DRS: Strolling Company


[Raund Haus; April 17]

In the beginning, there was hip-hop, a set of cultural art forms in the Bronx. 

This is the radically abridged story of how, almost half a century later, it begat Strolling Company, a dizzying, abstract sample-fest by Japanese crew DRS, which Durham label Raund Haus released in April.

As hip-hop traveled through the music industry, it changed. It became a commercial art form centered on the rapper and the DJ, abstracted from the culture that produced it—at least in the wider world, if not in the outer boroughs of New York. 

But if hip-hop’s loosening from its context was cultural, it was also technological. One of the original art forms was deejaying, the repetition and intercutting of short instrumental passages from vinyl records for dancing and for MCs to rap over. 

The practices DJs invented out of technical limits and personal ingenuity—the breakbeat, the beat juggle, the turntable scratch—became the terms of a musical language, and they continued to be reproduced on the samplers, sequencers, and software that made them anachronistic. 

By the mid-‘90s, this language took on the golden glow of nostalgia, and its lighthouse-keepers started to gather in subgenres. One of them went by the deceptively simple name of “instrumental hip-hop.” It produced its own stars and stewards, from the mainstream to the underground—from the baroque sampledelia of DJ Shadow to the crate-digging classicism of Peanut Butter Wolf, and the hip-hop storytelling of Prince Paul to the dusted soul of J Dilla

It flourished throughout the ‘00s on Californian and British labels like Stones Throw, Mush Records, Ninja Tune, and Warp, where it mingled freely with the brainy side of electronic music that used to be known as “IDM,” and it developed its own language, several times translated—“hip-hop” only in a scare-quotes sense. 

Often, you could neither dance to it—it was too rhythmically lax or off-kilter—nor rap to it, unless you were MF Doom, who seems to have taken it as a lifelong challenge to wrestle the most broken beats into submission

But you could nod or nod out to it—it was very blunted music—and its worship of the original materials of hip-hop, from the warp of vinyl records to the crackle of analog sound, made it a haven for conservationists, with barrier islands of old-school values set against the changeable sea of rap-industry trends. 

By the time the likes of Prefuse 73 and Daedelus came around, we were already a long way off from DJ Cool Herc, and today, the classic instrumental hip-hop tradition persists mainly as an almost-academic practice—vibe-y stuff to fill out “chill study beats” playlists—or in the more vital Raund Haus manner, as the basis for freewheeling excursions into all corners of the capacious contemporary category known as “beat music.”

Thus, at last, do we arrive at the state of affairs in which a Durham label can release a Japanese album that opens with a Cam’ron verse from a 15-year-old Jim Jones song being throttled and panned into a weird little self-contained world.

DRS, which formed almost 10 years ago in the Kansai region, stands for “Daily Recording Shit.” Strolling Company bustles with all the layers hip-hop has accumulated along the way, a striation apparent not just in its cultural qualities, but in its sonic ones: Beats are chopped, staggered, gated, and filtered to the edge of structural cohesion, and sometimes beyond; samples are strangled, pitches are shifted, and playback speeds are erratic, as though running over dirty tape heads. Silence is a snare drum. Stereo space is a Möbius strip.   

The aforementioned Cam’ron flip was produced by elamp, who generally likes to wreath tough-talking rap verses in woozy samples and bullet-hole-ridden frequencies. He’s joined by the rest of the beat-making crew—Ballhead, 6-SenS, Blackshadow, 2seam, and sszzaa—who bring a variety of styles to bear. 

At one point, 6-SenS smuggles in a deconstructed-brostep vibe, while on “Wolf_s blood,” holographic record scratches fly off a moody ‘80s video-game theme. 

2seam is more of a classicist, a stone’s throw away from a Stones Throw compilation, while sszzaa scores a poppy highlight with “Hostel,” cutting hard into a snake-charming melody. 

Ballhead favors a kind of ankle-twisting strut through junkyard funk, while Blackshadow stands out by hewing closer to full songs than the evocative fragments and interstitials that pervade the album. 

Raund Haus’s Nick Wallhauser spent some years in Japan before moving to Durham, which explains the connection here, though really it takes a bit more explaining than that, as we have just witnessed. 

Strolling Company is about as far away as you can get from the Bronx, and it’s a testament to both the low-key innovation of its producers and the limitless malleability of the almost-50-year-old language that, however distantly and improbably, it speaks. 

Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at bhowe@indyweek.com.

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