‘Me and the Graham Crackers are pleased to be here tonight and we’re open for any requests, if any y’all got any. ‘Copacabana?!’ oh baby this is soul night tonight, can’t you tell from that last song we played? Look we’re going to play a new song by a brand new band and I hope that y’all like it’
It starts with a hick country and western band playing James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’, bridling at a request for ‘Copacabana’ and then rattles into the lowest key opening track on almost any LP in the 1537, the ode to mild excess that is ‘2000 BC’*. Welcome ladies, gentlemen and faerie folk to DC Basehead Play With Toys, 1992’s least in-yo-face vaguely hip-hop LP in the world EVER!
Play With Toys is a clever, funny album with a lot of soul and warmth. Think of it as an album for folks who found De La Soul and/or Acker Bilk a bit too frantic and in their faces; we’re talking so laid back we’re horizontal. Main auteur dude Michael Ivey’s guitar is prominent throughout, presaging all sorts of turntable crossover albums that were to come years later. But anyway, let’s get back to the trail.
‘2000 BC’ sets the scene admirably, nice and slow, kind of monotone half sung / half rapped delivery and some excellent scratching. It’s funny even all these years since hip-hop forced its way into my musical consciousness there isn’t much I like better in music than some good turntablism, scratching is just such an exciting sound, it thrills me**. In this case the skillz are provided by DJ Unique, one of only a handful of folks who Ivey invited to add to his record; a more interesting fact when you consider all the voices and dialogue on Play With Toys was mostly made by Ivey speeding up and altering the pitch of his voice.
I first picked up Play With Toys after reading an intriguing review of it in Melody Maker and when I listened to it the second track, ‘Brand New’ sealed the deal for me. It takes the place of Ivey and a friend talking about his recent break-up, him moping, bitter and his chum trying to cheer him up. After kicking around some ideas the biggest positive he can come up with is that he can now ‘break wind whenever I damn well please’. It’s still a winning argument for the single life.
This segues into another goodie, the love lament of ‘Not Over You’ where his friend flicks through the radio dial to cheer him up – inevitably coming across ‘Always And Forever’ and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine Now She’s Gone’ to great comic effect. It is brilliantly produced and clever, Play With Toys coming over as its’ own little self-contained little world – a sit com set on a couch somewhere and yet, and yet, this is no novelty, comedy record the music is good and cool, serious even – check out ‘Better Days’ for a dissection of the economic forces fuelling crime.
The nearest corollaries I can think of in music at the time were De La Soul, but Dc Basehead were a much more down home, less flamboyant outfit than the new daisy agers and Ivey had a do-it-all-myself attitude copped from Prince to boot^. Michael Ivey was a film school graduate from Pittsburgh who apparently slept a lot and didn’t do anything with much urgency at all, I can relate. I missed a chance to see DC Basehead supporting the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy when I was at university and I regret it to this very day^^, they were both brilliant needless to say. Bum.
But I digress elsewhere on Play With Toys there are odes to lust, a lament for black on black violence and it all ends up with the Graham Crackers taking the piss out of their audience again. On a first listen it can sound a little samey by the time you’re halfway through Side 2, but given a bit of time you really start to pick out all the lines and nuances and realise it is anything but; a little like finding the beauty in a linear landscape.
Two more that really merit a mention:
- Hair: Lust filled, porno-moaning ode to a lover’s ‘fucked-up hair’; complete with machismo puncturing asides from the lady concerned. Did Ivey make all the moaning sounds himself?
- Ode To My Favourite Beer: Just what it says. Imagine you were a 7″ single, now take a fist full of Mogadons and play yourself at 33RPM – this is a slower experience than that. Trust me.
- Evening News^*: Again more great production and a real vein of bitterness peaks through here. Real clever.
Too different, no big booty videos or oblivious obviousness – all this seems to have scuppered DC Basehead*^ and after the less-acclaimed Not In Kansas Anymore, Ivey took it all in a very Christian direction apparently; I had got off the Basehead train by then. So all the more reason to remember and celebrate this little lost masterpiece before we drink the remainder of those brain cells away.
*or ‘2000 brain cells ago”.
**my theory being because treating your records that way is just such an alien, transgressive thing for me.
^I was going to say it reminded me of Cody Chesnutt too, but was flabbergasted to find out that the brilliant The Headphone Masterpiece came out a whole decade later. Bum.
^^it was thinking about that fact at random on the train home last week that has prompted this review.
^*Okay so this is the third track of two, but hey – my rules.
*^file with Digable Planets and New Kingdom in the intelligent hip-hop only I bought section.