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312: Harry Connick Jr.
311: Sonny Rollins
310: Speech
309: Santana

by Dan Grunebaum

Prefuse 73

Alternative hip-hop producer Scott Herren’s new album took shape as a cry for calm amid the chaos of touring

Scott Herren aka Prefuse 73

What exactly defines hip-hop? Is it the presence of a rapper, a certain rhythmic meter, and the use of samples? If these are the basic ingredients of hip-hop, then the American producer Prefuse 73, who first got heads bobbing in 2001 with Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives and then followed it up with the monumental 2003 opus One Word Extinguisher, is without doubt a hip-hop artist.

But in an interview during a recent promotional tour to Japan at club Unit in trendy Daikanyama, an exasperated Scott Herren, the 29-year-old wunderkind behind Prefuse 73, says some journalists just don’t seem to get it. “As many times as I’ve given an explanation of what I do—Prefuse 73 is hip-hop, it might sound different to you but it’s hip-hop—it’s still a mystery to them.”

The “mystery” of Prefuse 73’s music lies in the fact that Herren’s productions are so abstract, so full of glitch-hop production wizardry, that they’ve got many people lumping them into the electronica category. The hungover Herren, who cites influences like Public Enemy and De La Soul, sounds offended. “I haven’t had anything to do with electronica, and I don’t really care about it.”

Nonetheless, Herren is signed to English electronica imprint Warp, where his music sounds comfortable alongside UK avant-techno pioneers such as Autechre and Two Lone Swordsmen. And in a sign of the importance of the large Japanese electronica audience, the label on March 2 is to pre-release here Surrounded By Silence, the highly anticipated follow-up to One Word Extinguisher. Herren will debut the album for Japanese audiences in a concert at Shibuya’s O-East on March 27.

Created through close collaborations between producer Herren and a slew of MCs, Surrounded By Silence perhaps meets more expectations of what a hip-hop album should sound like than did One Word Extinguisher. But it’s still jam-packed with the cut-and-paste samples and gelatinous instrumental loops that made Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives the next great alternative hip-hop album, following DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing.

“Hip-hop has gone through a lot of phases,” says Herren, putting things in perspective. “I feel like I’m contributing to a different form that may not be straight hip-hop but it’s hip-hop for sure. You can argue to the grave, but it’s hip-hop.”

While the broad strokes of Surrounded By Silence are similar to what Herren painted on his prior albums, in its conception and execution the new disc took a different course. “This could have been a continuation of the last Prefuse album. I could have FedExed MCs a beat, they could have sent me something back—I had nothing to do with what they said—I just put it out and everybody thought it was a great fucking album.”

Herren chose to work closely with a stable of MCs on themes that were important to him. “Everybody on the record is someone I’ve previously respected before I worked with them. There’s really only a couple of names on the record that would sell the record other than me, but I didn’t use their names to sell it to a certain audience. This isn’t a rent-a-rapper album.” MCs include some of the key voices in alternative hip-hop—a few of whom have also worked with Japan’s DJ Krush—like El-P and Aesop Rock. But it also stretches to take in singers Alejandra and Claudia Deheza of New York experimental band On!Air!Library!, and Mexican alt-rock act Cafe Tacuba.

After years of a Gypsy-like existence on the road, recording in the US, or spending what little downtime he has in his adopted home of Barcelona, Herren says that seeking a less hectic existence has become paramount. “For me, I need to slow down, have a calmer environment. That was an undertone to the whole thing, and that’s what I strive for—for having relationships that last longer than as long as I’m in town. Something that’s more substantial and not as temporary is what I’m trying to convey.”

The album was created in New York, a city where Herren spent some of his formative years, so that he could work directly with the MCs. “I get so frustrated living in New York sometimes, coming from a peaceful place where it’s much calmer, where it’s OK to take a nap, to chill. But I couldn’t make a record like this in Barcelona, because everything shuts down. FedEx is a joke. They’re like, ‘We’ll be there sometime between 9pm and 7am, hope you’re around.’ If you gotta get some shit out, if somebody’s sweating you, you’re fucked.”

Aside from the practicalities of space and time, another big obstacle for hip-hop producers like Herren is the issue of sample clearance. An avid sampler who composes most of his music on the industry standard Akai MPC, Herren says his payment for the album is still being held up while three samples are cleared.

“If you’re sampling something, you’re validating that it sounds dope. You’re not stealing,” he insists. “I’m not gonna stop at anything because of some stupid law that a judge passed to hinder creativity.

“There’s an economic situation behind it. People in the ghetto who want a string sound, that don’t have the means to put together an orchestra, but have saved up for a sampler, they gotta put a record on and find it. It’s just another form of oppression. It shouldn’t even be up to the judges. Music is music.”

O-East, March 27. See concert listings for details. M

Credit: Beatink

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