One can easily argue that time and memory govern the way we experience music, especially considering how nostalgia continues to preserve and sculpt cultural memory through both past and present, coexisting to piece the future together. For Vex Ruffin, these are durable instruments necessary to maintain the continuity of his selfhood on his latest album, ‘LiteAce Frequency’.
Named after a boxy passenger van his parents owned in his youth, the Stones Throw artist recreates the ruggedness and comfort of a specific time and place from his past. He does this against the backdrop of fatherhood: navigating the rote quality of making a living in ‘Mabuhay Boy’ (Tagalog for ‘Long Live The Boy’) and album standout ‘What Matters The Most’, a sentimental, Japanese acid jazz-sampling ode to familial ties.
Rediscovery and contentment are overarching themes on the Filipino-American beatmaker’s latest LP, an active pursuit and a state of mind both at work. Its musical direction is driven by perspective, by contributing to the present moment and relishing it at the same time. He is self-assured in the tropical opener ‘Know Yourself’ and celebratory in electro funk number ‘I’m Still At It’, and collected in ‘Tapang Naman’ (‘How Brave’), a testimony to cool resiliency.
He’s adamant to draw some good from an otherwise fearful and chaotic time. This earnestness to inspire positivity is rarely rewarded and sometimes mocked, and though the pandemic may have abruptly forced us to reconnect with people and/or things, Ruffin is glad to seize the opportunity. “At my age, you start to reflect… I’m more mature, more experienced. A lot more mellow. A lot more at peace,” he told NME in a recent interview. As the very first line of ‘LiteAce Frequency’ goes: “Life is not what you expect / I don’t care, I’m happy anyway.”
While Vex Ruffin’s catalogue covers an expansive sonic spectrum, his roots are in hip-hop and punk. Of the 13 songs on ‘LiteAce Frequency’, only the reverb-heavy ‘Hard to See’ (which samples Mott the Hoople’s 1972 glam rock song, ‘Whizz Kid’) and the new wave cut ‘I’m Going Hard’ resemble his earlier discography. Compared to his previous releases, Vex Ruffin channels his revered labelmates Madlib and J Dilla more conspicuously, whipping out retro-futurist warbles and chopping vocals generously and applying the same artistic instincts intimately.
Primarily, his third LP with Stones Throw showcases Ruffin’s highly specific sampling selection, which goes beyond just repurposing the past towards a pure interpretation of identity. He shares vignettes of Filipino life and culture, such as his use of a ’70s liquor commercial in mid-album interlude ‘Fili Soul Transmission’ and revels in the wistful balladry of that same era on ‘All I Have’.
He wears the Manila Sound – the soul- and funk-oriented melodic pop genre that dominated Philippine radio nearly five decades ago – on his sleeve, distilling it to its defining elements: abrupt shifts in tempo, soft vocal affect, novel and lyrical campiness, and the ease of switching between Tagalog and English – revived with keen Pinoy familiarity in ‘Ikaw Lang’ (‘Only You’).
‘LiteAce Frequency’ is Vex Ruffin’s most evident autobiographical work to date. It revisits familiar sights and sounds through an old vehicle cherished for its reliability, his youth memorialised in wax — just how he wants to remember it. It documents his stylistic changes from lo-fi to disco, its scattered spontaneity further reinforcing the fitful manner of his music. It’s accompanied by visually potent cover art, which illustrates a typical Filipino living room, then and even now: religious iconography, black-and-white floor tiles, slippers scattered by the door, a chunky TV set showing a boxing fight on screen, another passion of Ruffin’s.
“Boxing is life. You get hit, you fall down, you get back up, you hit back, but all that matters is that you finish it. Keep coming, don’t stop no matter what.” He’s named retired professional boxer Bernard Hopkins as a huge inspiration: “As he got older, he got better. That’s me. I’m not getting any younger, but I am getting better.”
- Release date: August 20
- Record label: Stones Throw