The early 2000s were a time of upheaval for hip-hop. The underground and mainstream divide that had defined so much of the previous decade was showing the first signs of irrelevance. Timbaland and The Neptunes made radio rappers sound futuristic while independent artists struggled in a quagmire of backpacks and misguided claims to keep it real. Away from this, in a misunderstood middle ground between hip-hop and electronic music, a new generation of artists were busy imagining a new sound for hip-hop.
One such artist was Scott “Prefuse 73” Herren, whose perpendicular MPC chops on his 2001 debut for Warp Records set curious minds racing with possibilities. That same year Tadd Mullinix released his debut as Dabrye on Ghostly International, a sonic wildstyle that appealed to both hip-hop heads and IDM nerds. Sometime that same year Herren and Mullinix met after sharing a bill in Detroit. CD-Rs were exchanged and a year later Eastern Development, Herren’s newly launched label, released Dabrye’s Instrmntl, a short album with a big impact. On its fifteenth anniversary Ghostly International is reissuing Instrmtl on vinyl and making it available digitally for the first time.
Instrmntl is a continuation of the beat experiments Dabrye began with One/Three and a bridge to the diverse textures that would define Two/Three four years later. About half of its nine tracks (ten if you lived in Japan) were created at the same time as One/Three while the rest were newer or made specifically for the album. Once again Mullinix looked outside of hip-hop to techno, house, and drum & bass for stylistic and technical ideas while embracing the blissful minimalism of a good hip-hop instrumental and the rhythmic nuance of Detroit.
Despite the similarities between Dabrye’s debut and this follow up, Mullinix didn’t simply replicate what had made One/Three so arresting. He pushed and pulled further between the two cornerstones of his approach to reveal more potentials. Instrmntl takes you deeper into electronic depths — the rugged synth stutter of ‘Won’, the tumbling, wobbling bass in ‘No Child Of God’, the electro get down of ‘Prospects (Marshall Law)’ — while also treading more organic grounds by letting samples breathe and moods unfurl at a gentler pace (‘Take Me Home’, ‘Evelyn’, and ‘You Know The Formula Right?’). And then there are the moments where this push and pull finds balance and the result becomes more, as it does on the mournful march of ‘D-Town Tabernacle Choir’ and the twinkling daydream of ‘This Is Where I Came In’.
At just over 30 minutes, Instrmntl offers a snapshot of a time when potentials seemed infinite, when lines could be drawn between jazz, ragga jungle, techno, and hip-hop and the resulting shape divined an exciting future.