Happy 15th Anniversary to Edan’s official debut album Primitive Plus, originally released March 19, 2002.
During a pivotal scene in the oft-debated Oscar-winning film La La Land, Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling) asks his estranged friend Keith (John Legend) for an opportunity to play in his mainstream jazz group. The conflict is that while Sebastian is a strict jazz purist, Keith’s group incorporates elements of popular music into its repertoire.
“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist?” Keith asks. “You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”
I seriously doubt that writer/director Damien Chazelle had hip-hop music in mind when he wrote that scene, but there has been a similar rift in the music going all the way back to “Rapper’s Delight.” Artists, critics, and fans alike have long struggled over how hip-hop should develop as it has gained broader acceptance throughout the world. Finding a way to honor hip-hop’s roots while attempting to move it forward has long been a fundamental challenge.
Edan Portnoy a.k.a. Edan has made his career creating music that honors hip-hop’s deepest roots while still integrating elements that he hopes will push the sound forward. During the late ‘90s, the Rockville, MD resident attended Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music, originally with the intention of playing guitar. He soon dropped out and dedicated his time to creating hip-hop, becoming a part of the thriving Boston hip-hop scene of the late ’90s, a scene that produced such artists as Mr. Lif, 7L & Esoteric, Akrobatik, Insight, and Porn Theater Ushers. In 1999, he unveiled his first album, Artchitecture, independently, burning the project directly onto CDRs. But he really came into his own a few years later, when he released his official debut album, Primitive Plus. As the album’s liner notes read: “’Primitive’ meaning the past… ‘Plus’ meaning the future. Put them together and there you are.”
Edan operates as a “One Man Arsenal” on Primitive Plus: he raps, produces the vast majority of the beats, handles all the scratches, and mixes and masters the tracks himself. He doesn’t shy away from his reverence for hip-hop’s old school and its pioneers, particularly the ’80s and early ’90s sound. He makes no secret that he draws heavy influences from luminaries like Big Daddy Kane and Kool Keith, as well as lesser-known greats like T La Rock, Tragedy, and King of Chill. He steps to the mic as a proud 21-year-old who knows all of the words to Spoonie G’s “Love Rap.” However, he is stylistically able to add his own characters to his lyrics, so the album feels like genuine tribute rather than aping what has come before. On the production side, he creates an old school aesthetic, relying on crispy drums and dusty samples, while manipulating the sound and feel of the tracks to make them feel futuristic when necessary.
Much of Primitive Plus is a lyrical and stylistic demonstration, without much in the way of deep meaning. Tracks like “Mic Manipulator,” “Humble Magnificent,” and both versions of “Syllable Practice” (Primitive Plus includes both an album version and a 12” version) are intricate exercises in vocabulary, cadence, and precise rhyme patterns. The lead-off track, the aptly-named “One Man Arsenal,” functions as an exhibition of Edan’s expertise in rhyming, beat-making, and scratching. The track draws liberally from “Crushin’ ’Em” by the TDS Mob, one of the first Boston-based hip-hop crews. The song is pure musical and lyrical braggadocio, as Edan raps: “Your Trolleys can take you to the various parts of town / But you'll never reach the section of the brain that starts the sound / That is heard consequently, cons are sequentially / Mentally broken into fluids I be quenching the / Thirst for rehearsal, adverb reversal, adverse reverberation / Plus placement on Earlobe Avenue / Haven’t you heard, nerd? / The one-man band plans scams with preferred words.”
The album’s title track is an excellent example of Edan’s innovative ability to blend the old and new. The track is a solo duet (a la the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Gimme the Loot”), as he alternates every two bars with a higher-pitched version of himself. The beat is made up of samples of different beat-boxes, with the sample switching up every eight bars. As he raps, he uses the last word of every two-bar measure and the first word of the next measure: “Estimate the best a tape has ever sounded, rounded to the nearest metaphor / My equal sign is way ahead of yours / Yours truly forcefully scorched bullies, thoughtfully brought goodies / To the batter's box to form a paradox / My paradox will lead to a paragon, you should not compare Edan / To a pitch hitter, call me trendsetter / A trendsetter with a vendetta with a pen next to text extra scorching / Like Jimmy at the organ.”
