L*Roneous Da'Versifier - "L'Chemy" b/w "Implosion" (Ocean Floor Records, 1997)
Endtroducing… was never a big seller in the United States—it peaked at number 37 on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart well after its November 1996 release—but it and the singles that led up to it had a seismic impact on hip-hop that is still being felt today. Its greatest effect was kicking off instrumental hip-hop, a subgenre that brewed for a decade before exploding in the wake of J Dilla’s death, but it also set the stage for a production methodology that hadn’t really existed much before DJ Shadow started releasing singles. All of the songs leading up to and on Endtroducing… were not simply loops in the style of the great DJ Premier or Pete Rock. DJ Shadow structured his beats like songs, building and transforming throughout their runtimes and constructed from countless samples from different songs. This production approach can be heard in El-P’s work on The Cold Vein and Fantastic Damage, in Dan the Automator’s work on Deltron 3030 and Dr. Octagonecologyst, and in countless other underground rap classics from the late nineties to the present.
DJ Zeph is one of the great unsung producers to take DJ Shadow’s lessons to heart. On L*Roneous Da’Versifier’s first single “L’Chemy” b/w “Implosion,” Zeph worked very much in the lane that DJ Shadow carved out with Endtroducing… Zeph is a master at suggesting mood and environment in his beats. These two songs, and indeed the whole of Imaginarium, L*Roneous’ debut album that Zeph produced, simulate the feel of urban nights, with a bit of futurism thrown in for good measure. If Paul Pope’s 100% is ever adapted into a movie, Zeph should do the score.
“L’Chemy” starts out with sparse drums, a low-key piano sample, and some bass, but as the song progresses Zeph adds knocking drums, extra electric and acoustic piano accents, and a trumpet sample on the hook. The song is just as compelling in instrumental form (also found on the 12”) as it is with L*Roneous rapping. L*Roneous elevates his lyrics to the level of complex scientific experiments through just the right kind of heady late nineties verbiage. Binary Star is probably his closest analogue in both style and lyrical complexity and intelligence. Fittingly, the hook from the song is a sample of MC Serch rapping “What are you sick? I’m a slick stupid scientist!”
L*Roneous is just as heady and abstract on b-side “Implosion,” where he raps two of the most elaborate and metaphor-laden verses about the art of rapping that I have ever heard. Lines like “My confession’s written in tablatures/ Carbon humanoid wack devour/ Now I would seem to blur/ Deterred by the urge to throw curves at straight and narrow/ Individuals, who were transferred from the unsure/ To Voyager, my word” are pretty representative of what he’s doing on the whole song. Musically, the bass and cymbal heavy beat puts me in the same headspace as two of Dan the Automator’s productions from the first Gorillaz album from four years later, “New Genious (Brother)” and “Tomorrow Comes Today.” Like Dan the Automator, DJ Shadow, and a few of his other contemporaries, DJ Zeph blurs the already weak sonic boundaries between hip-hop and trip-hop. His beats would work just as well with a Beth Gibbons or a Martina Topley-Bird singing over them as they do with someone like L*Roneous.
Tucked at the end of the b-side is “The “L” Perspective, which is actually produced by L*Roneous himself. L*Roneous’ drums a nowhere near as good as Zeph’s, but his use of two separate horn samples (one saxophone and one trumpet) to create the beat shows that he has an excellent ear for combining sounds. Lyrically, “The “L” Perspective” is more of the same from L*Roneous, which is a very good thing for someone this skilled. Since, L*Roneous’ production style has a noticeably different sound, albeit a similar mood, from DJ Zeph’s work, it makes sense that this song was left off of Imaginarium, although it was included as one of the three bonus tracks on the 2002 CD reissue.
Imaginarium followed one year after the “L’Chemy” 12”, and it is an underheralded classic. Everything that is great about this single is carried out over an hour, and the songs are expertly sequenced to allow for Zeph’s beats to flow naturally. Unfortunately, these two never reunited for another album. L*Roneous released his sophomore album in 2004, and he has been very active in the last few years releasing material on his Bandcamp page. DJ Zeph was consistently productive for about ten years after Imaginarium, releasing albums solo, with Variable Unit, and with Azeem (the excellent Rise Up). He hasn’t released much since 2007, but his body of work is holding up well without any new additions. At this point it seems unlikely that they will collaborate again, but with a new Deltron 3030 album just out and new Latyrx and Cannibal Ox albums on the horizon, the environment seems right for classic underground collaborations to return with second albums. We can hope.
Coming Up on Spray Cans:
Asia Born/DJ Shadow & The Groove Robbers
Shadowz in Da Dark
L Da Headtoucha
Pop Da Brown Hornet