Montreal-based turntablist and producer Kid Koala (born Eric San) is the type of artist you can expect to take some formidably playful risks. Known for his virtuoso skills scratching and mixing on the wheels of steel, back in 1996 he was the first musician in North America signed to the U.K.'s boundary-busting label Ninja Tunes. Arriving in the wake of a fantastic mixtape, San's debut hip-hop-jazz-funk crossover Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (Ninja Tunes, 2000), featured a video game and a surreal comic book he designed himself. For him, the creative impulse is dedicated to telling a compelling and unlikely story. Free for download at www.nufonia.com, The Slew's 100% San's self-released fourth effort in collaboration with long time friend Dynomite D continues this tradition.
San and Dynomite (born Dylan Frombach) had discussed collaborating on a full-length project ever since vibing together on a couple spacey jazz singles about a decade ago (peep their "Third World Lover"). Thus, when Frombach was enlisted by his cousin Jay Rowlands to produce the score for a feature documentary on elusive Seattle psych-rock recluse Jack Slew, he brought San along. That was four and a half years ago. The documentary has since fallen through, but the score evolved independently into a masterfully abrasive and chest-rumbling soundscape. "We wanted to do some Black Sabbath meets the Bomb Squad," San tells me, laughing.
Initially the loosely-defined "Black Squad" duo gathered concrete inspiration from Jack Slew's unreleased material an ample body of work, thick with ferocious dusty breaks, bluesy vocals, and fuzzed-out riffs. Slew has a gravelly yet piercing voice that cuts right through the drums. He sings knowingly of freedom lost and the fragile sentiments of an ape trying to become a man. It's rich material that just begs for sampling. San and Frombach reassemble the parts to produce a fresh perspective on the dangerously free spirit of the outlaw. "We needed a car chase scene, and a jail break scene, and then we ran with it," says San. Indeed, the album roves widely and digs deep, concluding with the epic moral struggle of "A Battle of Heaven & Hell."
Despite a cinematic narrative akin to a rogue spaghetti western, The Slew nearly succumbs to the usual pitfalls faced by turntablist albums. In the aesthetic sphere of turntablism, the scratching and abrupt pattern changes can sound gluttonous and overtly technical, warping the sonic landscape into a show of narcissism. "On the one hand [100%] is super-psychedelic, loud, and banging," San explains. "On the other hand" he laughs "it's the most masochistic, purist turntable record I've ever made."
However, what saves the effort from sadism as well is that the Slew's hip-hop inspired pastiche takes cues from authentic recording techniques of early '70s rock. San and Frombach dove into their history books to study the methods for producing the screeching drums and sandblasted guitar riffs of that era. To really polish the coarsely hypnotic sound, they asked Mario Caldato Jr. the engineering innovator behind the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique (Capitol, 1989) among others to master the effort. The result is an interweaving of pummeling breaks and wa-wa guitar nastiness fractured by effects modulations and the emboldened seams of mixing and scratching. And it hits loud.
Koala and Dynomite originally entertained the idea of performing 100% live with 14 turntables. Fortunately, they scrapped that idea in favor of working with Chris Ross and Myles Heskett, the former rhythm section of Australia's the Wolfmothers. Ross and Heskett play bass guitars, drums, and organ while Kid Koala and mad scientist partner P-Love (Paolo Kapunan) handle six turntables.