Cassette City, the appropriately titled second album from Philadelphia-based sonic auteur Lushlife, has not only breathed new life into hip-hop, returning it to its former glories after a prolonged period of stasis and creative indulgence, but has also harnessed hip-hop’s original spirit of wanderlust and connected it to a futuristic vision of what it could, should and would be.
“I wanted to explore different sonics,” admits the man behind the beguiling Lushlife moniker, Raj Haldar, “To take hip-hop to different places. The major conceptual basis was classic hip-hop – I wanted that sentiment – but I also wanted a record imbued with the spirit of indie experimentation, as well as pop accessibility.”
And boy has he achieved that. This ambitious long-player bristles with intent. It’s short, sharp, and superbly to the point – there’s no meandering across 20 mind-numbing tracks here. The beats are crisp and taut – exactly what you’d expect from someone who has devoured classic ‘90s hip-hop – while the stunning arrangements echo the work of Raj’s other great influences: the otherworldly production of guys like Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, and David Axelrod.
Indeed, as befits someone who first shot to fame with West Sounds, an unforgettable melding of Kanye West’s The College Dropout and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the way these two aesthetics collide and merge is fascinating. As Raj suggests, sometimes it’s hard to know where the samples end and the instrumentation begins, such is the blurring of these two worlds.
But then, hip-hop in its purest form has always been defined by musical collage. Before blueprints were drawn and battle lines had been laid down, hip-hop, as Grandmaster Flash once memorably described it, was whatever you could get your hands on. From Led Zeppelin to Minnie Ripperton, Kraftwerk, and Michael Jackson, iconic sounds from across the musical spectrum came together to create those first unforgettable records. In that sense, hip-hop has always been the perfect post-modern art-form – a blank canvas upon which to sketch out new musical dreams. Cassette City is the summation of this theorising.
“Hip hop is the perfect platform for me,” accepts Raj, “because at its core it can be anything. I had an epiphany before making this record. I used to assume that if I wanted to record mandolin, synths, and glockenspiel then I wouldn’t be making a hip-hop record. But then I realised it was hip-hop. It was that definitions had gotten in the way.”
Emboldened by his epiphany, Raj threw himself into what would become Cassette City. In the autumn of 2007, he began by mapping out the album. “In essence I wanted to make a rap record with chamber-pop undertones,” he explains. “I don’t know whether I actually articulated that to myself, but I definitely wanted it subliminally.”
Consequently, what you have in your hands is hip-hop reimagined as a true musical melting pot. Inspired by Jay Dilla as much as The Association, Cassette City is a beat-based counter-balance to the psychedelic world of New Weird America – of Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear et al. It is a companion piece to the likes of Koushik and Manitoba, and in many ways is the errant child of hip hop’s great Daisy Age.
In keeping with Lushlife’s grand vision, and typical of Raj’s formal musical background (13 years of classical piano training and seven years of jazz drumming), Cassette City had to be the sole work of one individual – the beats, the samples, the instrumentation, the rapping is all Raj. Guests do appear – Ariel Pink, Camp Lo, Elzhi, and Greg Saunier of Deerhoof– but these are in place to add colour, not dilute the affair.
It was, as Raj admits, an arduous process. “It took a long time because I approached it in the manner and method of a singer-songwriter. Normally hip-hop albums are a collaborative affair, but I wanted this record to be a clear expression of me; from the ground up.” Even choosing the title was painful.
“Everything has been tough – I’ve never put so much pressure on myself,” he laughs, looking back. “The title was no exception. In the end I settled upon Cassette City because it felt right viscerally. The title is representative of my teenage years, spent buying mix-tapes and staying up late to record hip-hop radio shows. I wanted to evoke that time in my life when I was a teenager with a backpack full of cassette tapes.”
In short, Cassette City, from the opening track Innocence (Pete Rock meets the baroque chamber-pop of Spirit) and the incendiary soulful strut of the first single Another Word for Paradise, to the jump-up party sounds of In Soft Focus by way of the untainted melodicism of The Songbird Athletic, is nothing short of a minor triumph.