Dean Blunt may strike some as deliberately arch, but how can any artist be so prolific and wide-ranging in such intuitive, creative nonchalance if they don’t actually mean it? Blunt’s known endeavors—which began in 2009 with Inga Copeland as a part of hypnogogic pop dream team Hype Williams—are an exploratory and experimental near-constant stream of releases, YouTube uploads, performances and exhibitions with only one truly common element: you never really know what to expect.
His latest vehicle, Babyfather, will probably feature a rotating cast of characters, but Arca and DJ Escrow lend significant presences to both this new album, BBF Hosted By DJ Escrow, and the mixtape that preceded it, UK2UK. Arca’s an apt choice for a collaborator, as the Venezuelan producer’s early releases were essentially twisted hip-hop beats, and Babyfather can loosely be viewed as Blunt’s hip-hop project in terms of mood and tempo and the fact that Blunt MCs on several tracks. The lyrics are basic, but his natural cadence and smooth baritone are the sounds of something promising.
Blunt also plays fast and loose with appropriation, a theme wittily explored both in his oeuvre and in the sample culture of the genre. Here, we’ll find it most obviously with words: for instance, the lyrics to “N.A.Z.”, which contain lines from Neil Young, Nas and Bad Brains, and the press release, which consists mostly of a quote attributed to British actor Idris Elba, but the bulk of which was actually said by Cash Money co-founder Ronald “Slim” Williams.
Escrow’s role in all this is a bit harder to explain. He’s the “host,” but in hip-hop terms that can mean a classic executive producer’s role—as DJ Esco (a probable reference, “Esco” is even one of the song titles on BBF) provided for Future’s 56 Nights mixtape—or merely a promotional bump and a few vocal drops. Here, every track with “Escrow” in the title—and some others besides—features the same pitched-up London accent from the ends reminiscing, story-telling, explaining, shouting out mates and the like. His style will be familiar to anyone who’s turned an ear to London’s pirate radio tradition, and his role here largely evokes that. But he’s also our party companion after the rave, full of incessant chat while building endless spliffs.
Occasionally, the banter gives way to a moment of seriousness, like on “The Realness”, where Escrow reads an account of his search for realness culminating in an homage to Cormega’s album The Realness, complete with quotes from “R U My Nigga” (this same passage is used in “ESCROW ft dj escrow” on the UK2UK mixtape, by the way). The whole affect of Escrow as host casts the album as radio play, but instead of the high drama you might find in German Hörspiele or even on BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, it’s urban theater played out on hyperlocal pirate radio.
As an artist, Blunt has always been more about questions than answers, and he loves to keep his audience guessing. Is Escrow Blunt? Probably not. The accent is different, and Escrow’s lone rap over the offbeat hi-hats of “Platinum Cookies”—incidentally, the name of a strain of marijuana—has a grime flow, while MC Dean has a distinctly UK hip-hop vibe. But what they do have in common is an unabashed British working-class assuredness, the same carried by Micachu in the gentle lilt of gorgeous indie ballad palette cleanser “God Hour”. Likewise, in “PROLIFIC DEAMONS”, radio host Escrow tells us, “The next one’s an exclusive,” as a power electronics noise track screeches away. It’s a disruptive and genuinely surprising turn—especially following the stoned boom bap of “Motivation”—but power electronics, as coined by Whitehouse’s William Bennett, and even noise music are also products of British working-class artists. It’s enough to make you feel the sentiment, “This makes me proud to be British”—a statement supposedly made by Elba on the press release and a loop that recurs throughout the album.
But the cover art takes on special meaning in an era of isolationism, xenophobia, Brexit, closed borders during a large-scale refugee crisis, austerity, hyper-capitalism gone amok, and housing struggles in one of the most expensive cities in the world—lest we forget, “escrow” is a term most commonly used in financial and real estate deals. It depicts a close-up of a Union Jack hoverboard overlooking the glittering London cityscape—a beautiful pisstake of the notion of Britishness. Of course, both pride and pisstake are true, and Blunt does a good job of capturing those mixed emotions. Musically, BBF Hosted By DJ Escrow can feel like a tough listen interspersed with inviting and occasionally absurd moments. But as an artistic vision, it’s remarkably coherent while containing a complexity and richness that is both thoughtful and thought provoking.
BBF Hosted By DJ Escrow is out April 1, 2016 via Hyperdub.
Published March 31, 2016.