ix years ago at the sweaty, well-sponsored whirlwind that was the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival, I sat and watched Prefuse 73’s Scott Herren—playing a mid-day nowhere man time slot—back a nameless, dreadlocked MC. It was a little bit of a shock: I was a recent high school grad turned onto hip-hop by Kid A’s warm palpitations, and I was there mostly because Autechre—“Even crazier than Radiohead!”—was making their first North American appearance in several years. Hip-hop wasn’t on the radar. It was a strange, alien listening experience. “Oh. So electronic music can do that, too. When’s Autechre?”
Later that afternoon, I saw Ghostly International artist Tadd Mullinix rip through a deft set of warm, encompassing fuzz for the blips and bleeps crowd—more in line with what I’d come for. Five years later, the concept of electronic hip-hop music seems not only acceptable, but somewhat stale, its luster worn off after a couple of too-similar Prefuse albums, uninspired DJ Shadow clones, and a barrage of El-P. Of course, electronic hip-hop wasn’t new in 2001, it just was to me. Now I have an opportunity to come full circle and re-engage Mullinix as a full-on hip-hop producer. Two/Three, released under Mullinix’s Dabrye moniker, invites a litter of underground MC’s to color his increasingly rhythmic and structured productions.
I say “underground” because the vast majority of these fellas self-consciously pack their verses with preachy rants and too-clever turns of phrase, which is a shame, because Mullinix has turned in an intriguing set of beats that feel natural, if not classically hip-hop. Throughout Two/Three, Mullinix walks a fine line between hard-won ingenuity and successful electronic song-making. “That’s What’s Up,” for instance, sounds like a casino slot floor, its clanging percussion acting less as a rhythmic backbone and more as insistent attention-grabber. The track never crosses over into the obnoxious, allowing Vast Aire plenty of room for a set of vague, forced verses. On “My Life,” Mullinix finds the balance: a Spartan, looped electric guitar flirts with simple percussion, providing a clean, fresh canvass of melody for AG to paint.
But Dabrye often struggles to settle songwriting and novelty. His best productions seem ill-fitted for any MC to shape, and his conventional beats are pedestrian affairs that suffer noticeably from weak MC performances. So the album goes: MF Doom continues his streak of passable guest verses, but “Air” is one of Dabrye’s most short-sighted productions. “Special” walks the line between Timbaland’s low-key funk and a traditional, jazzy hi-hat workout, but listening to Guilty Simpson talk about how great Guilty Simpson is is a tiring and ultimately futile exercise. Instrumental tracks, such as the jazzy “Bloop” and the stormy “Piano” bounce out of the stereo with an organic freshness, but Mullinix’s hip-hop is so smooth and unconventional that without a MC to navigate their terrains, they sound like tracks from a completely different album.
You never miss the MC’s, and that’s why it’s hard to call Two/Three a true success: you keep wishing for the instrumental tracks, or that backpacker X would shut up for a few bars so you could hear the production. This, of course, is not fundamentally different from simply wishing Two/Three was a wholly different album: a hip-hop flavored electronic album, instead of the reverse.