Gangrene GangreneGutter Water
Interconnecting lives are those of The Alchemist and Oh No, fellow travellers in the strange, sickly project Gangrene, which debuts now with “Gutter Water”. While the first has shined much more in his productions commissioned by other MCs and groups –especially his work for Dilated Peoples, Evidence, Mobb Deep, Defari and Nas, making him one of my favourite producers of the last decade—than in his own solo projects, Oh No is just the opposite: although he can boast of having given beats to De La Soul, Murs and Wildchild, amongst others, recognition and applause from the critics have arrived thanks to his solo albums, especially in the wake of his very J Dilla “Dr. No’s Experiment”, which certified his hand in terms of prolonging the life and status of the sound patented by Jay Dee. More crossing of paths: although both produce and rap, in their joint debut it is easy to conclude that Alchemist is better with the MPC and Oh No with the mic, perhaps because the album’s sound is closer to the musical coordinates of Alchemist, and in the lyrical section Madlib’s little brother takes the reigns and takes charge. And, although they are both Californians, Alchemist decided to settle in New York some years ago, perhaps because his productions had more aesthetic ties with East-Coast hip hop, while Oh No still lives on the West Coast, honouring that discourse inherited from Madlib and other luminaries of Los Angeles underground rap.
Joined together then, more by differences than similarities, the tandem has put a few months into putting together “Gutter Water”, a title that will not change or shake up the scene, but which fill easily find its niche in the market, especially as they are both figures with drawing power and status within the framework of independent hip hop. Talking about the material itself, in just a few minutes one can tell that Gangrene isn’t part of the most brilliant, notorious production of either artist’s catalogue, right off the bat. It has the form and the manners of a furtive project cooked up without being rushed, in fits and starts, with the sole purpose—it seems—of sharing a few joints in the studio and reconciling the sounds and ways of two West-Coast beatmaker-rappers with different interests and ways of expressing themselves. This is not the union of two stars, nor does it even aspire to being so. It seems more like a momentary whim of two figures who are characterised precisely by their incontinence in the fish bowl, and for going through periods of meritorious creative fertility. They may not be that significant, but they sure give you a handful of good reasons to nod your head up and down.
As I said earlier, the album leans more towards the sound personality of The Alchemist, who brings more credit and more of a starring role to the table. Orthodox beats, samples of funk and soul manipulated in all possible forms (accelerated, slowed down), chopped-up loops, and compulsive repetitions of samples with the MPC. Representative samples are as many as you want: “Get into Some Gangster Shit” or “Standing in the Shadows” could fit into any album by Dilated Peoples; “Gutter Water”, the title song with a tremendous cameo by Raekwon, wouldn’t sound strange as a production for Mobb Deep or for Chef himself; and we could easily imagine “Not High Enough” on “The Lost Tapes Vol. 2”. The modus operandi and the mechanics are similar, not to say exactly the same, as those of Jaylib, that imposing project cooked up by J Dilla and Madlib, and which consisted of rapping over each other’s beats. The formula works much better when Al’ produces and Oh No raps, although he gives us one of the best beats of the entire lot, that overwhelming “Wassup Wassup”, with Fashawn and Evidence, that will be playing ceaselessly on my iPod during the coming months. Don’t get too nervous: you can run into at least seven great songs here that justify buying it.
So what’s missing, what stops it reaching the level of excellence? In the first place, the inconsistency that goes with projects like this: the same way that it is easy to locate their hot spots, it is also fairly easy to detect the minutes of filler, the weak points the album could do without. Second: both Alchemist and Oh No are producers who one fine day decided to throw themselves into the rhyming ring, but their talent still lies in the tracking of samples and the creation of beats. And although Oh No defends himself well enough lyrically, and Alchemist has improved since his first steps in this area, both of them lack the necessary presence and solidity to carry off an album like this. And last of all, there is its lack of ambition. “Gutter Water” doesn’t pursue anything significant or definitive, it doesn’t aspire to greatness, it only seeks to offer the world a small exhibition of that rough, dry, dirty, incorruptible hip hop that drives many of us crazy and which don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no ground-breaking ideas, post-modern refinement, and urban trend topics. David Broc