“Ultra ’88 (Tribute)” is Edan’s dedication to the Ultramagnetic MC’s, the group that essentially invented experimental hip-hop. Edan does his best Kool Keith impression over a track that sounds like it could have been lifted from the sessions for Ultra’s classic 1988 debut LP Critical Beatdown. Like Keith, he peppers his lyrics with weird imagery while using a conversational flow: “Step to the club, see my face on the elevator / Go to the kitchen, I'm hiding in your refrigerator / Bombing your brain, and cold step on the detonator / A bird with a mustache, two-headed alligator / Beautiful donkeys and a dog with no eyes / Grabbing the mic, stage covered in fruit flies.”
Primitive Plus also showcases Edan’s deep and abiding love for “Fast Rap” aka hip-hop songs released between ’87 and ’92 that clock in at around 110 BPMs or more. “Migraine (Dust Mix),” a re-recording of a track from Artchitecture, is his tribute to songs like Eric B. & Rakim’s “Lyrics of Fury.” The track features lightning-fast drums, jagged guitar stabs and piercing vocal samples, as Edan goes for broke on the mic, putting together complex and interlocking rhyme schemes at a rapid rate: “MCs are dog shit, terrible /I walk with bearable flows that evolve into hysterical throws of rage / I chose a page that arose from the olden days / And put your face in a molten glaze / Behold the maze, it is a result of phrases / Ultimatums are made when the culture stays / In phases that keep vultures paid / Amazing cultivations leave ’em dazed and ultra-wasted / I open up my vault of statements.”
Edan attacks the track “Rapperfection” in a similar manner, but this time with assistance from Boston homie Mr. Lif. Here the two rap over a swiftly-paced, yet fuzzy and heavily distorted drum track and horn sample, turning in a pair of ruthless verses. While Edan uses his to demonstrate his verbal dexterity once again, Lif paints a picture of hip-hop culture being under assault by a cadre of wack rappers bent on its destruction. Lif and Edan set a trap for the crew of 100 treasonous sucker emcees at the club and destroy them all with the force of their sound.
Throughout Primitive Plus, Edan displays the ability to take recognizable samples and loops and breathe new life into them. For example, “You Suck” is built around a chopped and re-sequenced sample from a single measure of The Bar-Kays’ “In the Hole” (used by Fu-Schnickens on “Ring the Alarm”) and Super Session’s “Season of the Witch” (used by the Pharcyde and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth) into something warped and psychedelic. Edan tears into his competition, rapping: “Flirting with ears, but choosing visions first / I stretch ’em out until they snap to prove that long division works.” It also features a sinister verse from Father Time, a member of the group Alaskan Fisherman and a Lo-Lifes affiliate. The “Murderous Copernicus” spits lines like, “I got a nasty dropkick, catch flies with chopsticks / Kidnap your siblings then take them for hostage / Your girl's not a chicken head she's more like an ostrich / Smells like armpit, foot and ass, and dog shit.”
Despite all the displays of lyrical and production wizardry, chunks of Primitive Plus demonstrate that Edan knows to not take himself too seriously, in favor of occasionally cutting loose and having fun. “Key-Bored” is a light-hearted romp featuring Edan rhyming warp-speed over a sped-up version of Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca.” “Run That Shit” is a mellow track featuring a string of increasingly ridiculous scenarios of him robbing strangers, friends, and lovers. “Sing it, Shitface,” a re-working of another song from Artchitecture, features absurd imagery as Edan crashes a third-grade spelling bee and deploys lackeys in funny hats to assault shit-talking naysayers. The album’s bonus track, “Let’s B. Friends,” features Edan freestyling over a spare drum break, forgoing promises of lyrical destruction in exchange for just being friends and hanging out with his fellow emcees, making plans to head to the park and buy ice cream. Much of the imagery he creates is funny, like the visual of playing pinball with Zev Love X and Stezo on “#1 Hit Record.” Occasionally, it skews a little too juvenile at times, as Edan leans perhaps too heavily on fart jokes.
But references to flatulence powerful enough to smash glass jars don’t detract from the largely flawless execution of Primitive Plus. The album is tied together by guiding principles that have applied across his entire musical career, and are encapsulated in two quotes. The first is from the aforementioned “Humble Magnificent” where he states, “My mission since inception was to aid evolution / Tackle every obstacle with brave resolution.” The second is on “Funky Rhyming,” a track that doesn’t appear on the album but was recorded around the same time: “My rhythm is futurism, you read it as retro / I found the fundamentals and I'm never going to let go.”
Edan’s output has been sparse since the release of Primitive Plus, but the results have always been brilliant. His sophomore album, Beauty and the Beat, is one of the best albums of the ’00s. It would be great if one of the most gifted artists in hip-hop would create and release music a little more often, but it’s comforting to know that when he does, his love and respect for hip-hop’s past guides his future.