The year 2004 was a whole different world. Preppy Kanye pitched up with a backpack and the autotune-free ‘The College Dropout’, Outkast were at their peak with ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’, and The Libertines released their second album and promptly split. Keane, Usher, Kelis, Destiny’s Child, Avril Lavigne, Eamon, Frankee and Terror Squad ruled the charts. The term “wardrobe malfunction” was coined when Janet Jackson’s boob popped out at the Superbowl. Britney married Kevin Federline, Ol’Dirty Bastard passed away. Busted won a Brit. YouTube didn’t even exist. But away from the headline news, an underground scene in Boston was bustling.
At the time of making ‘Beauty And The Beat’, released 10 years ago today, Edan was living in an apartment near Symphony Hall in Boston and hanging out in a scene that included Mr Lif, Acrobatik and Insight. Sales of debut album ‘Primitive Plus’ and money from shows were paying the bills and allowed him the freedom to make his second album without a day job. Edan whiled away over a hot and humid summer for six or so months. Independent hip-hop was selling, records were selling and the music-obsessed 26-year-old was spewing creativity left, right and centre.
Mike Lewis, who started his label Lewis Recordings specifically to release Edan’s ‘Primitive Plus’ in 2002, looks back. “We'd been through a time when there was so much independent hip-hop on a million different labels. That saturation and lack of quality started to have a negative impact. Edan's rhyming and lyrical skills combined with the psychedelic sound of his production shone out.”
The second album was no disappointment: ‘Beauty And The Beat’ is a ludicrously creative magical mystery tour, showcasing Edan’s talents as beat-maker, rhyme-writer, musician and king of delivery. It’s a blast of tight velocity that clusters around old samples from Brian Wilson to The Small Faces spliced with hip-hop beats and whip-smart rap. He was, in his words, “looking for the funky where the funky wasn’t always quick to reveal itself.”
“It was a nice time,” says Edan, speaking from his flat in a “not very trendy” part of Brooklyn, NY. “I was striving to find a voice that reflected my wide range of musical inspirations and influences at the time. I remember asking myself what I thought was missing from the music and hip-hop I was hearing.”
That thing was an elegant collage of rock and rap. Edan dug deep into his musical history and strove to combine his psychedelic tastes – the flame was lit with Sgt. Pepper’s when he was eight years old - with his love of old school hip-hop, while retaining his own voice. In 2005 he turned out a palimpsest of layered influences – and it quickly gathered a cult following and became a beloved album of many including Flying Lotus, DJ Shadow and the Black Keys.
One of the great moments on ‘Beauty And The Beat’ is ‘I See Colours’. It starts with a sample of the traditional melody of Arthur Hamilton’s ‘I Can Sing A Rainbow’ – ‘red and yellow and pink and green – before squealing outrageously into a new vocal – ‘I can see a rainbow!’ - that takes the song to a completely different universe. It’s bold, intense and unexpected, subverting the listener’s expectations like a shot of Aftershock.
“I See Colours was the moment I felt like I was hitting on that vibe. I felt satisfied that I could go this way with it. It seems like a very natural thing to do – to let somebody sing and it become the chorus if you will.”
Edan won’t be drawn on the samples – and reams of fans still obsess over cracking his sources. He will say, though, that the vocal hook on ‘I See Colours’ is two versions of the same song. “You hear this one recording of this one song and then this other recording fades in and then when that rainbow thing happens I abruptly switch back. There’s an abruptness to the hook I like.”
Edan had a few significant “spirit guides” for the album. One was Afrika Bambaataa. “The album’s an extensions of the philosophy Bambaataa had. Very eclectic. He would cut Beatles records at his parties. He was visionary enough to go past social boundaries and look for funky music regardless of ethnicity and colour-lines or any of that. That’s the truest form of collage. That’s such a beautiful form of collage. It’s an extension of that.”
At the time it wasn’t that common to blend anything under the song, though Edan calls himself “just a disciple of that long-standing art form”. Apart from Dangermouse’s Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up ‘The Grey Album’, released the same year as ‘Beauty And The Beat’ was being made, no one was combining the two worlds with panache and diversity.
“I was just trying to be true to the things that I love,” remembers Edan. “Having a message that is unifying. Even these genres of music that seem disparate or separate.”
