“‘If god is good, why is there evil in the world?’ He replied, `to thicken the plot.'”
So begins “Fly Away,” the opening track on DJ Signify’s latest release, Sleep No More. A mysterious and eerie sample, the quote sets the tone for the album as “Fly Away” transitions into minimalist ambient hip hop. There’s no scratching, no hooks and virtually no danceability, making it unlike any hip hop song to come before it. It leads one to wonder then, `if hip hop is dance music, why is there DJ Signify?’
The same answer given to the desperate narrator’s inquiry above applies here. With most DJ albums, you get twelve dance tracks, more or less. Inevitably, there will be some brief interludes, introductions and a couple slower songs. But the structure ultimately remains the same. The one exception to this rule seems to be DJ Shadow, who may have single-handedly invented prog-hop. But DJ Signify represents a whole different world altogether.
Signify is a hip hop antihero. He supplies the beats and the music, but getting the party moving isn’t his job. He’s more concerned with defying expectations, creating atmosphere and conveying mood. And the mood on Sleep No More is one of fear and discomfort.
Half of Sleep No More consists of instrumental tracks, while the other half features rapping by Sage Francis and Buck 65. Francis is the more impressive of the two, as evident on his flows in “Kiddie Litter,” a narrative about a suburban low-life, and “Cup of Regret,” which is told from the perspective of someone who was murdered by a woman after having sex with her. Yet, Buck’s songs aren’t to be ignored. “Stranded” is a horror story set to music, as he tells of “children carrying firearms” and “old ladies giving head.” And “Winter’s Going” features a hook that sounds quite similar to Everlast’s “What It’s Like.”
When Signify does instrumentals, however, he moves away from traditional song structure and delves into minimalist ambient territory. “Fly Away” is essentially a two-note melody, while “Migraine” revolves around some scary space age noises. He lightens the mood a bit with the three part “Peek-a-Boo.” Part one is space age bachelor pad music, while part two is one of the few straightforward dance tracks on the album, even if it’s only slightly over two minutes long. But his prettiest moment comes on “Five Leaves Left (For Lauren)” which offers a bright spot amidst the muck and darkness.
DJ Signify will most likely appeal to those looking for something outside of the hip hop norm. Hooks are in short supply here, though Sleep No More is certainly unforgettable. Sleep No More makes for some incredible late night listening, just don’t forget a night light.
Non-Prophets – Hope
DJ Shadow – The Private Press
Tricky – Angels With Dirty Faces
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.