Kid Koala - 12 Bit Blues
How do you make something new from something old?
Such is the question faced by Eric San AKA Canadian scratch DJ Kid Koala who recently came into possession of an E-mu SP-1200 sampler: The legendary sampler and drum machine used and lauded by everyone from Dre to Daft Punk to J Dilla. But, as any kid in the school playground will tell you, once you've managed to get your hands on that special toy that everyone simply has to have, something shiny and new will have taken its place and the SP-1200's raw and dusty sound is largely irrelevant in a hip-hop landscape dominated by mainstream R&B samples and The A$AP Mob's swirling, oppressive instrumentals. So San did what any self-respecting 2nd generation advocate of a dated technology would do, he made himself a blues record.
Upon first look the conceit of 12 Bit Blues, may seem a little odd: A turntablist blues record using only the SP-1200 and a multi-track recorder. But upon anything other than a cursory glance the connection becomes blindingly obvious. Blues and Hip-Hop are both genres borne out of limitation, both strip music back to its component parts: back to the groove, the beat and the attitude. And Kid Koala is faced not only with the limitations of technology but of the music itself: the blues by its nature rarely lends itself well to dense layers and textures, but by purposefully stripping away his options, he has forced himself to do what the greats of both genres he’s working with have always had to do: get creative with what he has and the result is one of the most vibrant, authentic and arresting blues records in years.
Each track is simply titles 'bit blues', with some players prefacing it with the track number. Koala makes it clear that this is an album to be experienced in its entirety, to be luxuriated in and each track is varied and textured enough to make sure that's possible. The album opens with a slow, lazy shuffle with a subtly manipulated voice describing the true of the blues compared to the way people think of it and with this Koala puts out the albums thesis statement in its first seconds. '2 Bit Blues' is a John Lee Hooker style Detroit blues shuffle where we get the first example of the vocals being significantly lowered, something that Koala uses throughout the album. The typical drawling blues vocal taking to its logical extreme. It's testament not only to Koala's skill on the turntable but also to his knowledge and respect of the blues. The sampling and scratching is never overused, it exists to amplify the things that made the blues so damn exciting in its day. '3 Bit Blues' takes a harmonica sample and turns it into a blisteringly raw solo, and '8 Bit Blues' chops a screaming vocal into pieces that only serves to increase the tension and aggression, especially when a long cry is broken into a stuttering, staccato, scat-esque beat. Where an act like The Avalanches would use the turntables to tear the samples apart until they were unrecognisable, Koala has ensured that the quality of each individual sample is retained; but they're put together with such care and attention that the end result is something entirely of its own.
It's rare for a sample-based album to feel quite so alive. Part of this is the result of Koala recording the parts of each track on top of one and other in real time and only at the end adding any overdubs. The other aspect that causes the album to feel this way is that Koala so clearly gets what he's working with. His clear understanding of the blues makes the album sound far truer to the classic artists than the vast amount of modern, mostly white, mainstream blues acts. The whole album has a feeling of a packed, dusty cellar; on tracks like '6, 9 and 10 Bit Blues' the samples feel like a whooping crowd, they ooze with life when they could so easily have been cold and sterile.
Ultimately 12 Bit Blues is an album of recycling, old techniques used on old gear sampling even older music but far from being a mere nostalgia trip, Koala takes the timeless aspects of each element to forge something that, while not necessarily groundbreaking (the shadow of Little Axe's The Wolf that House Built looms pretty large), feels fresh and vital and far more than the sum of its parts. As the vocal passionately asserts on '2 Bit Blues':
"It's not what I got / It's what I do with what I got."