This is me. Photo by Joao Canziani
This is me. Photo by Joao Canziani

My Place On This Planet

Dudley Perkins is also a rapper named Declaime—and an all right comix-style artist on the side, too—but people didn't really start to call him crazy until he went back to using his given name and started putting out records where he . . . sings. That was a tough switch for a slower audience already scrambling over other Oxnardian art/psych hip-hop albums by Madlib (who produces Dudley all his music), and in a lot of interviews Dudley had to defend a voice that people tried to be polite about: "I sing in the key of everybody," he said once. "Because everybody can sing it."

Sounds all right to ears already dotted by populist croakers like Dock Boggs, but Dudley's warning shot single "Flowers"—recorded why-not-style in 2002 after a long bright night with producers Madlib and Peanut Butter Wolf—does not comply with traditional smoove-groove notions of soul utility; as a slow jam for silk sheets, it's a contemplator, not a persuader. He double-tracked one froggy falsetto and one stumbling lead and put an understated piano-bar beat sort of puddling around at the bottom, and if the mark you've got half-disrobed in bed doesn't ask you to switch it off, then you know you've got a keeper because they're obviously a deep and careful listener. Dudley made a love-tester: he got honest so you don't have to.

But a lot of people hear honest—especially honest in a spotty sort of voice, especially these hesitant, uncomfortable songs about God and family and women and loneliness, squashed right into the mic by Dudley's prickly voice—and they just think crazy, and then they put on Portishead when they coax someone back to their bedrooms. Tough for Dudley. Too much weed and not enough vocal lessons: that's a graveyard where a lot of guys ended up—Tiny Tim, for one.

And that's a criticism leveled by people you absolutely know just love Bob Dylan, though Dudley is just as confessional and personal with just as idiosyncratic a voice, with a backing band just as world-class (Madlib is probably the West Coast's top producer) and a set of roots just as deep, though instead of Guthrie and pals, Dudley was "brought up with James until [he] met George," which helpfully names the top and bottom of his sound: Mr. Please Please's saw-blade scream and Mr. Maggot Brain's happy bluntness.

And across the middle a mash of high-concept Motown—Perkins once called Marvin Gaye a "haunted angel"—and out-there jazz like Archie Shepp, whose "Money Blues" concentrates through Dudley to a simpler "Money," and Sun Ra, whose "Nuclear War" lands pretty much untouched in Dudley's "Gotta Go." Even the lead track on Dudley's new Expressions (2012 A.U.), "Funky Dudley," is just a few thoughts off from Luther Thomas' "Funky Donkey," though Funkadelic lends a little line for a thing about a nation under a groove, too.

That's a listener's-listener record: lots of connections lighting up, which is fun the first time through and revelatory by increments each time next, a reverse-engineering trip that tells you where and when Dudley comes from (America, the year What Goes On came out, it seems like). But that's also Madlib's production, and Dudley keeps up because he can balance Madlib's intensely distinctive sound with his own unprocessed personality.

He doesn't mind dropping a lot of himself into his records too: first A Lil Light had "You Really Know Me?" and current Expressions qualifies back to "Me," a wide-open song about God and earth and man where Dudley si-i-i-ings, "This is me being a true man/This is me being a human/A man without history/At least I never learned it/My place on this planet, I must have earned it . . ." "I don't think they understood," says someone in the back of the track (Dudley and/or Madlib mixes this kind of Greek chorus effect into the back of a few songs) and so he keeps explaining, running this loose humble simple idea about who am I?/who are you?/no, but really? into a soft landing and a bounce into a new song with a basso "Charlie Brown" doo-wop hook ("Why's everybody always pickin' on me?") and some nice lines about a world falling apart at the seams.

Sounds all right to these ears because it sounds like Dudley alone, and if he's got a little clog in his throat, well, so did Rufus Thomas and today we adore him for it. He sang in the key of everybody too.



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