Dagha, a rapper who was part of the Boson scene and met Edan through Insight and Electric Company, put down the first verse on ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’, a breathtaking tour-de-force of near-rhymes. “You have to always be a student of the culture and promote racial harmony,” he says of his memories around working with Edan. “Black and whites together can put on wigs, play xylophones, kazoos and acoustic guitar in the name of hip hop.”
Syd Barrett was another ‘spirit guide’ for the album and 60s psychedelic bands such as Pink Floyd, Elmer Gantry's Velvet Opera and Sweden’s Tages provide a surrealist backdrop to Edan’s idiosyncratic word-smithery.
Few rappers are as colorful and inventive. From “two-headed tarantulas” to “dogs taking shits on floors and growing wings”, his imagery is joltingly original and the words he uses are just like “paint splashing over your conscious like a canvas.” References to Dali, physics, geography, ancient history abound. And his quixotic plosive delivery suits the battle-rap styles he sometimes employs. (On stage, the stories comes alive – and it’s worth saying that if you haven’t seen Edan live, you should correct that. His shows of feasts of beat-juggling, a capella freestyles, tag-team rhyming, often with Paten Locke, or eclectic DJ sets.)
“I still like it,” he says of the record. “I think honestly the reason I haven’t made a bunch more stuff is because subconsciously I might have accomplished what I set out to do. I just wanted to make a real nice thing and have people like it. I just made an album that spoke from my expression and it inspired people.”
He didn’t expect the record to be so successful and Lewis says he only expected to sell 100 copies or so. But it blew up – and he gets a lot of positive feedback to this day, including fans messaging him daily to ask about the next record.
It’s an astonishing footprint for an album that’s just 34 minutes long. Lewis remembers the mid 00s as a time when a lot of artist were padding album out with filler and the double CD was the “done thing.” Edan excised any flab from his magnum opus and made sure every detail was perfect, including the artwork.
“When we worked on the layout for Beauty And The Beat he actually came to our London office and sat with our production manager (Kirk Hendry) meticulously going over every detail. Even the yellow colour of the centre labels on the vinyl had to be exactly the tone he wanted. The LP covers were hand made in California and the vinyl was pressed in New York so coordinating everything was a logistical nightmare. Worth it in the end!” Lewis says.
Prince Paul was the last but by no means least high priest that Edan drew from. The legendary NY producer gave him the courage to find “wide-ranging sample sources” and ‘keep it moving’, as he states in ‘I See Colours’. By digging into all sorts of crates and pin-balling between genres he created something unique.
“It came from loving Marly Marl and (Kool) G Rap and Kane and Rakim and also loving Elmer Gantry's Velvet Opera and even Eastern European rock where I couldn’t understand what was being said. Hebrew records. Hendrix is also a God, obviously. It’s all that. I felt like I wasn’t really hearing paint get thrown around in hip-hop. Everything was so concise, and percussive and precise at the time.”
So what of that follow-up? Well, in the last 10 years Edan’s been playing a lot of shows, releasing the Echo Party mixtape, a film, an amazing track with DJ Format, radio shows and last month, a new track with Memory Man (listen below), his old room-mate from the time of Beauty And The Beat. He writes rhymes when people ask him to feature on a song these days.
What’s he listening to at the moment? “I like White Fence. Jessica Pratt. I’m still bugging out the old records. I’m just as likely to throw on something from the early/late 80s than something that’s new. It moves around. It’s stuff you might’ve heard on Red Alert, it’s that kind of golden age of NYC rap radio. That whole feel.”
I ask if he feels pressure to evolve, as he did so dramatically between ‘Primitive Plus’ and ‘Beauty And The Beat’.
“I think everybody feels pressure to evolve. Evolution is on everybody’s ass. You wonder what it’s all about. You feel like there’s this inherent pressure on all of us to improve ourselves for this greater good and sometimes that feels like a shackle.”
Edan says he’s eager to surpass his productivity from 10 years ago and he’s flattered by fans messaging him. “Sorry I’m not faster,” he says. “But what I do have coming is rock stuff. I’m singing. I write songs.”
For lovers of his rapping, don’t fret. He says that’s coming too, though it won’t be a full album. He’s just keen on not turning out a “bunch of bullshit,” but admits he doesn’t feel satisfied. “There’s more to be done,” he says.