Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Review: Ohbliv & Dil Withers - Split Tape

I listen to a lot of beat tapes by hip-hop and electronic producers. These differ from full-fledged instrumental hip-hop projects that followed in the wake of DJ Shadow’s landmark Endtroducing… in that they are not constructed as albums, but rather a collection of short beats that don’t change too much throughout their runtime. Rappers could take a beat from one of these tapes, loop it, and probably make a pretty good song. So as much as I like listening to beat tapes by artists like Knxwledge., Lytesho!, Suhnraw, and Mndsgn, they don’t frequently make much of a long term impact on me as a listener.

Unlike Flying Lotus, Madlib, Oh No, Oddisee, Teebs, and others who craft beat projects that flow as albums and demand further listening, the majority of good beat tape producers make projects that are enjoyable to listen to, but don’t lodge themselves in your brain. They follow a common format: an ill sample or two, fuzzy drums, and maybe some electronic textures to fill out the sample. This is repeated ten to forty times for the length of the tape. After a listen or two, they can be returned to the internet ether. The same happens when I listen to obscure hardcore punk records from the eighties. The greats like Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and Germs built musical identities that stood out from the majority of hardcore bands who hedged too closely to hardcore orthodoxy. A lot of these mid-level hardcore bands made good music but most of them blend together and don’t warrant much repeated listening.

This lack of long term engagement is probably just as much on me as it is on the artists. Publications like Maximum Rocknroll champion hardcore and cater to a legion of fans who are more engaged with the genre as a whole and can better differentiate between bands that sound similar to each other on cursory listens. Likewise, people who are into beat tapes can turn to Potholes in My Blog, a very good website written by and catering to a base of people who find lasting joy in beat tapes by an extremely wide variety of artists.[1]

Some artists working within narrow forms[2] stretch beyond the typical boundaries of the musical form to make memorable music, while others don’t do anything that can be classified as terribly new or innovative, but great songwriting, impeccable craft, or force of personality makes their music stand out among the innumerable artists making similar music. For instance, the Faith and Void take two approaches to creating memorable hardcore on the Faith/Void Split LP that Dischord Records put out in 1982. On side one, Faith showcased a dozen blasts of traditionalist hardcore, favoring pure songwriting over innovation, while on side two Void subtly stretched the restrictive boundaries of the genre with drone intros, weird bridges, and helium-voiced harmony vocals. On Split Tape, Ohbliv and Dil Withers adopt these same two roles.

On the first side, Ohbliv plays the traditionalist, crafting beats that are heavily indebted to contemporaries such as Madlib, late period Dilla, and Knxwledge. The latter especially is the best reference point for Ohbliv’s beats, as both work primarily with crackly low-resolution samples, snatches of vocals, and overly compressed drums. Most of the beats seem to wobble as they play, as if a small push would send everything toppling apart. The vocal sample and drums on “Buddy Up” don’t line up properly, creating an effect where everything sounds disjointed except for the occasional bar where everything locks into place before coming loose again. “Awrite” has a killer bass sample and vocal chop, transforming subtly throughout its two minute runtime like a song on Donuts would. “Infinity ‘Erb” wouldn’t sound out of place on Madlib’s Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6. “Skycavern (Outro)” slinks along on marsh-like bass and a catchy acoustic guitar riff. There’s some great stuff here, but Ohbliv’s ultimate problem in terms of his career longevity is his lack of a distinct sonic identity. Almost everything here sounds too much like other producers. He’s a skilled appropriator and his beats are enjoyable as a result, but after listening to his side several times I’m still don’t have a great idea of who Ohbliv is. Being a patchwork of others works fine in the short term, but he needs to progress soon or he won’t be worth following in the future.

By contrast, Dil Withers’ side has fewer obvious reference points—Ras G comes to mind, as does Dibiase, but nothing here quite sounds like either of their work.[3] Everything on Dil Withers’ side sounds like it’s playing through an old transistor radio that’s sitting on the other side of the room. There seems to be a long distance between the sounds and the listener on tracks like “Hazel Eyes” and “Daze” and “Bleep.” Snatches of found audio drift in and out of the music in a way that sounds like other radio stations intruding on Dil Withers’ frequency. Most of the beats wisp like smoke; they have little body to them, and they appropriately fade away after a while rather than actually ending. Tape hiss, vinyl pops, and static are as crucial to the sound of his beats as the more traditionally musical sounds are. This is headphone music, designed to wash over you like mist rather than actively engage. It’s great stuff, and Dil Withers probably has a great future ahead if he can keep up this quality on future releases.[4]

Split Tape isn’t really crafted to flow as an album. It’s just a collection of beats from two like-minded artists. Fifteen years ago, it would have been a cassette passed around among rappers and fans looking for good beats to rap over or just vibe to. Now that instrumental beatmaking is a vital and thriving genre on its own, it’s great to hear two producers who can produce material that’s worth revisiting. It remains to be seen if they’ll build on the momentum of this release or if they’ll get lost in the hordes of beat projects released every year.

The cassette version of Split Tape is sold out, but the tape can be streamed and downloaded on the Dirty Tapes label's Bandcamp page.

[1] In fact, I can blame Potholes for the large number of beat tapes sitting on my hard drive that I listened to a few times and liked enough to not delete them but I haven’t really listened to since. If you’re into beats that skew more towards hip hop and crate digging rather than dubstep or whatever then Potholes is an invaluable resource.
[2] Hardcore punk and beat tapes being just two of many narrow musical forms.
[3] Before I start really talking about Dil Withers’ beats, I have to address his choice of name. Dil Withers was one of the late J Dilla’s nicknames, and Madlib named his second tribute to his former friend and collaborator the Dil Withers Suite. By calling himself Dil Withers, this new kid is using someone else’s name and reputation to draw attention to himself. That’s some low shit, and it took me a while to really be able to listen to his music on its own merits because of the name. This kid really needs to pick a new name.
[4] That is if he changes his name. If he really starts getting some attention there will be a backlash from critics and Dilla fans (and Dilla fans make up about 98% of the audience for beat tapes). He can only benefit from a change as soon as possible, before he releases more music.

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