Don’t expect these thoughts about music production to be current, since Untimely Meditations is the opposite of music journalism. The goal of these posts is to write about music in a way that is beneficial to those of us who make music, not for the Tumblrati. Don’t expect Pitchforkian adjectives (WTF does “hotly tipped” mean?) or descriptions of music solely by comparison to other music (“Sounds like SBTRKT meets MSTRKRFT by way of Pat Benatar”) Strident opinions included.
To be honest, I was not entirely in love with Damu’s music when I first heard it. A lot of the work on his first EP sounds like a fairly paint-by-numbers “bass music” exercise. You’ve got square-wave pads with rhythmic filtering, squiggly, unquantized arpeggios and pitch-shifted 90’s R&B vocals. Everything is “done right”, but the sum of the parts is just, well, cool parts. With his album, Unity, though, Damu has overcome some of this and released some really next level work.
Of all the sins of mediocre bass music, chopped and shifted vocals are the most vile. Post-CMYK, every bass producer decided that they needed to jam a 2 second Aaliyah sample into their track, the winkier, the better. (Full disclosure, I once pitch-shifted a Third Eye Blind sample in an attempt to out-ironic myself. People got hurt.) In and of itself, I don’t mind this. When it is done well, it is sublime. And like many things in contemporary electronic music, it has already been done better. Compare Damu’s chopped Erykah Badu vocals on his track Karolina’s Magic J to this El-Tuff track from the first coming of UK Garage and tell me which is better. There’s a right answer.
Damu–Karolina’s Magic J
El Tuff–Drive Me Crazy
The difference between these two is that Damu’s vocals are chopped and shifted without any seeming heed to the song as a whole. And I understand why. As someone who has chopped and pitch shifted his share of vocals, I have to say: It’s really hard to do right. You are trying to repurpose someone else’s work and weave it into your own work seamlessly. And while this is basically THE problem of sample-based music, pitch-shifted vocals are an extreme case, since they are so out front and the ways to mess them up tonally are many.
Many mistakes that arise from this technique arise because producers treat these pitch-shifted vocals like a part of the percussion. They feel like their main function is rhythmic, so scales and melody be damned. This is a mistake. Unfortunately, vocals are, by nature, melodic. And if you don’t watch out, you’re going to have the melody of your pitch shifted vocals clashing with your pads, your leads, etc. and pretty soon you’ll have a hot mess.
Damu’s seems to have learned this lesson. Just look at the difference between a track like Karolinas Magic J, which is perfunctory bass music in the extreme, and tracks like Breathless and After Indigo. Just listen to how much more integrated the vocals are in the latter tracks. Nothing sounds tacked-on or perfunctory. It is hard to even imagine the track without this vocal snippets. This is music to be proud
Damu clearly also has an ear for melody that is often sorely lacking in this genre where rhythm is king. And this attention to melody is what differentiates the good producers from the great. But Damu’s melodic sense is, to me, a work in progress. I say that because, as his work has become more refined, it also slips dangerously into the saccharine (take, for example, his track L.O.V.E., which could be in a chewing gum commercial). This is a natural danger of embracing melody. The next phase is to take these melodic ideas and whittle them down until only the necessary elements remain.
Given Damu’s quick progression, though, I have no doubt that he’ll be able to pull this off with panache worthy of the hype that’s been given him.