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Cut Chemist plays with African sounds on

The 'Sound of the Police' mix is part of a growing trend of appreciation of the continent's music from the '60s and '70s.

August 08, 2010|By Oliver Wang, Special to the Los Angeles Times

In recent months, not only soccer-obsessed eyes have turned toward Africa, but musically curious ears too. Most prominent has been the Broadway success of the "Fela!" musical, which chronicled both the Nigerian legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti's extraordinary personal and political life as well as his majestic Afrobeat rhythms, whose tendrils run as much toward James Brown's funk as they do Ghana's highlife.

But the revived interest in Kuti is merely the tip of a massive iceberg of recently released African-related music projects. A spate of anthologies and reissues, many focused on the fertile era of the 1960s and '70s, chronicles a moment when U.S., Latin American and African styles cross-pollinated thanks to increased intercontinental travel and the reach of record distribution and radio waves.

The diversity of musical hybrids that emerged was staggering. For example, "Africa Boogaloo: The Latinization of West Africa" (Honest Jon's) highlights the impact of Cuban dance rhythms on West African musicians, and in the other direction "Palenque Palenque" (Soundway) focuses on West African influences on the music of Colombia.

No sub-Saharan stone is left unturned: France's Syllart label is up to nine volumes in its "African Pearls" series (the most recent being "Sénégal 70: Musical Effervescence"), and the U.K.'s Strut Records has dedicated three volumes to its "Next Stop … Soweto" series. Nigeria — which had one of the most established record industries in the region — figures most heavily. The last few months have seen both "The World Ends: Afro Rock & Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria" (Soundway) as well as colorfully titled "Lagos Disco Inferno" (Academy).

Arguably, not since Western audiences were originally introduced to Kuti, Miriam Makeba and Manu Dibango has there been such an intense interest in Africa's musical evolutions from this era. The deluge may seem a little overwhelming, especially for those who can't tell Abidjan from Addis Abeba. So it comes as a welcome relief that a DJ should come in to offer an African-inspired sampler of sorts: the new "Sound of the Police" master mix by L.A.'s own Cut Chemist.

Technically speaking, "Sound of the Police" isn't 100% crafted from African records — b-boys young and old will instantly recognize that "Pedal to the Bongo" uses "Apache" by the Canadian-created Incredible Bongo Band, and Latin funk fans might recognize "Strictly Voodoo" as including parts of "Afro Funky" by Cuban percussionist Manteca. But split into halves — "West Side" and "East Side" — "Sound of the Police" is in deep conversation with the grooves of the African diaspora. That includes transplanted influences of African styles on North and Latin American music as well as the regional African rhythms currently being anthologized, be it Sakpata from the "West Side" ( Benin) or Ethio-jazz from the "East Side" (Ethiopia).

In fact, Cut originally debuted the mix at a February 2009 concert featuring the giant of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke, whose music has ended up on airline promotional albums, hip-hop songs and Jim Jarmusch soundtracks (look for Strut's 2009 " New York-Addis-London" collection for an excellent best of Astatke introduction). For those who caught Cut's performance, you may have noticed an array of blinking equipment at his feet. As it turns out, the DJ constructed "Sound of the Police" using a single turntable hooked into a foot pedal sampler, which allowed Cut to create — and then stack — loops on the fly.

In this respect, "Sound of the Police" is less like Cut's last studio album, 2006's "The Audience's Listening," and more like the funk-inspired mix CDs he and DJ Shadow assembled beginning with 1999's "Brainfreeze," and continuing with "Product Placement" (2001) and "The Hard Sell" (2007). What these past efforts share in common with "Sound of the Police" is a dedication to both selection (killer, obscure songs) and execution (live mixing with no post-production editing). However, in thinking through "Sound of the Police," Cut's limited choice of tech tools aren't merely relevant to gear sluts and turntablism geeks.

It may seem as if he's deliberately hamstringing himself, but there's a mad genius to his method. With only that one turntable at his disposal, Cut had to carefully plot his segues, using foot pedal power to direct layers of musical loops into carefully synchronized holding patterns that create enough time for him to switch from record to record. As a result, much of "Sound of the Police" unfolds with a deliberate, necessary patience, drawing upon the hypnotic potion of repetition to help hide its seams from the listener.

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