Bright lights, big beats from Nelson County

Bright lights, big beats from Nelson County

Abel Okugawa’s Dance Like a Speaker doesn’t sound like a product of rural Virginia. Although Okugawa is the recording engineer at Nelson County’s Monkeyclaus Recording Studio, his ethereal samples and hip-hop-leaning rhythms seem more appropriate amidst the dizzying bright lights of New York than the rollicking foothills along Route 151.

Thus it makes sense that Okugawa has spent time in the Big Apple, where he learned his way around studios by building them. While there, it seems he struck up other artistic connections; Dance Like a Speaker features artwork by New York artist Cory Grider and guest spots by Bronx rap group Regime Change.

No more Monkey business: Abel Okugawa keeps his beats bananas on Dance Like a Speaker.

The album’s first track, “Subtle,” points to an important characteristic of Okugawa’s music. While one can describe it as downtempo electronica, a lot is going on underneath the surface. Symphony samples give “Bird” a majestic tone, while background bongos add a more polyrhythmic stride. “Sayit” employs a plodding horn loop, like a New Orleans big band LP skipping ad infinitum at half-speed. In “Luv That UR,” echo-laden distortion and a lounge-y guitar sample from Charlottesville’s own Acoustic Groove Trio create a heady, bedroom rush. By constantly switching up his orchestration and source material, Okugawa gives each tune its own unique texture and steers the album away from monotony.

The album’s most magnetic songs, though, are “Fo Sho” and “Reparations,” where Regime Change joins the mix. Okugawa’s songwriting stands on its own, but it works even better in a hip-hop context. His atmospheric, organic soundtracks provide an intricate and malleable

canvas for the group’s socially conscious rhymes, unlike the blunt, demanding synths and drum machines that dominate today’s pop charts.

“Storm Closing” concludes the album, and suddenly the urban terrain recedes to reveal a refreshing Virginia thunderstorm and strummed ukulele. I am reminded of the last time I visited Monkeyclaus, during an August downpour. Okugawa and founder Peter Agelasto were on the porch, taking a break from an evening recording session as Mad Kong, the studio’s resident feline, brushed by their feet. This final track embodies such a moment, with Okugawa stepping away from the studio and bringing nature into the mix. It’s a terrific conclusion and, I hope, a sign that when Okugawa returns with his next release, he will draw on Blue Ridge in the same way that Dance Like a Speaker reflects the rhythms of the subway and street.