Dusted Wax Kingdom (DWK089), 2011
It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Find some isolated samples from old jazz LPs, arrange them in proper time, add a modern hip-hop style beat, and voila: you’ve just created trip-hop. What sounds easy in theory, however, doesn’t always work so well in reality. It’s a formula that works quite well, in my view, but like any genre, there are certain artists that display a keen creative edge that elevates their work into something that feels natural.
Tony Mahoney is one of these. With his first release on Bulgarian netlabel Dusted Wax Kingdom, he shows not just a trained and selective ear and technical prowess, but an aesthetic sense that permeates every piece of his laid-back and shadowy instrumental hip-hop. Product of a Dying Breed is moody, smoky, skulking trip-hop, infused with an irresistible fusion of unease and cool. There’s no brash swing samples here, lengthy clarinet solos, or turntablist scratching, just eleven tracks of head-nodding late-night city-street slickness from start to finish. And how slick it is.
After a markedly odd “Intro” with extended dialogue from (I assume) an old radio show featuring the sit-com witticisms of one Mr. Flywheel, Mahoney gives us a taste of his low-key take on the genre with “Delusion,” with an easy beat flanked by a looped bass sample, haunting keyboard chords, a delicate sequence of harp-strings, and a lonely horn, all draped in tastefully understated vinyl crackles. It’s minimal but drenched in nocturnal atmosphere, with more than a touch of the ominous. This latter element isn’t overbearing, mind you, but is a mood that Mahoney indulges in multiple times, such as on the string-laden and cinematic “The Last House” and the haunting urban echoes and muted piano of “Vultures.”
Product of a Dying Breed isn’t all lovely gloom, however. “Love Is A Battlefield” isn’t a Pat Benatar cover, but a potent piece of soulful regret, led by mournfully plucked bass strings and reverbed guitar backed by quiet keyboards and a plodding beat. The emotion is so velvety thick, you can taste the smoke curling in the air and feel the spreading warmth of the scotch in your belly. “Broken Wingz” travels a similar path of loss via a plaintive piano and buried-yet-profound violin; this is where Mahoney shows his skill as an assembler, taking existing disparate elements and fusing them together into something completely new, and completely his.
Both “Candlelight” and “The Blues” use female vocal samples of wordless jazz crooning and horn ensembles, but Mahoney doesn’t allow either to break loose of the dusky fog he’s been so careful to cover his music in. By the same measure, “Black Clouds” and “Streets Raised Me” keep the samples buried and the feel slick and measured; both tracks are closer to pure instrumental hip-hop; if you told me these tracks were used as background for straight rap, I’d buy it in a hot minute. “Sex, Drugs, and Hip-Hop” is the most aggressive track on the album, with sampled rap couplets, repeated processed drones, and a churning horn loop. It’s more than a bit bristly, and almost nudges the album off its established foundation, but Mahoney keeps a firm grasp on the reins with restrained drumwork and reluctance to let the energy grow too menacing.
There might be some who’d argue this style of music really isn’t composing, and I’d agree to a certain extent. I’d counter, however, that most music is already a take on what’s been done before; this genre just goes about it in a more overt fashion. For me, the key is how it all fits together. Anyone can take a sample and add a beat; few do it on Mahoney’s level. Product of a Dying Breed sounds organic, like it was made all by the same artist. In fact, if I didn’t know it was a sample-heavy album, I’d consider Mahoney a supremely talented musician. And yet, he is talented: he can tell when pieces will work together, and he knows how to bring them together into a cohesive whole. He applies the final connective touches with such deft ease, it’s often impossible to tell where the samples end and he begins.
A tribute to a bygone era enhanced by the present, submerged in low-lit streetwise ambiance, Product of a Dying Breed is indeed the product of calculated cleverness and finely tuned execution. There’s a lot of similar albums on Dusted Wax and elsewhere, but this is easily one of the best the genre has to offer.