There’s a moment in the video for “Marshall Applewhite” where Giant Gorilla Dog Thing (rappers Dood Computer and Dezmatic), Gorilla Tao, and PJ Katz—dressed as Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—charge into street combat with the evil Foot, wielding nunchucks, staffs, swords, and my personal favorite, those three-pronged harbingers of ass-kicking: sais. Amid cartoon exclamations of “POW!!” and “OUCH!!,” cameras zooming out into comic-book frames, it’s clear these guys are having the time of their lives.
“We were pretty much able to hang out with our friends as grown adults and play Ninja Turtles for 11 hours,” chuckles Dood Computer (AKA Mitch Smith), co-founder of Pig Food Records. “[Gorilla] Tao actually got his hand sliced open with a sword within the first half-hour of shooting,” says Smith. “We had to stop, covered his hand in super glue until it stopped bleeding and just went right back to playing Ninja Turtles.”
Filmed and directed in one day by Altamont brothers Frank and Zach Appio, or AA-AAA (pronounced “ah-aah!”), “Marshall Applewhite” is the first single on PJ Katz’s sophomore album, ’92 Renault Music. It’s also the first track on the album and serves as a banging introduction to PJ Katz—the musical pseudonym for keyboardist and producer Jay Panucci—whose sound is characterized by the Kung Fu-grip-tight production chops and flows of the MCs he surrounds himself with.
“I think the sample is actually from a French porno movie,” says Panucci of the track’s main riff. The whistling flute melody that floats over the chorus jibes with the ’70s porn vibe but, when combined with the hissing high-hat at the end of each measure, blaring trumpet stabs, and tripled vocals over the chorus, the track sounds as massive as the “three gorillas on the track.”
For Panucci, sampling is a citation of inspiration, the moment at which the melody or energy of a track was born. “I’ll pick up any record and I’ll throw it out afterwards,” says Panucci, “I never want to look back. . . . I love living in the moment.” Panucci is not a record collector, like famed producers Q-Tip or DJ Premier, men with record collections to rival the Library of Congress. What interests Panucci more is taking one small bit of the past and building it up in the present moment with melodies, countermelodies and cymbal rushes. If the old record is the diamond in the mine, Panucci is more interested in building a laser beam with that diamond than he is in admiring it.
This aesthetic is apparent on what will likely be ’92 Renault Music’s next single, “That Road.” The spectral big-band sample brings to mind something off of J Dilla’s seminal Donuts. The hook, sung by Katz himself, provides an interlocking countermelody that is fleshed out further by a twinkling keyboard line when the hook rolls back around. As the song drops into the verse, Elsphinx’s rhyme about an ex-girlfriend popping back up “on some recall shit, come crawling back to [him] like [he’s] the default dick,” is spit over Panucci’s insistent Fender Rhodes, playing the chords implied by the sample. Clocking in at three and a half minutes, the song walks the fine line between pop accesibility and hip-hop rawness like classics “Me, Myself, and I” by De La Soul or “Bonita Applebum” by A Tribe Called Quest.
A graduate of Colonie High School, Jay Panucci began playing drums at a young age. Adding violin and saxophone to his resumé in middle school, and dropping them for guitar in high school, he settled on keyboards the first day of college with the purchase of his first Fender Rhodes. He’s played in innumerable bands throughout the Capital Region, including a stint as the keyboardist with the Chronicles.
Because of his training as an improvisational, live musician, PJ Katz’s brand of hip-hop is meant to be performed with live instruments for an audience. “I’m always interested in picking samples and creating in a way I know I can duplicate in a live setting,” says Panuci. “I know I can grab Bryan Brundige and Jeff Nania,” trombonist and saxophonist respectively for local jazz heavies the Chronicles, “and I’ve got my horn section.” Furthermore, Panucci, Nania and drummer Brandon Isles comprise the Fat Buckle Band, an instrumental hip-hop, funk, and jazz project that pour out telekinetic improvisational compositions in the live setting.
Now married with two kids, Panucci says, “I don’t have time for rehearsal!” Most of the songs on ’92 Renault were conceived in 20 minutes between caring for his kids and working from home for music equipment companies. When the Fat Buckle Band show up to play a gig, they do with only their gear and a few loose equations for correct beat science. The result is some of the most enthralling improvisational music in the area.
It all flows from Panucci’s desire to live in the moment. Even when talking about his first record, cleverly titled Acupuncture Workz, Panucci is demure, as if to say, “Sure you can listen, but that’s not where I’m at now.” Acupunture Workz is a record of experimental beats with a few featured MCs, whereas ’92 Renault Music constitutes a more cohesive whole, with an MC on nearly every track except the two instrumentals, “No Time to Love” and “Guess Who’s Back.”
Even the method of release suggests that ’92 Renault is intended for long play. Released on cassette with a digital download via Pig Food Records, which is run by Mitch Smith and Dan Hulbert (Giant Gorilla Dog Thing), the record, in both raw material and Smith-designed packaging, is a tribute to an era when music was cherished in its physical form rather than cast out into the ether. ’92 Renault embodies the spirit of piling into the back of a friend’s flying deathtrap and cruising down the block to the bodega for pork rinds and fizzy lifting drinks, blasting as much bass as possible out of four six-inch speakers.
It is also a testament to the vitality of the Capital Region’s hip-hop scene. No one reps local music harder than the region’s MCs and producers. Whether it is a turf battle or simply a celebration of your block and your crew, representing your city isn’t just a recurring theme, it’s ingrained into the genre. “Capital City have mercy one time!”
On the inside of the tape sleeve for ’92 Renault Music, there is a dedication “to an era of hip-hop that was raw and authentic.” Bringing back a Golden Age is a well-established trope in music, especially hip-hop, a genre that explicitly deals with elusive notions of “realness” and “rawness.”
The recent popularity of groups like Joey Bada$$ and his Pro Era crew, Shabazz Palaces, and the wildly successful Tribe Called Quest reunion and resulting documentary, Beats, Rhymes, and Life, are proof of this art’s continuing popularity. What those groups have tapped into is listeners’ desire for rap music that is more concerned with metaphysical questions, oddball characters, and references to music that resides on the soul continuum, rather than Rick Ross, Drake and Lil Wayne rapping about strippers, money, and Bentleys over beats that resemble four-on-the-floor house music more than hip-hop’s forefathers James Brown or Bobby Womack. That music has its place: primarily the club. But that’s only a small part of life for most people.
Common may have put it best in his introduction to “The 6th Sense” when he said, “This is real hip-hop music from the soul.” Bentleys with platinum rims may have swag, but who would trade swag for soul? A ’92 Renault is not the flashiest ride on the block, but if PJ Katz is rattling out of the trunk, it’s got soul and lyrics to go.