The Detroit producer and Slum Village alum makes house music that’s true to his hometown’s diverse, deeply rooted legacy, with elements of R&B, funk, and soul informing its four-to-the-floor bounce.
Hip-hop and house are the Gallagher brothers of club music: They share the same roots, are both hugely successful, yet find themselves largely at odds in 2018, despite many years in which they got along famously. Detroit producer Waajeed might just be the person to broker a truce. His resumé reads like a Hands-Across-America-style initiative to ease the discord between these two musical descendants of funk and disco: He DJed and produced for legendary Detroit hip-hop crew Slum Village in their early years before pivoting towards house and techno in the 2010s, notably working with Motor City house icon Theo Parrish on 2016’s “Warrior Code.”
From the Dirt, which follows a recent run of 12”s for Waajeed’s own Dirt Tech Reck, is similarly primed to bridge the divide. The album’s 10 tracks borrow liberally from R&B, hip-hop, funk, disco, and soul, the elements jostling for attention under the watchful eye of house music’s four-to-the-floor pulse. The drums on “My Father's Rhythm” have the shuffling hip-hop swing that fellow Slum Village alumnus J Dilla brought to his beats, while the P-funk synth and corporeal bass throb on “I Ain’t Safe” bring R&B’s musical palette to house.
The spirit of crossover is also apparent in the album’s vocal tracks. The deliciously laconic vocal lines of “I Ain’t Safe” and “Things About You” (courtesy featured singers Ideeyah and Asante and Zo!, respectively) would sit well on a zoned-out R&B jam but also work at house tempo. The results are so elegantly lush you can almost smell the sandalwood wafting from their grooves. It helps that Waajeed writes cultivated, jazz-influenced chord sequences, which elevate the album’s simpler songs, like the title track, into something altogether more beguiling.
Elsewhere you can see the footprints of producers like Theo Parrish and Moodymann loping across From the Dirt. “After You Left” borrows the Moodymann tactic (admittedly, one he borrowed from Marvin Gaye) of looping excited party chatter in the background, making it sound like you’re privy to the greatest night out ever, while “Power in Numbers” uses a rumbling acidic riff to drive the song forward, a little like Parrish’s own “Synthetic Flemm.” “Power in Numbers” is particularly noteworthy as a showcase for the type of propulsive rhythmic collage that Waajeed does so well. There’s very little to the song beyond the central riff—just shuffling house beat and brief vocal samples—but Waajeed manipulates these elements like a master builder working on a stone wall, setting each component in precisely the right place for the song’s greater good.
Where From the Dirt differs from its antecedents—and, indeed, from the album title—is in its exceptionally clean sound, with nothing of Moodymann’s textured fuzz or the dank, Auto-Tuned smoke that envelops much modern hip-hop. It makes the album sound almost anachronistically bright in these darkened days, the record’s pristine surface contributing—perhaps unfairly—to a feeling of slightness on a run of under-realized tracks towards the album’s end.
From the Dirt may not be the home-run smash that would inspire the next generation of rappers to pick up the 3 Chairs discography to file alongside their Gucci Mane records. But at a time when house music is largely defined in the public imagination by V-necked Swedes, Waajeed’s album feels important: a reminder of house music’s African-American roots in the face of its EDM-saturated present—and, perhaps, the beginnings of a bridge away from dance-music monoculture back toward the hip-hop and R&B that share so much of house music’s DNA.
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