1999 was a long time ago, but it doesn’t really feel that way, does it? Maybe this is because The Aughts Decade never really spawned a true zeitgeist identity, but it undermines the fact that a decade has passed, a long time to continue to show and prove in the hip hop game.
In 1999, my friends and I thought the world was about to end. Maybe it did, for all we know. Maybe we just listened to too much Prince and The Isolationist.
That year, DJ Vadim released an earth shattering album for those of us who were waiting for the end. The album was The Isolationist. At that point, it was about the most cutting-edge shit you could get into. The MCs, M. Saayid, Beans, and Priest (known collectively as Anti-Pop Consortium) were off-the-wall (“Your ears are my punching bag/ Hydrogen slush), utilizing the negative space (where no raps live) as much as they did their own idiosyncratic flows. Much in the same way, the beats were spare and foreboding.
I bring this joint up because it was 10 years between this ground-breaking album and DJ Vadim’s last release, U Can’t Lurn Imaginashun. 10 years is a long time in the hip hop game. It was long enough for Jay Z to morph from an up-and-comer to a mogul, for De La Soul to go from top of the heap to over the hill. Long enough for Kanye West to arise from obscurity to ubiquity and back again and for Common to jump the shark completely, making an atrocious album on whose cover he wore guy-liner. Countless labels and artists have come and gone since then (Def Jux or Canibus, anyone? OK, Def Jux is still around, but it seems like they’re more of a clothing and accessories company now.) Hip hop since 1999 has become a part of the pop music template, a seemingly seamless co-option that has basically killed the genre or bestowed upon it everlasting life, depending on whom you ask.
To be sure, DJ Vadim has changed a lot since 1999, too. He got married, to Yarah Bravo, went through some loss as well as cancer of the eye (ouch), toured the world, and participated in countless collaborations. His most recent effort, U Can’t Lurn Imaginashun is a mish-mash of styles that should please everyone.
“This is something I would never have done ten years ago, let alone on my last album,” avers Vadim. “I feel like the album bridges gaps between what is eclectic and what is mainstream, as well as between genres like soul, hip hop, reggae, downtempo and electronica. It’s definitely a move towards more electronic sounds from The Soundcatcher” – maybe like Soul2Soul meets Daft Punk.”
That quote exemplifies the spirit of this album completely. It swings back and forth from reggae to dubstep, from pop hip hop to underground banger. Imaginashun holds your attention due to this genre schizophrenia, as well as the overall accessibility. The first three tracks: “Soldier,” “Imaginashun,” and “That Life” run the gamut from reggae/dancehall to a trance-like club track to a “conscious” hip hop cut with infectious soul samples. Imaginashun goes on like this, refusing to conform to the contours of its container, breaking free and breaking molds.
Maybe you can lurn imaginashun.
In 1999, I admired The Isolationist for its single-mindedness; its willful determination to conform to a style. I could see myself ridiculing Imaginashun ten years ago, calling it too pop, maybe even a sell-out. However, now I realize that there is a difference between becoming accessible and selling out. Maybe it has taken me ten years to become a more eclectic and receptive listener. Or perhaps it has taken Vadim these ten years to find the right balance. It’s like a colorblind person suddenly seeing in Technicolor.
He seems to move effortlessly between styles. In addition to the three aforementioned tracks, “Thrill Seeker” is a wriggly, slippery funk number, featuring the powerful voice of Sabira Jade. “Saturday,” featuring Pugz Atomz, reminds me of an early-90s commercial radio jam. You know, like when you used to sit by the stereo and press record when your favorite song came on, played it non-stop on your Walkman, then recorded over it two weeks later when the new flavor came out, until the tape eventually melted down to the basic carbon atoms. “Strictly Rockers” and “Under Your Hat” move to the reggae/dub realm with satisfying results. Yarah Bravo dominates “You Are Yours” with both her singing and rapping. “Maximum” featuring La Methode takes us to France with a creepy track built around old chanson samples. This cut kind of weirds me out a little bit, but in a good way. It sounds like the soundtrack to cartoons based on a trip to the haunted house. Pugz Atomz returns strong, along with Wes Restless on “Always a Lady, ” a sweet little hip hop love joint. Vadim even drops some disco on us, cashing in on the latest revival with “Thrill” and “Rock Dem Hot”. “Hidden Pleasure” plays around with ska.
If you had a qualm about the album, it would probably be that it is not cohesive. It is more like a great mixtape, which I happen to like. However, some people like more of an overall conceptual cohesion that is lacking here. I like to hear Vadim working in a select genre over the course of an album, like he does on The Isolationist or the album La Mami Internacional. Also, in my opinion, there are some weaker tracks that act as filler. “Beijos,” kind of a ballad-y hip hop beat; and “Game Tight,” which samples an American soap opera theme song, come to mind immediately.
Maybe there is no over-arching conceptual theme, but the omnipresent vibe on Imaginashun is fun. This can be one of those albums you put on at a party and just let it run straight through. It is apparent that Vadim has honed his craft over the years, expanded his stable of collaborators, and found a way to dabble in almost every imaginable genre. What’s next, DJ Vadim, klezmer? Polka? I wouldn’t put it past him. Judging from this album, he would probably make it super rump-shaking.
Good news for you: Vadim and Yarah Bravo are coming to Shanghai (again). This is a Free the Wax show at the Shelter on March 12th. More awesomeness: Vadim and Yarah Bravo will be putting on a workshop/show at the Source store the day before. Come down to find out how Vadim makes the tracks so funky.