Shfl Guide: The Alchemist

If Daniel Maman was an incurious dude, his career could’ve been a punchline. Cypress Hill co-sign or no, a white kid from Beverly Hills getting his first big break in hip-hop via a teen-years teamup with James Caan’s son sounds like the premise of a particularly caustic In Living Color bit. But when the underperforming Whooliganz left Tommy Boy unimpressed and sent Scott Caan down his eventual path towards Danno-dom, DJ Muggs stepped in as sensei and taught the young Alchemist about the finer points of sample-slaying. By the end of the ’90s Alc was getting shine as a precise-pen architect of L.A. underground hip-hop production, a known quantity for his work with Dilated Peoples and Defari. But in a post-Coast Wars world, he was just as comfortable out East, and was brought into the Mobb Deep braintrust to sharpen his steel against the in-house beat-mastery of Havoc for a couple cuts on ’99’s Murda Muzik. The co-sign was a blessing, and sustained Alc well into the ’00s — notoriously fallow times for sample-based production, at least in the mainstream rap world that he’d been ushered into. Not like he cared; his loop-digging inclinations made first term W-era bangers like Jadakiss’s “We Gonna Make It,” Ghostface Killah’s “The Juks,” and Nas’s “Book of Rhymes” with an ear for restringing mostly-forgotten cut-out-bin soul into luxury goods, his drums hitting with a blunt force rendered glossy like a chrome sledgehammer.

Then something funny started to happen: in the midst of an A-list aughts run that made him a DJ in Eminem’s coterie and united him with the cream of both NYC thug rap and L.A. indie heads, his beats started getting gnarlier. A productive restlessness set in, with a series of well-crafted late-decade boom-bap refinements almost instantaneously taking a turn for the grimy when the ’10s flipped the calendar — still luxe, but constructed from chops and loops that were time-weathered and lived-in, the battle-scarred glide of a beater Mercedes with rusted wheel wells but an immaculate interior. And while Alchemist maintained his tendency to work with both top-tier stars and initially-obscure MCs on the come-up, he did so with an audio-auteurist touch that gave already-vivid lyricists with licenses to kill the kind of malevolent-opulent set dressing that’d make Ken Adam flip his shit. If the artist is credited as “Alchemist x [Rapper You’re Unfamiliar With]” it’s a near-guarantee that Alc’s scene-setting will help make said rapper sound like the style-dripping phenom they’ll inevitably become; if the rapper is one you are familiar with he will give them a backdrop that sounds like a room filled with fly antiquities — less Old Money than a surprise stash of cash stacks uncovered in a townhouse’s walls.

1st Infantry cover

Short of a home-assembled playlist, this is the closest you’ll get to a pure distillation of Alc’s place in mainstream hip-hop through the first half of the ’00s. While Dilated Peoples have their own place of honor (“For the Record,” which makes hostile gospel from a pre-McVie Christine Perfect) and Devin the Dude’s song-rap is a welcome bongrip of ’70s other-man loverman scandal (“Where Can We Go”), Alchemist’s first headliner showcase is real top-tier goon hours. Super-crisp drums and twitchy soul micro-chops on cuts like Prodigy/The Game feature “Dead Bodies” and the giallo 808 frostbite of Mobb Deep showcase “It’s a Craze” display an already impressive range gleaned from his ’99 breakthrough through the ensuing five years.

Return of the Mac cover

Years of making beats for Mobb Deep gave Alchemist a powerful production rapport with both Prodigy and Havoc, and it was the former that gave Alc his first front-to-back classic with a single MC. Return of the Mac turned out to be a boon for both parties: after years trying to curry favor with pop-thug trends, Prodigy found himself back in hardcore heads’ favor with a lean, mean, sub-40-minute concentrated dose of the grimy crime storytelling he’d mastered circa The Infamous 12 years earlier. And Alchemist put out the most cinematically evocative slate of beats he’d assembled to date, Willie Hutch-ing his way through blaxploitation opulence and stinging soul riffs that felt poignant in its evocations of the ’70s, ’90s, and an uncertain aging-gangster future.

Rapper's Best Friend: An Instrumental Series cover

Want to track Alc’s evolution as a beatmaker-qua-beatmaker without distraction from outlandish Action Bronson punchlines or the sharp elocution of Roc Marciano’s empire-building? Sure, you’ll miss out on how his production complements a wide array of rap voices, but immersing yourself in his Rapper’s Best Friend series (now up to six volumes) is instructively entertaining. On this first volume you can already hear his big-money sound take a turn for the idiosyncratic, as even of-their-moment glossy beats done for artists like Scarface (the golden synths of “G-Type”) and Dilated Peoples (the chipmunk soul “Back Again”) balance speaker-rattle momentum with drama-heightening, just-a-bit-weird melodic loops. By its five-years-later sequel he’s mastered a whole host of other modes — sinister, glamorous, panic-attack stuff that elevated him throughout the early ’10s — so this is a valuable snapshot of a phase few realized was actually transitional.

Chemical Warfare cover

This is where you can picture Alc just going “fuck it, I’m tight with enough famous rappers to really get away with something” and made his versatility into some kind of superpower. If there’s only one track that’s a god-tier wig-dislodging epiphany, we’re lucky enough that said track is Three 6 Mafia / Juvenile feature “That’ll Work,” with a hyperventilating synth melody that sounds like a John Carpenter score pushing a 10,000 RPM redline that encourages everybody’s most slippery flows. From the South to the West (plutonium-glow g-prog “On Sight” ft. Dogg Pound and Lady of Rage), from the Midwest (the claustrophobic soul of the cameo-length Eminem-helmed title cut) to NYC (Kool G Rap as your oldest droog on the Clockwork Orangeisms of “Alc Theme”), he makes all regions sound massive, and all the more powerful for it.

