October 7, 2010

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Even if he now resides in New York, Dan Love remains From Da Bricks.

Although hip hop underpins the whole Ninja Tune aesthetic, it would be a ridiculous to tie them too closely to any specific genre, due to the breadth and variety to be found in their two decade strong discography. Like Stones Throw, Ninja Tune seems to have effortlessly managed that rare coup of establishing a brand identity that could almost claim to be a genre all by itself: Ninja Tune records aren’t hip hop/dubstep/avant-rap/whatever… they’re just Ninja Tune records. It’s almost as if record labels actually meant something.

But 20 years is a long time and towards the end of the ‘90s, the label still featured artists grounded in the fundamental hip-hop aesthetics of hard beats, jazzy samples, and rhymes. The Herbaliser’s 1999 album, Very Mercenary, is probably the best example to be found on this particularly accessible avenue of the Ninja Tune roadmap, an oft-overlooked LP that features some of the best British-honed rap music ever committed to wax. ‘60s spy movie samples and a low-slung-smoke-cloud-in-a-jazz-club vibe provide the whole album with a sense of cinematic noir that stood at odds with the rude bwoy frontin’ of the majority of British rap records of the period.

The album is pretty evenly divided between songs featuring guest MCs and instrumental cuts, both of which are executed with aplomb. Lyrical performances by Jean Grae under her previous moniker What? What? are highlights of the album and appearances from Bahamadia, the Dream Warriors, and British stalwarts Roots Manuva and Blade are all fine examples of jazz rap done right. On the instrumental side of things there’s a satisfying variety of offerings: the thumping ‘Goldrush’ and breaks mash-up ‘Wall Crawling Giant Insect Breaks’ are particularly worthy of your attention. Taken as a whole package the album feels extremely cohesive, a subtle and smart blend of samples, live instrumentation, and turntablism perfectly constructed for a hazy, late night nod of the head.

In some ways it could be argued that Very Mercenary shows its age. The well-trodden path of jazzy, blunted rap means it would be easy to bundle this into the ‘so late 90s’ playlist on your iTunes, but it’s difficult not to be sucker punched by its charms. On a personal level, Very Mercenary is also close to my heart as it filled a void in my listening habits as a teenager growing up in London. Despite its obvious reliance on American influences, it still felt distinctly British without feeling the need to ram it down your throat — it was restrained, intelligent, and witty. That is what you lot across the Atlantic think of us, right?

Download:
MP3: The Herbaliser-“Goldrush”
MP3: The Herbaliser-“Wall Crawling Giant Insect Breaks”

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