Status Ain't Hood

Status Ain’t Hood: The Meditative Chamber-Rap Of Dr. Yen Lo

The classic sound of New York rap, the late-’80s/early-’90s style that we most often associate with the city, is based entirely around the drums, and on the way tough and haggard and stressed-out voices interact with those drums. DJ Premier is a legend not because he was an innovator — he wasn’t, not really — but because he chopped drum sounds up in ways that showed a more precise, intuitive command than any other producer has ever shown. The word we use to describe that specific sound is “boom-bap” — literally a description of the sounds those drums make. There were other styles of New York rap before boom-bap: Lush Sugar Hill Records house-band stuff disco-funk, hard-crunching Run-D.M.C./Rick Rubin rock-sample minimalism, strutting Marley Marl horn-stabs. And other strains of NY rap would flourish after boom-bap’s heyday ended: Bad Boy shiny-suit slickness, Swizz Beats Casio thunder, G-Unit cinematic hardness. But that boom-bap era represented some kind of artistic pinnacle, and New Yorkers won’t let it go. Every once in a while, you’ll get a Joey Bada$$, a kid playing in that abandoned playground and acting like that stuff never ended. And there are the old heads, the Sean Prices and Blaq Poets who have heard the new stuff and decided that they want no part of it, sticking to the sound that once mattered the most to them. But the most interesting boom-bap record I’ve heard in years is one that tinkers and experiments with that old formula. Days With Dr. Yen Lo is the new debut album from Dr. Yen Lo, the duo of Brooklyn rapper Ka and producer Preservation. Together, they’re asking the question: What would boom-bap sound like if you got rid of the drums completely?

Ka is a fascinating case: A rapper with no careerist impulses, one who pursues his own idea of artistry with a monkish sort of devotion. Ka is in his early forties now, but in the early ’90s, he was a member of Natural Elements, one of many underground New York rap crews who showed a lot of promise but never made much of an impression beyond the mix-show circuit. But then, he’s never shown much interest in resonating beyond that circuit. He’s not one of these rappers who had a Roc-A-Fella contract for five minutes in 2003. He’s been quietly pursuing his craft, something he’s only recently perfected. Ka didn’t release Iron Works, his first solo album, until 2008, and he released it on his own. Four years later, he followed it up with Grief Pedigree, a stark and stunning album that he produced all on his own and once again released himself. He also directed all his own noirish, evocative black-and-white videos and only invited one guest rapper onto the album. That album and its follow-up, 2013’s The Night’s Gambit, turned the New York rap of Nas and Mobb Deep and Smif-N-Wessun into flickering, hypnotic dream music. They stripped away any veneer of glamor or toughness or drama, transforming that sound into a lone wizened voice muttering koans to you. They were beautiful. Ka mastered that whole sound entirely by himself, while working a day job as a firefighter. His is a story of artistic self-reliance that Ian MacKaye would envy.

Given that mythically DIY backstory, it’s a bit of a surprise to hear Ka taking on a full-time collaborator in any capacity. But Preservation, a DJ and producer from New York, might know how to approach Ka’s voice even better than Ka does. Preservation has a handful of production credits on albums from people like Mos Def and GZA, but I can’t say I ever paid attention to him before this. His work on Days With Dr. Yen Lo is a revelation. There are barely any drum sounds on the album, and when drums do show up, the rhythm isn’t built around them. Instead, Preservation builds his tracks out bells, guitar chimes, eerie horror-movie synths, slow-rolling acoustic basslines. He’s working with samples, but you can’t hear the stitches in his sound. Instead, it’s a style that seems to waft up from subway grates like steam. It’s quietly enveloping, an atmospheric sound-fog that never demands attention. And it chases Ka’s already-reticent voice further into the shadows. Here, Ka is a gravelly whisper dispensing mysterious imagery and folk wisdom: “It’s madness, the cycle of revenge and sadness / Had to grab your own rifle, no friends with badges / Won’t live if you don’t forgive or fall back / Get rocked, keep hopping out the crib in all black / To settle the scores, we’re peddling wars and losing game / Wanna rule with your best tool? Use your brain.”

Dr. Yen Lo get their name from the evil Communist hypnotist in John Frakenheimer’s classic 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that movie, and I don’t remember the particulars. But the aura, of secrets and sinister agendas and paranoia that someone could take hold of your brain at will, come through on the album. But it’s not an uneasy listen; it’s a welcoming one, in a weird way. It reminds me of another album notable in its total lack of drums: Spacemen 3’s Playing With Fire, maybe my favorite space-rock album ever. Like that album, Days With Dr. Yen Lo is in love with the psychedelic properties of minimalism and repetition. It finds its own kind of beauty. If you’ve been into A$AP Rocky’s lovely drug-rap opus At.Long.Last.A$AP, Days With Dr. Yen Lo could be the sort of thing you’ve been needing. It’s a trip further down the rabbit hole.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Young Moose – “No Sunshine” (Feat. Martina Lynch)
The Freddie Gray travesty was no surprise to Young Moose, a Baltimore street-rap hero who’s been specifically targeted by Baltimore’s hopelessly fucked up police department. On this song, he gives some hard, resonant man-on-the-street protest talk, and it feels vital and deeply felt, while his producer (Young Wayne?) turns Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” into some classic New Orleans-style bounce. Also, I don’t know who Martina Lynch is, but I want to hear more from her right now.

2. Twista & Do Or Die – “Withdrawl”
20 years ago, Chicago street-rap meant something very, very different from what it means in the street-rap present. Back then, it meant extremely, head-spinningly fast rapping over eerie horror-movie melodies. Twista and Do Or Die, the kings of that style, have gotten together to make a new EP, and they sound positively undiminished. “Withdrawl” is a track with teeth, and Twista’s insane triple-time flow remains a thing of beauty.

3. Your Old Droog – “Senseless Killin’ II”
He sounds less like Nas and more like himself every day, though he still sounds a whole hell of a lot like Nas. It’s good to hear him have fun. “Don’t listen to rap songs that I’m not currently working on / Nowadays, Droog has more interest in bluegrass.”

4. Lucki Eck$ – “Lowlife”
On the intro, Eck$ asks for “no echo, no reverb,” but he’s rapping in such a druggy drawl, over such a queasy lurch of a beat, that he might as well throw all the echo and all the reverb on it. This track sounds so high it can barely stand up, and it still somehow flaunts effortless style.

5. Jadakiss & Rick Ross – “Eastern Conference Finals”
Imagine if the Eastern Conference finals had actually been as hard-fought as this song makes them sound. This song is less than a week old! They’re already over!

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO