There’s a moment-a bunch of moments, actually-in Jay-Z’s 2009 monster-jam “Empire State of Mind” where, hidden underneath the real-estate shout outs and bends-inducing compression like a C-section scar on a TV actress, you can pick out something wrong, jarring, fucked-up. Tune in at around 21 seconds and you can hear it: this high-pitched clip, like a CD skipping or a steak knife striking a glass table. It’s a strange little imperfection to find in a more or less immaculately constructed pop song, something ostensibly unrelated to musicianship or writing, but still too much there to be considered an oversight. Every ten seconds or so it pops up out of nowhere, grinding at the gears of the chorus, tearing the whole jam apart from the inside out like an armful of bot fly babies.
I bring this up not only because Blissed Out, an NYC-based duo specializing in all kinds of trunk-rattling audio detritus, have a genius edit of this track, but because that millisecond-long mistake in “Empire” and the massive circuit-bent mixology this group throw down flow from the same old-school source. Rap is quite a bit different today than it was a decade ago, sure, but where most heads like to whine about the lyrical transition from the socially-conscious to the fiscally-conservative, it’s also important to note how that thematic shift has been mirrored in the genre’s musical methodology. Sampling, record scratching, the infinite repetition of a breakbeat were all transcendent sonic malfunctions, punk gestures stemming from the same kind of technological anti-humanism as playing slide guitar with a lead pipe or cutting up your torso with a bunch of broken beer bottles thrown hatefully at the stage. Synth-crazed Mannie Fresh-ness, on the other hand, no matter how great it might sound vibrating the tinted windows of your Escalade, doesn’t inspire fear of a black planet, just envy of a black AmEx. Which is why, when Hova’s biggest hit in years comes accidentally equipped with incessant, intrusive noisiness, we not only get a throwback to the auto-destructing golden years of rap, but an exciting insight into how this sort of musical antagonism could pop a hole in hip-hop’s fat-suit. This is where Blissed Out really come into the picture, taking that phantom peak off “Empire” and spinning it not only into a single remix, but an entire project’s worth of deeply damaged low end theory. If these guys were somehow selected to produce Jigga’s next album, it would be released on Deaf Jam, and instead of being Black, it would be the kinds of colors you see when someone punches you really hard in the face.
“Both hip hop and noise involve re-appropriating instruments and technology, removing them from their intended contexts and creating something new with that,” says Alex, one half of the group, on Blissed Out’s conceptual heritage. “There also is a physical connection between hip hop and harsh noise. That is, a physical feeling one gets when listening to it, created by the frequencies. With hip hop, this is found in the extreme low tones used and with noise the extreme highs that are often found.” It’s usually bad news when rock writers conflate signature sonics with biography-Ray Charles’ ivory style mimicking a heroin score, Justin Beiber’s pedophile-baiting croon being anything more than an accident of prepubescence, and so on-but this dichotomy of found sound and physical pain, a devastating low to a redemptive, ear-cleansing high, seems distinctly related to the band’s formation. When asked about it, Alex says, obliquely, “I almost died. But a little less than 2 years before that, I met Sasha…” Sasha being dude number two in BO. Long story short, Alex got sick for an entire year, underwent surgery, confined himself to his apartment and rediscovered an old sampler he had bought when he was younger. A series of early morning electro workouts followed, these one-man-jam seshes culminating in an extended improvised sound check with Sasha one evening in 2009 at a house show in Bed Stuy. Like Gillespie meeting Parker, or Cash joining Carter, it was pure Bliss.
It’s rare to find a band with this refined an aesthetic, let alone one that’s been playing together for less than a year. Falling somewhere between Merzbow-ian tape-fuckery, the distorted narco-haze of 90s shoegaze, 808s and heart disease, Blissed Out manage to condense and amplify the elemental nightmare of new-century pop music-that it’s made by machines, that it has no soul-into something that makes assimilation into SkyNet not seem like such a terrible idea after all. Plenty of people are pushing electronica in emotive, wonky directions, but where the vibe of something like Disaro and witch house is spooky in an anachronistic way-old, creaky houses and super-8 film-Blissed Out excels in thoroughly modern modes of terror, the sound of your brain cells turning into numbers, the rape-breathing of a thousand sentient samplers, the holographic image of Peter Brotzman conducting a full-blown army of pixelated machine guns.
The two tracks posted here come off the group’s White Triangle cassette, recorded live at Silent Barn and released by Mirror Universe Tapes in June. A-side “+Empire State of Mind Edit+” we mentioned before, and B-side “+Tropical Fantasy+” retains a similar payload of skittering, underwater beatwork wrapped inside a variegated caul of bit-crushed dub. The song titles all have pluses at either end, kind of like a battery with only positive ends.
Keeping in tune with that hopeful tip, Alex concludes, “I get the most inspired to create by listening to hot 97, reading art and fashion magazines, late night walks around the city, and the people that are around us. Even before recording music for Blissed Out, I had fallen into something where I kept meeting people, then, following that, discovering they were creating music. Seeing all of these kids around me doing it made me realize that creating music wasn’t an unattainable goal.” Alicia Keyes, dodging the demon clip, playing the world’s loudest piano, said it herself: there’s nothing you can’t do. Out of New York, that is.
Empire State of Mind Edit
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem114/01 Empire State of Mind Edit.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem114/02 Tropical Fantasy.mp3