Out of the Box #5
We Dub Diabetic Test Strips
OUT OF THE BOX #5
Armand Hammer meets Scientist ~ We Dub Diabetic Test Strips - Thee Remixes! (2023)
Copped this remix record last month, and given my recent longread on Armand Hammer’s We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, and the fact they’ve just announced the tour only BLK LBL LP, it seemed like the right choice for this installment of Out of the Box, a series spotlighting various seven inch records from my collection.
“What up Scien(tist)?” Armand Hammer (read: Arm & Hammer) is a NY-based hip hop duo comprised of ELUCID and billy woods. Here they meet dub legend the Scientist to rework some tracks from their latest full length. Though the group has been active since 2013, they’ve experienced an exponential rise in critical attention since the release of Rome (2017) and Paraffin (2018), leading to Haram (2021) produced entirely by the Alchemist, which brought them more mainstream notice, including scene stealing features on Earl Sweatshirt’s “Tabula Rasa.” Their latest LP We Buy Diabetic Test Strips saw the duo expand their circle of collaborators, including the single “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” one of the duo’s more accessible tunes, produced by El-P. For this limited edition 45 available via Rough Trade, Scientist reinterprets “Gods” as well as “Empire Blvd,” produced by Willie Green with features from Junglepussy and Curly Castro. (Luckily we don’t have to talk about JPEG today.)
Is We Dub Diabetic Test Strips essential or more of a curiosity? Probably the latter, but a worthwhile one. As far as I’m concerned, taking chances to do something unusual is a totally appropriate use of a seven inch.
Scientist is one of my favorite dub producers, alongside his mentor King Tubby. Records like King Tubby’s Meets Scientist At Dub Station and The Scientist’s Scientific Dub are among my most played dub records. I’ll confess I’m not really up on what Scientist has been doing more recently, but regardless this pairing makes sense. Minimalist, hypnotic reworkings of two songs from their recent full-length, with effectively truncated vocal flourishes, Scientist both distills something at the heart of these tracks while creating something distinct. Not quite the modern bass heavy riddims I might have hoped for, but interesting in their own right.
Tamarind daiquiri, no tough guy, I'm a dandy
No bam in the backwood, color of brandy
Acrid, greed, banana and ackee
King Tubby, wherever I'm at, that's the hit factory
- billy woods
Before talking about these two remixes, what’s Armand Hammer’s connection to dub? The techniques of dub—playing the mixing desk and effects to manipulate multitrack tape of reggae songs to produce new “versions”—have become common practice in hip hop and electronic music in general, in so far as the idea that the playback of pre-recorded material can itself be instrumentalized to produce something new. We’ve grown accustomed to remixes and versions, instrumentals and acapellas. But besides some shared musical DNA, there are many direct references to dub, reggae, and Jamaica throughout the Armand Hammer catalogue.
An obvious place to start is “King Tubby,” from 2020’s Shrines, the title a reference to one of dub’s great pioneers who was tragically killed in 1989. King Tubby started his career as an electrical repairman during the rise of Jamaican sound system culture in the 1960s, and his bricoleur approach to mixing always appealed to my sensibilities. Talk about the studio as instrument! As ELUCID says on on the track, “Raised on self reliance when Jah didn't provide enough.”
The same creative spirit that birthed hip hop was already present in Jamaican sound system culture, occasionally cited as a direct influence on early hip hop parties. And not for nothing, but DJ Kool Herc was born in Jamaica. The Kingston-Bronx connection, part of a wider West Indies-NYC circuit. But early reggae artists were themselves inspired by American R&B, a reciprocity of musical circulation that shouldn’t be overlooked. So again, there’s a pleasant symmetry to a legendary Jamaican producer reinterpreting some of contemporary hip hop’s most interesting producers.
King Tubby used a high-pass filter (his “big knob”) to produce some of his sound effects, but the digital laser sounds on “King Tubby” are more reminiscent instead of Lee "Scratch" Perry, whose style was more flamboyant and who enjoyed a longer career, passing away in 2021. “King Tubby” actually begins with a sample of Perry speaking (“This is my proof…”), so while the title refers to Tubby, the theme seems to speak to dub more broadly (while the larger theme of the song seems to reflect on imposter syndrome). And as much as an early death can contribute to the mythologization of an artist, Perry was a world-traveling legend by the time of his death. The liner notes on woods’ Aethiopes (2022) also ends with “RIP Lee Perry.”
That album is a profound exploration of the concept of blackness and its potentialities and limitations. woods’ father was from Zimbabwe, where he spent a part of his childhood, and his mother from Jamaica, where he also spent time. References to Zimbabwe and his father recur throughout the catalog. But references to Jamaica are peppered through wood's’ catalogue as well. On his second album, The Chalice (2004) he rhymes “Foot in Jamaica to dodging lasers in the land of / Skyscrapers, old-school payphones and pagers”), while on “Weeper” he raps about duppies and dubplates, “Sevens Clash, weight 'pon the eighth,” from Today I Wrote Nothing (2015). Such tonal inflection and patois (see also Haram, “Peppertree wave over me tombstone”) gesture toward woods’ Jamaican connection.
