Champion Sound

(Stones Throw; 2003)

By Peter Hepburn | 30 December 2007

Over the last few years the emergence of the producer in rap music has lead to great developments in the field. It's not a horribly new phenomenon for producers to take preeminence on albums (the RZA and Dr. Dre showed it could be done a decade ago) but it seems that especially after El-P's terrific Fantastic Damage more beat masters were willing to showcase their skills on their own. MF Doom's beat collections and Viktor Vaughn release, Madlib's Quasimoto projects, and Jay Dee's Welcome to Detroit all showcased the abilities of their producers, both on mic and beats.

The latter two (J Dilla and Madlib) seem to have instigated a new variety of producer collaboration (this year will see a similar venture from Madlib and MF Doom under the name of Madvillain). Basically Jaylib came about when a mix tape with Madlib rapping over Jay Dee's beats fell into the hands of the accomplished Detroit underground producer. He arranged the album with PB Wolf and Madlib and consequently we get Champion Sound; quite possibly the most interesting, although certainly not the best, piece of hip hop to emerge in 2003.

As one would expect from Madlib and Jay Dee the beats are phenomenal. Jay Dee, as witnessed by his previous solo work and as part of A Tribe Called Quest's production squad, tends to work out more straight-forward, bass-heavy compositions and slips in subtle arrangements under clearly syncopated beats. The prolific Madlib can make a beat out of pretty much anything. His Shades of Blue album and Yesterday's New Quintet project showed his prowess with jazz, while Quasimoto's The Unseen and the Lootpack's Soundpices: Da Antidote! proved his abilities on the mic and behind the tables. For Champion Sound both Dilla and Madlib are on the top of their respective games as far as the beats go.

This of course brings us back to the other side of the equation. Both Madlib and Jay Dee have proven their ability to spit before, but they don't measure up to the serious MCs in the game. A few guests are brought in for the album, but they seem ineffectual. Talib Kweli basically crashes on "Raw Shit," even though he works in a few good one-liners; Guilty Simpson doesn't help to invigorate the pretty much lifeless "Strapped." The best tracks on the album tend to be those in which Madlib raps on top of the Dilla beats, especially when he brings in his high-pitched, blunted alter ego Quasimoto.

If the album could maintain the energy and quality of the first five tracks this would be a phenomenal album. The album opens with a simple intro that feeds into "McNasty Filth," a killer Madlib composition. Guest rapper Frank-N-Dank helps out Dilla on the mic, but it's the beat that makes the song. Madlib uses a driving organ line and a high-hat that refuses to stop and blends them masterfully. "Nowadayz" puts Dilla on beats and Madlib gets his shot rapping (he doesn't impress too much on this cut). The beat is traditional Jay Dee: deep bass and a hand clap reminiscent of Welcome 2 Detroit's "The Clapper," but slipping in samples underneath that complement the theme of sexual freedom in the song.

"Champion Sound" and "The Red" show Madlib and Dilla at their best, on both beats and mic. Madlib throws down another terrific beat with a simple vocal "wah" built in. Midway through the track the beat pulls back and he inserts a sample of a Rastafarian chant before Dilla and the beat come back in. "The Red" stands out as far and away the best song on the album. Dilla builds another deceptively simple deep-bass track with a female vocal sample and a melancholy, understated piano piece underneath. Madlib lets loose and shows why he's earned that stellar reputation; his flow is crisp and clear and while it still boils down to a simple dis track it's light years ahead of the average. Quasimoto makes an appearance and the simple chorus of "you niggas must be outta your head/if your sister made up to the red" fits perfectly with the laid back, stoned feel of the track.

"Heavy" and "Raw Shit" both disappoint; "Heavy" doesn't have a beat that can justify the weak rapping while "Raw Shit" suffers from Kweli's poor delivery over an otherwise interesting Dilla beat. Madlib's work with remixing Blue Note comes through on "The Official" which rides a beat based off a simple bass line with a looped trumpet piece. All the same it is not a particularly interesting track as Jay Dee absolutely bombs on the song.

Dilla brings it back strong with the sinister beat of "The Heist" while Madlib/Quasimoto deliver a simple, slowed down post-robbery narrative. Madlib brings in the string section for "The Official" which serves as one of Jay Dee's better deliveries on the album, even if he tends toward repetitiveness. Quasimoto is an official guest on "React" and the rapping outshines a relatively simple beat. "Strapped" fails on both rapping and beats and sounds mostly like a failed Swollen Members track. Madlib excels on "Strip Club," playing both the role of client and stripper over a light-hearted steel drum beat.

Percee P is probably the most effective guest on the album, spitting fast on top of a Jay Dee beat for "The Exclusive," which could have been one of the better songs on the album but for the short length. "Survival Test" proves bag pipes shouldn't be used in rap music and the skit at the end is ill-advised. Neither "Starz" nor "No Games" are particularly interesting, and the two bonus tracks that are included on the first issuing of the CD format add little to the established formula.

This album could have been absolutely stellar. If more guests were brought in to work with these two I have no doubt that some terrific tracks could have come about. I would love to hear Sage Francis, Slug, Brother Ali, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, or even Gift of Gab rapping over these beats. One can imagine that if Talib Kweli had lived up to his reputation his guest spot could have been one of the album's high points. As is, we are left with some brilliant instrumental hip hop and the occasional piece of decent rapping, mostly thanks to Madlib. More than anything this album builds anticipation for the forthcoming Madvillain collaboration, which could blow Champion Sound out of the water and firmly establish the all-producer collaboration.