The Anniversary

Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives Turns 20

Warp
2001
Warp
2001

It’s largely lost to early-internet obscurity, but there was a time when people got very agitated about the concept of “glitch-hop.” To hear a young post-Y2K Scott Herren explain it, the idea of fusing experimental IDM sounds with sample-based hip-hop technique was a disservice to both genres — at least according to the proto-Twitter beefs that arose on old-school message boards. Both electronic music and underground hip-hop were fan-argument minefields for Napster-embattled, Puffy-averse turn of the millennium music geeks, but letting those two worlds intermingle today thankfully seems like more of a fait accompli than an excuse to gatekeep from both ends. And after taking his share of shots, Herren has since come out the other end of that argument looking more like the decades-defining visionary he is than the interloper he was seen as. The proof is right there in Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, his 2001 debut album as Prefuse 73, released 20 years ago today.

A Miami native of Cuban/Catalan descent, Herren was raised by an adoptive Jewish single mother in Decatur who gave him a formative “stay out of trouble by learning to play an instrument” curriculum. Combine that with a natural curiosity towards music, whether roller-rink hip-hop or cool-older-sister punk records, and Herren’s appreciation for the scope of styles available to him would inevitably seep into his own work. When he headed to NYC in the late ’90s, he was motivated further by his immersion in the illbient scene that gave us DJ Spooky and the WordSound collective, as well as the post-rock movement led by Tortoise. Herren’s enthusiasm for that latter group led to a connection with drummer John Herndon and engineer Casey Rice, and they released an obscure 12″ as a trio, 1997’s Let’s Talk Swimming Pools, that gave Herren his first alias — Delarosa — and a foot in the door. As the ’90s waned, Herren split his time between NYC and Atlanta, both to get his studio chops in and to find his own musical voice — one far removed, or at least severely mutated, from the sounds he’d been working on behind the boards.

That encroaching-millennium era was rife with Dirty South greatness, but in the jobber trenches far below the likes of Organized Noize and Timbaland, bandwagoner soundalikes and their Xerox hi-hats got on Herren’s nerves. While his Southern upbringing still endeared him to bass music, it seemed to strike him as the inspiration for something stranger, something that took the idea of the hypnotic repeated hook structure and blew it all into a nebulous haze. It helped that there was a Miami label that seemed simpatico with his goals; Schematic had cultivated artists like Push Button Objects and Richard Devine en route to becoming one of the first American indies to champion IDM. Herren tended to distance himself from the idea of being an IDM artist, albeit less on philosophical terms than technological ones: Rather than a workstation jockey, he saw himself instead as a next-level heir to the traditional hip-hop approach of building off turntables and MPCs. At a time when DJ Shadow and Jay Dee were pushing that foundation to weird, amazing new places, Herren had his work cut out for him, even if it was good company.

While he cut his teeth at Schematic and released a handful of well-liked records for them under the pseudonym Delarosa & Asora, it was the Chicago label Chocolate Industries where he debuted his most well-known identity. “Prefuse 73” is a nod to his favorite period of jazz: the cosmic and spiritual sounds of artists like Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, who made masterpieces during the era prior to the circa-1973 fusion boom spurred by albums like Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters. While that might have hinted at his aspirations to capture a new sound before it potentially blew up commercially, it also spoke to both a cratedigger’s exploratory enthusiasm and added an ironic cast to his anti-genre approach. Naming yourself after an extremely specific segment of music while doing everything to escape the orbit of genre expectations with your actual work? Containing multitudes like that can throw people off, but if it works, it works.

And somehow, the IDM-skeptical Herren wound up at the heart of the IDM movement anyways. There’s a bit of a tangled story behind how Prefuse 73’s first album Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives wound up at Warp: Chocolate Industries founder Martin “Seven” Bedard had a similar vision for fusing hip-hop and IDM — one particularly inspired release was a 1998 album featuring artists like Autechre and Squarepusher remixing East Flatbush Project’s street-underground classic “Tried By 12” — and encouraged Herren to work in that particular space. Prefuse’s debut EP Estrocaro came about from that inspiration, providing four songs that would eventually find their way to VS + UN — albeit on another label. According to a 2018 Laurent Fintoni feature for Fact, Seven claimed that VS + UN was originally intended for a Chocolate Industries/Warp joint release before Warp co-founder Steve Beckett snagged exclusive rights, and that Seven had significant input on the record, right down to providing many of the actual records that Herren sampled. (That’s also Seven’s voice on “7th Message” quasi-rapping en route to being chopped: “Scotty D, my main doggy in the place to be a’right? You an’t no refuge a’right? So keep it tight as can be a’right? On the M-I-C a’ight? MPC a’right?”)

