Finding a hip-hop identity


By Richard Shirk - The Daily Iowan
Published: Friday, April 16, 2004
A breakthrough for Iowa City hip-hop, 85 Decibel Monks - the latest from scene fixture Tack-Fu - is as much a treatise on locality as it is a statement of the role that the digital gear and Internet technology can play in the artistic process.

Recorded gradually since the Monks dropped the scattershot beats and rhymes of 2000's Chained Reaction, 85 Decibel Monks - the third release masterminded by Tack-Fu (a.k.a. Tim Tack behind the production-team banner) - is a wide arc of voices, textures, and moods that not only reflects where the music springs from but lays out the larger picture of finding artistic identity in the middle of Iowa.

"It's like the buffering zone," said Tack, looking out the window of the Deadwood during an interview Sunday night. "We are the crossroads, the middle of the street ... we can take the best bits of the South and the West and the East and the North, or, shit, we're open to stuff overseas," he said when asked what makes Midwest hip-hop distinct. "If you can take all these influences and get your own little sound, your own little niche, and your own kind of vibe out of it all, I think that's what people are looking for."

This niche is something Tack has been honing in on since first immersing himself in four-track home recording after NCAA guidelines deemed him ineligible for Hawkeye basketball in 1996. Evolving from hissy lo-fi beats to top-end production, the sounds and influences batted around on any release are just as likely to be samples of Detroit techno as they are reinvented scratchy jazz riffs from a yard-sale LP - a diversity compounded on 85 Decibel Monks with the input from the other monks making up the production team (most notably Jethro from the Bad Fathers and the Chaircrusher).

"The lovely thing about [hip-hop] is the gray areas," he said. "We can take a whole orchestra, we can take strings, or add jazz to it if we want to, we can add guitar, you can have a harp ... if it sounds good, bring in any instrument that needs to be done over the beat, bring it in."

Just as central to the rhymes and beats of 85 Decibel Monks is an ethos that relies on maintaining an active and interested community of artists as well as requiring a constructive cohesiveness among stylistically diverse producers, musicians, and emcees. As part of the ongoing "Imagine Iowa's Future" tour - a public discussion focussing on the economic, educational, agricultural, and technological future of the state - Tack has addressed this issue by using his collaborative and technology-aided work with the Monks as an example.

Sharing works in progress over the Internet, much of the collaboration with producers, emcees (including Blueprint from Soul Position, Philadelphia-based rapper Braille) and DJs (Russia's DJ Vadim) was tracked without any communication other than the e-mail feedback.

85 Decibel Monks is an album as soulful and warm-sounding as it is clockwork-like intricate. The instrumentals (which make up roughly half the album) range anywhere from glitched-out nervous ticks (Tack-Fu and Jason Key produced "Key Player") to low-end heavy grooves ("Hot Water For Tea") to moody canvases ("Mongolian Fire").

The emceed tracks are just as diverse. "Enter Dependents" (featuring Manchild, Lord 360, and Gov. Auto Funkstar) is staccato rhymes over a multilayered, funked-out groove, while "Lie Down Beside You" (featuring Rachel Kann) is breathy slam-poetry that plays out over sparse percussion and a cello pulse. 85 Decibel Monks is a synergistic, homespun album with national clout and an attitude on par with any of the acts whom the Monks have found themselves supporting over the years.

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