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Prefuse 73 

Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives (Warp)

Wednesday, Jul 11 2001
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Two-thirds of the way through Scott Herren's fantastic Prefuse 73 debut, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, the nimble-fingered sample surgeon includes a snippet of an unidentified record producer saying, "What I didn't want to do was record rappers rapping over a beat; I was really looking for something that was a little more classic and something that went backwards in time." The latter half of the statement doesn't apply to Herren's album -- Vocal Studies leapfrogs a few steps in beat evolution to come up with a sound that's radically new. But the first part of the quotation is dead on: Vocal Studies rearranges hip hop's usual hierarchy of vocals and beats, breaking syllables down to the level of drum breaks and weaving them into a dense lattice of sound.

Previously, Herren merged moody indie rock with fidgety electronica in his alter egos Savath + Savalas and Delarosa + Asora, but this is the closest the Atlanta producer has come to a "proper" hip hop record. While only three cuts feature MCs (Mikah 9, Rec Center, and the powerhouse combo of MF Doom and Aesop Rock) and a fourth utilizes Sea & Cake singer Sam Prekop, there's a lyrical flow running through Vocal Studies -- even though the words have been fractured, blasted to bits, and reconstructed as a loose connection of clipped consonants and glottal stops. Sample spotters may pick up on the Erykah Badu reference in "Nuno," but this isn't just a record for music obsessives. Vocal Studies swings and swaggers whether or not you know where Herren copped his moves.

Herren has said that the name "Prefuse 73" denotes his interest in pre-1973 jazz fusion, but the presence of precursors like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock is fleeting at best, referenced by a dash of vibes here and a warm splash of keys there. In many ways Vocal Studies recalls DJ Shadow's 1998 debut, Endtroducing -- another record that left critics arguing over whether it was "real" hip hop. Herren has the same predilection for bottom-heavy breaks and deep-hued tone color as Shadow, as well as his fascination with contrasts. He often cuts a path through melancholic chords via rough-edged rhythms, as though framing a blurred photograph behind broken glass.

Neither straight hip hop nor narrowly defined electronica, Vocal Studies makes for an effective (and affecting) double exposure of two overlapping genres. Given the way that culture circles back upon itself, Herren is keeping it as real as it gets.

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Philip Sherburne

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