Graded on a Curve: Preservation,
Old Numbers

NY/NJ DJ Preservation has been active for two decades, and up to 2013 he’s been most notable for collaborating with Mos Def and the Wu-Tang Clan. But he also has some quite interesting additional credits in his background, and they help to shed positive illumination upon his first solo full-length Old Numbers. Released on Preservation’s own label Mon Dieu Music, the record connects as substantially out of step with current trends in hip-hop, preferring instead to expand upon the progressions of the form’s ‘90s heyday, and this sensibility works very much to its advantage.

Coincidence can occasionally bloom into something more, acquiring a deeper resonance that the novelists Thomas Wolfe and William Gaddis eloquently described in their writings as the “unswerving punctuality of chance.” Take just last week for instance. Upon opening my email to submit a review of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s very strong new album That’s It!, my inbox flooded with messages, and the subject line for one stuck out, being a notice for Old Numbers, the first solo album from the DJ known as Preservation.

Initially just a mild quirk, but after sending off my PHJB piece the happenstance grew considerably. Reading up on Preservation’s background, I discovered that he’d served as the opening DJ for, you guessed it, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Intrigued by this heightened connection, I promptly gave Old Numbers a listen, and what I found was a complimentary aesthetic strategy on the part of both.

Preservation’s skills as DJ have hit the spotlight most prominently on the Mos Def albums True Magic and The Ecstatic and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Meets the Indie Culture. But in addition to contributing to five tracks on Lord Jamar’s The 5% Album, he’s worked live with such important figures as poet-activist Gil Scott-Heron, jazz saxophonist Gary Bartz, and progressive soul-man Shuggie Otis.

Added to the resume are appearances with Yasiin Bey (the former Mos Def) and a 20-piece orchestra at both The Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall, along with providing the music for select videos from the fine art concern Christie’s Auction House. It all shapes up to detail an impressive versatility on Preservation’s part, but the portion of his background that seems immediately related to Old Numbers’ sonic personality is his work with Scott-Heron, Bartz, and Otis.

For as the record unfolds, it presents an engagement with the reassembling of prerecorded sound, and with musical history in general, that cuts a bit deeper than the average crate-digger. Or to put it another way, Old Numbers doesn’t just borrow soulfulness to spice-up an already funky stew, it’s legitimately soulful itself (and funky as well, though it strives for elevated flow rather than an atmosphere of the hectic.)

The conciseness of “6th Intro,” beginning with a staple hip-hop element in vinyl surface-noise but also including a tidy taste of hand drums and a slyly-looped band groove, provides an indication of what’s in store. This is followed by “Code Noir,” which features Minnesota from the Bronx group Money Boss Players on the microphone.

And he sounds first-rate here, extemporizing fluidly on a streetwise theme, the music alternating a snaky guitar figure with a lush surge of ‘70s R&B strings as a sturdy beat propels it all forward, the track acquiring a natural energy. “Code Noir” furnishes a fine opener, but one of Old Numbers notable qualities lies in how it includes a diversity of MC approaches in detailing the vision of its creator.

This is quickly in evidence with the next track “Freedom is Everybody’s Job,” which brings Yasiin Bey to the mic. More message-oriented and with a looser, funkier delivery than Minnesota, Preservation meets him at the middle with a bass-driven conception that’s touched with studio-echo. String-section additives are again present, but they’re less lush and more sinewy.

The press kit describes the cut as “west-coast inspired,” and that’s certainly apparent. I mean, any rap tune that lyrically references a Cutlass Supreme and Mr. Don Cornelius is very likely to trigger reminiscences over happenings way out west. Or, at least they will for this writer. After time spent however (and maybe it’s just the way those strings mingle around Bey’s soulful rendering of the song’s title), I can’t help but consider it a hip-hop transmogrification of prime early-‘70s Mayfield/Withers action.

But Old Numbers, the title of which references the description of songs as “numbers” and how these particular numbers were compiled over an eight-year period, doesn’t jump with both feet into an explicitly “old-school” zone. If a breed apart from the contemporary hip-hop norm, Old Numbers track “Warrior Wings” makes clear that Preservation isn’t disinterested in utilizing a little up-to-the-minute chart essence.

