Roots Manuva - "Witness (1 Hope)" (Well Deep: Ten Years of Big Dada Recordings)
Big Dada is a rap label. It holds ties to Ninja Tune and Anticon. Like those groups (particularly the latter), Big Dada artists tend to warp conventions while taking hip hop, as an artform and culture, very, very, very seriously.
Emphasis on ‘tend to.’ Well Deep, Big Dada’s 10th anniversary collection, showcases a few artists who, skills aside, are ultimately having a good time with this shit. The label’s best known product is probably the East Coast club phenom Spank Rock (represented here by a stuttering remix of “Sweet Talk;” oddly, there’s nothing taken directly from his cheeky 2006 breakthrough album YoYoYoYoYo), He raps inventively over some weird-ass beats, but he’s famous for his party-hearty nihilism and relentless self-parody. Wiley is British, but he works with Spank’s DJ and adopts a similar persona and style. And although TY has been on the scene a bit longer, his sex raps, at once boastful and tender, make him pretty much a U.K. LL Cool J. And that’s fine. Hip hop (at least some hip hop) is supposed to be sexy and fun. That’s the only kind of hip hop some people can handle.
But Big Dada’s history, especially its early history, is written by arty backpackers, and they’re repped here generously. Big Dada’s most prohibitively high-concept fare involves the imaginary feud between the Infesticons (rough, rugged and philosophically correct defenders of hip hop’s artistic glory) and the Majesticons (preening, slang-dropping, ethically bankrupt P-Diddy stand-ins). It’s a cartoon serial, it’s fun when not taken too seriously, and some of the music is rather good. (I’m thinking of one Infesticons anthem that isn’t included here – snap!) But why the world needed a Majesticons album, or how “Fader Party” landed on this collection (take a shot when you hear the word “trife”) must be chalked up to excessive free time. Tolkein spent decades visualizing Mordor, but few rappers draw their own ephemeral bad guys as carefully.
Big Dada put out British and even French MCs a few years before they were fashionable, Some Americans will always assume that anything said in a British accent is incorrigibly clever, most of these rappers are closer to the Streets than Dizzie Rascal (e.g., more smart than excited, which will limit a rapper’s appeal). Roots Manuva is dope, though, particularly over the propulsive video arcade funk of “Witness (1 Hope),” Big Dada’s finest four minutes.
This anthology hits most of the highlights, and it’s probably the best way to appreciate Big Dada. It takes a certain kind of open mind to really dig on the indie pathos of cLOUDDEAD (remixed by Boards of Canada or not), but if that’s not for you, Diplo, Busdriver, New Flesh and MF Doom are on the way. As long as this stuff is heard in its broadest context, it’s all at least interesting.