In the summer of 2003, I was working at an independent record store in North Carolina and approaching my first anniversary. Customers regularly asked me, "Do you guys have any Prefuse 73?"
I was familiar with Prefuse 73, the project of Scott Herren, an Atlanta beatmeister about as far removed from the emergent Dirrty South/Crunkville hip-hop strains as a dude living at the epicenter could be. Lil' Jon was about to become the sound of the South, and Prefuse was just a producer with a deal on Warp Records.
His first album, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, was good. It showed a guy willing to take the abrasive risks of intelligent dance music, the breakneck shifts of math rock, and the bouncing fever of boom-bap hip-hop to concoct complex polyrhythms strictly out of samples -- country songs, soul songs, movie dialogue, Dinosaur Jr. songs -- and beats. Underground cats like MF Doom and Mikah 9 made verse cameos, playing second fiddle. It was obvious that they were in the booth to signify to listeners that this new guy was someone to hear.
Days before, Jascha Hoffman had reviewed his second full-length, One Word Extinguisher, for Pitchfork, the guiding light for indie-music hipsters. The reviewer had given it a 9.1, calling Extinguisher "a thrilling listen" and employing adjectives like "difficult," "perfect," and "illustrious."
The kids wanted it. I knew we had the album, and they did too. But where was it?
Herren's music is mentioned only as a hybrid of other genres. I had never attempted to tag it taxonomically, but RecordTrak, an ambitious software program, surely had. RecordTrak lists more than 900 possible categories for filing music, by genre, subgenre, and super-subgenre, but only about a dozen usually appear. And apparently, an anonymous programmer felt that Prefuse 73 belonged in electronica.
Of the three possible domains mentioned, rock did seem to be the most unlikely spot, as Herren's work as Prefuse 73 is all-electronic music, sequenced from samples and the programmed pads of an MPC, a class of legendary drum machines. But electronica? Herren's music wasn't aseptic and sanitary, something I associated with the trite trance mixes and uptempo laser tracks. Apparently, my co-workers agreed: After a fruitless search of the electronica section, I found One Word Extinguisher and Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives filed under hip-hop, somewhere between Pete Rock and Puff Daddy. What a world.
Scott Herren challenges record-store clerks. But that's a natural consequence of the other challenges he poses throughout his music. Along the way, Herren -- as Prefuse 73 or his other artistic aliases, Piano Overlord, Savath y Savalas, and earlier as Delarosa of Delarosa & Asora -- challenges himself, his collaborators, and his audience like no other figure in hip-hop and, perhaps, "popular music."
His music is difficult, unfurling in about 20 tracks per album, each built on heavy sampling, heavy editing, and high concept. Each piece is built with an infinite number of parts.
Herren's mother was Cuban and Irish, and his father was Catalan. He cut his teeth on big-booty hip-hop and bad-business punk rock, and he started out as a producer making rudimentary, simplistic hip-hop bangers for local cats.
Those multifaceted polyglot environs seem to have shaped Herren's aesthetic. He's one of the most prolific people in music, but almost all his work shows remarkable quality. Even Extinguished: Outtakes, an exhumation of 35 minutes of extra Extinguisher music, still grabbed and held in that Prefuse way.
Critics of 2005's Surrounded by Silence, the fourth full-length he's released in as many years (he has since released another, Security Screenings), say it lacks focus. Herren had snagged an impressive cast of collaborators, from current avant-gardists like New York guitarist Tyondai Braxton and Canadian MC Beans to Wu-Tang Clansmen Ghostface Killah, GZA, and Masta Killa, and Definitive Jux majors Aesop Rock, El-P, and Camu. He has said that his goal was to put people into new contexts, to allow artists a challenging space in which they could be creative, if not exactly comfortable. True, the album does lose its core over 21 tracks, but it meets his goal with unwavering force.
On it, Staten Island's Ghostface and New York's El-P collaborate on the brilliant lead single, "Hide Ya Face." Herren's track marries his short-blip long-beat aesthetic with El's industrial atmosphere and Ghost's instant adaptability. The result is a more-nervous-than-usual Ghost, as El drops ultimately complex disses on the radio stars who need to bury their grill in artistic remorse. All three are in top form.
Elsewhere, Aesop Rock delivers perhaps his most lucid verses ever -- "A hunger lunger for the only oak in BK/This was after having perused every crook nook tucked in the scrupledom"--above one of Herren's smoothest (and most inspired) tracks, built with acoustic guitar and eighth-note bell samples. The Books -- who share Herren's technique of matching myriad samples to more elemental sounds, and who collaborated on a mash-up EP with him last year -- contribute to "Pagina Dos," which is not so much a remix as a brazen reimaging, with the Books' pastoral acoustic guitars succumbing to Prefuse's blissful, blipping madness.
If any hip-hop producer is capable of challenging heads more interested in the endlessness of imagination than the infallibility of the hook, it's Herren. His work deviates from linear formula with an abandon suggesting that fortunately, he has forgotten how to compose in straight lines. A methodical madness bubbles through glitchy samples of sometimes near-supersonic frequencies, guided below by bass tones that threaten to shift meter without a moment's notice.
It's possible that most producers aren't talented enough to be inspired by Herren's work. But they're boring enough to be categorized, filed away, and forgotten -- and threatened by it. As that happens, they'll probably still be pondering the following riddle: "Is it electronic music? Yes. Is it hip-hop? Yes. Is it math rock? Yes. Is it any of those? No. It's more."
Figure that out, super-platinum producers -- and record-store super-computers.