Late last year saw Max Graef and Glenn Astro collaborate once again on the ‘Magic Johnson’ EP. Graef and Astro enjoy a strong working relationship that sees them regularly join forces both musically and in the running of their label, Money $ex Records. However, the ‘Magic Johnson’ EP was a bit different. Rather than being self-released, or through one of their regular platforms such as Box Aus Holz or Tartelet Records, this EP was instead released on Coldcut’s legendary label Ninja Tune.
Ninja Tune celebrated its 25th year in 2015, and has hundreds of releases to its name, ranging from lo-fi auteur, Actress, to UK royalty, Mr. Scruff, via Kelis (whose 2014 album on the label, ‘Food‘, is surprisingly good). Essentially, Ninja Tune has become synonymous with leftfield music that has crossover appeal, and Graef and Astro’s appearance on the label was a stamp of approval for the sound they have been crafting over the past few years.
Graef and Astro, along with protégé IMYRMIND, have an approach to house music that takes more inspiration from 90s East Coast hip-hop superproducers DJ Premier and RZA than it does from Larry Heard or Frankie Knuckles. They cut and paste samples from old jazz and funk records over house beats, triggering them in a somewhat abrasive but undeniably engaging style that has led the young Berlin-based artists to the recognition that preceded their signing to Ninja Tune.
While Graef and Astro are based in Berlin, the emergence of this hip-hop-informed house music is not a locally restricted phenomenon. In London, collective and record label 22a are also making a name for themselves with their application of a jazz-informed aesthetic, similar to that of the notorious LA beats scene, to their experimental electronic music. Much of the music that is released on 22a is actually closer to what is traditionally called funk or jazz than hip-hop, but the artists who form the collective – such as Henry Wu, Mo Kolours, Tenderlonious and Al Dobson Jr. – are releasing house music on other labels such as Rhythm Section International, One-Handed Music and Yoruba Records.
The 22a palette is still painted vividly in broad strokes over the house music they put their hands to. This creates another parallel with Graef and Astro, who have been known to drop the tempo and make some outright hip-hop music, in which, of course, their sampling techniques can be easily and effectively deployed. What is clear with both these artists is that their approach to using the sampling techniques of hip-hop creates a strong and consistent aesthetic that has led to them establishing a unique sound.
What they have done has a historical precedent too, which is clearly illustrated in the output of the 3 Chairs, both as a group and as solo artists. The Detroit legends – Moodymann, Theo Parrish, Rick Wilhite, and later Marcellus Pittmann – have crafted realms of high quality house, techno and more traditional forms of funk and disco. What has made their music timeless is a commitment to their ‘raw’ Detroit aesthetic, which is as prevalent when Moodymann is creating sweaty 6am techno as it is when Theo Parrish is reimagining jazz funk.
The 3 Chairs sound is characterised as being rough-around-the-edges and it is informed primarily by the musical environment the artists were raised in – growing up on a diet of funk, soul and disco that was borne out of the strife of 20th century America. What we are seeing with these younger artists reinterpreting hip-hop through the lens of house music is the children of the late 80s and early 90s whose musical tastes have been formed in a hip-hop dominated musical environment.
It is also interesting that, unlike the Detroit artists, it is not geographically determined. This is indicative of the dissemination of music in the internet era that has meant that teenagers from Berlin or jazz fiends from London are musically informed by the largely American phenomenon of hip-hop, due to a long-held commitment to bumping it on their stereos. The inspiration these artists have taken therefore also illustrates the wider musical trend of all musical styles being fair game for appropriation in the internet era, leading to interesting possibilities about what further avenues may be explored through a house music framework.