When noting American hiphop DJs who've transitioned into studio production of the most accomplished sort, Brooklyn's DJ Signify ought to be mentioned in the same breath as people like DJ Muggs and DJ Shadow. Like the auteur of Endtroducing, Signify—a member of the 1200 Hobos crew—makes tracks that don't allow one to crack a smile. This is some serious cinematic shit, bro, and Signify realizes that one doesn't (usually) manifest an enduring work of art by clowning.
So, Signify gives us 16 tracks—including six brief interludes ripe for bumper usage in NPR's hipper segments—on Of Cities that bring the funk, but stoically, with urban grime and urbane grimness. Signify's crates must be unimaginably deep and varied, and (unsurprisingly, if you've heard previous releases like 2000's Mixed Messages and 2004's Sleep No More) his instincts are always on point. Orchestral-funk flourishes in the vein of Serge Gainsbourg (plus his arranger Jean-Claude Vannier) and David Axelrod surely influenced Signify, as did motorik Kraut-rockers like Harmonia and Neu! (see "Delight to the Sadist"). "Vanessa" sounds like a collaboration between space-drone legends Flying Saucer Attack and triphop icons Massive Attack. And Roy Budd's ominous score from Get Carter rears its suspenseful head on "The Sickness." Dope aesthetics infiltrate Of Cities like weed residue in shag carpet.
For contrast, wordy rapper Aesop Rock appears on "Low Tide" and "Sink or Swim," as Signify supplies him with spare, slate-gray funk backdrops on which to spray-paint his oblique, sprawling word-pictures. Ninja Tune artist Blockhead coproduces "Costume Kids" and "1993"; on the former, an Appalachian folk-singer type unexpectedly croaks over midnight blue blaxploitation- flick funk, providing one of the weirdest juxtapositions you'll hear this year. The latter is the disc's most upbeat piece, but it's still no party starter. Rather, it exudes the seductive orchestral- funk vibes of Gainsbourg's 1971 classic Histoire de Melody Nelson and the Millennium's sunshine pop. "I'm not as crazy as I used to be," croons the sampled vocalist. That is what passes for levity on Of Cities. Seriously. Thankfully.