As for why Herren picked Warp? As he told Denver’s Westword in 2014, a couple of friends who had connections with the label sent them some early Prefuse records, a move Herren shrugged at: “I just didn’t care. Warp wasn’t to me what it was to other people. I don’t come from a techno background or a rave background. I knew what they were, and I knew what Aphex [Twin] was, and I was warming up to Boards Of Canada’s first record.” The real prospect, though, was the idea of being labelmates with a distinctly non-IDM psychedelic pop group: “I really liked Broadcast, and they only had an EP out at that time on Warp. I was like, ‘Well, yeah, fuck, I will do this. I’m down.'” That sentiment clicks a bit easier when you factor in that Herren’s first release for Warp wasn’t as Prefuse 73, but as part of the group Savath & Savalas, where he artfully indulged his ambient and post-rock sides. But it wouldn’t be long before Warp started seeing Prefuse 73 as another facet of the label’s aesthetic.

Not that there weren’t other routes into that sound. Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives had more precedents than you’d expect for such a distinctly new-sounding album, with one of the most pivotal ones being the chopped-and-reassembled vocals at the core of Nuno Canavarro’s 1988 album Plux Quba. (It was a semi-open acknowledgement; “Nuno” is not only named for him but samples his track “Wask.”) But while collage-style vocal manipulation was a long-running avant-garde idea — shouts to Steve Reich — it was what Herren chose to manipulate on “Nuno” that turned heads. Two of the most recognizable voices of the ’90s, Nas and Erykah Badu, were splintered into shards and rearranged so that their words were transformed into incoherent jabs of staggered syllables, like they’d been translated into an uninvented mechanical language.

In an abstract way, that was almost like reclaiming hip-hop for the beatmaker after the MC or the singer had taken the highest prominence. Reducing rap lyricism to its tonal components might have seemed blasphemous on its surface, but approaching the voices as fragments of sound that still maintained readily identifiable qualities of said voices was a feat of sampling that took DJ Premier’s lyrical montages to baffling but exciting new regions. As much message board grief as Herren got for it, he picked his source material out of respect, the same way you’d gravitate towards a Jabo Starks drum break or a Roy Ayers vibe riff and highlight the instruments’ depth and power even in scattered fragments. In the case of “Point To B,” Herren even rearranges the already acrobatic voice of Divine Styler to state, after a string of almost-legible cut-and-paste verbiage, that “governments can’t govern peace in my mind.”

It’s actually pretty much a gimme when you hear what happens when he actually gets a live vocalist or two on his beats. The big get, both at the time and in retrospect, was bringing in MF DOOM and Aesop Rock, two wildly different MCs stylistically who still threw Doomsday Device clotheslines when teamed up. (Hearing both their super-distinct voices share the hook in frictionless tandem is one of the most astonishing things on an album full of otherwise disorienting geek-out moments.) Freestyle Fellowship vet Mikah 9 is used on an early-album feint in the slot after “Nuno,” as if to answer the Benihana’d Nas scatter-vox with a flow nearly as intricate and full of neck-snap transitions — except his voice is untouched, the kicks meeting his doubletime exhibitions on their own terms. And while Herren brought in Sam Prekop from the Sea And Cake as a way of sneaking in some of his indie and post-rock influence, “Last Night” sounds more like a twilight-stoner Ummah jam than 90% of anything on Thrill Jockey.

In sheer musical terms, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives feels like a more tweaked-out MPC-collage approach that threw non-stop knuckleballs to its listeners. Gathering up all the Soulquarian and Dirty South and Preemo precedents he’d accumulated and letting them drift where they may might have sounded intimidating to the unwary of 2001, but beneath all its frantic sonic fracturing and challenging abrasion was a meditative, sometimes peaceful and even spiritual-sounding album. It’s clearest in the penultimate “Afternoon Love In,” which turned the East-facing mellowness of Paul Horn’s brief proto-ambient piece “Agra” into an impressionistic smear over hummingbird-flight glitch snippets and a fluffy cushion of bass. And beneath the skittering hyperspeed spindrift manipulations of “Living Life,” the malevolent crackle and hiss of lurching scratch routine deconstruction “Eve Of Dextruction,” and the hiccupy bewilderment of gatling-laser funk joint “Hot Winter’s Day,” there are always at least a few elements of melodic warmth keeping things anchored beneath the chaos.

