Advertisement

Adventurous Hip-Hop, With Minimalism

Pop Music* DJ Vadim, still tangling with the FCC, uses a sparse style yielding to something deeper.

April 27, 2002|RICHARD HARRINGTON | WASHINGTON POST

It can take a while for a song to become a hit. In the case of "Your Revolution," it took two years for it to take a hit--from the Federal Communications Commission.

"Your Revolution," a track on which the Russian-born, British-bred hip-hop producer DJ Vadim crafted an insinuating beat to accompany a poem by African American feminist performance artist Sarah Jones, appeared on Vadim's 1999 album "USSR: Life From the Other Side"--and somehow spent two years under the government's decency radar.

In the caustic polemic tradition of Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," Jones' poem takes male rappers to task for their casual misogyny and disrespectful attitudes toward women by quoting and then denouncing lyrics from the likes of LL Cool J, Jay-Z, Akinyele and Notorious B.I.G.

Ironically, the source lyrics come from songs that have received immense amounts of commercial airplay but when KBOO, a noncommercial radio station in Portland, Ore., played the track around the time Vadim's album was released, one listener complained to the FCC.

Eighteen months later, the FCC fined KBOO $7,000, charging "the rap song 'Your Revolution' contains unmistakable, patently offensive sexual references" intended to "pander and shock."

"It's kind of crazy, but that's America," says Vadim of the FCC controversy. "This is a country of stark contrasts, where you supposedly have freedom of speech, but in fact things that are derogatory and controversial get played, like a lot of that style of hip-hop [criticized by Jones]. Yet when someone stands up against that, that's the song that will be banned.

"Maybe that says something about how the licensing bodies would rather keep people down than have people stand up and be strong," he adds. "When people stand up to be counted, they get worried. But when people in the hip-hop communities are putting each other down, they're less of a threat." In February, Jones filed suit in federal court against the FCC. (KBOO has separately appealed the FCC fine.) Meanwhile, Vadim reports that he and Jones have collaborated on a new track for his upcoming album.

"It's called 'Area Coded,' a response to Ludacris' 'Area Code,' where he goes, 'I got hos in all kinds of area codes.... ' Sarah does a response, saying she has strong black sisters in area codes and they're not 'hos.'"

Maybe this one will have to carry the parental advisory that no one thought about putting on "Life From the Other Side." Or maybe it will inspire an album about government conspiracies--except that Vadim already explored that territory with 1997's "Tapping the Conversation." Vadim created a disturbing audio tribute to Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 paranoid thriller, "The Conversation," in which Gene Hackman plays a surveillance expert caught in an unraveling web of political intrigues. It was an unsettling masterpiece that, like Coppola's film, made you listen hard to figure out just what was going on--a hallmark of Vadim's work.

"In the music that I do, I like to put a lot of different things into it," he says. "I like to add an element of humor, of comedy and irony, but there's also a serious side, a fun side, a chilling side. I try to bring lots of different feelings in there and hopefully that comes out."

Adventurous concepts and mesmerizing minimalism--that's been Vadim's modus operandi since he started releasing records in the mid-'90s, with his debut EP, "Abstract Hallucinating Gasses" and his first full-length effort, "U.S.S.R. Repertoire (The Theory of Verticality)." The Vadim sound is a spare, masterful amalgam of clipped beats, keyboard washes and manipulated elements, including vocal samples ranging from the hilarious to the spooky. It's old-fashioned headphone music that requires one's full attention, an effect Vadim says is intentional.

"I've always made the kind of music where it's minimal, but people confuse minimal for nothing, and that's not what minimal is," he explains. "It's usually a lot of stuff, but in a way that leaves a lot of space--that's what minimal means to me. It gives you the idea that it's very sparse but on second listen, you find more stuff." These days, Vadim finds himself wearing "three kinds of armor suits." Though he records for Ninja Tune, he still operates and does production for his own Jazz Fudge label. Beyond that, Vadim is both an internationally booked DJ and a "live act" with his Russian Percussion ensemble.

Vadim admits, "In terms of sound, you can be much more complex on a record than you can be live. The venues we play are hip-hop or rock venues. It's not like a classical concert where people sit down and listen to every single sound. It's very difficult to convey that in a club, so we really have to simplify what we do."

Vadim's been a world traveler since his family moved to England when he was 5, and DJing has taken him to several dozen countries. Last year, he embarked on an intriguing project underwritten by the BBC. "Around the World in Eight Relays" was a specially created track featuring contributions by musicians from eight countries, all using instruments indigenous to their homelands.

"None of the musicians met each other, but I met all of them," says Vadim, who interviewed the musicians as part of the BBC series, which tracked each new layer of sound being added on. "Each musician added a layer of sound, and I was the link in the chain."

The final link was Jones, who layered her poetry above it all.

Vadim probably hopes the FCC doesn't get wind of it.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|