King Rhythm (Frank Yaker) has recently released a record that was made collaboratively, in clouds. The clouds are made of data, and these clouds are tethered to nodes held in people’s hands or perhaps to terminals in their living rooms. This artistic and collaborative work was done across continents, the game of telephone being conducted between the aforementioned King Rhythm of Baltimore and Colin Johnco, an avant-garde composer based in Paris.
This is a different way of working with music, clearly, and a way only recently made possible via new technology. We are no longer in the practice space sweating it out or even in the studio, physically together. Do these sorts of records work? As opposed to being a “throw-away” or one off experiment, what emerges from the collaboration on the album Thieves Versus Clues is a new, distinctive work worthy of both artists.
We begin our journey with the album’s namesake track, the drums kicking in while electronics drone and moan behind verbal knots. The rhyme-style of King Rhythm is very studied, yet prone to verbal cartwheels. Lines like “it’s all paper clips and leprechauns/ or paper cuts and marathons/ puppet dogs and staring cons/ study logs and Farrakhans” show an accomplished poet’s dexterity with words, while recalling the more head-scratching lines of Utramagentic-era Kool Keith, the kind of rhymes aspiring emcees would puzzle over and dissect, rewinding the tape over and over to uncover new meanings.
“20th Century Turmoil” opens with discordant Zen bell hits, calling us to the meeting hall for another sermon. Tests are being conducted over a stuttering beat and brooding background atmospherics. There’s no comfort anymore, and the agitated soundscape confirms this.
With the third track, “Death Phone,” we have moved into a new territory. If the first two tracks are more languid five and six minute workouts, this new two minute mode of journey gets where it is going fast, a few quick rhymes transitioning into more spoken word, electronics overdriving before returning to the beginning. King Rhythm responds to the challenge of such bumpy tracks here and elsewhere on the album with the dexterity of a verbal acrobat.
The track “Clone$” is the first straight narrative excursion on the album. Still, the story is kept ambiguous. As we take off on an extended instrumental suite, we are left wondering… are these the clones of a Def Jux Crew-style sci fi opus or are these the clones of everyday life, the clones clinging to conformity? In any case, they are left holding all the aces in the end.
“Guilty Fingers” is a two minute instrumental break, more akin in strategy to a contemporary electronic music record than a contemporary hip hop album, although a few were included on Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, so the precedent does exist if we take it back to '88. In any case, the album’s flow is improved by it, giving us to time to catch our breath before the next round.
“Gallery” is a slow build, mantra-like chorus transitioning into glitch beats and syth drone-outs. We drift for several minutes in space before the rhymes hit us, King Rhythm addressing and admonishing audience unknown before drifting off himself into repeated denials and seeming self-negation. He returns, distorted, a bit more spoken word, still rhyming. Once again, a challenging soundbed is responded to and handled.
And so it goes for the rest of the record. “Ultimate Mix” is looking for the wizard in the blizzard as harsh tones ricochet and grow louder. “New Hawaii” offers more of a laid-back vibe, somehow edgily transporting to an island paradise. “Perfect Mystery” concludes our journey peacefully, the beats, clicks, drones and musical phrases waltzing off into the sunset before bonus track “Public Spaces” drops in to provide one more exploration of bounce and flow dynamics.
Two artists met in the Creative Commons of the 21st century, collaborating to create something both true to their body of work but also something new and distinctive. The world is flat, we are all together now and also all alone. Kudos to King Rhythm and Colin Johnco for pushing out of both their respective home musical bases, taking chances as we all continue to evolve past the old limited data world and into the new terabyte era.
To hear “Thieves Versus Clues”, go here.