A new long-player by George Evelyn always triggers a frisson of excitement and expectation. Over a 33-year career, the Nightmares On Wax/DJ EASE man – the longest-serving artist on Warp’s roster – has consistently delivered truly great albums of essential groove, connecting the dots between electronica, hip hop, funk, dub, reggae, soul, jazz and soundsystem culture to reliably mesmeric effect. And while ‘Shout Out! To Freedom…’, his ninth studio album, traverses a similar path, it also feels like the apogee of NOW’s distinctive, laid-back sonics.
As its title suggests, there’s a sense of Evelyn being set free with this record, which was sparked by significant life changes. With lockdown forcing a change of pace, the Leeds-born DJ and producer – now living in Ibiza – was given time to reassess and reflect on who he is, both personally and creatively.
After adopting a healthier outlook – following a decade of constant touring and all the rigours that involved – realising the importance of family, and dealing with a cancer scare, Evelyn has talked about “coming to life” and “becoming who I really am”. The cancer near-miss clearly shook him – he found himself hospitalised, waiting for test results, not knowing which way they would go.
He began contemplating his mortality, and the album was written with the mindset of it being the last one he would ever make. But having seemingly been given the medical all-clear, ‘Shout Out!’ duly fizzes with new-found verve, freshness and a palpable feeling of positivity.
The result of having more quality studio time and space to tinker, Evelyn regards ‘Shout Out!’ as the natural successor to 1995’s gorgeously hazy ‘Smokers Delight’, widely regarded as NOW’s masterpiece. A tale often told – but worth repeating – is that Evelyn supposedly got the idea for ‘Smokers’ while out of it on acid, listening to The KLF. No wonder it turned into one of the best trip hop albums ever made. And while ‘Shout Out!’ doesn’t directly compare with its predecessor, new cuts such as ‘Imagineering’ and ‘Miami 80’ certainly evoke its downtempo, soul-inflected, bong-worshipping spirit.
Collaborations are key, too. Evelyn has obviously worked with countless guest vocalists and musicians before, but here he’s assembled a formidable array of “next generation” artists, all of who contribute music loosely inspired by “freedom” – hence the album’s title.
It’s quite the line-up. Sax player Shabaka Hutchings (The Comet Is Coming/Sons Of Kemet), Brooklyn-based vocalist Haile Supreme, neo-soul chanteuse Greentea Peng, Mara TK (singer with New Zealand future soul trio Electric Wire Hustle), British/Egyptian poet Sabrina Mahfouz, rising hip hop duo OSHUN, and R&B singer/songwriter Pip Millett all figure – an influx of personnel that makes for perhaps the richest, most colourful and thematically powerful NOW album to date.
“I’ve been thinking lately / It’s time to stop buying into this crap / I need my privacy, my civil liberties,” sings Greentea Peng on the infectious, rootsy skank of ‘Wikid Satellites’. In this era of Black Lives Matter and political/social injustice, it’s an important message to keep putting out there.
All of NOW’s albums are underpinned by slick, crystalline production, but for sheer depth of sound, ‘Shout Out! To Freedom…’ feels next-level, with not a duff cut to speak of. Voiced by Haile Supreme, ‘Wonder’ is a belting, atmospheric fusion of contemporary jazz and soul, but ‘3D Warrior’ is by far the standout track – an exhilarating amalgam of trippy, galactic dub, anchored by Hutchings’ distinctive sax and Supreme’s shamanic intonations.
Don Letts recently said that ‘Shout Out! To Freedom…’ establishes Evelyn as “one of the most important and influential black British producers of his generation”. In truth, that was already the case, given Evelyn’s prodigious body of work and the fact that he helped to instigate trip hop and chill-out sounds in the first place, but it’s a moot point. And while it’ll always be difficult to better an album as defining as ‘Smokers Delight’ or his ornate signature track ‘Les Nuits’ (from 1999’s ‘Carboot Soul’), ‘Shout Out!’ certainly ranks alongside those towering NOW moments.
Remarkably, despite his prolific output and all the critical acclaim over the years, Evelyn still seems to have slipped under the radar somewhat, certainly in terms of wider recognition, but this mightily sublime, radiant album should go some way to rectifying that. There is already talk of a follow-up too – exploring further definitions of freedom – with Evelyn revealing that he’s working with Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and other as-yet-undisclosed collaborators.
Exciting times ahead, but let’s not jump the gun. For now, ‘Shout Out! To Freedom…’ – exultant, intoxicating and thoroughly EASE-y on the ear – will tide us over very nicely indeed.