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Album Of The Week

Boom-Para-Boom Meets Blah Blah Blah: Nothing To Declare By 700 Bliss
Antonio Poscic , May 26th, 2022 08:41

DJ Haram and Moor Mother show some of their lighter side – without losing any of the heaviness, finds Antonio Poscic

700 Biss by Isha Dipika Walia

In recent years, Camae Ayewa alias Moor Mother’s metaphorical and literal voice has become a critical driving force in reappropriating experimental music from stuffy, semi-decrepit circles and turning hermetic idioms into living and breathing vessels of radical Black thought. The Philadelphia-based activist, poet, musician, and sound artist has ventured into fiery free jazz with Irreversible Entanglements, explored the nature of space and time with Rasheedah Phillips and their art collective Black Quantum Futurism, and delved deep into the noisier nooks of the left-field, both through her solo albums like 2020’s Circuit City and various collaborations such as Zonal with Kevin Richard Martin and Justin K Broadrick.

Regardless of its exact shape, her work remains singularly driven, manifesting as concrete poetry wrapped in sound, filled with emotion and a restless sense of urgency. What might at first appear as doomsaying yields the exact opposite effect: an inspired call to arms. She doesn’t limit her Afrofuturist concepts to a single place, but rather contemplates a definite path forward, bridging past and future, and igniting the present. While Moor Mother’s individual expressions vary from project to project, her activism never subsides, embedding her art with epistemic heaviness, as if she were channelling the burdens of generations, trying to transform accumulated intangible energy into action.

Yet her collaboration 700 Bliss with New Jersey-raised, Philadelphia-based producer and musician Zubeyda Muzeyyen alias DJ Haram feels profoundly different. Spurred by DJ Haram’s signature meld of Middle Eastern influences with Philly and New Jersey-rooted club music, their first EP, 2018’s Spa 700, uncovered a hitherto unheard levity in Moor Mother’s delivery. While she was still spitting the same arduous truths and transformative thoughts, her words were now encased in banter and playful exchanges, resulting in fresh power.

Nothing To Declare, the duo’s debut proper, is Spa 700 brought to its sonic and semantic extreme. To lazily label the album as ‘noise rap’ would be a reductionist view of inventive music ardently brought together from multiple traditions. But it’s not just Moor Mother’s poetry and inflection that feels uninhibited here. DJ Haram ventures farther with her productions than demonstrated on her 2019 EP Grace, leaving behind the elegant safety of her globetrotting dance music. Here, she embraces cacophony, minimalism, and avant abstractions, meshing together styles plucked from disparate spaces and times. Techno, grime, synth-pop, and lo-fi hiphop productions come together at the same moment only to be mutated into monstrous new things.

The productions and raps swallow each other to form new arrangements, eschewing the usual pitfalls of noise rap where the worlds of sound and word exist in isolation. On the opening ‘Nothing To Declare’, DJ Haram lays down a gut-wrenching, rhythmless hiphop beat. Disorienting at first, it settles into a strange pattern over which Moor Mother hisses lines that teeter between dead serious and facetious. Soon, her flow becomes deformed laughter, bouncing across the stereo image. Tactile darburkah drums trickle down explosive booms as likely to dissipate into harsh textures as they are to coalesce into grooves.

Then ‘Totally Spies’ comes around and drops a paradigm shift with its distorted vision of R&B and grime from some alternate past. Water slushes amidst a waterfall of noise and creates an uncanny sensation, both seductive and utterly unnerving. Moor Mother’s voice grumbles, distant and hushed, as if reciting some mysterious ritual that we’re not allowed to hear. In front, Lafawndah’s silky lines – the first of several guest spots on the album – are mangled by Auto-Tune into the shy whispers of an emerging sentience. ‘Nightflame’ closes this initial triptych with an assertive “bitch make room” repeated over and over again, while another Philadelphian, Orion Sun, lends a soulful chorus to contrast the otherwise punk-inclined aggression and ricocheting percussion.

When this chaos clashes with Moor Mother’s desire to elevate, we get ‘Anthology’, an almost optimistic aspect of poetic articulation that also surfaces on her solo record Black Encyclopedia of the Air and recent Irreversible Entanglements performances. Meanwhile, Haram does her best Terrence Dixon impersonation, serving collapsing techno beats as heavy and dense as a white dwarf, while her counterpart summons Katherine Dunham, feverishly calling for “the matriarch of Black dance” and the dance practices of Jamaica, Trinidad, and Senegal. “I feel like dancing, like really dancing,” her voice trembles as if in a trance. “She danced the miracle on stage.”

This genre-bending music is perhaps best described by Moor Mother herself as she quips in the midst of a delirious, jeering back-and-forth on the ‘Easyjet’ skit: “Moor Mother’s all like ‘blah blah blah!’ and DJ Haram is like ‘boom-para-boom-pa-pa-pa-pa!’” Like the whole album, this short bit is equally an earnest nod to the traditions of hiphop and a devilish moment of giddy self-awareness from musicians able to not take themselves too seriously while tackling quite serious topics: feminism, Black identities, Afrocentrism, and the oppressive nature of Western society.

Post-skit, things become dangerously severe and restless. ‘Candace Parker’ with Palestinian producer Muqata’a is another heavy hitter. Above a skittering, crackling instrumental, Moor Mother is at her most fearsome as she growls: “Imma spit it to their face, ‘til they feel the fuckin’ bass.” It’s anger that leads to dejection that leads to anger on ‘Sixteen’, a personal recollection that oscillates between weariness and tirelessness, but ends where we were before. “I just want to dance all night,” we hear again, before shrieking synth rays slice and dice ‘Capitol’, and Alli Logout of Special Interest roars to make the harsh effects around their voice sound like whimpers: “I’m a fucking agitator, I’m a fucking instigator.”

At the end, the fabric of music begins to disintegrate. ‘More Victories’, ‘Seven’, and ‘Lead Level 15’ wrap themselves in static and noise, voices fade in and out like from a poorly received traffic report transmission – courtesy of M. Téllez’s affecting deadpan delivery – and found sounds appear from the mush. In the midst of it, Moor Mother’s rapping takes on the East Coast and its feisty rhymes, before trumpets and drilling noises close off the album.

While potentially a disorienting listen, Nothing To Declare is ultimately a masterful coming together of styles, eras and ideas, glued together by humour and a firm ideological core. The work is as challenging sonically as it is thematically, even though it might not appear such at first. “It’s not like it’s the end of the world or anything,” Haram and Moor Mother joke. “Right, everything’s fine, calm down.”