[ hip-hop ]
"People are so entrenched with the idea of a frontman being a vocalist."
That's why Haji Rana Pinya has such a tough time explaining his Philadelphia hip-hop project to the casual listener.
Haj is the producer and beatmaker of Dumhi. Effectively, though, he is Dumhi, since the MCs who rhyme on his records — luminaries of the underground like Reef the Lost Cauze, Che Grand and Ethel Cee — all have their own, established solo pursuits. They function as guest collaborators rather than full-fledged members. Haj is the only constant.
This inverted model started out unassumingly. "Dumhi" was simply the brand name for Haj's informal production work with friends. It's since grown into a functioning group that self-released its latest — The Jungle, an LP based on Ethiopian jazz samples — this week. The music comes off very much like DJ Muggs' Soul Assassins projects of the late '90s: Many MCs, one production voice, presented compilation-style. But Haj bristles at the word compilation.
"All the beats are me, and it's no different than Nas with 10 different producers on Illmatic," he says. "Except it's the exact opposite."
Spinning his beats into album-length creative statements is important to Haj, since music is an alternative to his more clinical, business-oriented day job. "I'm an accountant," he laughs. "It's one of the least creative fields you can get into."
He first sought counterbalance by picking up guitar in 2001, when he was 25. Haj proved a quick learner, and moved on to other instruments, to recording and ultimately to beatmaking. By the mid-aughts, he was stitching together backing tracks in marathon recording sessions at his South Philly home, working with budding rappers he connected with on Okayplayer.com.
His first mixtape, made with Flud, Shameless Plug and DC native Mash Comp, sounded like naturals at work, but "It was very much thrown together," Haj says. "And we said, you know, not for nothing, if we focused, we could probably do something better."
With 2008, came Haj and Dumhi Present Yoga at Home, an EP where a chipper instructor from a 1970s yoga record is sampled into acting as the host of a beaty, bouncy romp featuring Reef, Sadat X and many others. Flowers followed the next year, a melancholic mining of '70s folk and soul music that underscored Haj's recent breakup. And though Indian Summer, released that fall, had less of an explicit theme, it was the first release credited to Dumhi outright. Some of Haj's early MC collaborators had moved away, and new names had come on board. Haj was firmly situated in the driver's seat.
"I like to think of these projects as collages," he says.
Last November, a friend named Dave Black visited Haj's house near Fourth and Ritner with a playlist full of Ethiopian jazz. He was floored. "I'm sitting there like oh man, I'm chopping this up right now, in my head," he recalls. The Jungle began taking shape.
Many past collaborators were back in Philly for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, so it was a opportune time to return to the whirlwind recording of the early days. Haj sat at home, feverishly making beats out of Black's borrowed LPs, while rappers popped in and out to record verses.
Once the songs were laid out in skeleton form, Haj looked for a way to tie them together. He came across an old documentary/dramatization video on Megawords' YouTube channel called The Jungle — it depicted Philadelphia gang life from the 1960s. He sampled this to make transitional tracks, along with sound snippets from nature videos, dialogue from Lost, and other bits of ephemera forming an LP that could be read as commentary on urban living, commentary on the rap game, or just 35 minutes of tight, seamless hip-hop.
"I really like that idea of creating 40 minutes or so that is theme-based," Haj says. But he also likes giving listeners something fresh, hence his gravitation toward unusual source material.
"I don't want to go out and sample a million karate movies," he explains." I'm a huge Wu-Tang fan, but I felt like it's already been done. Prince Paul, with A Prince Among Thieves, he laid out this whole storyline. I think that was awesome. I think that, for me, it was a little more literal than I want to do."
Haj prefers not to be heavy-handed. Some tracks on The Jungle step into more direct social commentary — the eerie keyboard melody and fierce bounce of "Lions" has Reef navigating SEPTA to a corner store, where the clerk sits behind a bulletproof glass breaking up weed. Others, like the excellent single "Dumhi Cannons," are straight party jams where MCs Random and Ethel Cee riff on their prowess as scratchy horns rise and fall, and funky guitar licks jam.
Haj likes to keep things connected, but loose. The Jungle is typical in having a theme didn't coalesce until well after the vocals were tracked. In the future, he hopes to delve more into collaborating on the lyrical content. But for now, his aim is directing the front-to-back sonic scope of Dumhi's projects.
Most aspiring beatmakers, he explains, have a late-'90s mentality: cooking up thousands of disconnected loops and feverishly burning them to CD, passing them out with hopes of landing a high-profile slot on the next Ghostface record, or something. Haj, again, works in opposites; if he has the beats now to make a full record, why wait?
"I'm not a singer, I'm not a rapper, but it's worked out to the best of both worlds for me," Haj says. "I get to work with a whole bunch of people, and I get to constantly move forward and evolve."
For more info on Dumhi, visit dumhi.com.