Smoke Stacked

Posted on 26 September 2017

Two of the Triangle’s steadiest hip-hop hands collide to produce — as expected — a refreshing remix album

By Ryan Cocca

Dennis McCarter, the Raleigh-based hip-hop producer better known as Sinopsis, is quieter than he has to be. He doesn’t yap about being a founding member of the widely respected rap crew Kooley High, or about the Very Big Album they’re currently sitting on, or about the To Pimp A Butterfly record cover that hangs in his apartment, adorned with a handwritten note from the classic album’s only guest rapper, and McCarter’s close friend, Rapsody.

For all the talents and skills (and friends in high places) that McCarter doesn’t talk about, the best tool in his arsenal may be the furthest from the surface: his shrewd and selective sense of taste. 

That’s the message that was sent when Sinop made the announcement a few weeks ago that he’d be releasing a remix of the entire P.A.T. Junior Black & Mild EP, Junior’s impressive return after 2016’s full-length Learning To Live (In A Day), and Sinopsis’ first production outing in more than a year. 

With the exception of scoring a mass-shared video or song (*cough*bullcitybornbredcornbreadfed, I’mbullcitybornbredcornbreadfed*cough*), P.A.T. has checked off just about every other box imaginable on his way to being seen as one of the most consistent and compelling artists in the Triangle, from getting major blog looks, to throwing successful events, to rocking big-time festival shows.

Given all of this, it should come as a shock to no one that their resulting collaborative album, Smoke Signals, is an immediately enjoyable, creatively refreshing complement to the original EP, and one of the best local releases of the year (even if we don’t get any new lyrics out of the deal). 

For many fans, and even producers, remix tracks are often a rote exercise: take old lyrics, find a cool new beat, and slap the two together without a second thought. But occasionally, remix projects— The Grey Album and Collision Course, come to mind—reach for something higher. Time and again, that has been Sinopsis’ approach to releasing re-worked music. His 2012 release of The Skywalker was Kooley High’s New York-inflected David Thompson album put through a time machine, with a sound as soft and fuzzy as the image on a 1970’s (I’m guessing, here) tube TV. The original source material (David Thompson) wasn’t exactly on the bleeding edge of hip-hop to begin with, but regardless, the two albums felt decades apart. 

He performed the same overhaul on 2016’s Heights.Rx, taking a bouncy and buttery group EP (Heights, 2015) and dousing it in molasses, with previously sunny and happy-go-lucky material slowed to a relative crawl.

Still, as one of only two Kooley High producers, and therefore a major architect of the group’s sound, there’s only so much reinvention Sinop can wring out of any K-High album, considering that his creative choices helped shape it to begin with. So while the outer appearance of his remixes may be different, underneath the surface, the DNA is the same. With P.A.T. Junior as his partner, a formidable producer in his own right, the source material is no longer so familiar. And that’s very good news for us. 

The polar opposite of his work on Heights.Rx, here Sinop takes brooding and emotionally dense material from P.A.T. and in many cases turns it celebratory, with “still, light” flying out of the gates as one of the smoothest samples Sinopsis has ever laid down. 

The same can be said for the Ace Henderson-assisted “1971,” which breathes new life into slow, soul-searching material, now with the an airy, more distant feel. It’s a song that illustrates the sonic difference between the two producers more than any other: P.A.T.’s fists and knuckles on the lunch table against Sinop’s constant, ever-rotating vinyl. 

But the thoughtful construction of an entirely new album is present long before that, before any lyrics even, on an intro track that’s so nondescript you might not notice it’s there — “an intro.,” the bleak, cold, and music-less intro to Black & Mild, re-created here as “the spark.,” jazzy, yellow-warm, and worn around the edges.

The outliers to Sinop’s role as eternal optimist come near the end, on “forward, always.” It’s the first time a song sounds emotionally parallel to the original version, which is too bad, as it prevents the track from being memorable or unique in its own right. 

And as much as I hate to say it, the outro track, a verse taken from P.A.T.’s LTL album from a song called “The Outlet,” catches the two co-conspirators on different frequencies. “The Wes Craven of Freddy-facin’ your local favorites” just doesn’t feel the same with a noodling keyboard riff and a dusty, laid-back drum pattern in the background. Of course, it’s not intended to — Sinopsis’ remixes never are. But while the gamble often pays dividends, here it feels unmotivated, even awkward.

No doubt some will find that kind of experimentation refreshing — one of the most aggressively antisocial, venom-laced tracks of P.A.T’s 2016 releaes re-calibrated and spit out as perhaps the mellowest on Smoke Signals. 

In the end, it’s one of very few weak spots in an album that hopefully augers more NC collaborations of its kind in the months and years to come. If egos can be put aside and the work handled with this level of care, there’ll be more than enough praise to go around.

The Smoke Signals EP is now available on Spotify, iTunes, Bandcamp and other digital retailers where you get music.

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