Bus: Middle of the Road

If one were asked to name the ~scape artist whose latest hiphop-dub-electronica hybrid alternates MC-based vocal and instrumental tracks, one's answer would likely be Pole, given the attention Stefan Betke has garnered in recent months for the makeover of his originating style. But one also would be correct in answering Bus, as Berliners Daniel Meteo and Tom Thiel have fashioned a recording that in its general approach resembles Pole's. Bus's “Middle of the Road,” for example, uses a lurching rhythm characteristic of Betke's music, and the propulsive, bass-driven dub of “Clappin” could be added to Pole without too much disruption. There are key differences, however. While Betke recruited Fat Jon to add his smooth rapping to Pole, Bus's secret weapon is MC Soom-T, a dynamic and versatile performer whose presence is so strong she establishes herself less as a guest and more as a full-fledged member of the group, although she appears on only half of the tracks. Her range exceeds Fat Jon's too. She brings to the project sharp rapping skills but also solid vocal ability, so much so that when the music takes an Eastern turn in “On My Treasure Island,” her serpentine singing sounds right at home. She's a member of the Glasgow formation Monkeytribe, who released the 12-inch Delaware on Daniel's Meteosound label, and was incidentally the only woman to reach the finals of the recently held British 8 Mile MC Championships. One other difference between the two releases is that Pole's music is sometimes so understated instrumentally that it's diminished by Fat Jon's dominating presence. Conversely, while Soom-T's contributions are equally dominant, Bus's music remains very much at the forefront alongside them.

“Come/Do/Move” is the quintessential example of the compelling hiphop-dub fusion Bus creates. Two rhythms—a synth-based reggae groove and a funky lumbering hip-hop beat—are conjoined while clavinet lines and ska percussion accents add distinctive flavours. At other times, tracks hew more closely to one of the two styles. “Don't Be Afraid to Cry,” for example, has a stronger hiphop emphasis, and features Soom-T's aggressively punchy recitation and bluesy ramblings alongside a memorable two-note guitar hook. “Keep Life Right,” on the other hand, is a ska-flavoured dub shuffle distinguished by Soom-T's rapid delivery. “On My Treasure Island” ends the recording on an anomalous but not displeasing note. Its Eastern feel sounds initially too unlike the other songs, but Soom-T's slinky vocals re-establish the connection to the other tracks. The rhythm is slow and skanky, a perfect complement to Soom-T's undulations.

The release of Middle of the Road is preceded by the EP Keep Life Right , and similarities with Pole apply here too. On Betke's 90/90 , three versions of “Slow Motion” are included: the original version plus instrumental dub and a cappella treatments; similarly, Bus's EP features four variations of the title track (including dub and a cappella versions) plus two of “Middle of the Road.” As usual, the EP will appeal more to completists, although the sped-up version of ‘Keep Life Right' and its electrofied remix of by hiphop guru Dabrye provide a strong incentive to acquire it as a companion to the full-length. What makes Keep Life Right and Middle of the Road so satisfying is that Bus integrates hiphop and dub so seamlessly that tracks evidence both but in a manner that feels natural. The group creates a hiphop-dub hybrid as satisfying as Pole's, even though their respective musical styles are subtly individualized.

September 2003