Barcelona-based gringo Prefuse 73 (Scott Herren) has garnered the most media hype of the bunch, and he's earned every drop of ink with production that swirls avant-jazz's soulful analog extremism with today's glitchy digital modulations. On his most recent efforts--One Word Extinguisher and its brilliant addendum, Extinguished: Outtakes--Prefuse alchemizes the contents of dusty old vinyl grooves into futuristic, diamond-bright funk clipped with surgical precision.
Prefuse crisscrosses his disjointed music with enough unlikely elements to keep it fresher than OutKast's wardrobe. In an interview we conducted in May, Prefuse partially attributed this to "taking random parts of the sample that people normally wouldn't take. I'm taking [samples] off the record in a brutal way rather than carefully lifting a loop. I'm taking a piece of sound and working with that rather than working with a 'perfect' piece."
Prefuse's labelmate Beans also helped to expand hiphop's boundaries with his White Plains, New York, band Antipop Consortium. The trio issued three radical albums (including one as the Isolationist with DJ Vadim) that elevated lyrical skills and production techniques to PhD levels. However, boasting more about their breadth of knowledge and vocabulary size than the dimensions of their phalluses and bank accounts didn't thrust Antipop Consortium into mass popularity, and internal squabbles about musical direction ensued, resulting in the group's premature split last year.
Liberated from his cohorts Priest and M. Sayyid, Beans collated years of solo recordings into the bafflingly eclectic and wondrously odd Tomorrow Right Now. The disc proves Beans possessed Antipop Consortium's weirdest sensibility; enunciating like a classics-reading lit prof who's also steeped in the Last Poets' ghetto-slang poesy and Chuck D's stentorian declamations, this MC sets a new paradigm for braggadocio in which thoughts cause more damage than guns.
"[Poetry] opened me up to experimenting with words in different ways, and how to phrase things," Beans says. "You couldn't be so dependent on the crutch of music. The emphasis on the words has to be a lot stronger." He demonstrates this on "Booga Sugar," a spoken-word piece that takes jazz and funk's rhythmic punch and use of silence to the coffeehouse circuit in a harrowing tale of drug addiction.
Beans' music can flex just as far out as his words. Two key tracks on Tomorrow--"Sickle Cell Hysteria" and "Rose Periwinkle Plum"--stake out new ground for the artist. The former inhabits dystopian electro like Frank Herbert dominates science fiction, while the latter merges techno and Kraut rock into exhilarating intergalactic traveling music.
Meanwhile, Four Tet's polymorphous music resides much closer to Earth. Londoner Kieran Hebden is a rabid fan of hiphop, and his early records more blatantly reflect this love (along with a deep fondness for the kind of jazz that excites Prefuse).
But Four Tet's last two full-lengths--2001's Pause and this year's Rounds--find him broadening his palette. Sure, many of his beats will get heads nodding in hiphop's time-honored manner and make RZA sweat a bit, but Hebden also laces prog-rock and psychedelic-folk instrumentation and timbres into the mix. Strings have long been a part of adventurous hiphop producers' arsenal, but Four Tet introduces koto, harpsichord, glockenspiel, triangle, xylophone, and other elements more common to Canterbury, England, circa 1970 than to the Bronx circa 1990. What's remarkable about Four Tet's music is its organic vibrancy, despite every sound coming from a sampler and being tweaked within a computer's virtual studio.
"I have no interest in trying to re-create records [from the '60s and '70s] and make retro music," Hebden told me earlier this year, "but I want to re-create the atmosphere of those records. When you put on one of my records, you get a sense you're in a room full of musicians, which makes the record quite powerful."
On the live front, Four Tet has opened for innovative rock bands like Super Furry Animals and Radiohead, and won over their crowds with merely a laptop between him and the screaming hordes. "At a live show, the music's only gonna last for an hour, so everything I do is a lot more obtuse and aggressive," Hebden says. "I'm happy if things seem to fuck up." Programming his computer to randomly generate sounds, Hebden revels in the ensuing chaos. "The audience gets the sense I'm treading a fine line where anything can happen. When the audience sense things are out of control, they enjoy it more." That's as perfect an encapsulation of hiphop's original spirit as you'll ever hear. DAVE SEGAL