The Uncrowned King of the Northwest
Back when I lived in the city, I used to see Specs lurking around Capitol Hill now and again. Tall, dressed in the Northwest signature strata of thrift-score layers, seemingly taller even due to his lankiness, with nappy hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, the man struck an immediate image - instantly memorable, a little off-kilter, but with everything impeccably in its place. The same can be seen in his visual arts, and heard here in his music and poetry. The man is an artist, let there be no doubt, but moreover you could say HE is art, and his work is just an extension of the man. In everything I've ever encountered regarding him, there is a rock-solid deliberateness and deep sense of craft. Listen to any of his records, it's easy to hear if you're looking for it. Just the fact that he makes all his own beats, and has few, if any, guests is a testament to his unique vision. And let there be no doubt, Specs has a vision, regarding hip hop and most likely beyond, and he has no interest in diluting it or becoming more mainstream. I get the feeling he really doesn't care if you feel what he's doing or not. It just has to come out; he just has to lay it down.
Not that his music is inaccessible at all. It may be rough and scratchy (purposefully of course), but the music Specs makes is instantly memorable, with unanticipated hooks and steady, headnodic beats. His vocal delivery is likewise steady, mellow, confident and immediately likable. And no other release of his demonstrates this like this one: 2005's The Long Awaited Mega EP.
From the intro track "North Again", to its closing Reprise "H2O" this vinyl is the smoothest and most even Specs has ever put down. The signature off-kilter beats, vinyl pops and tape hiss present in all his music is copiously heard here as well, but the noise is curbed a little, and the layers of sound go deeper and sound cleaner (thanks to engineer Bean One, I imagine). "North Again" is a fitting opener, with its low organ loop, sustained synth note, and rain and bong hits in the background. Specs waxes over the sporadic beat, laying down who and what he's about. "It's all future with the outlaw Buddha," he speaks quietly about, and probably to, himself, before launching into a name-check of many of his NW hip hop compatriots, that continues until the song fades out (the list continues with the fade-in of "H20" on side B).
The most frenetic track, and also the most difficult to listen to, is the follow-up to the hypnotic opener. "Unusual" features Stymie, Specs' hype man, (who Charles Mudede says is the size of a G.I. Joe) doing what he does over a short, hiccuping track, and is probably placed in the coveted 2nd spot on the record to keep the listener on his toes and guessing. "Regular Ish" follows, which has to be one of the most infectious tracks Specs has ever made (and also, at 2 minutes, one of the most criminally short). Somewhere between Paul Horn and Omid, the song is a heavy, Doc Marten-stomping, psychedlic celebration.
Perhaps the most standard song in Specs entire catalogue, "Finer Things", is his take on the classic hip hop cliche about blowing up, making money, and spending it on his girl, except when I listen to this, the personal nature of his music makes me feel like he's talking in the mirror here.
Side two opens with the sinister Atari-instrumental "2k5", before breaking in with the seriously danceable low-fi masterpiece "Concrete". The music sounds like it's coming from a film strip (remember watching those slide shows in elementary school? I'm dating myself here); even the drums sound empty and warbly, but I swear nothing has ever been more groovy. I could put this on loop and listen all day. If I could dance worth a damn, I'd do that, too.
"H20" follows, and acts as the bookend to the album, followed by a instrumentals of "Unusual" and "Concrete". All told the EP is just over 24 minutes in length, but what a strong set of songs it is! I can't believe he limited this to only 500 copies. Sure, he posted most of it up on myspace, but still...
After this smooth, relatively clean-sounding record (an aesthetic in common with its predecessor, Return of the Artist) Specs turned over a couple pages and came back deliberately more psychedelic and spaced-out for the incredible Original Space Neighbors album (under the alias Mic Mulligan and S. Future). His following work has delved even more into the abstract, rough, scratchy, well-worn sound, which fits the man perfectly. Listening to his aged loops and his whispered delivery, it's obvious he wants the listener to cue in and be explicitly aware of the history behind the sound, the history of the art of hip hop as he sees it, and the history of the man presenting it. After being in the industry for more than twenty years, Specs is the rarest of cats: one that has consistently stayed true to his vision, and kept his signature sound, while constantly changing and ever-progressing. Perhaps he accomplished this because he never subscribed to a particular genre or niche in hip hop. Specs One has always just sounded like Specs One. For those who wonder how this may be, check out his current releases here and here.