Conrad Newholmes: Peppermint Styles

Could Conrad Newholmes' story possibly be true? Consider: Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Newholmes (also Smaze, as he has largely been known) began making beats in the mid-‘80s with a turntable and a dual tape deck, in the early ‘90s supplied the Friday night mix for Seattle's underground radio show Rap-Attack on KCMU, moved back and forth between Seattle, Atlanta, and Jacksonville before abandoning his possessions to spend four years hitchhiking, camping, and squatting across North America, then took up residence in a solar-powered cabin outside of Bloomington, Indiana where he resumed producing instrumental hip-hop tracks. In 2000, Hefty issued the EP Enki-Du's Mono by Beneath Autumn Sky (Smaze and DJ Zane3) before Newholmes vanished again, this time to a Mennonite farm in rural Illinois where he's spent four secluded years making tracks and writing rhymes—bringing us pretty much up to Peppermint Styles (which follows a self-titled EP that appeared on Smaze's own Snakebird label, plus Hiphop For Dishwashers, Scumballs and Upstarts, released during 2004 under the moniker Sheveks Masada on Abandon Building Records). Got that? The bizarre trajectory resembles a bildungsroman more than bio to be sure, though one we'll take on faith in the absence of countervailing evidence. In truth, the story—fictional or otherwise—matters little once the needle drops, though the album's strong city vibe and up-to-date production quality is a tad mystifying, given Mennonite values of simplicity, pacifism, and general aversion to technology.

With each song a unique universe unto itself, what glues Newholmes' multi-directional material together is hip-hop beats and a library of film and television voice samples. Take the opening four pieces as a barometer of the collection's diversity. A wheezing harmonica sweeps across lonely plains in the marvelous opener “After All” as a woman's phrases (“I am free”), soulful chorus interjections (“After a long time comin'”), and laidback hip-hop beats intermittently bobb to the surface; voice samples here and elsewhere expand the album's emotional breadth, with the woman's hushed voice weary, hopeful, and pleading by turn. Machine-generated hand claps, synth bass lines, and electro-funk beats then transport the listener in “Beat Down Streets” to the '80s style of “Rockit” and Grandmaster Flash. “Noonday Night,” a wicked example of sample construction, wends down disturbed alleyways haunted by turntable effects and MCs before an hypnotic Krautrock-lounge mix of operatic vocals, spiraling moog patterns, and cheesy organ melodies drops in “Erostika.” A similar impression arises when one compares “King Sucks” and “Earth Dirt the Champ”: the former alternates between furious breaks and foreboding voice samples that sound lifted from some obscure martial arts film while a warm groove of flute-like melodies and lush harmonies lifts spirits in the latter.

Though his eccentric sound and imaginative fecundity suggest kinship with Daedelus, the Conrad Newholmes style is considerably less baroque by comparison and, in fact, has more in common with Malcom Kipe; both artists share an open-minded receptiveness to all manner of source materials while firmly grounding their tracks in hip-hop. Don't let Peppermint Styles' casual vibe blind you, however, to the constant flow of ideas which Newholmes pieces together so carefully throughout. Arrangements that may sound casually conceived during an initial listen reveal themselves upon repeated exposure to be meticulously constructed.

December 2005