“What I didn’t wanna do is record rappers rapping over a beat, I was looking for something that was a little more classic and went backwards in time…” – Vocal sample from ‘Back In Time’ by Prefuse 73
The work of American producer and musician Guillermo Scott Herren is extensive to say the least. Over the past 15 years, he’s worked across continents under a variety of aliases, both solo and in collaboration, though he is arguably best know for his work as Prefuse 73. Indeed, he’s released a body of work spanning various experimental corners of hip hop and electronic music across tens of albums, EPs and singles. Mainly issued on the UK-based Warp label, Prefuse’s work over the course of the past decade would prove the most transformative. Appearing at the turn of the century, it came at a time of general malaise within hip hop, and provided a much needed new perspective as to where the music could go, particularly in terms of production aesthetics.
By the late 90s, hip hop production aesthetics generally tended to fall within one of three major schools of thought and practice that had arisen and settled in previous decades. These affected the overall sound and understanding of the music both at an underground and mainstream level. They each had their own sonic characteristics, their own figureheads and pioneers, and were loosely named around American geographical boundaries: East Coast hip hop, centered on New York City; West Coast hip hop, centered on Los Angeles; and Southern hip hop (or Dirty South), centered on a variety of cities in Southern states including Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, Miami and Houston. There were, as always, exceptions to this rule both in the underground and mainstream, but by and large these were the sonic cards hip hop had dealt itself after two decades. And that’s where someone like Herren came in and showed that the deck could be reshuffled to move things forward.
“[T]here were a lot of people who thought that I was desecrating hip hop. And that was far from the point; I was trying to celebrate it and bring it to the next level. I was just like, ‘Hey man, we’re kind of in this lockdown.’ It was all out of this stereotypical, what people called backpacker hip hop. Or it was this Dirty South 16th-note, 32nd-note patterns that were all the same. Template music, I call it. My music was exploration. I wanted to progress from record to record. And you had people who were for it or against it.” – Guillermo Scott Herren, 2009, New Music Box interview.
Beyond a new sonic approach that shocked many out of their comfort zones, the real value of Prefuse’s output, as well as parts of Herren’s oeuvre under other aliases, is that by seeking to reinvigorate what he saw as a certain staleness within the music’s existing aesthetics, it provided one of the many sparks for the continued evolution of a new aesthetic – one that would further grow and mutate for much of the 2000s before finally bursting out from its underground confines. Often considered too hip hop for electronic heads or too electronic for hip hop heads, as exemplified by Herren’s avowed meshing of typical hip hop sounds and experimental electronic processing, this new aesthetic had first sprung up in the 90s in a more traditional form, and would take full flight by the end of the following decade; key players include Push Button Objects, Dabrye, Anti Pop Consortium, El-P, Danny Breaks and Dimlite among others. Whether people called it instrumental, alternative or experimental (as well as more catchy names like trip hop, glitch hop and so on), what we dealt with was one and the same: a new aesthetic of hip hop production that was often closer to the music’s electronic, experimental roots and dealt with more directly modern influences than the rehashed, beaten-to-death soul, funk and jazz of the golden years. And this led many to simply refuse to see it as part of the hip hop canon… until the time was right. But that’s a story for another time.
I originally set out to look solely at Herren’s Prefuse work for this Essential, but quickly decided that while I could easily count down 10 of his best (read: my favourite) productions under that name, it would be more interesting to also include some of the other projects. Despite their surface differences – like, say, the folk stylings of Savath & Savalas – I feel these often had sonic ties to the forward thinking hip hop work of Prefuse. Herren has never just been Prefuse, regardless of how popular he became because of it, and to ignore the rest of his work, and his classical roots, would paint a skewed picture. Hence, this is really an Essential Guillermo Scott Herren, though the vastness of his catalogue means that some aliases and collaborations, as well as a swathe of releases and remixes, aren’t included. Feel free to use this list as a launch pad to explore further.
The releases are in chronological order and where applicable I’ve added some bonus cuts I felt relevant.
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