DJ Spinna: Sonic Smash (Album Review)

AllHipHop Staff

Hip-Hop is truly “sink or swim” in 2009. Gone are the days where an artist simply perfects their craft and entrusts a label to package and cultivate their brand in the marketplace. Now, artist is a synonym for A&R, street team, publicist, and tour manager. Enter DJ Spinna, who as a late 90’s artist is old enough to remember the Silver Age of Hip-Hop, but young enough for his art to not be bound or stifled by previous traditions. On his latest project, Sonic Smash (High Water Music), Spinna makes good on his promise to deliver a no frills, streamlined Hip-hop album.

The opening tracks are heavily preoccupied with addressing the perceived artistic limitations of mainstream Hip-Hop. The live spoken intro on “Elemental” immediately declares to the listener they are dealing with high art, as the emcee requests that the audience call out the elements of Hip-Hop culture (emceeing, DJing, graffiti, and breaking). From there, the five man NYC group Sputnik Brown shows reverence for pioneers like Grandmaster Flash and Jazzy Jeff while pontificating on Hip-Hop’s pure beginnings (“Relevant elements for inner city settlements/Before they starting selling it/Hip-Hop was intelligent/Strictly wild styles is what we represent”).

The commentary takes a sharper edge in the hands of the gruff and capable Torae, who wowed critics and fans earlier this year with the Marco Polo collaboration Double Barrel. For Sonic Smash, DJ Spinna supplies the Brooklynite with an appropriate thumping bassline accompanied with a sinister melody chock full of galactic, sci-fi effects. Titled “Lyrics Is Back,” Torae asserts himself as a vanguard to improve Hip-Hop, instead of simply bemoaning the culture’s past exploits (“I miss the days of Big Poppa/When Tip said ‘Hammer…Proper/Damn that was the knock y’all/I remember when cats went in to make memorable tracks/I hope you listening the lyrics is back”).

Thankfully, the early mainstream antagonism is short-lived, and the LP opens up further as DJ Spinna shows off his creative sampling. The routine rhyme performance from the Jigmastas (“New York”) was strengthened by Spinna’s savvy lifting of the ubiquitous beginning chords of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Sticky Fingaz’ frantic “so, so, so” phrase from “Throw Ya Gunz” becomes the chorus backbone for “Get On Down,” which features young guns Fresh Daily , P. Cass, and Homeboy Sandman spitting rapid-fire rhymes over scratches, cymbals, and trumpet horns. The lush arrangements continue with “Call Me Senor,” the melodic vehicle for burgeoning Atlanta emcee Senor Kaos to spit self-determination rhymes celebrating his lyrical gifts.

The album doesn’t falter even when tackling the obligatory love track. Phonte’s Little Brother provides his usual perceptive life lyrics on “Guaranteed,” and Spinna crafts another unique, funky mood with a nice vocal sample of the 70s smokeout anthem “Smokin’ Cheeba Cheeba,” from the Harlem Underground Band. Vocalist Yazarah takes care of the hook duties, and her crooning provides the female element needed to round out the track. “Melody” is even more engaging, with former Rawkus standout Shabaam Sahdeeq effortlessly riding an upbeat, jazzy Spinna offering with bars on the conflicting emotions love brings (“So many times she cries say I spend no time/I was out on the town with different dimes/They was all same change/I wasn’t ready to change…”).

Rounding out Sonic Smash are several songs with pointed social and political commentary. Elzhi continues to develop his concept skills with “More Colors.” The track references the various vibrant colors that define a community, from police “blue” to the products of drug dealers (“Go from painting the town red underneath the night skies/To going to trial/Telling little white lies”). Dynas uses Spinna’s ethereal production on “More” to detail our spiritual and educational degradation as a society. In contrast, femcee Tiye Phoenix takes a more conspiratorial approach on “Still Golden,” and takes the stolen legacy approach in discussing the history of Black culture.

With most compilations, it’s difficult for the arranger to retain any type of cohesion and buck the inevitable mixtape feel the project takes on. But with Sonic Smash, DJ Spinna gives his guests just enough creative leeway to keep each offering distinct. The end result is not just an enjoyable album, but one that delivers on its beginning vow to reflect the elemental pillars of Hip-Hop.

DJ Spinna feat. Torae- “Lyrics Is Back”

DJ Spinna feat. Shabaam Sahdeeq and Erik Rico- “Melody”