Following solid solo efforts from members Gavsborg, Time Cow, and Shanique Marie, Equiknoxx’s Basic Tools is the fourth full-length from Jamaica’s most endearingly experimental ensemble since Ward 21. While not as outré as Time Cow’s Glory—a remarkable EP released in June with vocalist Craig “Giark” Dixon, bringing Jamaica’s outernational forms back home by mixing up post-punk, Compass Point grooves, and steppers-style reggae—Basic Tools finds the group back in a comfy pocket: distilling studio vibes and creative camaraderie from Kingston to Manchester, Birmingham to New York. Buttressed by additional vocalists Bobby Blackbird, Kemikal Splash, and a host of guests, the crew’s members all take their turns and let the seams show, leaving studio banter and mis-cut samples in the mix, and going with inspired, single-take vocal performances in order to evoke the excitement and back-and-forth of classic dancehall and hip-hop mixtapes. But while the album may have an off-the-cuff quality, the “offness” always seems deliberate and the cuffs are crisp.
Working their wry humor into the sort of deadpan affect so common in dancehall, Equiknoxx’s latest presents a world of inside jokes and outsize characters, of hilarious if nearly inaudible ad-libs, of the joys of turning language and sound into music through bare repetition. Take, for instance, “Was Not Initially Called Make iT Stop,” which leads with the funny premise that a sample of a voice saying “stop” every two beats can drive a song forward. An extended metaphor from Groundhog Day points back to the repeated “Good morning!” that opens the song, using Bill Murray’s cursed plight to riff on pandemic life (and sex). This accompanies a straight-faced proclamation of being “the new Jacobins” with “revolution hidden in hymns,” while what seems like a sly allusion to Papa San’s classic “perdominant” fast-chat routine winks from behind a rhyme scheme that spans “permanent chill,” “bourbon is chilled,” and “suburban appeal.” It’s an impressive turn on the mic from Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter, and such multilayered moments typify the group’s irreverent referentiality, often aimed right at the top of listeners’ heads and threatening to sail right on over.
Through the Equiknoxx looking glass, a “thing”—a favorite lyrical conceit—can become a girl or a gun or a pun, and it’s never all that clear when a banana is just a banana. The album begins in medias res, to say the least, halfway through a sentence broadcast on Kingston’s Irie FM, triggering group snickering before the beat drops. An odd inclusion—never mind introduction—it’s inexplicable and a tad unsettling, and it sets the table for all manner of truncated samples to pop across the album, zero-crossings be damned. The next vocals we hear insist, with unremitting repetition, that “you (and crew) nuh keep it real,” which seems a plausible charge even after the verses give us amusingly stuttered d’s (“You be dead-d-d-ded… Gwaan in your bed-d-d-ded… Baldhead or dread-d-d-ded, we have something for you all, copper, lead-d-d-ded…”) and mildly threatening chants of “shala-mala-moo, shala-mala-ma… calla-lala-loo, calla-lala-la.” Between each verse lies a dead-on Drake impersonation, right down to the muted drums, washy synths, and Auto-Tuned moans.
Balancing out the looser, liver elements on Basic Tools is an attention to sonic detail that underpins the Equiknoxx approach, and it sets up some of the album’s best, if subtlest, punchlines. On “Urban Snare Cypher,” it’s not clear whether the snare we hear is the same as the one ridiculed in the lyrics (“I can bet say your snare named ‘urban’…”), but it pops out of the beat’s spartan texture, dripping with reverb in contrast to a clipped, unhurried guitar loop. “Thingamajigama” walks a line between humorous and haunting. The song’s playfully stylized but violent lyrics find funereal accompaniment in the form of sampled choral singers, chopped and reversed into dirgelike loops. In the final seconds, the sample plays out straight, revealing a melodic fragment from the old spiritual “Go Down Moses” set to the literary cliché “It was a dark and stormy night.” What sort of revolution hides here, we can only wonder. Is it a joke about rum drinks too? And how does the tongue-in-cheek send-up of “Jerk Pork Reggae”—a pitch-perfect parody, if a little undercooked—help us to parse what all of this means?
Equiknoxx never let up in the ways they play with powerful sounds and symbols. And cymbals! Stuttering, unquantized cymbals. Flams abound on Basic Tools, played on drums and guitars and other sonic objects, bringing Dilla-esque touches to bear on classic dancehall minimalism. In fine Jamaican style, Equiknoxx draw on a fluency in global currents and cutting-edge production techniques. Propelled by a buoyant bassline and some swinging 2-step drums, “Basic Tools Live” is a convincing UK garage outing, placing Jamaican accents at the center of things once again. “This Song iS Not About Labeling Cables,” meanwhile, combines a bubbling synth line that recalls Cajmere’s immortal “Percolator” riff with a slinky bassline straight out of early ’90s dancehall anthems like Terror Fabulous and Nadine Sutherland’s “Action.” The combination suggests an entire subgenre possibly worth pursuing, even if it’s just an afternoon’s idea that might have as easily been scrapped.
Observing reggae tradition, the album is filled out by the “versions,” or instrumentals, for each of the eight vocal cuts. These sparse tracks hold their own, showing their quirks more clearly, and though as standalones they might have benefited from a little more active dubbing, they reveal a group with a firm sense of its sound. While the Equinox crew continues to expand its musical remit through the members’ individual projects, Basic Tools captures the spirit of this slyly unconventional group as a whole—and the magic that happens when they stick together.
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