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Artist: Express Rising

Album: Express Rising

Label: Memphix

Review date: Aug. 22, 2003

Cloaked in limited-edition vinyl and record-crate reverence, the Memphix Records mystique has been accruing an underground entourage of funk aficionados for the past four years. Centered in Memphis, Tennessee, this tight-lipped DJ collective exists in an eternal time lag, trapped between the day a forgotten 45 slipped into the sleeve of obscurity and the moment they pray to pull it back out. Like paleontologists sifting through the Sahara, their quest to uncover history’s neglected nexus between the now and the then is never-ending and largely reliant on a combination of resiliency and dumb luck, only instead of sand dunes, these loop diggas dig through dusty boxes, soulful bounties buried unbeknownst in basements across the country. 45 RPM marks the spot.

Of course, Memphix isn’t going alone. Vinyl fetish is a worldwide obsession and one that the crew in question has used to their advantage since Day 1. Memphis DJs Chad Weekley and Luke Sexton opened shop in June 1999, and their entire four-year output consists of six instrumental hip hop 7”s, each restricted to 500 copies, and last year’s infamous Chains + Black Exhaust CD compilation of vintage Black music, stealthily released on the fictitious Jones Records to avoid any potential copyright infringement lawsuits. Needless to say, the limited pressings sold out quickly and the Memphix buzz was growing with each release.

The third, and most prolific member of Memphix is Chicago turntablist Dante Carfagna. A relative unknown outside DJ circles, Carfagna personifies the Funk 45 phenomenon – a modern day Spider Harrison to DJ Shadow’s James Brown – and those who have dug deep enough already know that he’s released some of the sweetest instrumental hip hop over the past five years. Carfagna cut his teeth back in 1992, scratching and producing on a few Professor Griff solo albums after the outspoken Minister of Information was booted from Public Enemy in 1989. Carfagna’s love for long forgotten funk led him to befriend Josh Davis, with whom he blew minds at Brainfreeze in 2000, and then later during the Product Placement tour.

While the mainstream press has spotlighted Shadow ever since he dropped Endtroducing in 1996, and deservedly so, Carfagna remains the pride of insiders, like readers of Wax Poetic, a Brooklyn-based beat magazine of which Carfagna is a contributing editor, and those fortunate enough to hear him spin the first Wednesday of each month at Danny’s in Chicago. Precious little material was released for public consumption – just a few of the aforementioned Memphix 7”s – as Carfagna spent the majority of his time digging around in crates with his fans. Carfagna spent so much time discovering lost classics that he’s now considered among the most knowledgeable in the field, along with Davis and Eothan "Egon" Alapatt, who assembled and released the heralded The Funky 16 Corners compilation on his own Stones Throw imprint. Carfagna is currently working in cahoots with Davis to compile a comprehensive discography of 45’s from 1965-75.

No word on when the book will be completed, but Carfagna’s other long-term project, his debut full-length for Memphix, has finally reached fruition. Under the moniker Express Rising, Carfagna’s self-titled foray into the world of 12”s (and compact discs!) is an expertly crafted, understated exercise in hip hop semantics. Like its creator, the album thrives on subtlety, patience, and an assortment of mean breaks.

Express Rising’s basic modus operandi consists of graceful, iridescent organ loops and extended drum breaks, the latter possibly lifted from his vast collection of 45’s. Comparisons to DJ Shadow are unavoidable, but while Davis’ songs often spiral out of control, Carfagna prefers to let the needle glide unfettered along the groove. Quaaludal tangents provide flavor, but never at the expense of mood. At their blandest, the beats are soporific, but at their best, they can be absolutely hypnotizing.

Much of Express Rising rings with melancholy, or at the very least, nostalgia. To say Carfagna is a student of the game is an understatement, and his lonesome piano on “Keys to Be” and languid procession on “Capsize” reveal a man lost in admiration of those who’ve come before. One of the wonders of instrumental hip hop is its ability to usurp machismo’s methodology and turn it into a venue for sensitivity and reflection. In that vein, portions of Express Rising are downright overwhelming. “Cardinal, Fly How?” is one such occasion.

While the BPMs never escalate past 90, Carfagna does cut a few rugs on Express Rising. “Comfortable With Failure” and “Dead Mall” ride funky backbeats that toy with syncopation before returning to the ‘one’ without fail. “Neighborhood (Gentrified)” is a remix of the album’s opener, complete with an Indian mode and the meanest break on the album – a blissful syncopated world of bass drum, snare and high-hat that thankfully continues into the ether long after accompanying loops have faded away.

Express Rising’s relative sedateness is a significant departure from the electric funk of Chains’ favorites like “I Believe I Found Myself Today” or “Fuck the Police”, but this shift in dynamics and rhetoric only furthers Memphix’s mercurial mystique. No longer just notorious, the Memphix crew have demonstrated with Express Rising they can take also solace in serenity.

***Memphix records can be tough to track down. Turntable Lab (www.turntablelab.com) is one place that keeps them well-stocked. Early copies of the LP feature a free limited-edition 7" single with two exclusive tracks that are not on the LP and only available through TLAB.***

By Otis Hart

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