Review Summary: This is not a Santogold album
Despite the big bold name written in colorful writing of Top Ranking
’s album cover, it’s the second name just below, etched in a more subtle green, who you’ll have to thank for 2008s best DJ mix. Meet Diplo. As a DJ, Diplo lies on a line somewhere in-between Girl Talk’s Baltimore influenced mashup sound and the alt-pop producer Mark Ronson (who produced Amy Winehouse’s hit “Rehab” among other things). While Girl Talk made his mark by his rapid-fire mixing of disparate tunes, Diplo’s has a tendency to let his tracks play out, long enough to make their presence felt, but short enough not to get boring. And like Ronson, Diplo also has a keen ear to the ground for slightly off-kilter pop sensations - it was Diplo’s collaboration with songstress M.I.A. on her singles “Bucky Done Gun” and “Paper Planes” (yea, you can blame Diplo for that one) and the fantastic Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. I
mixtape that really shot him to fame. On the other side of things, this year’s blog community went wild for Santogold’s self titled debut, with its chill mix of electro/indie/dub/whatever, another product of Diplo’s production.
Turns out though, that the DJ in Diplo wasn’t satisfied with simply producing, and had to go all out and do what DJs do best – create a mixtape. This isn’t just another Piracy, Vol II,
and despite the M.I.A./Santogold comparisons, Top Ranking
has a distinct flavor on its own, not quite as cutting edge (Mashup is like, so early 2008), but still a damn good listen. In fact, Santogold sounds even better on here than she does on her own
album, thanks to Diplo’s mad skillz. Hits like "Creator" and “L.E.S. Artistes” that once used to be so relaxed are here given shots of ringingly heavy beats and slick raps, sounding downright awesome by comparison, while the cool and chill “Lights Out” is given a bizarre treatment of 2007s indie hero Panda Bear’s “Comfy In Nautica”. By all rights, this shouldn’t work. But oh does it ever.
It’s telling too, that the album cover lists Top Ranking
as a Diplo Dub
, rather than a mix. Not only does it just sound way cooler, but here Diplo has more or less ditched the Rio Baile Funk sounds that made him so popular (You remember that time when CSS and Bonde De Role briefly ruled the indie airwaves? – yeah, that was Diplo’s doing too) in favor of a rich mix of reggae and dancehall. This is by all accounts, a very good thing. While the Brazilian electro-pop thing was cool for a while, soon enough everyone realized that it actually sounded all the same (CSS’ Donkey
was so average it hurt) and the scene moved on, Diplo along with it. Style points aside though, Diplo’s newfound fascination for dub also gives Top Ranking
a darker feel than any of his previous material, giving it a wider expressive range, hitting higher highs and lower lows. Tunes like Tony Matterhorn’s “Big Belly Guns” and Warrior Queen’s “Check It” are grimey like the electro blue they come from, working wonderfully by the side of Santo’s chillax and Diplo’s love of dirty rap.
It’s a hell of a ride, and it’s not just because the musical scenery is pretty, but wonderfully varied as well – Diplo is a furious mixer, and few DJs would probably even have the balls to try going along with a bumpy mix of, say the Sir-Mixalot/Panda Bear/Aretha Franklin/Devo/B52s mix that you’ll find here. The best part of course is that it all flows so smoothly, never really coming off as contrived or forced, just damned cool
. Admittedly not everything works 100% of the time, with Nora Dean’s “Barbwire” being the most annoying song ever put to record, and Desmond Dekker’s classic ska track “Shanty Town” sounding somewhat out of place among the heavy beats here. While Clocking in at massive 75 minutes, it’s a blessing that Diplo quite obviously knows his music inside out and isn’t afraid to let everyone know about it. Little interludes like studio banter between Santo and Ronson also help to give the album a bit of much needed breathing space as well.
Perhaps the best part of the mix is that the tracks here aren’t just old tunes put together in a new way. You’ll find tracks here that you won’t find anywhere else, such as Santogold’s “Guns of Brooklyn”¸ an ode to the famous Clash tune, or her cover of the Bad Brains’ “Right Brigade” which ends the album. Dancehall artist Cutty Ranks even takes one of hardcore’s most classic bass lines – Black Flag’s “Six Pack” - to contribute to his own exclusive ragamuffin beatdown to the mix. In fact, one of the biggest highlights on the entire album is up-and-comer Amanda Blank’s (of Spank Rock
’s crew) little emotional ditty rapped over Santo’s “I’m A Lady”, transforming a once mediocre song into an undeniable powerhouse of track.
So, if you haven’t figured it out by now, Top Ranking
isn’t just an ordinary mixtape, but a pre-packaged par-tay on a disc, chock-a-block full of guest spots, exclusive tracks and wicked mashups. This was always more than just a straight dance compilation; rather a collection of songs whose common factor lies in a gear set to ‘attitude’ – and of course, one of Baltimore’s best DJs to spin the gears into place.