Geoff Barrow just dropped a 41 track hip hop album. One has to sit back and simply take in the audacity before registering just how massive that is. For “hip-hop heads,” the Portishead guru is an uncertain guest; during the earlier years of indie sensibilities creeping into rap culture, fans of the more traditional welcomed the changes with open arms; electing snobbery over the dull platitudes available on the airwaves. Gradually, however, this gave way to a resistance, perhaps a reaction to the ever growing hold ‘safer’ artists have over hip hop, a suspicion of anything removed from what a rap fan considers “real.”
Hence, Barrow and his crew (a genuinely massive collective) are considerably unlikely boom-bap saviors. Yet, as anyone who listens to Quakers will discover, this is exactly what they are. Portishead’s cold, brooding trip-hop sound is, after all, perfectly suited for MCs to bend to their needs; the likes of Lloyd Banks have sampled their work, which is in itself largely made from samples. In short, Barrow is perfectly suited to tackle a hip hop project, loyal fans will even tell you it’s about damn time; however, he’s not going it alone.
First up are Australian beatsmiths Katalyst and 7-stu-7 (cough: Portishead engineer Stuart Matthews), who share primary musical duties with Barrow. The project has such a diverse supporting cast – 35 individuals, to be exact – that media outlets have yet to even agree as to how to classify the project. Are the MCs simply guests, or a genuine part of the collective? Barrow and crew would seemingly rather we believe the latter, and if that’s so, can a record crafted by such a motley bunch be truly considered an album created by a focused unit, or is it closer, in earnest, to a compilation? These questions and others are just what make Quakers such as baffling and intriguing album. Its slapdash nature gives the impression it almost could not have happened at all, a collection of brainstorming and supreme afterthoughts.
Yet, the album itself, somehow, couldn’t be any less vital. In fact, its scatterbrained structure recalls hip-hop’s earlier days when the likes of Marley Marl (or, later, Dr. Dre) threw down the beats and anyone who could spit a mean bar was allowed a cut. With the likes of Guilty Simpson, Phat Kat, Dead Prez, and some other underground musts mixed with relative unknowns filling out the ranks, it’s much the same here. Matched with the record’s nostalgic, hard-hitting production, Quakers is more genuinely connected to the music it’s obsessing over than any other record in recent memory. With a 90s resurgence firmly grasping acclaimed hip hop – from Premo showing up on Game’s The RED Album; the likes of Statik Selektah, Alchemist and Buckwild milking the decade for inspiration; Smif-N-Wessun coming back with Pete Rock; to the countless sequels to 90s classics still continuing to emerge, Quakers – the record built by those least associated with the history – somehow manages to breeze past most of these other efforts, coming off as a more natural, less painfully engineered effort. So, how does it all work as an entirety?
Well, as was previously reverently mentioned, this thing is 41 tracks, most of them in the two minute range: Quakers aren’t playing around. Aside from an old school collab album, it sounds something like switching between hip hop channels at 2 AM in a mythical land where quality still rules the airwaves, as if you hopped a Delorean to a 90s rap scene that never happened. You might think the bold amount of material, and how quickly it alternates, may drown the record, but, yet again Barrow and friends manage to dodge the rules that seem to confine pretty much everyone else, and they make it look easy.
The sprawling tracklist, in fact, keeps the product enticingly fresh, ideas switching before any one concept can begin to – ever – grow dull. The beats are by and large, not surprisingly, rather drum-centric, but individual vibes differ greatly, from moody and atmospheric to vibrantly ecstatic. It also keeps the material intriguing for multiple spins, before you adjust to one sound, you’re on to the next. Even after a solid dozen listens you’ll be forgetting what’s next, wondering when ‘that song’ happens, and so on. As both a display of production mastery, and as a hip hop effort, Quakers is one of the most consistently refreshing albums in recent memory. What exactly are Quakers, you might ask, who are they? Their identity is hard to peg, and its just this that allows the music to completely possess the forefront, that makes it such an engaging, entertaining, and, perhaps most significantly, fascinating listen.