This is especially the case on Aethiopes, an album which explores the complexities of Black and African identities, particularly given that both framings were conceived of from a European perspective (aethiopes being the Greek word for darker skinned peoples, literally “burnt-face.”) What does it mean, woods seems to ask, for Jamaicans to relate to Ethiopia, symbolically, in so far as the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975) was at the center of Rastafarianism, and politically, as among other things, he was emperor of a country, one of two free black-run countries in Africa at the time, that nonetheless had an active slave economy in the 20th century. Preservation’s production across Aethiopes makes reference to Jamaican and Ethiopian music among others, including from South Africa and Italy, sonically exploring themes similar to the lyrics.
The refrain of “Christine” is taken directly from Bob Marley’s “Mr. Brown,” a 1971 song written by Glen Adams of the Upsetters, Lee Perry’s house band at the Black Ark, telling the story of a Jamaican ghost or duppy. [See Armand Hammer’s “Duppy” for just one of many references to duppies in the catalog.] Another direct Jamaican connection comes on “Protoevangelium,” which features vocals from Shinehead, who has been active in NYC’s dancehall scene since the 1980s.
Ok, so all of that is to emphasize that Armand Hammer and woods in particular has a deep previously established connection to Jamaica and dub. So what did King Tubby’s protege Scientist find in Armand Hammer’s latest LP?
The A-side is “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” one of my favorite tracks on Test Strips but also one of the most accessible. Produced by El-P, who doesn’t get enough credit as a producer, the production revolves around an elastic bass line over which woods and ELUCID trade bars. El-P has most recently earned widespread fame for his work with Killer Mike as Run the Jewels, but he’d previously pioneered new paradigms in hip hop production with his work for Company Flow, Cannibal Ox, and his DefJux solo records. “Gods” is understandably closer in style to his more recent work, and the repetitive descending bass line lends itself to Scientist’s bouncing take on the song, grounded in an upbeat monophonic melodic line which develops over three minutes.
The first words we hear come from woods:
Drive-in movie theatre
Toyota Cressida, heavy metal speaker
“Speaker” echoes out as the vocals are cut, depriving woods of the punchline of this verse. Scientist lets the beat groove for a while, gradually introducing dub feedback and high filter sweeps before ELUCID gets a few more lines in:
Uh, face and name logged away
I might remember, I might ask again
I be everywhere, where blessings is
Where curses come, air feels thick
Again, the vocals are clipped mid bar, with the repetition on the word “end” like an ellipsis. And that all we hear from the MCs on Scientists take on the track, instead we get a dub workout for nearly another 90 seconds, as the melodic line plays off the snare hits and occasional chord stabs.
I was curious to see the choice of a B-side was “Empire Blvd,” produced by Willie Green. I always love when a Green beat pops up (“Fuhrman Tapes” on Paraffin, “Dead Birds,” “Gas Leak,” and “Stranger in the Village” on Terror Management, “Furies” from Brass, and of course his too-infrequent solo albums). But the man is busy engineering, mixing, and so on; as I said in my Armand Hammer review, his ear is Backwoodz’ not so secret weapon. But Scientists take is much less interested in hi-fidelity, even the two share a sensitivity to the artistic use of timbre and tone.
“Empire Blvd” also has two featured vocalists, Curly Castro and Junglepussy, giving Scientist more opportunity to be expressive in his vocal cuts. The rhymes are still seriously truncated but given more space here, as this is a posse cut with four MCs. The effect is a bit like deciding which line to Tweet. There’s a distillation happening, a transformation, especially in the music, which takes on a funkier mood, a digital stiffness that recalls the late 1980s.
The verses remain in order, but Scientist’s hand is a bit more assertive, though the basic format is the same. Pick fragments that end on a significant word that echoes out as the rest of the bar is cut.
Do I look like a spliff to you?
I don't care who call me difficult
There's a difference between integrity, dignity, and what these bitches do
I got different values
Dressed up for me, I ain't here…
My casket cobbled together, but I'm not stopping till the speakers wobble
Eight hundred Crime Stoppers boards in the distance
Ahab's fish strike first, scient…
Castro’s “scientific” is clipped at the end of the line becoming a producer tag, which is a nice touch.
And finally, before the song concludes just after four minutes, ELUCID:
Put the computers to sleep and grab a rifle
They say I ain't supposed to be here pre-zygote
So the bones hit different
I'm an isthmus
The dark tone of the original is replaced by Scientists nostalgic jaunty dub, sufficiently transformative to justify picking up this record is that all sounds interesting. Part of me would like to hear remixes from The Bug, Vladislav Delay, or Speaker Music, or other contemporary producers. But the throwback (but not roots) vibe on We Dub Diabetic Test Strips (Thee Remixes!) seems to be as much the point as anything.