This comes across most effectively in the song’s vocalist, Chicago-based female MC-singer-musician Milly Mango. While her rapping does bring positive associations with the assured, clear-voiced technique that was very much in evidence in the late-‘80s/early-‘90s (particularly her self-employed one word counterpoint), her singing is very much of the R&B nonce.

And the fact that Milly Mango is responsible for both the singing and the rapping (along with that voice in contrasting dialogue) on “Warrior Wings,” really emphasizes the amount of studio labor that was involved in this record and this cut specifically. Furthermore, Preservation’s input on the track in no way disappoints, shifting away from those ‘70s strings and grasping onto a crisp and booming funky clang.

32 FX are from Queens, and they take the lyrical lead on “Disorderly Conduct,” a piece that’s music is entirely reliant on smartly looped and layered samples. It even sports a flurry of scratching, an element highly missed from today’s hip-hop palate. The lack of drum programming and Preservation’s skills at the turntables brings to mind the serious advances in DJ-science that resided in the heart of the ‘90s rap underground. And this is only reinforced by 32 FX, who while not beholden to any previous crew’s moves, do travel a road that’s congruent with the music’s ‘90s vibe.

Hell, the song’s even got its own intro and outro. And speaking of outros, “Set Up”’s fantastic postscript homage to the lurid, humid aura of grindhouse action-film trailers is a treat, but it’s just the dessert after veteran MC Jean Grae’s arrival. Her contribution is a seamlessly executed hunk of narrative rap, and as her tale unravels, Preservation deals out a killer beat and even messes around with what sounds like a cello loop, in turn reminding me of “Catch a Bad One” from Del the Funky Homosapien’s classic LP No Need for Alarm.

“Planet Mercury” is a driving soul-mover that’s got two vets on the mic, Jemini the Gifted One and Edo G. While neither is aptly described as a household name, they are both major players in the hip-hop discourse, Jemini getting his start in the ‘90s and Edo G even appearing as part of the Fresh To Impress crew as far back as 1986. Along the way Brooklyn’s Jemini has worked with top-notch duo Organized Konfusion and some dude named Danger Mouse. Boston’s Edo G has teamed up with equally serious names like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Masta Ace.

What they and Preservation achieve on “Planet Mercury” is best described as a party-rocker, the kind of song that will satisfy the demands of heavy hip-hop heads while also reaching out and grabbing those with a rap knowledge that doesn’t go much beyond say Outkast or The Roots (two excellent groups that have done a bang-up job of bringing hip-hop legitimacy to a mainstream audience and on their own terms.) It’s one of Old Numbers’ best cuts, greatly underscoring Preservation’s potential to crossover in a similar manner.

After the short slice of rich ambiance that is “9 Year Leap” comes the also rather brief “Shyne” featuring rapper Yahzeed, and the intensity of his delivery subtly increases as his verse progresses, which is a nice touch. Though efficient, it’s still a substantial entry, with Preservation’s music combining drive and atmospherics to superb result. But for me, the standout cut comes with the GZA-written, Jim Jarmusch-read “O.”

It’s a crisp piece of spoken word with a very crafty cascade of strings and trumpets adding crucial sonic weight, and as the text unwinds its intelligence grows with the flow the music. The mood is relaxing and contemplative, but unlike other attempts at this sort of thing, it avoids the overwrought. Specifically, I don’t feel like I’m being demanded to chill-out. As “O” closes, all that’s left is “7th Outro,” and it sums up a job well done.

Old Numbers is a successful debut LP, but its variety does leave me hankering to hear the man expand upon one of the numerous collabs on display. I’d be especially gassed to check out a full release with Jean Grae or 32 FX. But if a teaser for the talents of Preservation, it unfolds as a cohesive one. And as for that aforementioned coincidence with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, it’s deepened considerably by Old Numbers’ dedication to craft.

Y’know, it’s easy to talk about being old-school, but Preservation simply lets sound speak for itself. In an era that’s caught up in obsessive Twittering and news reports relating what Jay-Z or Kanye ate for breakfast, a hip-hop record where the music is of utmost importance might seem like a throwback, but it’s actually just downright refreshing.


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