Tuesday, February 2, 2010

... and with TZU too - hip hop with a mission

While jazz has been a little under-represented on this blog, hip hop has, I am ashamed to admit, been neglected altogether. And while hip hop has flourished most famously in the black ghettos of New York, where its roots are planted firmly in the ground of gangs and streets, and where it grows out of the crevices that Miles Davis left when he created On the Corner (see yesterday), my nephew Scott tells me that some of the very best hip hop is now being bred right here in Australia.

Melbourne-based TZU seems to find the balance between party-time fun and something very close to a social conscience, not something I expected to find in hip hop, and so I was thrilled to at last kick start my collection with their 2008 album, Computer Love.

While Computer Love abounds with hip hop’s rhythmic, rhymed vocals, spoken much more than sung, TZU add keyboards, guitars and even horns and an organ, to the more traditional line up of looped instrumentals and beats. The result is an energetic, vibrant sound, almost spilling over to the prog-rock camp at times. Listen, for example, to ‘Step with the pressure’, where the groove of the music is swept up by orchestral strings, giving you a hint of what a hip hop concerto might sound like, if anyone were ever to write one; or to the dreamy computerised harmonies in the chorus lines of the title track, mixed in with what almost sounds like electronic bagpipes, as if this was the love child of a ménage-a-trois between Bill Gates, the Beach Boys and a Scottish Highland band; or to the way the vocals of ‘Number One’ whirl and whoop around you, swirling you into the music’s frenzy and fun, to words that challenge you to break away from the mainstream and be who you really are.

But the texture of the sound is not the only hallowed hip hop tradition challenged by TZU. Even the usually untouched 4/4 square beat is thrown to the winds here, like on the apocalyptic ‘All fall down’ where, in the middle of things, all rhythms and pulses come to a deathly halt, leaving you holding your breath, wondering what the music is going to do next. But it rises from its own ashes, tempered and tamed, and dances for another moment or two, with chanting vocals and spectral electronics, like haunted world music.

And the issues confronted on Computer Love, as well as giving the obligatory finger to the establishment and to middle-class banality on ‘Mondays’ and celebrating the urge to escape from it all, and just party, on ‘Take it easy’, are often unusually heavy for a hip hop album – like a woman trapped in domestic violence in ‘Get up’, or friends trapped in drug addiction in ‘Burning up’.

Computer Love is full of life and energy and an airiness that is buoyant and invigorating. Its music is clever, catchy, radiating colours that, even in its more serious moments, make it a joy to listen to. Even with all its sophistication and polish, this music is the music of the streets – maybe neater, more tidily paved streets than those of New York’s ghettos, but still nonetheless troubled by poverty, violence and alienation. Computer Love brings some light, and a message, to those streets that is as needed as it is welcomed.

Thanks, as always, to Scott for being such a great musical street directory.

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