At some points, the music on Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives sounded like pure chaos theory trying to smash the constraints of the 4/4, only for the boom-bap to prevail; at others, it was minimalism refracted through a kaleidoscope until it sounded like the most maximal thing possible. Meanwhile, the additional influence of Southern bass’s hooks-upon-hooks approach was refracted wildly, but abstracted in ways that dovetailed with some of the noisier and more abrasively thrilling things that acrobat turntablists and MPC superchoppers were doing throughout the mid-late ’90s.

And at a time when artists on Definitive Jux, Mush, Sub Verse, and Anticon were wreaking havoc on hip-hop convention in order to push it forward, Prefuse’s music fit right in. But that only meant that VS + UN got the same “wow, this is difficult stuff” reception those other labels’ artists did, whether it was in praise or condemnation. Maybe that’s why the negative feedback and the album’s critical fave/commercial flop status weighed heavier on Herren: How do you stay true when you’re dealing in a post-genre sound at the late peak of indie culture’s obsession with genre delineations? “I couldn’t understand why they were treating me like I was 10,” Herren lamented to Fact in 2015. “They were ignoring all the cultural references that were to be found throughout [Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives].”

If “they” were the press, the promotion machine, and the message board haters, then sure. But those skeptics would soon be vastly outnumbered by his champions and collaborators, people who created a direct lineage of abstract hip-hop-influenced instrumental music that would pay out significantly within a decade. Herren and a group of his friends would develop their own label, Eastern Developments, that nurtured the early careers of glitch-hop movers like Daedelus and Dabrye. (They’d appear on Prefuse 73’s 2003 sophomore release One Word Extinguisher, by which point his conceptual strengths and musical ear were getting both more advanced and more accepted.) Future records would solidify his relationship with hip-hop even further — 2005’s Surrounded By Silence was practically a Wu-Tang/Definitive Jux love letter, from its El-P/Ghostface collab “Hide Ya Face” to verses by Camu Tao, Aesop Rock, Masta Killa, and GZA. And his connections with Warp gave him enough tastemaker carte blanche to shepherd artists he liked to the label, which ranged from experimental rap greats Antipop Consortium (2002’s Arrhythmia) to the then-emerging beatmaker Flying Lotus (2008’s Los Angeles).

And if all that makes it seem like Prefuse 73 kickstarted a sound that would eventually flourish in Los Angeles — one immortalized by Low End Theory DJ nights and the Brainfeeder roster — it does so at the cost of his own rep, which critics started cooling off on post-One Word Extinguisher to “eh, it sounds all right” shrugs. Chalk it up to the usual astronomical expectations when an artist pushes so many boundaries so early and diverges from that path in search of more. But the most frustrating manifestation of that arc sprung up in 2011, right around the undercelebrated ten-year anniversary of VS + UN, when Warp cut ties with Herren for no clearly stated reason. And they kept Herren’s masters, stifling his efforts to reissue or repackage the album: “I didn’t know what to do. If I’m not on Warp who the fuck else is going to fuck with me? … I couldn’t even release a 10-year anniversary of my debut, even though that changed the face of what kids are doing now.”

Whether he’s rightfully embittered or just quietly melancholy over the whole situation, it’s still worth thinking about just how the old “innovator doesn’t get his due” story can still apply to a 21st century artist working in sounds that couldn’t sound more contemporary, even two decades later. But the impact’s already been made, and there’s no excavating the debris it’s left in the landscape. Herren can record any number of albums under any number of aliases, he can shrug off the jaded critics, and he can make all the iconoclastic statements he feels like — including a recent series of sardonically titled but hauntingly evocative ambient and beat records all titled The Failing Institute Of Something (The Human Voice; The Sampled Source; Drums & Other Percussion). With Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, he planted the signposts for what the future held, even when people misheard it. He’s long since earned free rein.

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