Six Degrees of Quakers’ Quakers

Hua Hsu

By Hua Hsu

on 03.29.12 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

A hip-hop record for a different time, Quakers is a collaboration between Portishead's Geoff Barrow, his go-to engineer Stuart "7-Stu-7" Matthews, Australian producer Ashley "Katalyst" Anderson and 30-some MCs who generally range from the "obscure" to the "unknown." At this point in his career, Barrow has earned the right to cut what initially appears to be a vanity record. But Quakers is much more than that, an inspired triangulation of Portishead's captivating textures, Dilla's hectic Donuts and one of those cast-of-dozens Tony Touch Power Cypha mixtapes.

As expected, the Quakers production tends toward a sample-heavy, drum-break and bass-lurk dependent sound that has found no better descriptor than "blunted." Quakers is 1990s to the core, but the braintrust is savvy about keeping things moving, with few ideas sticking around for longer than a couple minutes. Spooked loops or hammered cymbals rarely outstay their welcome, while the cramped quarters mean few of the rappers here have to worry about shoehorned hooks or belabored concepts. The melted strings and distant choir of Estee Nack's "Lost and Found" lends it a feeling of weathered Wu-wisdom, while the charismatically hardcore Dave Dub enthuses all over the sparse, jaunty shuffle of "My Mantra."

There are a few familiar names: Dead Prez pay tribute to "Soul Power," Aloe Blacc juggles hats over the blues-funk of "Sign Language," Organized Konfusion's Prince Po treats himself to the majestic horns of "Rock My Soul" and the Pharcyde's Booty Brown laments a civilization in decline on "TV Dreaming." But part of what distinguishes Quakers is its sense of discovery — Barrow found many of these MCs while trawling the Internet, and names like Silverust, Lyric Jones and Coin Locker Kid, a playful name-dropper of Axelrod, Murakami and everyone in-between, make the most of their opportunities. It could have sounded like an endless string of interludes. Instead, each new, ambitious MC raises the stakes a bit, resulting in an unlikely hour of old-school brinksmanship.

The Mash-Up

Psyence Fiction


There are few testaments to the utopian ideals of cut-and-paste juxtaposition quite like the first UNKLE record. Featuring a dream team handpicked by the UNKLE duo of DJ Shadow and Mo' Wax boss and DJ James Lavelle, Psyence Fiction was a bracing, coarse, circa '98 vision of electronic music's future. Mostly, this was a future that sought to merge the possibilities of the sampler with the aesthetics of rock. The results were forcible and sometimes thrilling: Kool G Rap talked gunplay over Frank Zappa drums on the furious "Guns Blazing," Badly Drawn Boy shook loose on the twitchy "Nursery Rhyme/Breather," bassist Jason Newsted lent some Metallica menace to Beastie Boy Mike D's forced "The Knock" while Richard Ashcroft starred on the weepy-grand, Verve-like "Lonely Soul." On tracks like the gorgeous, delicate Miami bass-lite of "Celestial Annihilation" or the morose, sweeping, Thom Yorke-assisted "Rabbit in Your Headlights," UNKLE felt like a paradigm shift away from showy arena grandeur, toward the possibilities of the bedroom and some well-picked machines.

The Fantasy Camp

Sometimes all you need is good taste and maybe a decent amount of disposable income. Whether by the power of the dollar or tall tales of the Japanese market, DJ Honda forged alliances with scores of New York rappers throughout the 1990s, resulting in albums that basically sound like all-star soundtracks to imaginary, purist revival flicks. By his second album, Honda had perfected his own, slightly polished take on gritty, East Coast Timberland rap — it's no mystery why the Beatnuts and their protégés feature on nearly half the cuts here. De La Soul's "Trouble in the Waters" is a masterpiece of grown folks rap, A.L., Cuban Link and JuJu show out on the Das EFX-inspired "On the Mic" and the Rawcotics' "For Every Day That Goes By" is one of the era's great, unheralded strugglers' anthems. But the highlight is the uplifting "Travellin' Man," featuring a jubilant Mos Def channeling Johnny Bristol one moment, looking forward to a future of traveling "around the world with a catalog of rap songs" the next.

The Pranksters

So..Hows Your Girl

Handsome Boy Modeling School

The first Handsome Boy record was co-produced by Prince Paul and Dan the Automator, ostensibly as a satire of upper-crust snobbishness. While this comes through in their bizarre, Get a Life-inspired interludes and skits set in a cutthroat modeling school, So...How's Your Girl? never quite coheres as a concept album. Still, a playful, whimsical energy runs through the record: Del tha Funkee Homosapien's effortlessly dizzying "Magnetizing," Grand Puba and Sadat X's casual, sauntering "Once Again," J-Live and Roisin Murphy of Moloko's standout "The Truth." DJs Shadow and Quest lend some texture to the patchwork braggadocio of "Holy Calamity" while "The Projects" captures the natural chemistry between Del and De La Soul. This was the highpoint of Paul and Automator's creative partnership, and they clearly had fun with some of these all-over-the-place sessions: Josh Haden of Spain, Paula Frazer of Tarnation, Sean Lennon and Money Mark jam with Father Guido Sarducci (of 1970s SNL fame) on "Sunshine" while "Megaton B-Boy 2000" pits El-P against Alec Empire, the result scabrous, loud and totally, eternally anti-handsome.

The Futurist

Tek-9 is the alter ego of Dego McFarlane, best known as one-half of British drum-n-bass pioneers 4hero. For Simply, McFarlane eschewed the meticulous, string-laden arrangements and dense riddims of his day job and returned to the straightforward, stripped-down sound of his youth. Collaborating with a host of no-frills U.S. and U.K. indie stalwarts, Simply imagines one version of a future boom-bap, a synth-heavy, jazz-inflected hip-hop with nary a sample in sight. "Bruklon" is "Big Beat" re-imagined as dueling robots, as "live poem ripper/vodka straight sipper" What?What? (Jean Grae) shouts out the fanatics from Philly to Samoa. "Interlude 2" sounds like a pixelated version of one of those whimsical Tribe interludes, while Capitol A and Rob Yancey's "Stand Clear" is old school mic-passing in zero-gravity. The formula works best on "2001," as an effortlessly cool Opio from Souls of Mischief "rolls loaded dice" and "blows hella hash smoke" over a squelchy, metal-on-metal head-nodder.

The Latter-Day Purists

Europe seems to be the only viable market for a certain kind of hook-free, meat-and-potatoes, purist rap. Over the past decade, Germany's Snowgoon duo of Det and DJ Illegal have cut a series of guest-stuffed albums that feel like wistful strolls through Fat Beats circa 1997. German Lugers was their breakthrough and it tends toward the orchestral, owing a heavy debt to the string swells, spooky woodwinds and concert hall acoustics of Alchemist and RZA. The challenge of projects like these is keeping everyone invested. Pumpkinhead spits a career's worth of punch-lines on the excellent "Snowgoons Sonata," and his challenger is left spilling his chromosomes everywhere. Wise Intelligent takes to "Teacher's Trademark" with a lively, nasty energy, eager to remind you why you should respect your elders: "Dirty Jerz in the house/Hit thirty birds on your couch/Put more than words in their mouth." MED and the Living Legends ride the awkward, Dilla-like stutter of "Black Woods," while flame-thrower Celph Titled threatens to "leave you black on both sides like we barbecuing Mos Def."