clichÃ© of dumbed down dance music. Electro in particular had a certain depth to it, a futuristic and mythical dimension, something that is absent from “Breakdance,” which instead comes across like an ’80s theme party, lovingly arranged but stripped of any substance. For instance, “Rappin’ Robot” reminds me of an early Whodini track which dealt with the issue of machine-made rap in a far more interesting way – notably 30 years ago.
The nascent Bay Area rap scene of the later ’80s was heavily influenced by pre-sampling hip-hop. Smoov-E’s “Stone Cold Groove” (assisted by MC Salaz doing a solid Kurtis Blow impression) represents the kind of music that was such an influence, while “Dirty Mouth,” “Put it on Wax” and especially “Don’t Stop the Beat” emulate what the Bay eventually made of it. The thing is, Oakland and San Francisco made something new and original out of that basic drum machine/synthesizer set-up. Too $hort may have rhymed over 808s, but he gave the music his own spin and never even considered vocoder effects for his voice. That unique appropriation made him and his ilk so real.
Smoov-E’s aim isn’t being real but simply to have a little fun with music from times past he’s clearly very familiar with. As such “Breakdance” is an entertaining experience, but whatever point in the first half of 1980s Smoov lands at, he’s never the visionary that musicians and acts such as George Clinton, Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker, Warp 9, Michael Jonzun, etc. were. Yeah his stuff is fresh, but is it really fresh?