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The Essential… Dabrye

Written by FACT Team on Saturday, May 12 2012

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“There are a few people out there, in the midst of all types of busy scenes, who still find what I do to be relevant. For this I am eternally grateful.” – Dabrye, 2011



Despite being widely regarded as a luminary by both the hip-hop and electronic undergrounds, Tadd Mullinix seems genuinely modest – and even a little surprised that his work as Dabrye has has such an impact on those around him.

While instrumental hip-hop in its many guises has enjoyed a resurgence of interest and attention in the last few years – spearheaded in no small part by the likes of Flying Lotus, All City Records, LuckyMe, and L.A’s Low End Theory collective – Dabrye’s influence on the aesthetics that currently dominate this music is often overlooked. Make no mistake: if it wasn’t for the work of Dabrye – and others like Prefuse 73, El-P, Machinedrum and Danny Breaks – in the early to mid ’00s, there would be no FlyLo et al, and certainly no instrumental hip-hop renaissance as we know it.

“I’m not inside the hip-hop or electronic scenes. I’m not that involved on any level except that I’m playing the music. I still consider myself just a skateboard punk who gets turned onto different music by his friends.” – Dabrye, 2006 (URB)



The hip-hop alias of Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Tadd Mullinix changed most people’s conceptions of what hip-hop could be from 2001 to 2006, across three albums and a handful of 12”s and EPs. It was particularly his second album for Ghostly, Two/Three, that really shook things up by showing the potential for a new hip-hop: the combination of his forward-thinking productions with lyrics by the likes of Guilty Simpson, A.G and Vast Aire was striking to say the least. Following Two/Three Dabrye’s output unfortunately trickled down to a minimum with productions and remixes for the likes of Stones Throw, Fat City, Modeselektor, Hefty and Hyperdub spread over a five year period.

2011 marks the 10th anniversary of Dabrye’s debut album, and has also seen a resurgence of interest around his work, including a #freedabrye campaign on the internet that may or may not have anything to do with Ghostly and the news that he will be playing Low End Theory in November, so it seems like an appropriate time to go through the man’s catalogue and look at what it is that made his music so influential and inspiring.

Choosing 10 productions wasn’t easy but it was fun. And like all fun things in life we’re firm believers that they’re more fun with friends, so we asked a few people to pitch in with their own essential Dabrye productions to help FACT narrow it down to ten – special thanks to Illum Sphere (whose Hoya:Hoya club night Dabrye will be making his first UK appearance at later this month), Kutmah, Om Unit, Shigeto, Kelpe and broke for their suggestions.

There is also a Kutmah all-Dabrye mix currently still available on NTS Live’s archive which makes for the perfect accompaniment to this piece. Note also: these are not in any specific order and where possible we’ve added some additional recommends and chosen the instrumentals rather than vocal versions though you should check for both.

01: DABRYE FT. GUILTY SIMPSON AND JAY DEE
‘GAME OVER’
(GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL 12″, 2004)

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To this day the ‘Game Over’ instrumental remains one of the most instantly recognisable Dabrye productions and one of the most enduring odes to Detroit’s sterling hip-hop credentials. But what’s most remarkable about the track isn’t its various musical qualities – the shuffling drums, floating pitched percussions or the haunting string melodies all tied to a jittery bassline – but rather how it shows Dabrye to be one of the few producers in this new school of hip-hop to get Dilla’s mark of approval.

If we postulate – as is widely accepted – that beats and hip-hop’s instrumental renaissance came post-Dilla then it’s fair to say that no one who’s come since ever worked with, or got Dilla’s official approval, quite like Dabrye did on this track. As Illum Sphere put it to me: “‘Game Over’ was symbolic, it was Dilla blessing a producer who he acknowledged was influenced by him, but was throwing down shit so unique, so interesting, that it was nowhere near to biting him.’

‘Game Over’ is the unofficial anthem of hip hop’s new beat generation. It was appropriately remixed by Flying Lotus in 2007 and formed the basis for edIT’s ‘The Game Is Not Over’ in 2008 which was, by his own admittance, a testament to both Dilla and Dabrye’s forward-thinking and inspiration to a new generation of producers.

See also: ‘This Is Where I Came In’ (from the Instrmntl LP), which is basically a prototype of ‘Game Over’ and is just as good.

02: MODESELEKTOR FT. PAUL ST. HILAIRE
‘FAKE EMOTION’ (DABRYE REMIX)
(BPITCH CONTROL 12″, 2006)

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My personal favourite from the Dabrye discography, this remix finds him crafting modern day dub with the same ease and vibes as any hip-hop banger he’s produced. Paul St. Hilaire’s vocals are the proverbial cherry on the cake as Dabrye flips chest-crushing basslines over a low-slung beat that predates the recent ‘slow bass’ moves of people like Kromestar and Anti Social by six years.

