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El-P succeeds in fusion of jazz and hip-hop

Kenyatta Storin | Thursday, March 25, 2004

In the past few years, rapper/producer El-P and his crew at Def Jux have slowly established themselves as one of the premier underground rap labels of the new millennium. They are best known for their intellectual, nonconforming brand of hip-hop, often going where other artists have not gone before. El-P and fellow Def Jux artists such as Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif and RJD2 may not be well known by the general public, but they have been embraced by many members of the underground rap community for their critically-acclaimed albums of the past few years. El-P himself is best known for his groundbreaking, gritty and distorted production style and his technical rhymes. But High Water is a completely different entity, unlike anything El-P has ever done before. In it, El-P teams up with the Blue Series Continuum, a group of six jazz musicians managed by pianist Matthew Skinner, to create a fusion of jazz and hip-hop. This is not an entirely new idea by any means, since famous hip-hop artists including A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Gang Starr have all done various forms of jazz/rap, and Guru’s “Jazzmatazz” series even implements live jazz with rap. But unlike these artists, El-P does not rap at all on High Water, and instead focuses on combining his hip-hop producing skills with live jazz instrumentation. In essence, it is more of a jazz album than a hip-hop album. El-P is essentially a composer on High Water, arranging the parts of the six musicians, while throwing in some production of his own. The Blue Continuum itself consists of Skinner on piano, Guillermo Brown on drums, Roy Campbell on trumpet, Daniel Carter on reeds and flutes, William Parker on bass and Steve Swell on trombone. The combination of these six with El-P’s production results in a trippy sound that resembles something like a laid back jazz jam session thrust into the middle of a sci-fi flick. It is also rather dark and mysterious due to sinister piano melodies and ambiguous, alien samples that are maintained throughout. Those that are familiar with El-P will recognize his unique production style through the disjointed, often chaotic sound of the jazz musicians along with El-P’s own trademark space age effects and samples. However, El-P does not overload the album too much with his effects, allowing the Blue Continuum to have their moments to shine as well.With just eight tracks, High Water does not suffer from having any filler, which allows listeners to forget that there is a fast forward button on the remote control. El-P does a good job of switching things up, occasionally even implementing hip-hop drumbeats on tracks like “Get Your Hand Off My Shoulder, Pig” and “Intrigue in the House of India.” Even “Sunrise over Bklyn,” by far the longest track at over 10 minutes, maintains a high level of energy by gradually building up to a satisfying climax. El-P maintains his excellent track record with another impressive outing in High Water. Trip-hop fans with a liking for jazz, and jazz fans with an appreciation for the unconventional will both take much pleasure in it. High Water is perfect chill music when hanging out with friends, or for those weeknights when you have nothing to do and just want to lounge on the coach for a while. El-P is already established as a fine producer, but this latest work demonstrates just how versatile he is as a musician.

Contact Kenyatta Storin at kstorin@nd.edu