It’s a relief when MC High Priest boasts that Anti-Pop Consortium are about to “awaken from that permanent nap”, as Fluorescent Black reboots like a mainframe computer after a power cut. Reunited after an “amicable dissolution” in 2003, the New York quartet is back for a fifth album of IQ-busting rhymes and glitchy breakbeats. Ever since locking heads at a poetry slam in 1997, MCs Beans, M Sayyid, High Priest and producer Earl Blaize have been methodically rewiring underground hip-hop. After signing to Warp Records, their futuristic vision culminated in Arrhythmia in 2002, before they imploded in the wake of Antipop Vs Matthew Shipp – a collaboration with the avant-garde pianist.
So it’s safe to say APC’s comeback isn’t a commercial cash-in (Jay-Z’s capital is safe on the hip-hop stock exchange), but Fluorescent Black isn’t as wilfully cryptic as previous releases. It even opens with a punky guitar racket on Lay Me Down, but any fears of a NERD-style reinvention dissipate along with the riffs and the beats kick in with the crew’s “paramilitary precision”. Lead single Volcano stomps along like a Timbaland-does-dubstep block party, and New Jack Exterminator is peppered with hyperactive scratching – there are plenty of hooks to hold up the record’s cerebral experiments.
Beans, Priest and Sayyid may be free-association masterminds and absurdist poets, but APC’s production has always been more dynamic than a 2D crackly backing track. Anyone at their Whelan’s show in May this year witnessed a hands-on tangle of laptops, synths, drum machines, samplers and pads, with the four transforming into a symbiotic beat machine. APC’s rhymes don’t hover above the beat – they’re embedded in a metallic mesh of scattershot drums, molten bass and electronic fizz.
As on the Arrhythmia skit Tron Man Speaks, the subject of the circuit-flesh interface is once again invoked on Fluorescent Black. The Solution is a dystopian addendum to Kraftwerk’s romanticised Man-Machine thesis: “Bionic is the solution… enhancements will be permanent.” The misfiring diodes and sine wave bass on End Game has Beans evolving into an artificial intelligence, “designing programming language”.
In this hip-hop virtual reality, ’80s electro pioneers share a pedestal with the heavily mined soul and funk breaks of the ’70s. APC are on the less-trodden trail blazed by the likes of Man Parrish, Jonzun Crew and Afrika Bambaataa – note the vocodered vocals, industrial bass and whiplash snare hits on tracks like The Solution and Superunfrontable. Snarly hardcore rave synths also ooze out of C Thru U and Dragunov, another homage to the New Yorkers’ dance music lineage.
But it’s the otherworldly sonic experiments that set APC apart. In the past they’ve used ping-pong balls, roaring elephants and opera singers to bypass melodies. This time we get a booming kettle drum onslaught on the appropriately-titled Timpani, arcade shoot-em-up laser beams on Capricorn One, and the cold mechanical hum of Apparently sounds like a paranoid wander through the ship in Alien.
On a lighter note, their new Big Dada label mate Roots Manuva appears in a puff of smoke to add his trademark stoned flow on the sleek techno number NY to Tokyo, rapping about “digital mayhem, digital warfare, reclaiming the art form”. It has a slight air of a phone-in caper, but there’s enough complementary wordplay to whet the appetite – a full-on APC vs Manuva collaboration is a mouth-watering prospect.
As on the apocalyptic Human Shield before, APC once again go out in a hail of bullets on the closing track. Flourescent Black’s self-titled final chapter flips over the cliched rap tropes of street talk and gangsta posturing when Beans boasts: “The power of a pen turned a verb into a killer.” The track builds into a claustrophobic mix of organs, Spectrum computer bleeps and a swirling hive of virtual insect chattering, as the three MCs get lost “in the body of the beats”. When Priest announces: “It’s the new mathematics,” it feels like Anti-Pop Consortium really are the ones drafting a new hip-hop Blueprint – no matter what Jay-Z thinks.
Originally appeared in state.ie