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King of the Beats: Sweet Valley’s Mindful Take on Hip-Hop

Sweet Valley / Photo by Dan Monick

Chris Keating of Yeasayer’s pooh-pooh-ing of popular R&B and electronic dance in a recent Rolling Stone interview, along with a misses-the-point mix of Nicki Minaj verses minus key sugar-rush hooks from AGF and Vladislav Delay (described as “chorus-free & mainstream-free” on their Soundcloud), are reminders that, despite all the jumping between genres that’s happening right now, way too many musicians speak condescendingly of the very music they cherry-pick for influence. And while it is important to call out these musical half-steppers — Meaghan Garvey’s Sound of the City response to Keating is highly recommended — it is also important to praise projects from artists who aren’t afraid to wander into a genre outside of their wheelhouse and approach it on its own terms. This is why ZZ Top’s cover of DJ DMD’s “25 Lighters” got me so excited a few months ago: It found a way inside of that southern rap classic; it didn’t just strip it for parts.

A recent example is Sweet Valley, the instrumental hip-hop project from Wavves’ Nathan Williams and his brother Kynan (we premiered their first track here). Their free download EP, Stay Calm, is a decidedly modest but very good beat tape. Though samples are obviously in the forefront, Williams has employed them before — Wavves’ “Mickey Mouse” from King of the Beach is based around the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron.” And there’s even a case to be made that Wavves has been sampling all along. The strength of his scuzzy fuzz punk arsenal came from cobbling together Wipers guitars, Phil Spector drums, the “fuck off” feedback of L.A. noise, and nagging, hippie-fall-out pop harmonies. Though he played all his instruments like a good rock’n’roller, Williams mixed and collaged those sounds together in a way that felt like sampling. This partially explains the success of Stay Calm.

Also consider that Williams is a huge rap fan. In a SXSW mini-doc, he geeks out when he walks by Bun B. And there’s the bling-wearing-baller-on-the-beach video for “King of the Beach.” In the couple of years building up to 2010’s profile-raising King of fhe Beach, and before he was part of a warped nostalgia power couple with Best Coast, Williams frequently updated a blogspot titled Ghost Ramp (now the name of his label), which consisted almost entirely of tour dates and YouTube embeds of whatever rap music was grabbing his ears on given day. From a Ghost Ramp entry titled “CLASSIC CUT VOL. 21,” dated December 8, 2008, housing the video for the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me”: “So I just got home from New York yesterday. I’m super sick, so I don’t really feel like writing too much but this song is important in so many different ways. To this day Scarface refutes the title of ‘King of the South’ but it’s true. This is where it started. This is when it became important. GETO BOYS – 4 CORNERED ROOM.”

Full of a little too much enthusiasm and more than ready to throw down half-formed hip-hop declarations, Ghost Ramp was really just a rap blog. And now Williams has gone and made a rap-blog-friendly beat tape. The project finds the beach punk engaging with hip-hop beyond fandom, but not as an insider, or even someone with access to insiders — he easily could’ve gotten the Fool’s Gold roster of rappers to rhyme on this thing, right? — but as a musician seeking out the same, shambling, poppy vibe of a Wavves record, while nodding to J. Dilla’s twisting loops, attempting DJ Premier’s hypnotic precision (and failing but still ending up with something very mesmerizing), and Internet rap’s shambling, do-whatever approach to sound-swiping. “Total Carnage,” screws the Four Seasons’ “Bye Bye Baby” and then charmingly chipmunks a single, telling word: “free”; “Dunk Dreams ’95,” stomps and hisses like low budget M.O.P. and then dives into some big dumb Dipset grandeur.

The title track lets some sleigh bells dance around in the background, mixed a little louder than they should be — perhaps a reference to Nas’ “Halftime” and the Average White Band bells of “School Boy Crush” which covertly crawl through that Illmatic single. “Final Zone” moans like Clams Casino’s Herzog-ian “Gorilla,” but then, an adorable melody from an old Nintendo game (the victory music from Excitebike, to be specific) breaks through the foggy doom and gloom. It’s a little sliver of ’80s nostalgia, employed not unlike a ’70s soul record would be by the RZA, who was sampling Jerry Butler and the New Birth for Wu-Tang at around the same time that Williams was experiencing the Excitebike music he’d later sample with his little brother.