Hip-hop's history -- a dialectic forged by battling, boasting, and street-corner heroics -- is a long-raging tug of war between MCs and producers. Throughout much of the late Nineties, the lyricists had the upper hand, prompting the British label BBE (short for "Barely Breaking Even") to launch The Beat Generation, a series of albums devoted to the rap producer. Following efforts by renowned veterans like Marley Marl and Pete Rock, Brooklyn beatmaker DJ Spinna throws down Here to There, a set aimed at expanding the definition of what soulful hip-hop can be.
Throughout his eight-year career producing and remixing for the likes of 4 Hero, Nightmares on Wax, and De La Soul, Spinna has proved himself one of hip-hop's most original instrumental voices, crossing Pete Rock's uncluttered rhythmic approach with an almost psychedelic sense for tone color. Here that strategy turns out the album's strongest cuts. On "Drive," Spinna cuts buoyant keyboards and spring-loaded bounce with Shadowman's insistent flow, using the rapper's jagged cadences to lop the tops off the cartoony cloudscape. On "Hold," the producer bashes out one of his trademark stuttering drum patterns, roughing it up with the rapid-fire patter of MCs Jean Grae and Apani B, and smoothing it down with aquamarine keys.
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But too often, Here to There strays from its attempted destination. "Galactic Soul" meanders through time-warped funk without ever escaping orbit, while the disco-house of "Music In Me (Come Alive)" is so smoothed out it's curiously sexless, like the image of naked flesh Photoshopped to poreless plasticity. Worst of all is the Afrobeat jam of "Outro," over which an uncredited vocalist delivers overheated rants like, "Listen, listen, the drum was the first instrument to speak to the people!" If the point of The Beat Generation series is to highlight hip-hop's instrumental side, the last thing we need is an inadvertently comical MC admonishing us to listen to the beats. That song -- and too much of the album -- is a curious misstep for Spinna, who's so often a master of understatement.