The Audience’s Listening
ut Chemist's major-label debut The Audience's Listening strives to be everything to everyone. And when he has so many different audiences listening, who can blame him? To some, Chemist is one of the most famous and well-respected DJ's in the turntablist movement. Mainstream and college music fans know him as the DJ in the corny salsa/hip-hop collective Ozomatli and the underground barber-hop group Jurassic 5. And turntablists, electronic fans, and record junkies know him for his legendary live and studio collaborations (Brainfreeze, Product Placement) with DJ Shadow.
So when Chemist tries to incorporate his wild scratching with serious instrumental hip-hop (as he does here), he lets his tendencies get the best of him, and the record comes off as uneven rather than unified. For every great serious instrumental hip-hop piece, there's a quirky scratching piece; for every showcase of Chemist's skills, there's a backpacker hip-hop song. He tries so desperately to cover every base that the album loses focus, the very same quality that prevented his colleague Shadow's The Private Press from being an unqualified success.
That's not to say that The Audience's Listening isn't good, because there are a handful of top-quality songs. "The Garden," featuring a number of Brazilian percussionists and a breathy Astrud Gilberto sample, is much better than most chill-out tracks. Beginning with a wiry Eastern sample and bossa nova guitar, the vocal sample and percussion lead into a sturdy drumbeat and some excellent scratching by Chemist. "Storm," a collaboration with Boston hip-hop titans Edan and Mr. Lif, presents the two abstract lyricists spitting hyper-complex verses while weaving in and out of a futuristic, bashing beat. And "2266 Cambridge" is a jazzy, mellow instrumental, with People Under the Stairs member Thes One glazing his earthy samples over Cut Chemist's production.
There are some missteps, like "The Spat," which attempts to use scratching to mimic a telephone conversation. Where this might have been fitting on, say, Kid Koala's Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, it's awkward here, arriving right after "The Garden" and intruding on the album's progress. "What's the Attitude" is a derivative and bland track featuring Hymnal doing stupid, sing-songy verses. "My (1st) Big Break" is an impressive display of Cut Chemist's skills, but it's way too reminiscent of his earlier work to call it anything special.
The strongest portion of The Audience's Listening is the final three tracks, which could function as a mini-EP or one side to a Chemist/Shadow collaboration. It begins with "Spoon," which opens with a funky wah-wah sample and then comes crashing in with a snapping beat and a "Deep Cover"-like bass line. As the song progresses, subtle nuances appear and slowly add layers onto the track. But the most impressive aspect is that they're done with Chemist's scratching, and they flow into the following track, "A Peak in Time," which has a sunny acoustic guitar sample and a head-shaking, shuffling drumbeat. When it concludes with "The Audience Is Listening Theme Song," it becomes a mini-suite of sorts, thus providing an extended conclusion to an otherwise scattered album.
What the trilogy of songs at the end of The Audience's Listening do is mash musical artistry with perlustrating scratching, something that the rest of the album doesn't execute nearly as well. Was it sample clearances, deadlines, obsession? Who knows? But if Cut Chemist can recreate the effortless fusion of the album's second half, perhaps someday he can make an album worth listening to from beginning to end. As it stands, this is a welcome selection from an artist who should have released his major-label debut a long time ago.