Doctors Strange

Mixmasters Signify and Sixtoo like their hip-hop weird

Much hip-hop production can be looked at like a high-school dance: Throw a bunch of sounds together and initially it may be awkward, but if given a chance to warm up, it can get good and grinding. Well, somebody spiked the punch and now hip-hop is mingling and tingling. With similarly informed albums and a jointly headlined tour, producers Signify and Sixtoo are chaperones working overtime to keep hip-hop — as they see it — from slipping from its experimental roots.

Hailing from New York and Montreal, respectively, Justin "DJ Signify" Levy and Rob "Sixtoo" Squire are among a breed of hip-hop producers, thriving on British labels, who not only act as archeologists but anthropologists, sampling from unexpected genres the way that many hip-hop producers (over)use funk samples. The two friends, who met in 1998, are unafraid to introduce sounds from Krautrock, industrial or heady dance music. Signify, who records for upstart Lex Records, and Sixtoo, on venerable label Ninja Tune, are voracious DIY beat diggers, crusaders to save hip-hop from the homogeneity that besieges the airwaves.

"In 1998, hip-hop was a flood of biters," says Signify. "Rob and I became friends because we both agreed the underground was gentrified, and our insatiable appetite for new discoveries wouldn't let us settle for that. My roots are literally in the roots of hip-hop — Brooklyn, Staten Island, then Manhattan — but I refuse to see hip-hop [become] established as a definitive science of recording; I still believe it's a manner of trial-and-error that's open to anything, and Rob agrees. We don't even discuss whether it's 'hip-hop' anymore."

Signify's Sleep No More sustains that open-ended aesthetic. It abounds with subtleties: somber, ominous boom-baps, flourishes of Latin rhythms and New Jack swing. "Peek a Boo" plays like a carnival fun house, with the jazzed-up beats giving you the feeling of seeing warped reflections in concave mirrors. And "Five Leaves Left (For Lauren)" is equal parts Morricone, Prefuse 73 and Joe Beats.

Adding to the detached nature of the beats are the world-weary raps delivered by MCs Sage Francis and Buck 65.

Sixtoo shares Signify's associations with Francis and Buck 65, whose respective styles of fractured conversational cadence add to Sixtoo's own limited verses on his chunky yet nimble full-length Chewing on Glass & Other Miracle Cures. Sixtoo's overriding mood, like Signify's (passed down from DJ Shadow), is overcast and dusky. But Sixtoo distinguishes himself through his amalgamations of acoustic instrumentation.

With an emphasis on minimalist assemblages atop dope drums, Sixtoo has cocked his eye to the recording techniques of two-track editors such as Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis engineer Ted Macero and Jamaican rock-steady producer Joe Gibbs. It creates a mood of analog authenticity amid moody digital montages. Recording with Can's Damo Suzuki, members of chamber-rock ensemble Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Kid Koala collaborator P-Love and more, Sixtoo acts the part of a collage artist, piecing together homages to the round, rolling tones of fusion/free jazz. While Sixtoo's upbringing may bridge Pete Rock and Company Flow, he deftly fuses the source material of his commissioned musicians into a heady and humid sound.

Now the two compatriots are embarking on a tour with similarly minded Ninja Tune producer Blockhead as well as multi-instrumentalist P-Love. Signify and Sixtoo have been holding rehearsals in Montreal prior to embarking, but their time has not elapsed without producing a keepsake. Consolidating their beats, the two have put together a 20-minute mini-CD photocopied, cut and folded by hand and being sold only on tour. It's a testament to the two producers' commitment to hip-hop and its fans. It's an artifact from the duo's excavation, further proof that the indigenous people of the hip-hop tribe have not been eradicated by trendoids. The weirdoes are still at their turntables and are plotting to take over the dance.