Not a lot of hip-hop will make you want to rock bell bottoms or bust out an afro pick. But something about the intricate grooves of The Herbaliser is reminiscent of the old days when Shaft was the man and Pam Grier was an ass-kickin’ ghetto heroine.
The London-based crew of nine musicians has worked with the likes of Roots Manuva and the lyrical empress Bahamadia for more than a decade, ekeing out funk-fused music that blends the worlds of acid jazz, hip-hop and ’70s-style funk. The Herbaliser, which is a derivative of Swiss jazz composer Peter Herbolzeimer’s last name, is also an obvious reference to marijuana — which could be cliché, if their music didn’t induce the same kind of euphoria Mary Jane is said, (ahem), to have.
Although the crew has had a few well-received singles in London, they are pretty obscure to American audiences, which probably has a lot to do with the American hip-hop connoisseur’s finicky palate for mainstream “shake your booty” type rap fodder. But a listen to the Herbaliser could be an antidote for that. Contrary to their contemporaries in the UK, the Herbaliser is heavily influenced by American jazz and funk — and those influences infuse the tracks on their fourth release, Something Wicked This Way Comes with a freshness that hip-hop needs desperately. With the lead bass player, Jake Wherry, leading the tribe with his cohort, Ollie Teeba, the DJ, snippets of David Axelrod and the influence of James Brown on their music is evident, but even the sample-driven music isn’t boring. Samples are almost a given in hip-hop these days, anyway (thanks, P.Diddy). But it’s not the samples themselves that are extraordinary on the Herbaliser’s fourth effort. It’s the way they’re blended and supported by horns and turntables that makes it just plain good music.
The interesting thing about Something Wicked This Way Comesis that it’s an even split between instrumentals and rap tracks. The deft scratching combined with the eccentric choice of emcees like Blade and MF Doom creates musical versatility rarely found in hip-hop these days. Vocalist Seaming To offers a buttery drone on the title track, which flows evenly into “Verbal Anime”, featuring Rakaa Iriscience of Dilated Peoples. Phi Life Cypher, from the Gorillaz also breaks the sometimes repetitive tracks on the LP with a few fluid verses on “Distinguished Jamaican English”. Each emcee pulls the pieces of the album together like the fine threads of a patchwork quilt and helps to move the music beyond some of it’s more repetitive moments.
The first single from the album, “Good Girl Gone Bad” features Wildflower, an angry-sounding female MC with a porcelain-delicate voice. Her English accent adds a little more flavor to the album, even if her delivery sounds like a rushed freestyle. Then the album wanders off into a completely different sound with “The Turnaround” which sounds go-go inspired and straight from the days of polyester and platform shoes.
Enmeshed in acid jazz and layers of hip-hop beats over an orchestra, the Herbaliser’s funk grooves complement nicely executed scratching in a way that inspires rap fans waiting for the return of creativity to hip-hop music. Perhaps the most song on Something Wicked is the last track, “Unsungsong” — a simple, but fluid track with vibrant horns and an adamant, gospel-inspired beat. It’s the kind of instrumental Donny Hathaway would have turned into a classic if he were still blessing us with that incredible voice.
Overall, Something Wicked This Way Comes is an understatement. Grab the Afro Sheen and the psychedelic prints and get ready to groove.