See also: Bus – ‘Keep Life Right’ (Dabrye remix instrumental) for more minimal hip-hop meets dub riddim business.

03: DABRYE FT. WAAJEED
‘JORGY’
(from TWO/THREE INSTRUMENTALS LP, GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL, 2006)

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One of the few instrumental joints from Two/Three [though there was a subsequent Two/Three Instrumentals release] and featuring another Detroit hip hop legend, Waajeed. ‘Jorgy’’s bouncing bassline and steady break could be the textbook definition of what hip-hop’s boom bap aesthetic had become by the mid ’00s. The way the distorted, eerie synth melodies add a gloomy, dystopian atmosphere to the more traditional bass and drums backbone only makes this short instrumental escapade all the more enjoyable. ‘Jorgy’ is also one of the best examples of how the ‘less is more’ approach in hip-hop production is always a win.

04: DABRYE FT. GUILTY SIMPSON AND PARADIME
‘SPECIAL’
(from TWO/THREE LP, GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL, 2006)

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Of the many stand out moments on Two/Three, ‘Special’ is well…pretty fucking special. Willingly or not, this was hip-hop for the new generation of kids that had been raised on video games, the late 80s/early 90s and dance music. It’s as grimy and dirty as any mental image I’ve ever had of Detroit and it tore down all the rules of what hip-hop could be before rewriting them atop a demented bass line and filtered horn sounds.

It’s also notable for being one of Guilty Simpson’s best and earliest vocal appearances, putting forward the kind of braggadocio that hadn’t been seen since New York’s hip-hop heyday. As he puts it in the first verse, ‘I’m tired of being humble / From here on out I’m brash’ – a description that fits the beat just as well it does his verse.

05: DABRYE
‘GIMME LOWLANDS’
(from INSTRMNTL: JAPAN VERSION LP, TOKUMA JAPAN COMMUNICATIONS, 2002)

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It was quite telling – and with hindsight beautifully logical – that Dabrye’s second album should be released on Eastern Developments, the label founded and run by Prefuse 73. After all who else would give the sonic experiments featured on Instrmntl a chance back in 2002? ‘Gimme Lowlands’, which in fact appeared only on Tokuma’s Japanese edition of the album, is as close as Dabrye’s output has ever come to the ambient music Mullinix has released under his real name. It floats beautifully in a musical ether of its own, abstract yet meaningful.

06: DABRYE
‘MAGIC SAYS’
(from ‘GAME OVER’ 12″, GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL, 2004)

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Tucked away on the B-side of the ‘Game Over’ 12”, Magic Says is, like the ‘Game Over’ instrumental, a seemingly obvious doff of Dabrye’s cap to Dilla’s influence. But what’s perhaps most noteworthy about this production is how Dabrye managed to blend that low-slung hip-hop headnod with a techno aesthetic – indeed, the ability to bring these two heritages together is at the heart of what Dabrye’s work so impressive, and so important.

07: SOME WATER AND SUN
SNOWBREAKER (DABRYE REMIX)
(from VARIOUS – HEFTY 10 EP 12″, HEFTY, 2006)

Released on Hefty’s 10th anniversary compilation, Dabrye takes the original into bumpy territories with a remix that could well have been made in the last two years by any number of new school hip-hop producers. Thing is, it was made years before anyone really cared much about beats that fused loose hip-hop rhythms with weird electronic noises. The flip at the end is an absolute touch too.

08: DABRYE
‘THE LISH’
(from ONE/THREE LP, GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL, 2001)

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In the process of putting this essential selection together, I realised just how difficult it was to choose one standout track from Dabrye’s debut, One/Three. This album was visionary, and half or more of this list could justifiably have been tracks taken from it. See the additional recommends below for more productions on the same bugged out tip. This was made ten years ago. That’s all I have to say.

See also: ‘Smoking the Edge’, ‘Hyped Up Plus Tax’, ‘Truffle No Shuffle’ and ‘We’ve Got Commodity’ from the same album.

09: KING MIDAS SOUND
‘ONE TING’ (DABRYE REMIX)
(from ‘COOL OUT’ 12″, HYPERDUB, 2008)

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Kode9 remixed Dabrye’s ‘Air’ for the Get Dirty EP in 2007, so when Dabrye returned the favour by taking one of King Midas Sound’s best tracks (from their debut album on Kode’s Hyperdub label) and flipping it upside down, the circle was complete. Another production that shows Mullinix’s vision and versatility, blending elements from earlier works (notably a similar disjointed swing in the drums first heard on One/Three) with Roger Robinson’s haunting vocals and those ice-cold descending synth stabs that evoke bleak, blasted city landscapes. All about the last, vocal-less minute.

10: DABRYE
‘MACHINES PT. 1′
(from TWO/THREE, GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL, 2006)

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The soundtrack to a desolate future where machines have risen to take over the earth (natch), and also a stunning masterclass in hip-hop production that thinks out of the box.


Laurent Fintoni

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