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Prodigy
Prodigy Present the Dirtchamber Sessions: Volume One
(XL-Recordings)

The role of the DJ in modern culture is more prevalent and powerful than it has ever been. No mere record spinners, today's jocks are turntable artists, capable of wrapping a series of tunes into one incendiary package; the best of them do this without exposing a single seam. Old school vs. new school, funk meets electronica, elastic R&B faces hip-hop. It's the club bomb, blowing up beats all over the dance floor.

Prodigy's Liam Howlett, a deft turntablist and old-school DJ with sharp mixing skills, applies a little of every style of music that has influenced him over the years--from '70s soul to punk rock to his vinyl-scratching peers--on Prodigy Present the Dirtchamber Sessions: Volume One, a one-man show of arms. It's a mix album, like the Chemical Brothers' sideline project from last year, incorporating fragments of tunes (or in some cases, such as the Sex Pistols' "New York," nearly the entire song) into eight individual pieces, clocking in at about 51 minutes total.

Leaving his Prodigy bandmates (including sneering clown/singer Keith Flint) behind, Howlett's independent spinfest is his gift to club culture. Prodigy's The Fat of the Land was the only album from the media-fueled electronica non-revolution to reach number one, and for that the outfit took a lot of shit. Techno sellouts, they were called.

Dirtchamber Sessions (featuring cuts from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Jane's Addiction, Primal Scream, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and Digital Underground, among many others) is Howlett's vengeance and vindication; it's more solid than the Chemicals' outing (or Funkmaster Flex's similar, but lesser, trip, for that matter), perhaps the first official mix album to actually matter.

Still, don't mistake this for The Fat of the Land's follow-up. What you're getting here is essentially Howlett spinning records, albeit with more pizzazz and intellect than your average radio (or club) jock. He occasionally resorts to familiar James Brown chants and breakbeats. And he can't help but to sneak in chunks of Ultramagnetic MCs' "Give the Drummer Some," the cut that supplied the mantra to Prodigy's controversial "Smack My Bitch Up," a song that pissed off reformed fratguys the Beastie Boys, who pop up themselves on The Dirtchamber Sessions with "The New Style" and "Time to Get Ill." It's a bit of postmodern jesting on Howlett's part, a witty cap to a dizzying turntable extravaganza.

--Michael Gallucci

Gus Gus
This Is Normal
(4AD/Warner Bros.)

There must be something in the Icelandic air that turns its artists into such space cases. First, Bjsrk trips the light fantastic with crooked electro beats that owe as much to rebuilding aural structure as they do to defying conventional musical sense. Plus, she always seems to be orbiting around her own little planet. Now, the nine members of Gus Gus let their resumes speak for them: Made up of photographers, pop stars, politicians, actors, directors, teen stars, computer programmers, and DJs, this isn't so much a band as it is an artist community giving techno a frigid European spin.

On its second album, This Is Normal, Gus Gus removes the artsy-fartsy tinkering that made its 1997 debut such a labored listen and plugs up the holes with a solid blend of trip-hop and ambient-soaked electro shocks. It's still, appropriately, a chilly journey through these eleven tracks. But working within a systematic arrangement this time, they at least don't knock you senseless with an overload of beeping gadgets. It's dance music, once removed from its European brothers and sisters and filtered through the cool Icelandic atmosphere.

Which doesn't necessarily make any of this all the more memorable or even notable in the current electro climate. It does, however, make This Is Normal an occasional blithe slab of postmodern techno operating in its own little corner of the world.

--Gallucci

Nas
I Am . . .
(Columbia)

Scattered throughout the 64 unwieldy minutes that compose Nas's third album, I Am . . ., is a lyrically charged and stirring hip-hop disc running at about half that length. You're gonna have to do some fancy shuffling and editing of tracks to get to the core of this record, but the result is well worth the extra work. Too bad, though, that Nas couldn't have saved us all the trouble by whittling down I Am . . . to its fundamental elements, leaving the Scarface and DMX collaborations in the studio and focusing instead on sharpening the cuts that do work.

As one of hip-hop's most reliable MCs of the past half-decade, Nas has yet to beat the discrepancies in his character. He's an agile and bright rapper, socially conscious, and rarely out for the quick score. He's remained faithful to his roots and the streets, balancing a gift for freestyling with a golden rhythmic touch. But he can just as easily be a wearisome player, tossing in misogynistic and homophobic jabs for the cred. And when he strikes a trash-talkin', pussy-huntin' pose on I Am . . .'s "Dr. Knockboot," he might as well be any of the boorish, interchangeable MCs that Master P unleashes every other week.

Accordingly, I Am . . . often performs on two different levels as two different albums. There's little conceptual or melodious consistency between tracks, and Nas's didacticism more often than not sounds hypocritical. But once you pare the disc to its eight or so key cuts, it's a sound journal of hip-hop melodrama. Nas flows in and out of situations--tales of ghetto prisoners and bigger things--with deft style; when he pulls himself in to check out his personal standing on the introspective "Nas Is Like," I Am . . . turns into a rich reflection of his past five years.

--Gallucci

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