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No Album Left Behind: Dos Monos' Dos City

The Japanese hip-hop trio’s debut is an abrasively jazzy delight

Music Reviews Dos Monos
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No Album Left Behind: Dos Monos' <i>Dos City</i>

Over the course of 2019, Paste has reviewed about 300 albums. Yet, hundreds—if not thousands—of albums have slipped through the cracks. This December, we’re delighted to launch a new series called No Album Left Behind, in which our core team of critics reviews some of their favorite records we may have missed the first time around, looking back at some of the best overlooked releases of 2019.

With early releases from the likes of Death Grips, Julia Holter, Clipping. and the more recently ascendent JPEGMAFIA, Deathbomb Arc has been one of the most consistently exciting independent record labels to watch since its founding in 1998. The label’s releases have always been defined by an adventurously abrasive spirit, though its founders often express a reluctance to brand their music as strictly experimental; “I’ve started to think of Deathbomb as a window into another universe,” label founder Brian Miller explained in a 2012 interview. “I want to reach people who normally have to wait years before an ‘experimental’ act is deemed normal enough for them.”

One of the latest signees to Deathbomb is Dos Monos, whose March album Dos City remains one of the year’s most exciting hip-hop efforts and a thrilling window into Japan’s thriving underground music scene. Despite the group’s Spanish name, the trio calls Tokyo home, and the majority of the record is exhiliratingly rapped in Japanese by members Taitan Man and Botsu (the third member, Zo Zhit, handles production). That language barrier might be understandably difficult for a more lyrically-minded hip-hop fan to pass, but Dos Monos’ unique sound—which often sounds like a violent Tom & Jerry cartoon if it were directed by Salvador Dalí—justifies the effort.

The pieces that make up Dos City are nothing new to hip-hop. Comprised primarily of globetrotting samples, the trio is clearly influenced by the legendary producer Madlib. That’s most clearly evident on “Muffin,” a track built around a sample culled from Frank Zappa’s “Muffin Man.” While that track utilizes a narrator in much the same way that tracks on Madvillainy did, there’s also Madlib’s presence peppered throughout in smaller ways, like the meta ruminations on the jazz samples: “The sample is Thelonious,” Taitan Man explains on plunking boom-bap standout “In 20XX,” which indeed makes use of Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners” in its beat. Elsewhere, the group lays out their origin story on “Agharta,” named for a Miles Davis album recorded in Osaka in 1975 when the trumpeter was experimenting with drugs. Fittingly for Dos Monos, they find new ways to make discordance sound fresh.

Though the sonics that comprise the record aren’t groundbreaking, the way that all the disparate pieces fit together feels altogether new. Zo Zhit’s ability to conjure a unique soundscape out of potentially tired samples is nothing short of breathtaking, able to find exciting cracks for Botsu and Taitan Man’s playfully elastic flows to peek out of. The deliciously provocative “Abdication b4 he dies”—a ringing indictment of Akihito, who stepped down as Japan’s emperor in May—might be the best example of the trio’s cohesive sound, with pitch-shifted vocals treated as another polyrhythm in an ocean of crashing percussion. That political consciousness recurs throughout the record, as on “Daimy?,” which finds the trio interrogating feudal Japan’s shogunate history while experimenting with the brassy instruments of the era in one of the album’s (even more) unusual beats.

Some of the recurring sounds on the album might prove tiresome, such as the repeated atonal wails—both vocal and instrumental—that appear on most of Dos City’s 13 tracks. At only 35 minutes long, the album hardly outstays its welcome, but the relentless pace of its abrasive free-jazz production stretches the album’s runtime out into something seemingly longer. Still, it’s worth sticking with Dos City until the end, as some of the album’s hardest beats were saved for last, such as the positively thumping “Schizoidian.”

Playfully violent and exuberantly experimental, Dos City is a quintessential Deathbomb Arc release, feeling right at home among the early records from Dos Monos’ former labelmates that have gone on to bigger stages after catapulting to mainstream success. It’s not hard to imagine Dos Monos on the same trajectory as them, making yet another case for their label as one of the most innovative imprints in recent memory.

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