It's not exactly been a vintage year for rap, with the plusses - Wu Tang Forever, mainly - vastly outweighed by the grim tide of gangsta sentimentalism riding to the bank on old pop tunes. Thankfully, the third album by Organized Konfusion helps redress the balance a little further; we may be in substantially the same territory as before, with "bitch- ass niggas" toting Tec-9s in the usual drug-dealing scenarios, but The Equinox at least tries to take listeners beyond the sensational surface, treating its protagonists as humans rather than cartoon criminal ciphers.
The album is presented as an aural movie tracking the changing relationship of two friends, the pointedly-named Life and Malice. It's the old, old battle between hope and despair, creativity and destruction, thought and action, but it's being fought in terms which acknowledge the vast grey areas separating those opposites.
Sometimes the verbal dexterity, on tracks such as "Questions" and "Numbers", is quite dazzling, but it's never at the expense of hardcore attitude and walloping funk drive.
Prince and Pharoahe, the two rappers who make up Organized Konfusion, may denigrate "college rappers" with scant connection to the ghetto, but their own forceful, articulate diatribes clearly owe as much to art-school smarts as street smarts, which may be just what rap needs.
NUSRAT FATEH, ALI KHAN & MICHAEL BROOK
Realworld / Virgin CDRW68 Nothing spices a club groove up quite like a touch of Eastern promise, one of the laws of remixing handed down all the way from MARRS and Coldcut, particularly the latter's revamp of Eric B & Rakim's "Paid in Full", which featured the swirling tones of Ofra Haza.
The late Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has been particularly open to allowing his extraordinary voice to be blended with modern sounds and methods, from at least as long ago as Bally Sagoo's "Jewel" remix of "Jhoole Jhoole Lal" in 1991, and his works with the Canadian guitarist / producer Michael Brooks have been richly rewarding examples of sympathetic cross-cultural collaboration. Star Rise, substantially drawn from pieces which originally appeared on Khan & Brook's Night Song album last year, takes the idea a stage further by having the tracks remixed by Sagoo's Anglo-Asian colleagues, the likes of Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney, Black Star Liner and Fun-Da-Mental.
As you might expect, these are more forceful, club-oriented versions than the originals, but what might have been lost in terms of meditative spirit has been made up for by emphasising the hypnotic aspects of Nusrat's work, with snatches of his vocal looped into swirling, bass-heavy grooves. With barely a duff track in earshot, it's a sublime album, a glowing tribute to both the singer's enduring artistry and the febrile health of the Anglo-Asian music scene in general. Warmly recommended.
Peace and Noise
Arista 07822 18986 2
To record one album about death might be entirely appropriate, but two in a row starts to seem like a morbid indulgence. Last year's comeback album, Gone Again, was in tribute to Patti's late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith; on Peace and Noise, the presiding spirits are those of William Burroughs (to whom the album is dedicated) and Allen Ginsberg, whose "Footnote To Howl" contributes the lyric to the drone-rap "Spell", the album's most satisfying track.
As with its predecessor, mortality hangs over these songs like a cloud waiting to weep: the opening track "Waiting Underground" actually gives voice to the departed, seeking to re-locate ancestral paths long since obscured by desuetude. Death has a way of nudging spiritual concerns into one's life, and Smith is no exception here. The album's most straightforward song, "1959", contrasts the American experience of that era, all beatnik "desolation angels" and big-finned automobiles, with the contemporaneous Chinese invasion of Tibet that went virtually unnoticed in the West.
Musically, the decision to dispense with a name producer may be a mistake. For the most part, the sound is acceptably ramshackle, but the attempt to recapture the extemporised whirl of the band's classic early albums on the 10-minute improvised Vietnam piece "Memento Mori" falls rather flat, and Smith's voice - never the most listener-friendly of instruments at the best of times - could have profited from some subtle aural alteration. Not for the first time, the desire to present emotions as nakedly as possible gets in the way of their effective transmission.
MAJOR FORCE WEST
The Original Artform
Recorded through the late Eighties and early Nineties, these sample- collage grooves from the Japanese Major Force label indicate both the oddly timeless nature of sampling and its status as a truly international musical language. Most of the 32 tracks compiled on these two discs could have been made last week, and their use of mainly occidental elements renders them free of any discernible Japanese characteristics.
Formed by Toshio Nakanishi and Masayuki Kudo out of the ashes of Japanese new-wave outfits The Plastics and Melon, the label's general tone is similar to that of the UK acid jazz style, with plenty of electric piano fills and familiar breakbeats but the oh-so-cool funk-jazz surfaces are more pleasingly disturbed by the range of samples stirred into the mix. This is a world where not even old Blood, Sweat & Tears horn fanfares or Troggs expostulations are considered beyond the pale. The results are, in places, as slickly inventive as The Dust Brothers' best work. Well worth investigating.