x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Partners in rhyme

Left-field mash-ups of hip-hop with other musical styles are generating buzz for their collaborative creators.

For many casual listeners, the modern A-list rap scene is very much a no-go area: misogynistic, money-obsessed and musically derivative. To the left of the mainstream, however, gifted personnel are working overtime to further hip-hop's evolution - and giving the results away free of charge. The turntable wizards Eric San and Dylan Frombach, for example, met while DJing on a Beastie Boys tour 11 years ago - under the aliases Kid Koala and Dynomite D - but took another six years to unite on a project. It's called The Slew and is currently creating the biggest buzz of their careers. Not that they were expecting it.

"With Dylan and me, everything starts with a dare," muses San. "We said: 'We should make that record that all our skater friends would dig: heavy, hand-cut rock' - something that would speak to the Black Sabbath and Public Enemy fans." Hip-hop and rock have crossed paths on numerous occasions, from Ice T's thrash-metal outfit Bodycount to Jay-Z's more accessible collaborations with Linkin Park, Chris Martin and Rick Rubin. The Slew are "scratch-rock" rather than rap-rock, though: mostly instrumental, with the duo playing live guitar and keyboard riffs, recording them on to vinyl then cutting them up via the turntables. If Hendrix had been a scratch DJ, this is how he would have sounded.

The project looked set to be a film score at one point, but that floundered, and it took a chance meeting to really get things moving. Outside a venue in his hometown of Montreal, San bumped into the drummer Myles Heskett and the bassist Chris Ross, then of the Australian hard rockers Wolfmother. "They said: 'Do you know if there's a good place to eat around here?' and I said: 'No, but there's a great vintage keyboard shop,' and we were fast friends after that. So they checked out my studio and I played them the work in progress. Then when we'd bump into each other at festivals they'd be like 'what's up with the Slew record?' They were actually more concerned with it than Dylan and I."

The DJs finally finished the album earlier this year, then decided to tour it, and persuaded the now ex-Wolfmother rhythm section to form a band. While they worked out the logistics of this live rock/turntable set-up, however, Slew tracks began to leak across the internet. Undaunted, San and Frombach decided to post the full album online, as an advance taster for concertgoers, and it had the desired effect. The hugely successful shows caused "a mosh pit in every city", laughs the incredulous DJ, and the curious quartet have booked a European jaunt for 2010. The album is also receiving an official release. "It's funny, we didn't know if we'd all hate each other," says San. "But by the third day of rehearsal, there was already talk of doing another album together."

Watch this space. As the Slew bus rumbled around the US, a couple of rap-rock pioneers were unwittingly contributing to another intriguing crossover project. Koala's friend Dan the Automator - who progressed from quirky hip-hop beats to producing the latest Kasabian album - and Jay-Z both feature on Hindustani Gangster, the work of a mysterious production crew called Music Without Borders. Obsessive fans of the Ridley Scott movie American Gangster and Jay-Z's soundtrack, the New York-based collective detected a thematic link with several 1970s Bollywood movies and headed into the studio to do a quick bootleg mash-up. If the intention had been to just paste the rapper's rhymes over some old Bollywood hooks, however, things clearly went slightly awry.

Six months on, they emerged with a full album rework, including eight new productions, plus several mash-ups based on previous beats by Dan and other notable producers. Then they posted it as a free download. Madness? Well, it is already proving a useful promotional tool, with the UK's influential Radio One playing numerous tracks, and even Jay-Z's Roc4life website giving it the thumbs-up. Trying to license such a project would have been an almighty headache, of course, and a useful precedent had been set by the Grey Album, a bootleg Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up that didn't do its creator, Danger Mouse, any harm. He subsequently became one of the most sought-after producers around.

Spending countless hours on a hobby project can prove a good career move then, as Koala is discovering too. Soundtrack supervisors and some "big name" bands have begun enquiring about the Slew treatment. "That's not why you do it, though," concludes the DJ. "If we wanted to make money, we'd probably go into, like, textiles or something." You can't beat quality material.