When one-time Dilla favourite Guilty Simpson spits, “a lot of MCs got one style. Me? I got numerous” on ‘Fitta Happier’, he could easily have been talking about Geoff Barrow. Since resurrecting Portishead for the excellent Third in 2008 after more than a decade out of the game, Barrow has hit a rich vein of form. He co-produced The Horrors’ sophomore record Primary Colours, formed Beak>, and now, with the help of Invada co-founder Ashley Anderson and Portishead engineer Stuart Matthews, produced a hip-hop album fronted by 35 rappers over 41 tracks. Lyrically, all the boxes are ticked: sex, race, politics, money. Whether it’s attacking Obama’s shortcomings on Emilio Rojas’ venomous ‘Belly Of The Beast’ or Booty Brown of The Pharcyde lamenting the vicious circle of ghetto life on ‘TV Dreaming’, the rhymes hit hard.
Barrow is no stranger to the art of sampling, having used it to help define trip-hop in the early 1990s. That pedigree is palpable in the brass stabs of ‘Rock My Soul’, the punch drunk lurch of instrumentals like ‘You’re Gonna Be Sorry’, and the dialogue and sound effects littered liberally throughout. It all feels a bit too familiar, though. Criticising Quakers’ production for being too hip-hoppy may be the equivalent of complaining that Black Sabbath are too loud, or that Kraftwerk could use more guitars, but there’s simply not enough of Barrow’s own personality on show. Rather than mining the creative well that made his oppressive, nocturnal spin on hip-hop production so intriguing with Portishead, the beats sit heavy on the shoulders of the hip hop giants name-checked throughout. Even the format — 41 short tracks — recalls that of J Dilla’s Donuts or Madlib’s Beat Kondukta series.
Forget all the wordy bullshit, though; as one dialogue sample here articulates: “it sounds good and it makes me want to dance.” Quakers’ production may not push the envelope in ways a Portishead fan might hope for, but who really cares when the likes of ‘War Drums’ and ‘Jobless’ are so banging? As Frank Nitty insists on ‘Dark City Lights’: Turn it up.