Antipop Consortium is not just any rap group. Rappers Priest, Beans, and M. Sayyid (only Beans and Priest appear on this recording) eschew gansta rap, instead displaying a verbal pyrotechnic style that is a combination of storytelling and poetry. These guys really like words, really like language, and that provides much more for them to work with in collaborating with a group of musicians like Matthew Shipp and company.
In addition, the range of musical influences displayed are much greater than that of the average popular rap group. Antipop Consortium is attempting to bring new elements into hip-hop, casting about for a new language that conveys some of the traditional hip-hop aesthetic, but without the trappings that have become part of a corrupted hip-hop vision. They are interested in technology and new ways to use it in creating music, which certainly puts them into Shipp’s orbit.
The idea that the organic musical sounds being produced by a group of musicians can be fused effectively with electronic and programmed sounds is one that many jazz musicians are exploring, with Shipp at the forefront. The aesthetic that Shipp brings to albums like Vs. and Nu Bop is one that was probably first presented to the jazz world on Miles Davis’s album Tutu. Even though the musical language of technology has changed a lot in the intervening twenty or so years, the idea is the same, and it seems to be gaining acceptance on all sides.
The opening track, “Places I’ve Never Been” starts with Shipp’s powerful block chords which are eventually joined by Antipop’s synth and drum programming along with some tasty drum work by Guillermo E. Brown. It develops into something that sounds a little like a McCoy Tyner Trident-era experiment. The next track, “Staph” shows just how much of a blend of jazz and hip-hop sensibilities this project is, with Shipp playing a post-bop piano solo over hip-hop beats interspersed with rap choruses. It’s a bit like trading solos, with Shipp, followed by drums and bass along with programmed beats, followed by some rapping. The structure is much more of a jazz structure, and it builds momentum over the course of the track just as a series of jazz solo choruses might. My only complaint is that it fades out just as the energy seems ready to explode.
The idea that one can combine jazz and rap by simply throwing some rhymes over a jazz rhythm section is finally dealt a swift coup de gras by this album. If rappers and turntablists want to play with jazz musicians and be taken seriously by other musical genres, they must approach their music with the same craftsman-like approach, developing over time and absorbing new influences. Antipop Consortium demonstrates that they are down with that idea on Antipop Vs. Matthew Shipp. Their approach to rapping is based not just on what the MC says but on how he sounds and how the sounds that he creates with words fit into the overall sound of the music that is being created.
To some ears, this CD will sound like a clash of cultures, because both the free musings of Shipp, William Parker, Guillermo E. Brown, Khan Jamal, and Daniel Carter and the rapping/programming of Antipop are given equal footing in this aesthetic. The album is presented as Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp because neither aesthetic is giving any ground here. Instead, both are doing what they essentially do, but with sensitivity to the overall sound being created. What emerges is not necessarily either jazz or hip-hop, even though the component parts of both genres are readily discernable.
Probably the most effective track is “Monstro City,” on which Antipop Consortium’s poetic images are played off against a musical background that is exotic and vaguely Eastern. It’s really not quite like anything I’ve heard before, despite racking my brain for some comparison that resonates (On the Corner? Agharta?). There are other pieces that work well (“Places I’ve Never Seen,” “Staph,” and others that don’t come off quite as well (“SVP”, “Coda”), but overall the disc is a really interesting, challenging, and fine listen.
I think some folks are disappointed in the lack of a smoother combination between these two musical forms, but that is what ultimately makes this album a success. With neither side ceding territory to the other, it is still apparent that these musical forms can interact in meaningful ways. Whether listeners find it as compelling as Shipp’s work with Spring Heel Jack or his own beat-meets-bop synthesis ultimately depends on the listeners, I think. At first glance (or listen) Vs. may be a bit underwhelming when compared to its siblings in the Thirsty Ear Blue series. Give it some time, though. It might just turn out to be the On the Corner of its time—which, again, is either a recommendation or a condemnation of immense proportions. But it should help you decide which side of the fence you’re on.