Cooking Up Beats in Hell's Kitchen
Hell's Kitchen is a neighborhood in flux. Despite the recent arrival of Starbucks and gleaming new office towers fulfilling Mayor Giuliani's Disneyfied vision of New York City, Hell's Kitchen still retains plenty of eclectic grit. So it seems fitting that the DJs known as Ming & FS have called the area home for years. Mixing everything from live instrumentation, tablas, and video-game samples to drum and bass stylings, the duo's approach to hip-hop is as diverse as the neighborhood itself. And like Hell's Kitchen, which didn't enter the realm of viable hipdom until a few years ago, Ming & FS have recently emerged as unlikely darlings of the underground with their own critical cachet. The future of hip-hop, they will tell you, has arrived, and Puff Daddy and Busta Rhymes are nowhere to be seen.
Ming & FS call their style "junkyard," and as a listen to their aptly titled debut, Hell's Kitchen, will reveal, it's a fitting tag. The sound mixes tightly blended scraps of grooved-out hip-hop breaks with churning drum and bass. Danceable, intelligent, frenetic, this is not music to cure your migraine; it's music made in ADD heaven. As strict arbiters of hip-hop as art, the duo makes music at the speed of light, constantly evolving and challenging the listener while broadening perceptions of what electronic music is.
Ming & FS came together in a harmonious convergence at a NYC house party, where Ming was spinning trip-hop and expressing a little 'shroom-induced creativity at the turntable. FS, working at the time as a professional hip-hop producer, had remixed tracks for Coolio, Brandy,and Channel Live of the KRS-One posse, and was similarly affected by the mighty mushroom. The two discovered a few shared characteristics. Both have roots in the break dance craze of the early Eighties (Ming is a former break dancer, while FS began scratching for breakers at age ten), and both have formal music training: FS graduated with a degree in jazz piano from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music; Ming studied jazz and completed an audio-engineering program at the University of Miami. Perhaps most important, both harbored a disdain for commercial hip-hop and a desire to tweak the status quo of modern mixology. Three years ago they began recording breakbeat cuts for the Brooklyn Music Limited label and eventually opened their own Madhattan Studio in Hell's Kitchen. Since then the pair has remixed for DJ Spooky, Omzone, Terra Diva, even Puffy himself, a move some purists view as a betrayal of their noncommercial claims.
"You catch a lot of flak from the underground because you're touching that kind of artist," says FS, referring to Ming & FS's drum and bass remix of Puff Daddy's "All About the Benjamins." Yet the laconic FS makes no effort to dilute his feelings about the state of commercial hip-hop, or his borderline subversive approach to remixing mainstream MCs. "If you look at what we did with the remix, we left the suckers off," he says, emotion rising in his voice. "We left Puffy and Mase off the record because they suck." No apology necessary, and certainly none offered.
Like many who were born in the first era of rap, FS was weaned on beats. "From when I was ten, I listened to hip-hop," he says. "Stuff that was funny about the Eighties, like the 'Safety Dance,' I missed out on. I had to learn about that later. I was heavy into Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and EPMD." Ming & FS view early hip-hop as a genre in which the practitioners and the patrons were more accepting of different approaches. When it started, rules were out and experimentalism was in, something they view as lamentably absent from much of today's scene.
"You'd expect people to be more open-minded," says FS. "But the truth is that a lot of people in the hip-hop and drum and bass scenes are elitists." Ming & FS ought to know: Their junkyard sound has left the production wizards in an identity quandary. Not hardcore enough for the East Coast jungle underground scene and too rap for drum and bass purists, Ming & FS share an existence in a vacuum with DJ Shadow and precious few others. But are they worried? Nope. They were signed to San Francisco's Om Records earlier this year after upstaging other acts on the label's Deeper Concentration Tour in February. And at the Om showcase at the College Music Festival in New York in late September, Ming & FS happily confounded the crowd with their four turntables and lush live instruments. The show went well enough that the two were "embarrassed by the cheers. It was that loud and awkward," says FS.
Clearly somebody's listening. But determining just who makes up their audience is a messy business. Is it the drum and bass kids? The hip-hop contingent? The dance set? "I think our audiences are pretty mixed," FS says. "I don't really feel that there is a core audience. I think what we're looking at is a new breed of hip-hop heads ... or even old-school heads who want to go back to what the original hip-hop was about, which is musical diversity and being open-minded enough to try new things. Unfortunately both communities [drum and bass and hip-hop] have gotten very close-minded, although they both sort of came from the same mentality, which was to be open to new and innovative things."
Hell's Kitchen, released on Om Records, is evidence that Ming & FS do not suffer the same malady. The twosome orchestrated every aspect of the recording at Madhattan, and the programmed beats and electro themes collide with organic live instruments, including acoustic drums and electric guitar and an arresting, pleasantly contradictory effect. "Brain Dead Amphibian Twins/Rock Higher" is a good example of the sound: Starting out slowly with a droning horn sample and a pulsing bass line, the track gives in to an off-kilter vocal and a burst of breakneck scratching within seconds. Layers continue to unfold as the track devolves into a futuristic-sounding video game replete with Star Wars laser blasts mixed with Slayer metal-guitar samples over a bouncing drum and bass beat. But unlike the at-times painfully cerebral Squarepusher or Aphex Twin, Ming & FS groove throughout. Against a backdrop of electric bass and piano, "Family" (featuring rapper Werdplay) offers a lyric that seems aimed at those who don't quite understand the fusion: "The music we combine continues to run through your mind/The secret to the sweet sound is how I utilize the rhyme." Ming & FS represent one direction hip-hop might head in coming years. Their sound is at once a futuristic blend of emergent technologies and aesthetics, as well as a reversion to the roots of rap. And that's not a bad way to start the new millennium.
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