MP3: Spectre – Valour
MP3: Spectre – Fracture
I haven’t taken rap, or hip-hop for that matter, seriously since I first heard “Get Low,” penned by some disillusioning bastard with a mixing program. So, needless to say it’s been years. Friends of mine would play their favorites in an attempt to convert me, all usually trashy jams you hear on Hot-99.5 (ruining the taste of high school students, one single at a time), which didn’t help in the least.
That’s the backstory of how I came to loathe the genre as a whole, just so you’re aware of my rap/hip-hop/R&B credentials before I go into this any further. But to be fair, I had an open mind to rap, believing somehow that it can express notable emotion in its own way. I just assumed that such art was almost unobtainable without some sort of black-market inside source so I never attempted to find it. Years later, this guy named Greg asked me to check out an artist named Spectre. He sent me his 2003 album, Psychic Wars. This is where my viewpoint on rap and hip-hop shifted for the better. This is the art I was hoping existed, but never quite found.
Spectre, otherwise known as Skiz Fernando, is a Harvard-educated rap artist that runs his own “Crooklyn”-founded, Baltimore-based label called Wordsound. His default setting is sinister: a dark, contemplative tone that calls for chills on all occasions. And it works.
Early on, Psychic Wars’ immaculate production assumes the chief position, that is, it’s clear that Skiz really knows what he’s doing: “I have been producing music now for a little over 20 years, and I’ve had a lot of time to hone my chops, so hopefully it shows in the productions. I’ve released 7 solo albums as Spectre, and I’ve just completed my first album-length collaboration with my long-time friend Sensational–an album which feels like the best thing I’ve ever done.” Even so, Psychic Wars sounds wise in a way, as if it’s actually not working hard, but smart. Look at the overdriven “Valour,” reversed cymbals and that funky drum bit lure you into the song’s hypnotic trance while Spectre hardly breaks a sweat. His impeccably placed percussion sequences don’t put effort into to breaking down your walls–they do that just by nature.
On top of being a practiced and observable master of the beat, Spectre makes use of melody just as effectively throughout his art. The insistent bass-keys duo in “The Fire Within“ does all the work for nearly four minutes, using the skins only as a mere spot. ”Blazed (feat. Sensational)” stumbles gracefully with a glitched-out piano sample and under-the-radar helicopter chops, drowned out by what sounds like a thousand teapots exploding. The sum of this, accompanied by Sensational’s free-for-all rhyme scheme, gives the impression of tamed chaos with Fernando as its keeper. It makes for the album’s best introductory track (even though it sits as a centerpiece).
While I was busy delving into Psychic Wars, I was handed yet another Spectre record. This time around it turned out to be 2009’s Internal Dynasty, a similarly fear-focused album of the same breed. To my untrained ears, these two works appear indistinguishable. I mean, if you shuffled the tracks together well, there’s no way I could tell the difference. Spectre uses similar prerequisites in both Internal Dynasty and Psychic Wars, a glitch-sample foundation with a heavy-ass beat, quotes from horror flicks, and the same old time-tested studio masterminding.
I’d say the one distinguishing feature of Internal Dynasty is that it works on a more accessible level. “Catch A Fire” sports a calm, collected rhythm section alongside wordplay so abrupt you can hardly tell where one word ends and the next begins, working the nonchalant angle like nobody’s business. All the same, the electro-fanatic in me has “Fracture” on his favorites list. It utilizes every trick Wham City kids have written down on the back of their circuit-bending trickbooks, and finds itself pieced together far more aptly for it. On the other hand, placing a track like “Fracture” in the context of, say a Death Set album, would be to reduce it to one of the most unengaging on the record (slow beats and repetition hardly get you anywhere in spaz-punk). But this isn’t spaz-punk, and in the end, “Fracture” pulls its own weight (and then some). Among Dynasty’s other highlights, “Vai Na Fé” throws you off balance with a waltzy intro, then morphs itself into the most tastefully orchestrated Latin beat I’ve heard in a long while. All this in strict cooperation with Spectre’s signature: ominous atmospherics.
According to Fernando, this is just a function of where his music dwells: “Darkness is just my m.o., but I think what’s more important is that music is still important to me. I’m still making music for music’s sake and not for money’s sake. I still want to create something original and new that you haven’t heard yet. I’m still hungry. I have not had the credit, the money or the fame, and I think that makes all the difference. The darkness comes from a real place. It comes from the struggle to be heard.”
Spectre appears to practice his craft in a realm truly untouched by the mainstream hip hop world. Existing in musical solitude seems very much his thing. This no doubt affects the way Wordsound is run. A quick visit to their Myspace page shows that they profess to be their own influence, their own sound (the precise phrase being that they “ARE the sound”). I don’t know how to express any more succintly that they are skeptical of the outside world.
Fernando acknowledges that WordSound has “always existed on the fringes of hip-hop culture,” and that reason number one for this is “rap music itself has become pop music and is more about conformity than innovation, originality or creativity. It’s a commodity now and it’s not about breaking barriers.”
He swiftly decries the proliferation of Auto-Tune, not unlike an environmentalist watching wildfires destroy the woodlands. ”When it started out, hip-hop incorporated all sounds and styles, and that’s what initially attracted me to it,” Fernando laments. “Afrika Bambaataa, the ‘Godfather of Hip-Hop’ always says: ‘I’m hip-hop and then some.’ To me that speaks volumes. While hip-hop is primarily an urban art form, it uses (or used to use) so many other influences, and that, to me, is what made it great.”
Despite all this, Fernando and Wordsound aren’t quite as averse to the mainstream as appearances, or dogma would dictate. Fernando is quick to pessimism, blasting radio for its perpetuation of “uninspired, cookie-cutter rap,” but he isn’t without a sliver of optimism. ”I think hip-hop could be so much more and I hope it saves itself from the ‘blahs.’ I would also love to hear WordSound on the radio, and work with some well-known MCs like Ghostface or Busta Rhymes. Maybe that’s happening in the Bizarro universe already.”
Note: You can pick up Internal Dynasty at the True Vine.
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