BBE, along with their series of successful Beat Generations albums, caught my attention back in my university days. Hip-hop felt more interesting then with a movement of artists who brought a more creative free-flowing aesthetic to the genre. Some dubbed this as 'indie' hip-hop but I always felt that kind of seemed a bit condescending.
My favourite artists at this time were The Roots, Common and most of all Jay Dee, or J Dilla as he later became known. I've covered and mentioned Dilla on the site a number of times before but a few of his albums never fail to blow me away. Best of all was Donuts, a set of instrumental jams recorded from his hospital bed shortly before Jay died of blood disease TTP in 2006. Pretty far up the list however was his Beat Generations album for BBE - perhaps the first demonstration that he had aims outside of the hip-hop and R&B genres, with its wonky electro moments and thick and heavy soul.
This genre-bending experimentalism is what has made BBE a great label over the years, and it's here in spades on BBE 15. Hip-hop has lost something for me over the years but to listen to this you wouldn't know it. There is plenty of the loose, soulful hip-hop that is good enough but it is when things stray from this that this album really shines. Then rapidly accelerating beats and rhymes of 'Black Star' by Richy Pitch featuring M.anifest feel like a frantically tweaking modern take on hip-hop, the tempo making rapid shifts like moving through musical traffic. The transition into Ty's 'Heart is Breaking' is equally wonderful - a percussive, soulful track that combines breakbeats and soulful disco.
Osunlade and Erro's cover of Radiohead's 'Everything In It's Right Place' is inspired and punctures the first disc like a brass pin through a butterfly's wing, a gravity that holds the whole thing in place. A cover of Radiohead can be a risky move but the sales rhythms here work perfectly. The final portion of disc one takes in drum 'n' bass, soul and soulful hip-hop, with the bombastic 'How 'Bout Us' by Katalyst really pulling no punches.
The second disc never quite reaches the same heights, feeling much more constrained by genre than the first half of this album. J Dilla's turns return their glory, particularly 'Pause', but there is just a bit too much straight up hip-hop. There are still some great moments - the vitriolic rhymes and rough riding bass lines and beats of Jazzy Jeff's 'Scram' and the gloriously classic disco of Don Cello's cover of 'Aint No Stoppin' Us Now' - things just aren't quite as adventurous.
On the whole it's impossible not to forgive the slight disappointment of the second half of BBE 15 when it packs so much into one album. Few labels could hope to have such a varied and exciting retrospective - BBE 15 should make us grateful such great labels exist.
BBE 15 is out now on BBE.