Written by Phillip Mlynar for Village Voice, published October 24, 2011.
The day before his first CMJ show, Vex Ruffin sat in a bar called Ontario in Williamsburg, wearing a t-shirt with the Seinfeld logo on it and quietly nerding out by giving the Stones Throw roster Wu-Tang Clan-style names. Head honcho Peanut Butter Wolf became Killer Ginsu; Madlib was re-christened Hidden Sword. The LA-based Ruffin is the label's latest signing; he's being billed on his press release as the musical product of an upbringing simultaneously soundtracked by the rowdy D.M.X.-helmed Ruff Ryders rap crew and English new-wave band The Cure. Ruffin sings and plays guitar; his recently-released EP, Crash Course, displays his talent at creating lo-fi-leaning, sometimes scuzzy music. His signing underscores the transition of Stones Throw from a label once associated with indie hip-hop to, well, not really much of a hip-hop-centric label at all. Friday's CMJ showcase, held at the Converse-branded Rubber Tracks recording studio (just a couple of blocks from Ontario), reinforces this change: The sorta-psych-soul trio The Stepkids and Australian electronic producer Jonti round out the night's bill.
Ruffin speaks quietly while at Ontario, but promises that he transforms into the "Beast Master" when performing live. (It almost sounds like a Seinfeld subplot.) At Rubber Tracks, this sees him strutting around like an especially rigid peacock who's also fond of making forays off the stage and wading out into the audience. There's a cock-sure presence about Ruffin's movement and his voice—all baritone and at times almost settling into a drone—that creates a captivating effect. For a debut performer, he also comes through with a decent stash of stage banter, telling stories about Madlib throwing away a beat tape of his, and early into his set berating to the audience by imploring, "Come on, this is New York—and there's free beer!"
Backed up by a three-piece band, Ruffin's voice is bedded by the pared-down formula of drums being bluntly pounded and basslines that swamp the venue. Crucially, though, there's an airy space among the simple layers—and it's this timbre that shows off Ruffin's hip-hop producer roots more than any onetime infatuation with the Ruff Ryders. The fuzzy guitar riff that runs throughout "I'm Losing Control" comes off like a triggered sample; the general muddiness of the mix brings to mind RZA's first glorious run of Wu-Tang Clan productions, where he teased magic out of a low-budget mindstate. (Ruffin's band sometimes sounds a little the oft-sampled E.S.G.)
Nerd kicks of plotting Ruffin's sound to the side though, his short set also suggests he has a knack for etching out songs memorable on their own merits. On "Shield For You," he sings about how he's "a warrior beast with the face of a lion." It's a line that brings to mind 30 Rock character Liz Lemon's comedic description of Jack Donaghy as "an eagle with the head of a bear." But Ruffin couches it by guaranteeing, "I'll be a human shield for you/ I'm here for you/ I'll protect you/ I'll take care of you/ I'll be a shield for you." When he sings, it comes off as not just sincere but tender, too—which is some sort of a feat for a song that also features a recurring siren sound, which recalls the days when hip-hop producers became smitten with sampling the abrasive wail from Quincy Jones's Ironside theme.
Ruffin opens the Stones Throw show and leaves the lasting impression by the evening's end. It's not that he necessarily upstages his labelmates, it's just that his band's sound is more fascinating. The Stepkids might be slick performers, but tonight they're eclipsed by a retina-tampering light show apparently hauled up and dusted off from some long-shuttered club. (While fun for a few minutes, it only distracts from the music the band is playing.) And Jonti, who might well be preppy rap clown Asher Roth's doppleganger, largely seems to stand behind a laptop and press play on some songs. It's little in the way of a spectacle. But then, that's what the open bar is probably for.
Critical bias: I'm far from a fan of the corporate sponsorship of music, but the sound at Rubber Tracks was top-notch.