Basehead: Play With Toys (1991)


Messages in a bottle, of malt liquor.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Ever have one of those perpetually tipsy college friends who’s deepest, most fully formed relationship is with beer? In 1991 Washington D.C.’s Michael Ivey, inspired by failed romances and the beers that accompany them, cranked out the album that would eventually make several “best album of year” lists and help solidify two different record labels: Play with Toys.

Ivey cut his intimate slacker hip-hop songs nearly alone on his bedrooms’ four-track recorder, mostly sparse guitar vamps over head-nodding drum breaks, and this low-fidelity touch makes his songs very endearing. He also is quite funny, in a Cheech and Chong sort of way, and his slurry low-volume singing voice draws you into his beer-goggle universe of loss, confusion and apologies.

In the droning funk of “2000 BC” he pines for the missing brain cells he’s lost through drinking, yet he sings a love song to his brew in “Ode to My Favorite Beer”, complete with old-school needle drops from Eazy-E’s “8-Ball”.

His friends show up in many of the songs, acting as a Greek chorus by commenting on the tunes during their performance, sometimes interrupting the song to the point of stoppage. “Brand New Day” follows his post-breakup emotional state, as he pauses the song several times to change his view on how sad or relieved he is to not be with his girlfriend. Then it stops again to listen to some nice breakbeats.

He gets even more emotional in “Not Over You”, getting drunker and more hostile as the song progresses:

So judge me true
by what I say, not what I do.
Why do folks continue to say
that I’m not over you?

The song eventually comes to a halt so his friend can find another song on the radio to calm him down. You can advance to the next track to see how well that worked out.

As if the fourth-wall shattering meta-commentary isn’t surreal enough, the entire album is presented as a band performance in a country and western bar. Yes.

THE FALLOUT: Released by the fledging indie label Émigré and re-released the following year by the fledging mini-major label Imago, Play With Toys was critically acclaimed for its focused eccentricity and twisted humor, yet never sold well. Basehead put out three more albums but hasn’t made a public note since 2001.

Play With Toys is out of print worldwide, but you can pick a used copy from Amazon and you can hear selected tracks below.

Provocative and ridiculous, Play With Toys sneaks up on you with delight, like the pint before last call.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Fishbone fights for a taste of “Reality”.

Konono N°1: Congotronics (2005)


It took a nation of Belgians to hold them back.

Purchase his album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Bazombo trance music is a fiercely polyrhythmic style indigenous to the area between Congo and Angola, and is usually played on likembes (the thumb piano) and hand drums. But years of Belgian colonization had pushed many natives into the urban cities, where it was hard to hear the music over the noise of modern culture.

In 1980 likembe master Mawangu Mingiedi fought fire with fire and founded Konono N°1, the first bazombo group with electrified amplification. And they didn’t just run down to Guitar Center and buy some gear. They plugged their likembes into massive handmade speakers built with magnets scrounged from Belgian car radios. They carved working microphones out of wood and attached them to oversized megaphones, also left by the Belgians. They made percussion out of pots, pans and brake drums. All these inventions created crazy distortions in the sound, which gave the group a uniquely brutal and industrial flavor.

Flurries of watery fuzzy metal tones crash into martial drums topped with shrill whistles and call-and-response chants. Imagine campfire songs performed by an extremely angry marching band on amphetamines. It’s that primal and earthy, yet it’s not always clear which earth.

Intense and unique Konono N°1 went virtually unrecorded until Congotronics. Although twenty-four years had passed, not one item of their instruments or sound system had changed. That’s the equivalent of Grandmaster Flash sticking with the same turntables for his entire career. Talk about “keeping it real”.

THE FALLOUT: An unexpected critical success is starting to become a commercial success as well, and Konono N°1 is touring Europe and USA this year.

Congotronics is available from Amazon. For all you Public Enemy and Kraftwerk fans, here is the organic equivalent.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Basehead belches up a tipsy classic.

Q-Tip: Kamaal The Abstract (2000)


Thanks for advancing music, now drop dead.

Purchase this album: Amazon

(The following article was written in 2005, but in 2009 the album was finally released.)

THE SCENE: As the ex-leader of the beloved conscious rap group A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip irritated his fan base with his unexpectedly jiggy solo debut, 1999’s Amplified. Sensing that he wasn’t cut out to be a fur-wearing mainstream rapper he completely flipped the script for his next album, 2000’s Kamaal the Abstract.

