'Meow the Jewels': A landmark achievement in feline-based music

'Meow the Jewels': A landmark achievement in feline-based music
Run The Jewels, a hip-hop duo of El-P, left, and Killer Mike, perform on Day 2 of Coachella 2015. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In a world overwhelmed by one-trick feline Instagram sensations like Snoopy Cat and kitties that earned fame by the oddball luck of nature like Grumpy Cat or trend-chasing (Hamilton the Hipster Cat), the expert furries that purr and paw their way through Run the Jewels’ new all-cat remix album “Meow the Jewels” deliver emotional depth befitting nature’s most psychologically elusive creature.

A remix of Run the Jewels’ acclaimed 2014 album “RTJ2.”, “Meow the Jewels” is the first-ever all-cat rap album. An album whose genesis began with a joke, the 12 tracks feature the same rapped verses by the duo of El-P and Killer Mike, but the original music has been replaced with recordings of cats. The remixes -- arranged by human producer-artists including Geoff Barrow of Portishead, the Alchemist, Zola Jesus, Prince Paul and 3D from Massive Attack -- offer so many picks of litters that it’s a wonder that Run the Jewels found enough wranglers to make this happen.

Does a record in which every single beat, snare, high-hat, melody and hook is built using only the many textures that arise from sampling a cat sound any good? Let’s just say, I have seen the future of cat-based music, and its name is “Meow the Jewels.”

Listen to Meow the Jewels' "Angelsnuggler (Dan The Automator Remix)" [contains cussing]

But let’s back up. When the original album “RTJ2” was released, Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike and El-P jokingly offered for sale something called “The Meow the Jewels Package.” With a price tag of $40,000, it was described in a sales-pitch as a re-recording of the album “using nothing but cat sounds for music.” One fan took the bait and started a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. Enthusiastic donors ponied up and eventually exceeded the goal. Less than a year later, “Meow the Jewels” is now available as a free download and deluxe double LP (complete with faux-fur cover), with all proceeds going to charity.

To say that the album is a game-changer in cat-based music is an understatement. It’s an important work across creative disciplines and ranks in the pantheon alongside such masters of the genre as Pierre Auguste Renoir’s “Sleeping Girl (Girl with a Cat)” (1880-81), George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” comic and Pablo Picasso’s “Cat Catching a Bird.” Even more, it reveals the telegraphed rapping in Dr. Seuss' so-called classic book “The Cat in the Hat” to be little more than a series of nursery rhymes.

Another measure of “Meow the Jewels’” success: So convincing is the cat-based work that it single-pawedly renders such so-called classics of feline expression -- the cartoon “Tom & Jerry” and the Broadway musical “Cats” -- to be little more than Vaudeville acts. The humans pretending to be cats in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical need to be called out for what they are: meowist bigots who trade in cat-face stereotypes. People singing like cats? Haven’t we as a society moved past that?

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“Meow the Jewels” argues that we have. Culture, like nature, evolves. Even Keyboard Cat’s era-defining run down the piano sounds dated – and certainly a mess when compared to the evocative creatures that artist Cory Arcangel orchestrated to play composer Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 11.

Need evidence that Meow the Jewels is up to the task? The cats that producer BOOTS somehow managed to wrangle into the studio for “Meowerly” is a testament not only to his patience but his skills as a conductor. Once settled, the cats nailed their parts with both fluidity and practiced funk. Opening with R. Kitty’s warm purr and Siamese seductress Cupcake’s stuttered cackle hitting on the two and four, the track ascends to heights like Whisker chasing Buttons up a tree.

On the Little Shalimar-remixed “Snug Again,” a cat called Precious expertly conveys rhythmic movement with a sense of grace unseen since “Cats” star Grizabella first eased her way onto the Broadway stage. That Precious, a sphynx from a region of southern Illinois known more for its tabbies, can move from purr to meow to hiss within 16 quick bars is a testament to her both her flow and her steely determination; it’s almost like her whiskers are sensing the beat just before it arrives.

Like a lot of rap, there’s bluster. During “Close Your Eyes and Meow to Fluff (Geoff Barrow remix),” the purring growl of Burmese bomber Hairball (minus her longtime collaborator MJG) hits like a cannonball. But, then, that’s no surprise given her background as a South Philadelphia feral captured while trying to break into Adventure Aquarium. Sources say that on recording day she arrived at the studio with a dead snake in her mouth, dropped it in the vocal booth, meowed her part in one take, gathered her lunch and slurped it like a piece of spaghetti while the engineers watched slack-jawed.

But the process wasn't always so easy. From what we hear, the silky Siamese cat Sparky could barely carry himself to his session. But any doubt that the catnip had overtaken his life was erased after his trademark purring added a rumbly bass to Just Blaze's "Oh My Darling Don't Meow."

However hardened these cats appear, no classic rap record is complete without a few slow jams for late-night biscuit-making. Producer Prince Paul, until now best known for his formative work with human rappers De La Soul, rustled his furry friends into the studio at the perfect time. Without getting too graphic, some of his cats seemed particularly frisky, as though the producer had kept an un-spayed posse on call until their hormones started boiling. Groaning with desire, lead meower Simba refuses to be shamed in “Lie, Cheat, Meow.” She’s a cat in heat and wants the world to know it. During a break between takes, she hunted, killed and ate a horsefly, silencing any doubters.

From a conceptual standpoint, “Meow the Jewels” is hardly new. Rather, the most recent iteration of a sampling technique in which curious, "unmusical" noise is tuned, distorted, sped-up, slowed-down and then organized into beat-based tracks.

British musician, artist and animal rights activist Matthew Herbert built an entire album, “One Pig,” (2011) around the various sounds of a single animal during its living days as well as while being butchered, cooked and eaten. In 2001, Baltimore-based electronics team Matmos’ “A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure” turned surgical operations into funky house and experimental electronic tracks. Tori Amos sampled a bull in “Professional Widow.”

Impressive feats. But dead pigs, anesthetized patients and bovine bluster are nothing compared to herding a bunch of musician-cats. If they aren’t stoned Russian Blues on catnip, they’re scatterbrained young Manxes preoccupied with yarn balls when they should be rehearsing.

Either that or they’re too famous to care. Yes, superstar cat Lil Bub makes a cameo in the album's opening track. But that’s about all the frowny-faced – OK, ADORABLE -- munchkin did.

You can hear her ambivalence in the lazy rhymes: Bub’s here not for the craft but the platform. Like Paris Hilton DJing, Lil Bub landed a spot here because of status, not artistry. Compared to the nuanced performance by Mittens throughout “Paw Due Respect (Blood Diamonds remix),”, for example, Bub sounds like she's ready to cough up a hairball -- either hung over, due for a catnap or just plain tired from a relentless schedule.

Don't get me wrong. The old guard still has ideas to offer. As Grizadella herself sang in the “Cats” classic “Memory,” “When the dawn comes, tonight will be a memory too.” True, but still. If that pretty kitty, rest her glamorous soul, were alive today, she’d be 170 cat-years old. It’s time to embrace Killer Mike’s approach to awakening in “Pawfluffer Night”: “Top of the morning, my fist to your face is [meowing] Folgers”

"Meow the Jewels" is just the kind of wake-up hiss we need right now.

For more anthropomorphisms, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit


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