If you don’t watch your step walking through the door of DJ Dan Winberg’s bedroom-turned-studio, you’ll stumble on the pile of records blocking the doorway. And if you’re not careful when you sit down, you’ll crush a heap of loose albums on the chair. In fact, there isn’t much room to move at all; in addition to all the records, a stony-eyed MC hunches over a microphone, a skullcap-bedecked twentysomething beats on a Boss sampler and a bearded kid blows on a cheap Blues Band Harmonica.
Welcome to the rehearsal space of the Formless Figures.
This den is located smack in the middle of Suburban Town America — more specifically Warren, Michigan. And yes, the space is a little out of place. You get the feeling that the music spilling from the opened window might warp or even mutate the very molecular structure of the bleached world outside, at 33 1/3 rotations per minute.
D.J. Dan drops a copy of the decidedly unhip-hopish Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells onto the turntable, and combined with the boogie beaming out of the Boss samplers and the microphone mishmash, you hear a weird, sonorous hip hop. Anybody can slap samples and disparate sources together, sure, but the Figures excel at it.
As the needle drops into the grooves of the new Formless Figures record, your hear a ghostly voice pontificating about the natural state of relaxation, and the droning piano chords begin to wash over your hegemonic stereotypes about rap and hip hop.
Can you call it hip-hop Muzak? Well, not exactly.
The members of Formless Figures — M.C. Blair French/Dialtone, D.J. Dan Winberg/Mr. Pickles, Todd Cochell/Picturetone (keyboards and NPC Sampler), Kyle Radell/Secondhand (drum machines), and guitarist/percussionist Sean Nasrey/Scrapbook Memoir — insist their record has, to use the parlance of suburban hip-hop kids everywhere, “dope beats” and “dope lyrics.”
In many ways, their sound is dope. It’s as good as that boutique Sativa dope that got you so high it made you wonder, “Is this laced with something?” It’s a sound that can lazy-summer-day you into a blissful stratosphere and put you sound asleep, which is, fittingly, the title of the opening track on their album.
“We’re really all about sounds, sounds and records,” says the bearded daytime factory rat Winberg. The towers of records you tripped over when you walked into the studio confirm his claim; this is hip hop after all. Records to the Formless Figures are like reeds to a sax player. “Records are tools to me,” he adds.
Records are where the Figures’ sound starts, where the whole tone for the soul of the music is created. In it you might perceive, at any one time, the rustle of a wheat field blowing in the wind, a James Brown-esque drum break, be-bopping brasses or blips of NASA’s Mission Control. Sampling — one of the great, lost arts of hip hop — is the foundation of their music.
Lawsuits in the early 1990s cracked down on DJs’ rampant use of samples, and at the same time rendered an album like De La Soul’s 1989 masterpiece 3 Feet High and Rising archaic. The point at which sampling becomes stealing, versus when it is actually “art,” must arise in the mind of any serious music fan. However, one could also ask how sampling is any different from, say, Eric Clapton playing Albert King licks all over Disraeli Gears.
Besides creative sampling, the Figures also boast the intelligent wordsmithing of MC Blair French. French is better known as Freeze of the group Level Jumpers. He has done shows with acts as diverse as the Suicide Machines and Ludacris.
The new album is, on French’s part, the result of the pursuit of a solo project that morphed into the Formless Figures, which is much more a group effort than a project centered on any one performer.
It seems French draws from the Zen idea of intuition, and it’s challenging to find influences when listening to his lyrics. He clams up when asked about who inspires him.
“I’m an artist but I never really studied my art,” French says. “A lot of teachers can’t teach. And, I don’t really listen to the radio. I feel as though I was put here to create with only what was inside me at birth.”
French studies the beat each time it’s put before him, and he calmly deduces the correct way to manipulate it with his words. He fluctuates between sing-songy rapped choruses, percussive drum-like chants that rise and fall with the tempo and a machine-gun funk style of spitting.
While most contemporary rappers hurl misogynistic and ultraviolent rhymes, French’s themes border the feminine and metaphysical. He raps about the celebration of birth. He talks about planting roots in your mind and then fertilizing them. He even boldly proclaims, “Look in your enemies’ eyes and show them how the heart loves.” It’s not your typical subject matter. And it’s original.
French goes on to describe how the band’s output is more a manifestation of conversations between the group members than anything preplanned. The sounds themselves inspire, dictate, and enable what another will do musically.
There is a studious air about the band live, and if you disrupt the atmosphere with even the slightest out-of-place noise it seems as though the whole system will fall apart. While performing, no group member pogos up and down, moshes, or even contorts their face. Aside from the breakneck head bobbing, it’s all very calm and collected.
“Our music is hard to talk about because it’s ethereal, spiritual, and all very serious,” says the self-described ethnobotanist, tea-drinking keyboard player/turntablist Todd Cochell.
Over the past few months, the band — which began getting together more than a year ago at Roseville’s Record Time’s hip-hop Fridays — has been concentrating on capturing their sound on disc. Their debut 10-song LP was recorded in Winberg’s home studio and pressed at Archer’s in Detroit.
The record is a complete DIY effort; all the steps of recording, releasing and promoting it have fallen squarely on the band’s shoulders. Their dedication to creating hip hop for the simple sake of creating music is the antithesis of any desire for bling-bling return. They say that they are in it for all the right reasons, and it’s hard to argue with them.
The Figures’ approach is as simple as the ghostly first words on the record, “This tape is geared to help assist you achieve a deep, restful, restorative state.” The recording achieves its goal. And in the words of East Coast rapper Rakim, it’s “Relaxed With Pep.”
Even if you appreciate the baddest, meanest, wealthiest, biggest dick-wielding motherfucker poses in hip hop, you can still groove to the Figures.
“The way to purify hip hop is to do what you feel. Most people are caught up in other aspects of the industry. We just do what makes us happy.” says French.
Can five young suburban punks really purify a billion-dollar industry? Who cares? One thing is certain: the Formless Figures’ ambient hip hop leaves the ultra-violent technique of most bravado-laden competitors looking strictly antediluvian, baby.
The Formless Figures will celebrate the release of their debut record with a performance at the Berkley Front (3087 W. 12 Mile, Berkley) on Saturday, Feb. 21, with Jelly Adams. Call 248-547-3331 for more information.Adam Stanfel is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org