Much like Sting did for Dream of the Blue Turtles, Q-Tip also assembled a tight team of jazz musicians and crafted a sweet album of finely textured pop songs that crackles with deep grooves and the joy of live band performance. Kamaal the Abstract humbly melds the best aspects of acid jazz, hip-hop and alternative rock into an ambitious and exciting new form.

“Feelin” jumps in with a seemingly ordinary hip-hop track but expands like a peacock plume with chunky guitars and radio static. After rapping and scatting for a bit it’s all about the O.G. organ solos, played so vibrantly you’ll forget that it goes on for minutes. It’s full of “walking down the street on your way to the party” spirit.

Q-Tip’s commitment to the flow of the groove is so sincere he sometimes vanishes altogether, as he does in “Do U Dig U”. He introduces his spacey and souful singing voice then lets the flutes take over, gilding slinkly across crisp percussion, recalling those smoky bohemian clubs with the small round tables and red lights that serve mojitos.

The electric piano-driven “Barely In Love” warmly invokes the buzz of a new crush with the most joyous hand claps you’ll hear outside of a gospel choir:

When you really think about it
love is truly powerful
the undeniable force
that makes it magnetic
when you can’t explain
when you do
what you do
can’t nobody take away
when you do
what you do

His band turns up the intensity in “Heels”, his playful ode to women’s shoes, with stomping drums and funky xylophone. “Abstractions” is a musically dense bottle rocket of fun where he repositions himself, the new advanced model Q-Tip, as a playful musical adventurer.

THE FALLOUT: Arista Records treated the album with all the love of a stripper at a church picnic, branding it “uncommercial.” Promo copies were released to hip-hop and rock journalists, who alternately raved it up or ripped it to shreds. A Spike Lee-directed mini-movie was commissioned and abandoned. A 2002 release date was set and cancelled, causing Q-Tip to negotiate a release from his contract. Five years after it was completed, Kamaal the Abstract is still lying somewhere in Arista’s vault.

UPDATE: It’s now available from Amazon and you can listen to tracks here:

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Introducing Konoko N°1: the world’s only electrified Congolese trance punks.

A. R. Kane: 69 (1988)


The underground ’90s sound, one decade early.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1987 the London duo of Alex Ayuli and Rudi Tambala were in a quandary. Under the name A. R. Kane they’d released an EP called Lolita, which garnered some critical praise. But they also were part of a collaboration called M/A/R/R/S which released the international dance hit “Pump Up The Volume”, although their handiwork was invisible to the buying public. Nevertheless they returned in 1988 with their watershed dream pop album 69.

Drenched in caverns of echoes, 69 eerily predicts trip-hop and ambient dub music, years before those phrases were ever conjured. It’s a wet sounding album, an empty ghost ship washed up on the beach, its crew long since gone completely mad.

“Crazy Blue” actually starts with incoherent babbling, as heavily echoed guitars clang like incoming tankers fighting for pier space. The moaning vocals remain in the background, hiding behind each other in the tonal fog.

The melancholy dance continues with “Suicide Kiss”. Its dub-like bass pulsates as if it’s drilling toward the earth’s core. Guitars sizzle like sparks off a welding torch.

The aptly named “Dizzy” is a tune straight out of the asylum. Its creepy cello adds a disturbing formality to the din of screaming background vocals. You can feel the too bright hospital lights and hear the cries of people who obviously made their instruments out of bedpans and restraints.

“Spermwhale Trip Over” sounds like surf rock created by a band who’d never seen the ocean. The moist undulating waves of droning feedback nearly submerge the lysergically-enhanced lyrics:

here in my LSdream
things are always what they seem
here in my LSdream, in my LSdreaming

and all the shifting shapes
all changing to grapes
never making mistakes
in my LSdream

In “The Sun Falls into The Sea” A. R. Kane reduces their attack to hundreds of tiny ringing bells while voices hauntingly glide and wail, free from the shackles of rhythm.

THE FALLOUT: Influential as was on the underground dance scene, 69 was not a hit record. A. R. Kane released several more gems before calling it quits in 1994.

69 is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here. Dream pop shoegazes on.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Q-Tip records a masterpiece and his label locks it in a vault. Hear tracks from Kamaal the Abstract.