Along with Ninja Tune, James Lavelle’s Mo’ Wax record label set the standards for refined, forward-thinking instrumental hip-hop during the mid-nineties. Thanks to more affordable forms of music technology, innovation and experimentation in electronic music flourished during this decade giving rise to a proliferation of new genres and sub-genres. In the hip-hop arena, DJs began to branch away from MCs, venturing out on their own solo missions to experiment with mood and abstract the beat. Fewer collectives were pushing the boundaries of this sound more than Mo’ Wax, their savvy stable of producers making an art form out of crafting fine, clattersome, head-bobbing breaks surgically spliced with tasty funk and jazz samples with the occasional wispy vocal snatch woven in.
The tracklist here reads like a who’s who of eminent 90s beatsmiths – DJ Shadow, Nightmares On Wax, DJ Krush and U.N.K.L.E. are names known to many. Meanwhile, R.P.M., Attica Blues and Tranquility Bass are definitely artists I need to check out more of after hearing their individual input on this release.
‘Freedom Now (Meditation)’ kicks off proceedings with a broody, creeping beat, some exotic-sounding guitar twangs, eerie samples and a great airy sax. ‘Contemplating Jazz’ extends a more welcoming invitation to kick back courtesy of a dusty drum break and a soft, cooing female vocal that’s later joined by gentle piano and a gorgeous rising and falling trumpet… sink-into-the-couch stuff.
‘Symmetrical Jazz’ will be sure to wear that ass-groove a few centimetres deeper. This one’s a dreamy, head-in-the-clouds affair; it’s easy to visualise those soothing strings and twinkly, soporific keys floating up into the ether. ‘Stars’ is a classic and rightly so: it oozes a simple, timeless charm, that warm, enveloping bass, palpitating maracas, stroked congas and that divine Crusaders sample all melded so deftly together in order to put your mind at instant ease.
‘Ravers Suck Our Sound’ is a track from the French house duo Cassius, here under their more downtempo alias La Funk Mob. They turn in a very smooth, laidback contribution here – a bassy roller with tight drums and a soothing chant over the top. ‘Miles Out Of Time (Astrocentric Mix ‘N’ Beats)’ has a slurred, hazy, late night vibe to it. Music for the witching hour. RPM’s ‘The Inside’ is one of my favourites from this record: a sparse, dark, head-nodder packing some hella-nasty dank ’n’ dirty guitar twangs.
The mighty Autechre drop a track next and while it does feel a bit out of place being the only techno track on the comp, it does retain an affinity with the release through its easy sprawl and obligatory borrowing of a jazz sample – this time from no less than Miles Davis. It’s a beautiful tune with soaring notes, meditative piano and some trippy, squelchy synths all forming an ethereal harmony of sounds. At the same time, I’m addicted to DJ Krush’s remix of ‘Wildstyle.’ Crisp drums, a wistful theremin and a funky as hell bass – a real delight.
We’re treated to a sublime DJ Shadow trademark sound collage next. The drums on this are pitch perfect as are the pining trumpets – both enter after an early scratching exhibition. There’s a real mindfuck vocal snippet woven into the middle to boot. A true masterpiece from a true master.
‘Destroy All Monsters’ wields the heaviest drums of the whole release. A real hard ‘n’ heavy cut – good fun to play out loud. ‘Don’t Fake It’ reeks a smoky odour; you can easily imagine the vapours rising on this one. RPM serve up another welcome offering with the dreamy chugger ‘2000.’
After that, Palm Skin Productions churn out an inventive three part suite – it starts out with shrill, haunting distortion followed by more melodic bleeps before the drums arrive ahead of some sprawling sax. In the middle, things get a bit paranoid and skittery – that skipping sound sounds almost like some alien breathing! For me, it triggers some unpleasant flashbacks of that mental music video for Aphex Twin’s ‘Rubber Johnny!’ The final section sees a manic sax flooter over a sped up breakbeat. It’s definitely more abstract than the other tracks, giving it a singular mood.
Next up is a number from Lavelle’s U.N.K.L.E. collective. This one begins with a broody bassline that switches up into a more upbeat swinger halfway through. Meanwhile, Howie’s B.’s addition is a high strung meander, its tense tone evocative of the Western title. ‘They Came In Peace’ is a gem – birdsong, blissful strings, a Neil Armstrong sample and a gorgeous rising melody all irresistible elements in this rich tapestry.
Shadow chips in another alluring beat patchwork at the end, this one containing some drowsy flutes, quietly epic strings and a groovy bassline all set to an ice-cool break. There’s a different, more teetering drum thrown in during the breakdown halfway through. A nice contrast is created when that’s later allowed to offset the more businesslike break that’s been hanging around from the outset, adding an extra rhythmic diversion for the track’s finale. There’s also a cool, very recognisable synth swirl that effectively restarts the track a couple of times during the piece, giving it that signature slapdash Shadow feel. It’s the type of track you’re likely to discover new elements in each time you listen – the attention to detail is just formidable.
‘Headz’ is a mellow kind of moodiness – music both to unwind and daydream away to. There’s plenty of variety in there, the mood ranging from careless freewheeling to sinister eeriness, blunted meditation to tense anticipation. Great to stick on in the background when you get home after work or play out on a lazy Sunday – at heart, it’s mood music that will subtly entice you over to its easy manner of existing, gradually infusing you with its tranquil flow.