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“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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Schematic is one of those late 90s/early 00s pioneering labels that often gets overlooked when people discuss the history of hip hop’s more experimental strains.

As it turns out, it was on Schematic that Herren put out some of his first music, under the Delarosa & Asora alias. The Backsome EP came out at the turn of the century and hints at what was to come, albeit in a filtered way. In hindsight a track like ‘Draped Departure’ sounds quite simple, no doubt testifying to the technological limitations of the time. Yet the interplay between the rhythm and bass – part blur and part electronic fuzz with recognizable edges – and the sample, as well as the use of effects, offers a clear window into what would follow.

Bonus cut: I actually wanted to put Swipe Width from the Agony Part 1 EP instead of this (and have this as the bonus cut) but it’s not on Youtube, so go out and hunt it down. It’s also on Schematic from 2000. Incidentally, part of the Schematic back catalogue is now on Bandcamp 

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Savath & Savalas is another project that predates the Prefuse era, comprised of Herren, Eva Puyuelo Muns and Roberto Carlos Lange. The debut release this track is taken from, however, was entirely done by Herren, as he explains in the New Music Box interview. It was put out on Warp, appropriately enough, and the band would go on to release for equally influential labels such as Hefty and Stones Throw throughout the decade.

While you could perhaps summarise it as a modern folk project, putting live instruments and the acoustic and organic to the fore, there are still hints of what would come from Herren’s other work in this debut. Like, say, the found sounds, processing and sample work in ‘F Ride + Blues’.

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03. PREFUSE 73

Easily one of my top three Prefuse productions, ‘Nuno’ is a perfect encapsulation of what made his debut album so fascinating and shocking. It was a total Marmite moment: you hated it or loved it. There wasn’t a lot of room for middle ground.

It’s really all in the chops with this one: the way he deconstructed beyond recognition a beat that’s referential of the East Coast aesthetic before reconstructing it into something beautifully logical once your brain had deprogrammed itself of expectations. Or the way he applied the same approach to chunks of Nas’ lyrics from ‘One Love’, at times recontextualising them and at others stuttering them into unintelligible yet crystal-clear non-verses. Or the way in which the groove is mixed with experimental electronic and modern classical influences and processing (see the cut up rhythms circa 2:15). It’s an influence Herren touches on in more detail in that NMB interview, referencing the likes Steve Reich – an influence that to me is plain to hear on this cut.

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04. PREFUSE 73

Not content with a debut album that upset hip hop standards, Herren went even further with its follow up. He refined his approach, perhaps finding fuel for his work in the boundless potentials that lay at the core of the genre and using that to further pull hip hop’s production templates at the seams.

‘Choking You’ is quite visceral. It’s sonically gritty and harsh, working with frequencies that shouldn’t appeal and yet do. In many ways,it reminds me of the work of Japanese producer Daisuke Tanabe who, years later, would prove equally adept at taking unusual, harsh frequencies and making them instantly appealing. The track also has a bodily aspect in how it stacks the rhythms, melodies and bass together, creating a sum total that’s more than its parts and presaging a practice that much of the so-called beat scene of the late 00s would make its own.

For more on One Word Extinguisher’s significance, see Kelpe’s recent take on it for FACT.

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05. PREFUSE 73

It speaks volume of the quality and foresight of Prefuse’s work in his early years that an album of offcuts would prove as enticing as the album the tracks didn’t make it onto.

Presented more or less as is, with tracks bleeding into each other with no clear beginning or end, there are a lot of quality moments to be found on Extinguished Outtakes. Having said that Robot Snares… stands out for me, not least thanks to the way it again took so many obvious hip hop tropes of the times and sprinkled them in an electronic blender without losing any of the funk, or humanity, that has always been intrinsic to the music’s greatest moments.

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The Chocolate Industries label is another unsung powerhouse of early 00s experimental hip hop and Push Button Objects was one of its best artists. ‘360 Degrees’ was the lead single for PBO’s Ghetto Blaster album, originally coming out in 2000 followed by a first remix 12” in 2001 featuring El-P, Kutmasta Kurt, Spinna and The Herbaliser. That was then supplemented by a Prefuse remix a couple years later, further highlighting the growing links between a generation of producers working at various edges of hip hop and electronic music.