Gutter Water cover

Few developments signaled Alchemist’s early-’10s duality of mainstream shine and underground cred like the formation of Gangrene. While big brother Madlib was cranking out beat-tape masterpieces, Cali producer/MC Oh No was maintaining his own parcel of weirdness. When a chance encounter with Alchemist at an Evidence show inspired a series of beat-and-verse swaps between the two, it became a powerful Champion Sound-oid opportunity for the two to push each other to darker, danker places. Here the beats are so slimy and diseased there should’ve been a Mr. Yuk sticker on the cover, with Alchemist’s sour-soul contributions (especially “Not High Enough,” “Chain Swinging,” and the Raekwon-featuring title cut) splashing sewage on Nike Yeezys and turning his lavish spreads into moldy caviar.

Covert Coup cover

New Orleans’ poet laureate of hotboxing muscle cars has had such a ridiculously proficient run with producer after producer — Harry Fraud, Ski Beatz, Statik Selektah — that a partnership with Alchemist felt as inevitable as the sunrise. Covert Coup struck right as a post-Gutter Water Alc started indulging his cratedigger interests in increasingly esoteric international music: high-gliding Czech-rock riffage on “Life Instructions,” mournful Franco-Italian synth-disco / prog library joint “Scottie Pippen,” the orchestral score to the namesake anime “Full Metal.” The effect is that Curren$y’s casually drawled, less-casually-brilliant punchlines click like the best stoner logic.

Russian Roulette cover

Alc’s time in Gangrene must’ve caused one of Oh No’s favorite tendencies to rub off on him. Like the Mediterranean-sourced samples that made up Dr. No’s Oxperiment and the Addis-addled Dr. No’s Ethiopium, Alchemist’s own take on the formula hopped on a rocket to Russia and built its own little Tarkovskian zone out of long-lost Brezhnev-era prog. The feature-filled album plays out like rapidfire collage, its attention-scattering lack of breathing room hinting at deeper strangeness the listener can puzzle out themselves. From an alternate soundtrack for Rocky IV (“Apollo’s Last Stand”; “Decisions Over Veal Orloff”) to a satellite drug-lab suite (“The Kosmos”, Parts 1-8), Alchemist’s uncanny alternate-Soviet-universe sources sound like little else out there.

No Idols cover

Flush with lingering Euro-prog vibes and striking while the Odd Future hype was upholding its own corner of the sky, No Idols was one of the best pure concentrated doses of the OFWGKTA’s most low-key talent before the arrival of his “official” debut studio album Genesis in 2016. Alchemist’s production takes some fascinating risks: the guitar-and-piano rock wail of “Prophecy” withholds any sort of drums where a well-placed boom-bap would’ve made it a god-mode anthem, “Me and My Bitch” flutters endlessly on an oscillation that sounds like a cross between a Fender Rhodes and a dialtone, and the fatal four-way battle of “Elimination Chamber” builds off a jazzy fusion loop that builds up an almost unbearable unresolved tension.

The Good Book Volume 1 cover

Not long after LA-via-UK producer Budgie put out his two-volume gospel mixtape series The Gospel According to Budgie, Alchemist rang him up and got the gears turning on a collab. The plan: Budgie supplies the church-music rarities, and Alc makes beats out of them — an 87-minute sermon where most of the testifying is done at an MPC pulpit. That means a not-entirely-secular experience where catching the spirit involves letting in all those pitch-tweaked, hypnotically looped choirs and fervent piano chords to guide your soul.

Alfredo cover

The Madlib-produced Pinata / Bandana records proved that nobody should be surprised by what kind of beats Gangsta Gibbs can stake his claim on. So of course a dude who sounds like a worldbeater whether he’s spitting over faded cratedigger samples or subwoofer-crushing 808s would click tight with Alc’s eclecticism. Alchemist keeps it soulful — even wistful at points, like on the Rick Ross-featuring “Scottie Beam” and its luxuriously languid piano — while Gibbs’ underground-economy raps have the embattled kind of edge that proves his gangster-flick concepts are seen through all the way into the third-act tragedy many quasi-mafiosos miss.

Haram cover

If all the regionally and stylistically disparate MCs Alchemist’s worked with all have a unifying factor, it’s that they’re all deeply aware of the maneuvers made in the name of class mobility — though in Armand Hammer’s case, Elucid and billy woods see said mobility as an out-of-reach brass ring at best, and more often than not as an elaborate con. Haram dropped when the long-tail impact of the previous year’s Shrines was still being felt, and the brilliant abrasions of that album’s abstract-friendly beats are followed up by one of Alc’s moodiest production slates to date — tendon-stretching tense (“Wishing Bad”), breathtakingly cosmic (“Black Sunlight”), and deep-focus in its wooziness (“Chicharrones”).

Bo Jackson cover

Eight years after the Alc teamup My 1st Chemistry Set earned him widespread attention (and a non-zero number of comparisons to Prodigy), Detroiter Boldy James had refined his flat-seeming flow into a shell-shocked, clear-eyed, beat-riding seance where he calls up his past traumas to shake everyone else in the room. Alc throws in enough left-field tricks of the beat to stymie lesser deadpans, like the brooding-to-panic vibe shift mid-"Double Hockey Sticks” and the unconventional lope of the drums on cuts like “Diamond Dallas” and “Flight Risk.” But Boldy’s nonchalance not only belies his intensity, his relation to the beat highlights his ability to adapt his flow into slo-mo Neo flurries of punch-parrying resilience.