DJ Signify – Sleep No More

DJ Signify
Sleep No More

Yeah, yeah, I know; there are lots of guys out there with “DJ” in front of their names. It’s not exactly something that sets you apart anymore. But one must remember that there still are guys out there with the tired moniker making strikingly wakeful music (for example, DJ Shadow). DJ Signify enters the scene carrying some of hip-hop’s oldest baggage in his name, but he’s cut out a sound all his own.
With Sleep No More, DJ Signify has helped usher in one of the new greats in hip-hop labels: Lex Records. Lex has released albums by Dangermouse and Jemini, Hymie’s Basement, and most notably Non-Prophets. Interestingly enough, while some are excellent and others just good, none sound similar at all. The acts share only their genre, preferring to expound upon it in different and idiosyncratic ways. While Non-Prophets went for accessible, old-school, brainy pop-hop, DJ Signify opts for something a bit darker. Resembling a more somber DJ Shadow or an RJD2 on Quaaludes, Signify crafts quiet, restrained beats that rely heavily on percussion over soft atmospherics.
Rest assured: the music may be quiet, but it is far from boring. Signify layers subtle sonic elements, allowing them to come and go at will to refresh the beat. This is important, because more than half of the songs are instrumental. Mercifully, they’re kept short – just long enough to keep things interesting. “Peekaboo Part 2” is a raucous jazz romp featuring a sliding bass. “Peekaboo Part 3” is a dramatic dirge with ominous, thickly distorted organs lurking beneath the shuffling percussion. “Five Leaves Left (For Lauren)” comes closest to the obvious Prefuse 73 comparison.
In between the instrumentals, DJ Signify sprinkles vocal-laden tracks courtesy of Sage Francis and Buck 65. For me, anything that Francis touches is worth a try, and here he doesn’t disappoint. He seems to exercise his storytelling skills a lot more than on the Non-Prophets LP, telling the tale of an urban slob in “Kiddie Litter” and an encounter with a psychic in “Haunted House Party.” His lyrics, as usual, are excellent: the subdued Francis coos “Here he is / half-alive in the flesh suit / curiously appetized by the fresh fruit / served on a dish at his nightly help-group / who dreamt of catching better Z’s most people would’ve slept through” over a slinky guitar, conjuring the life of the insomniac night-owl relegated to society’s shadows.
Meanwhile, Buck 65 puts in some strong, if inferior, performances. His flow is actually relatively similar to that of Francis, but he keeps it a bit more simple and matter-of-fact. He also focuses on weaving dark tales of the parallel decay of urban life and his interpersonal relationships. “Winter’s Going” is a strong performance both by Signify and Buck; a soulful guitar riff slides along under heavy percussion while Buck describes an encounter with a mysterious lady friend. Midway through the song, a female vocal sample sings “Winter’s going, and the leaves turn green.” In the middle of an album reminiscent of slimy gutters and dark alleyways, a breath of crisp air surfaces to remind the listener that when decay resides, there’s beauty to be seen.
The environment of Sleep No More is incredibly effective; while not overtly depressing, it is constantly somber. It’s unique while remaining accessible, even for non-fans of traditional instrumental hip-hop. It’s almost closer to the aesthetic of ambient or post-rock than that of hip-hop because it maintains coherence as an album rather than a collection of tracks. DJ Signify takes us through the dark alleyways of rotting edifices and people, and in the end, we find that there’s beauty in the way that buildings crumble.