Rap albums featuring a single beatmaker have a special place in the hearts and minds of hip-hop heads. The collaborative relationship between producer and rapper is as celebrated as the link between a cinema auteur and their acting muse. When you listen to Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly, her connection with Timbaland feels telepathic. Maybe even spiritual.
Sometimes producers want their names on top of the masthead too. I’m not talking about those who double-job it behind the boards and in front of a mic – Dr. Dre and Kanye West are obvious examples here – but rather the likes of Metro Boomin, Mustard, Mike Will Made It, Statik Selektah and The Alchemist.
All are respected maestros behind the music who rarely or never rap but have fully laid out their musical philosophy by releasing producer compilation albums with the help of a revolving door of guest vocalists. And with full-length rap projects emanating from this island at an increasingly high rate, it was only a matter of time before the same blueprint began to manifest here.
Enter Gaptoof. His 10-track album Looks Like Rain (I’ve seen it described as an EP in some of the press material, but if it quacks like an album, it’s an album) revels in the established producer compilation outline. Cooking up a batch of beats and inviting vocalists to help themselves, Gaptoof shuffles through styles, moods and perspectives while remaining true to his individual proclivities.
It’s another win for Soft Boy Records. Gaptoof is an in-house producer at Ireland’s answer to some of the famous independent rap stables of yore. Think of Soft Boy as Dublin’s answer to Rhymesayers or Def Jux – if those companies had been interested in making Bad Boy-style hits – and its label-head and biggest star Kojaque as the epitome of the song and dance man who also sits in meetings with company accountants.
For those keeping score, it was Gaptoof who co-produced “Paris, Texas”, the smooth slow jam that appeared on last year’s still-excellent joint album from Kojaque and Luka Palm, Green Diesel. Still, in Soft Boy’s stable, Gaptoof is a man apart. There’s almost no information about him out there, but an attempt to trace his genesis does bring up a 2017 video for “Overdue”.
What I’ll say about “Overdue” is it takes a pretty striking track to distract from the video, which features Kojaque and fellow Soft Boy soldier Kean Kavanagh doing their worst Street Fighter moves over a static background. Block that out and you’ll ingest a number that bears the hallmarks of Gaptoof’s sound. Leaning on dreamy samples and heavily tweaked vocal loops, he favours a 2000s production style formed by the likes of DJ Scratch, J Dilla, 9th Wonder and Kanye West, with hazy shades of cloud rap in the mix for good measure.
Recent months have seen Gaptoof drop four installments of The Marina Tapes, a beat tape series defined by the image of a floppy disc that decorates the cover of each edition – the antique technology once a favoured storage device among producers for sounds and samples. But Looks Like Rain is a level up in his artistic ascent. This full clip of sparkling hip-hop and contemporary R&B features guest spots from the Soft Boy roster – Kojaque, Kavanagh – and a few other interesting draft picks who help flesh out Gaptoof’s sound.
Gaptoof uses voice samples liberally, like they’re antiseptic on an insect bite. The singers he summons from old records rarely disappear into the back of the mix – they elbow their way front and centre, demanding equal billing with the live artist, like ghosts in the studio that refuse to be translucent. Take “Too Late”, which recruits Birmingham emcee Kofi Stone. A clipped vocal loop floats in and out of the mix as a brokenhearted Stone pines for an old sweetheart, “woman of my dreams”, now with another lover.
Maintaining the retro vibe, there’s music here that fits into the recent 1990s R&B revival currently coursing through Irish music: “Caps Lock” features unknown quantity Mimikat, who delivers a vocal reminiscent of Brandy as Gaptoof’s clean piano chords evoke thoughts of James Blake. “Forget U”, featuring Celia Tiab, is similarly soothing. Yenkee’s spectral vocals meld well with the opaque vibes of “Nightcrawler”.
Gaptoof and Kean Kavanagh stroll down “Dean Street” to the sound of a stoned trumpet and a tinkling piano sample, soulfully cooing about autumn days. If this is the pair’s experience of the area, then Fallon’s must be the hippest spot in the city. (Not my experience of the charmingly old-fashioned watering hole.)
The album opens with the single and flagship track “Dreamcatcher”. Over a dreamy beat that invites nostalgic thoughts, Kojaque returns to the mindset of his school days: “Fuck throwing shade, I’m gonna beat the breaks off yer man like he owe me and still won’t pay/ Like he owe me in school on break,” he spits before threatening to send his presumably meaner cousin after his enemy. Rapper and producer set the tone for a record of breezy beats, solid bars and soulful licks. The Soft Boy hits machine cranks out another strong release. Catch the label’s key players floating around Dublin 8, turning everything they touch into culture.
Looks Like Rain is out now via Soft Boy records.