Solitary, nerdy white boys fond of ’60s psychedelic rock — like, for instance, Boston native Edan Portnoy — are scarcely prime candidates for a future in rap music. But Portnoy, inspired by hip-hop on one hand and the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix on the other, has crafted a childlike but compelling emcee persona. Unabashedly old school and oddball, Edan has an affable, convivial aura that remains intact even as he raps about his own greatness and the positive power of stealing shit.
Using only his first name, like Madonna, Edan first found success via such self-produced CD-Rs as Architecture and an early version of Primitive Plus, which caught the ear of Lewis Recordings honcho Mike Lewis in London and initially earned Edan more notoriety in England than at home. With Edan behind the turntables, the mic and the studio mixing board, the finished product still sounds like a demo, but it’s the perfect backdrop for Edan’s world — an early ’80s sound with a more modern whimsical, absurdist take on the rap universe. Edan provides an off-kilter dose of playground-level braggadocio and bluster, using verbal acuity in the service of silliness not unlike Kool Keith, whose Ultramagnetic MCs get props on “Ultra ’88 (Tribute).” Casual listeners might mistake Primitive Plus for a novelty record, but there’s much more happening, as Edan simultaneously makes fun of himself, other rappers and rap itself while paying sincere homage to it. Despite lines like “MCs approach me hungry / I proceed to feed ’em anal snacks” (“Key-Bored”), the man with the oxymoronic alias “Humble Magnificent” is serious about his passion for hip-hop, elevating the album far above its cartoonish veneer.
Edan continues in the same vein on Sprain Your Tapedeck (“Emcees Smoke Crack” and “Run That Shit,” a paean to kleptomania, also appear on the CD version of Primitive Plus), but it’s no less appealing. “Let’s B Friends” is a hilarious plea for comity among rappers (“Yeah, and we’ll work on some rhymes / My metaphors are OK, how are yours?”), and “Beautiful Food” makes what amounts to a grocery list sound very cool (and tasty).
Beauty and the Beat is a uniquely offbeat gem that drops the silliness level of previous efforts but adds a wavering, gauzy wall of psychedelia that’s playful but never kitschy. It’s odd and likably unstable, like a college kid who got his 12-year-old brother high, weaving in and out of focus, returning to clarity with the sharp rhymes of Edan and his inspired guests (including Mr. Lif, Percee P and Insight). Even “Funky Voltron,” as close to traditional as Edan gets, features eccentric boasts like “Somebody throws a baby — oh, shit! / Do a spin move and catch it, and the crowd goes crazy.” Despite all the far-out hip-hoppery, the album is well grounded, sticking to its sonic guns, tethering hippy-dippy ’60s samples and sound effects to basic, solid beats. From trippy stuff like “I See Colours” to “Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme,” perhaps the most musically ambitious old school tribute ever, Edan’s psychotropic cocoon remains intact. Lewis later released a deluxe edition of the disc, adding a Cut Chemist remix of “Torture Chamber” and a live CD.
Fast Rap is an impeccable mix tape of high-energy old school joints from both the usual suspects (Eric B. and Rakim, Kool G Rap) and obscure but marvelous burners (Dismasters, Freshco & Miz). Edan does little but string the songs together, splicing in shout-outs to himself, but it’s better that he step aside and let the music roll. The gimmicky Sound of the Funky Drummer, songs all backed by the titular James Brown beat, is less successful. Pillaged by countless DJs, the beat was played out years ago, and it sounds no fresher after more than 20 songs that feature it.