Remember when hip-hop was less about big pimpin' or gettin' your crunk on and more concerned with telling an actual story? The members of Panacea sure do, and with The Scenic Route (Glow in the Dark/Rawkus, 2007) — their third release since joining forces in 2003 — D.C. natives Kyle Murdock (aka K-Murdock) and Jason Moore (aka Raw Poetic) put message, movement and musicality front and center.
“It's almost like writing a score for a movie,” says MC and rhyme firebrand Raw Poetic. “It was probably the toughest album I've ever done, but after this, all I want to do now is write themed albums. It's really the rebirth of me writing music. We've been doing this for a few years now, and to write a rhyme over a beat is just not that challenging to me. But it is challenging to have to actually stick to a certain theme or story or script.”
Tracking the journey of an intrepid narrator through his evolution into a battle-tested sage (one of the closing tracks is aptly called “Katana,” Japanese for a samurai's sword and, in this case, symbolic of the strength our hero derived from his now-estranged female companion), The Scenic Route is just as visually arresting for the pictures it paints with sound. Recorded and mixed by K-Murdock on Digidesign Pro Tools|HD using a Numark TT-USB turntable as his sampler setup, the album projects a vintage head-knocking sound reminiscent of the '70s fusion, funk and soul records that Murdock diligently sifts through for his beats and melodies.
But The Scenic Route also features live performances on keyboards and guitar from the members of Panacea's backing band RPM — whose own self-released CD Pyramids in Moscow has just hit the waves — as well as from K-Murdock himself on an Alesis Ion and Andromeda, which he also uses as controllers for Arturia Analog Factory. Meanwhile, early in the sequence — on the dreamlike “Flashback to Stardom” — R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn lends his silky vocals to the song's groove hypnotics, adding yet another layer of depth to this viscerally engaging set.
“You gotta have that balance,” says Murdock, using a word that comes up a lot when he describes what went into the production of the album. “You can take the guitar in ‘Aim High’ as one example; most jazz records, unless they've just been heavily digitally restored or even replayed, are gonna have the kind of dirty texture that song has. I wanted that obviously, but there are some other songs on the album that have a cleaner sound, too.”
Murdock will often EQ his live sounds and samples through a Behringer mixer before going into Pro Tools, and he also relies on a spate of plug-ins to add some psychedelic spice; among them is Waves' Mondo Mod and MetaFlanger, as heard on “Between Earth and Sky,” where Raw Poetic's voice is meant to sound as if he's hurtling toward earth, waiting to pull the rip-cord on a parachute. Murdock is also quick to point out that his current gig as a producer and host for XM Satellite Radio's “Subsoniq” series has allowed him access to some state-of-the-art equipment — including a Digidesign ICON D-Command console, Focusrite Red mic preamps and a plethora of top-end Neumann microphones — that have helped him step up his game considerably.
“The thing I love about working at XM is that their approach has been more from a musical side,” he says. “They consulted with all of us before they went out and got this equipment — I mean, I couldn't ask for a better setup. But with this record, I guess the main thing is that there was a certain sound we were trying to achieve, so just having some random loops wasn't really gonna work. We needed changes and arrangements, to be able to segue each song into the next, so that you could have the whole collective musical experience. I mean, one of my favorite albums of all time is [A Tribe Called Quest's] The Low End Theory, and we know what that's about.”