Beats & Rhymes: Blue Sky Black Death’s Noir

By Tom Harrison
May 16, 2011

Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

Blue Sky Black Death: NoirBlue Sky Black Death: Noir (Fake Four Inc., 4/26/11)

Blue Sky Black Death: “And Stars, Ringed”

[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/03-And-Stars-Ringed.mp3|titles=Blue Sky Black Death: “And Stars Ringed”]

When one thinks of West Coast hip-hop production, the mind likely won’t rush to the kind of music made by San Francisco’s Blue Sky Black Death. And yet the duo of Young God (Ian Taggart) and Kingston (Kingston McGuire) has become a sought commodity for its production skills, having worked with members of Hieroglyphics, Non Phixion, Jedi Mind Tricks, and Wu-Tang Clan affiliates Hell Razah and Holocaust.

Though its most controversial release is likely The Evil Jeanius, which reportedly featured vocals from rapper Jean Grae without her knowledge or monetary compensation, the duo’s instrumental records have received tremendous critical accolades. BSBD returned in late April with Noir, an album of hazy instrumental beats that skirt the boundary between hip hop and electronica.

Nearly 80 percent of the record is composed of non-sampled instrumentation that’s largely influenced by shoegaze — an unusual muse for a DJ, to say the least. The tracks certainly show it. Many instrumental hip-hop records, even ones lauded by critics and beloved by fans, feature songs that repeat themselves over and over. This pattern provides a useful verse-chorus-verse structure when a rapper is involved, but when beats are allowed to break free, they can be so much more. BSBD understands this and presents tracks that evolve, build, and change as they go, with intensity rising and falling throughout, keeping the listener on his or her toes.

Despite the title, the record is most reminiscent of a lazy summer’s twilight — the sun orange as it dips below the horizon. Strings hold their notes long, guitars are smooth and gauzy, and the songs are down-tempo enough that sounds melt into one another, creating the unrelenting wave of sound that’s native to shoegaze. Synthesizers layer upon one another, with each providing a melodic ingredient to the sumptuously composed tracks.

“And Stars, Ringed” rides a lively, rollicking beat through echoing guitars, ethereal humming synthesizers, strings, and myriad other synthesized riffs. The song creates a calming, comfortable atmosphere that pervades the record. In fact, no song presents itself as radically different in tone or mood — though this keeps the album coherent, it can also make some songs easy to overlook, as they seem to merge with those around them. This, however, is weighed against the benefits of the record’s unusually strong atmosphere. The season may not yet be upon us, but BSBD has created what is unquestionably a summer album. The cover’s golden over-saturation of sunlight fits the music eerily well.

The songs on Noir stand on their own merits, and it’s clear that they need no rapping to complete them. Many instrumental tracks sound as if their vocals were edited out (and BSBD has released enough instrumental versions of its originally vocal albums that it wouldn’t be new), but it’s almost impossible to imagine how even the most avant-garde rapper could make himself welcome on a track like “Starry.” Opening with a high, busy synth loop, the song moves along on bursts of percussion and a distant sample of wordless soul vocals. The sound of laughing children fills the track as the instrumentation falls away, before returning with a newly found bass line and washes of fuzzy shoegaze guitar, which in turn falls away in favor of layered violins. The intricacy of the compositions let the songs speak for themselves, and the fact that the immense shifts in mood, instrumentation, and melody aren’t jarring says a lot about BSBD’s ability to create a cohesive whole out of so many parts.

And after all, isn’t that what hip hop’s all about? To create something new from parts, to make something wonderful from unlikely ingredients — these are the principles that deejaying was founded upon, and although Noir might sound more like an electronica record with indie-rock influences, Blue Sky Black Death has created a striking piece of work that hip-hop fans will take note of.

By Tom Harrison May 16, 2011
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