Artist: Shaggy Manatee
Album: In Between
Label: Quake Trap
Rating: 7 / 10
Sometimes I find myself studying the credits of indie releases or reading press kits listing dozens of names I’m completely unfamiliar with, and I’m left wondering: Who are these people? Where do they come from? Do I really have to get acquainted with them? All of ’em? Can’t there be just one guy I at least heard of before? With “In Between” it became quickly evident that despite the number of guest vocalists, my undivided attention should go to the host, producer Shaggy Manatee.
A founder of Pancake Circus (which I guess is some kind of musical collective and not a food franchise), Shaggy Manatee according to his bio ‘has worked with countless artists recording and producing an ecclectic collection of sound, from Electro-fried Gangsta Rap to Melancholy Breakbeat to Hybrid Bay Hop to Experimental Pop.’ Which are exactly the terms I would have come up with to describe this CD. Well, maybe not, but fact is that if you threw a lexicon full of musical sub-genres and melodical adjectives at Shaggy Manatee, more than a few would stick. In Pancake Circus he held the position of ‘Assault Coordinator,’ and that’s a fairly apt description of what he does on his solo debut.
The majority of the beats on ‘In Between’ revolve around forward-rushing drums. They’re encircled by layers of varying thickness, processed sounds, stutter effects, analog atmospheres, deep undercurrents of bass and moody instrumentation. Shaggy continuously mends his broken beats, to the effect that his music is permeable on the inside and close-ranked on the outside, making seem whole what in a less skilled producer’s hands would amount to nothing but a heap of noise. ‘Good and the Bad’ is simply magnificent, with menacing bass waves rolling in, breaking against a broken beat, retreating and leaving a bare, naked drum framework, feeble whimpers and melancholic pianos, until the waves come rolling in again, etc. It’s just a great story in itself, and one that can’t really be retold with words.
Shaggy Manatee is partial to punching drums, which wisely enough often are kept to kick away in the background. The drum programming can alternate throughout a track, but the groove is always kept, sometimes with the help of barely audible rhythm tracks, sometimes with nothing but an electrically charged flickering. The lower frequencies are attended to with equal dedication. In fact, the contrast between high and low frequencies might be Shaggy Manatee’s prime motive. Figurately speaking, he pays particular attention to the basement and the roof, resulting in tracks that may not always be perfectly habitable but that certainly look complete.
The inhabitants who have to feel at home on these tracks are numerous – B-Child, Opt Rhyme, Tenderizer, Swan, Zion, Macromantics, Paul Pena, Skillit, Dopestyle, Non-Repro, Egg White, Nalej, Katastrophe and every now and then even Shaggy himself. The rappers tend to fit the leftfield lyricist profile. Some, like Tenderizer (who dominates the proudly thumping ‘Born to Die’), are a welcome addition to the exotic soundscape, others, such as Egg White (or maybe it’s Nalej who’s also on ‘Don’t Let Go of the Chaos,’ but it should be quite obvious with a name like Egg White), will have trouble satisfying anyone with only minimal standards.
With tracks rarely reaching the 3-minute mark and single rap verses, it’s hard to reach a final verdict on this album’s lyrical content and vocal performances. Lord knows why hip-hoppers always have to raid their answering machines for messages and think they have to let the whole world get to hear their grumpy buddy talk unintelligible smack. Quick-tongued Australian amazon Macromantics proves to be the only showstopper (‘Breathe’) on this project. Try to make sense of the words out of the music’s context, and you may realize that ‘Hamptons’ (featuring Zion of Zion I and B-Child) is a parody, but B-Child’s similary themed ‘Benjamin’ will still leave you clueless. With so few definites, you’ll cling on to Opt Rhyme’s political musings over the breezy groove of ‘Tell Me Im Wrong’ or Swan’s subtle singing over the breakbeat storm that is ‘Fighting For.’
Somewhere “In Between” hits a point where dullness sets in, the tracks increasingly lacking the panache of the first third. Still, even the brief beat sketches are carefully crafted, and Shaggy Manatee manages to create recognizable tracks that at the same time are subject to constant change. That’s a rare feat among indie producers who either milk their trademark sound or lack any characteristics. Shaggy’s tracks are not always tangible, sometimes dangling up in the air, but they’re always well balanced and well timed. Maybe it’s because soul oscillates in their every fibre. “In Between” is experimental hip-hop and quite surprisingly there’s only one conclusion to make about Shaggy’s creation: It’s alive!