The trick with this one is how Herren works the chords on his remix, creating a simple and catchy melodic backbone for the verses and hooks that flips the original’s reggae influences into something darker and fitting to a pair of MCs that take little concessions. There are also elements of his approach to processing that add overall grit to the song.

Bonus cut: Mos Def & Diverse ‘Wylin Out’ a beautifully angular beat with classic touches and strong vocal turns. Taken from Chocolate Industries’ Urban Renewal program compilation and 12” series, released in 2002 (and with an obligatory RJD2 remix on 12”). 

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Herren’s Piano Overlord side project is in some ways his most ‘straight forward’ instrumental hip hop work, and even then there are twists and turns within the catalogue that show a definite bleed over from his other aliases. And as the name implies, a lot of the music under that name also had a strong melodic focus.

‘Spring’s Arrival’ is my favourite from the Singles Collection album, and perhaps the whole Piano Overlord body of work, a short but emotive number that draws on a steady break and distorted yet uplifting melodies to pull your head and body forward.

Bonus cut: ‘Agoraphobia’ from the same album.

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08. PREFUSE 73

While the majority of Prefuse’s work has been instrumental in nature, he has often collaborated with or remixed MCs and this cut is for me one of his finer rap moments, not least thanks to the psychedelic lyrical combo of GFK and El-P.

Production-wise, this is a beat that strays closer to the hip hop production templates Herren had spent previous albums deconstructing and evolving; it’s almost as if, having said all that, he wanted to show after all that there was still potential in the more traditional approaches, as long as the experimentation wasn’t forsaken for the reverential sonic accuracy that continued to plague much of hip hop. The simple ingredients he pulls into the track – the hypnotic backbone loop, the drum chops, the bottom-heavy bass – are all that’s needed to deliver something that is as hard as the classics it harks back to.

Bonus cut: the ‘Remember’ version of the track reveals more of the original parts.

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09. PREFUSE 73

Released as Oh Linda… on Dublab and included as Rain Edit Interlude on his 4th album for Warp, this is one of those simple and to the point beats that doesn’t overstay its welcome and draws from that perennial of hip hop production practices: the sample flip that makes you go ‘ugh’. You can also choose to read however much or little you want from the long title and the fact that the artist sampled, Linda Perhacs, was a psychedelic folk singer who found fame well after her time.

(With thanks to Danny DriveThru)

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10. PREFUSE 73

By 2009, the seeds that Prefuse and others had sown nearly ten years earlier were fully germinated, their growth mainly propelled by the passing of one of hip hop’s greatest producers, Jay Dee, and the technological and social might of Myspace. The beat scene was a thing. Names were thrown about to try and box this seemingly new hip hop movement, thus ensuring easy comprehension by a growing mass that wanted to know “just what exactly do you call that thing you were playing?” Hip hop’s bastard child aesthetic had well and truly arrived, by then spearheaded by two producers from Los Angeles and Glasgow who were also signed to Warp.

Amid this, Prefuse released his 7th full length for Warp, preceded by this EP. The saturation of ideas, tropes and styles within the aesthetic that marked those last years of the decade in a way diminished the impact of both the album and EP. People were too busy looking in the obvious directions, bathing in the saturation to necessarily acknowledge where most of it came from, though Prefuse still arguably held more ‘weight’ than some of his forward thinking contemporaries.

Preparation’s Kids Choir remains one of my favourite cuts from the EP and album combo: an almost logical child of what came before, harking back to the earlier Prefuse work and some of the folk/experimental aliases. It also seemingly tipped its hat to classic hip hop clichés in the intro and yet still managed to sound better, more honest and more enticing than a lot of what had risen to the surface by then. Maybe it’s nostalgia for a time past, or maybe it’s a belief that the genre’s most interesting moments lay beyond the obvious –  in songs crafted by voices striving to be genuine, and driven by a need to move forward rather than stagnate in the status quo.

Bonus cut: Speeds of God 2000, taken from ‘Meditations Upon Meditations (The Japanese Diaries), Beat Records 2009. 

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