The Spirit Of Apollo
By David Abravanel | 10 February 2009
Damn it, Diplo. Look what you’ve done now.
Okay, disclaimer: Diplo didn’t have anything to do with the production of The Spirit Of Apollo, the debut release by DJs Squeek E. Clean (aka the brother of Spike Jonze that you never heard of until it suddenly became cooler than dry ice to believe in N.A.S.A.) and his friend DJ Zegon. But Diplo set the standard for this kind of bastardized, Brazilian baile-meets-LA sleaze-hop hybrid that we’re hearing on this confusing mess. Trite as the term has become, Apollo is a hipster mulch of different styles and a nauseating array of mismatched guest artists who contribute either too much or not enough.
Let’s look closer at that term, “hipster,” because it relates heavily to the disappointing outcome on this album. A widely-forwarded article from Adbusters refers to hipster culture as “The Dead End of Western Civilization,” labeling it a counterculture with no true outsider roots, dependent on an infinite feedback loop between brands and the hip followers they market too, with consistently diminishing cultural returns. In short, author Douglas Haddow argues that hipsters have no culture, and are slaves to the fickle (and expensive) tastes dictated to them by an army of desperate corporate entities. Haddow’s criticisms are more broadly damning than they need be, and as a glossy magazine that spends money on manufacturing satirical ads, Adbusters could look in the mirror when criticizing a culture for being overly reliant on irony. Still, he asks an important question: how do you determine what hipsters are into? It’s an especially difficult task, given that no self-respecting hipster will ever identify as one. At this very moment I’m writing a piece for a web magazine focusing predominantly on indie music, and yet I would never in a million years call myself a hipster.
From the sound of The Spirit Of Apollo, trying to figure out what the cool kids like is part of N.A.S.A.’s undoing, in that the best answer they could come up with was “everything, with a dash of attitude.” There are 38 different guest stars on Apollo, a few of whom appear on more than one track. The average number of guests per track rounds out to three, and most tracks with no guests are interludes, under one minute in length. The effect of this is that, having listened to their debut album many times, I still have no clue what exactly N.A.S.A. generally sounds like. It’s…hip-hop? With little bits of baile funk, Baltimore club, booty house, reggae maybe, etc. It’s even hard to make that call based on the instrumentals, as N.A.S.A. have enlisted help from a number of DJs including Z-Trip, Qbert, and AM. It’s easier to approach N.A.S.A. as one of those faceless branding machines that Haddow points his finger at. Given their proclivity toward wearing space suits and ridiculously deluxe packaging, why not?
So, essentially, The Spirit Of Apollo is more like a compilation you’d get for free for spending enough at an American Apparel than a statement from artists with any semblance of cohesion. Approached this way Apollo still disappoints, due mostly to how many ideas are jammed into each track. We all remember “Tubthumping,” the fluke hit from anarcho-pop collective Chumbawamba: each member gets a few seconds to do what he/she wants, whether it’s singing, playing the trumpet, chanting, or what have you. Now imagine a whole album of that—only instead of all the performers at least having the unification of being British radicals, you have David Byrne singing a refrain that sounds like it was recorded on the other side of the world from the chanting that just came from Ras Congo. And there you have it—“Money,” the debut single from N.A.S.A. The track also features Chuck D, Seu Jorge, and Z-Trip, with not a single scrap of proof that any of them were even aware that they were making the same song, let alone actually collaborating. Mashups work well as novelties, but it wears thin when an album of original material sounds like snippets of a capella over whatever beat will do.
The glue that’s supposed to hold together these pieces of stray vocal flotsam—N.A.S.A.’s beats—more often than not fails to really capture the imagination. There’s some effort made to match what’s going on—the production on “Hip Hop” is a bit more sparse, making the smart choice to let KRS-One and the better half of the Pharcyde (Fatlip and Slim Kid Tre) drop some passable rhymes. But on a main offender like “Whachadoin?” things pretty much go nowhere. There’s guitar, and tribal percussion, and cell phone tones, and the increasingly less-tolerable wail of M.I.A., but this just does not work at all to sustain interest for home listening.
It’s not all bad. “The People Tree” manages the feat that “Money” failed at, of making David Byrne sound like a natural collaborator with rappers; in this case, Jurassic 5’s Chali 2na and Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab. It’s actually more of a song, with Byrne singing a de facto refrain, 2na and Gab reliably dropping solid verses on science and the environment, and Z-Trip’s scratching (or is that Squeek/Zegon?) complementing the funky keys and horns, instead of the head on collisions of other DJ guests on Apollo. The other secret to the success of “The People Tree” is that it doesn’t sound like a stretch for any of the artists involved to sing a song with a metaphor of people growing in their backyards. If only N.A.S.A. could have captured this kind of relaxed-sounding inter-artist click on all its productions, Apollo would be a classic.
Perhaps the issue with The Spirit Of Apollo is that N.A.S.A. simply bit off more than they could chew. 40 cooks can easily spoil any soup, and I’m sure that with such eclectic tastes N.A.S.A. can spin a wicked DJ set. But, like the deluge of plastic culture overflowing from N.A.S.A.’s native Los Angeles at the moment, Apollo is too much, too confusing, and too forgettable.