Well Deep: Ten Years of Big Dada Recordings, an extremely tight-packed double-disc-plus-DVD compilation, celebrates the decade mark of the finest English hip-hop label ever to steal its name from an absurdist art movement. Weirdly, Well Deep ignores the first two years of their decade (compiled elsewhere) and truly kicks off where the label entered the collective conscious–in 1999, when a baritone half-rapper, half-raggamuffin calling himself Roots Manuva slung idiosyncratic lines of mysticism and London in-jokes over pillowy trip-hop bass and homemade effects.
The result was refreshing: At the time, the Big Apple was the home of the underground, with noise and fury pouring out of every record; somehow, journo Will Ashon convinced Ninja Tune (never strangers to conventional hip-hop despite their instrumental leanings) to launch a sister label aimed to give those inspired weirdoes who were cropping up on both sides of the Atlantic a chance to be heard. Naturally, things started with a bridge of sorts (Luke Vibert and Juice Aleem’s collaboration as Alpha Prhyme; check your favorite online shop as it’s left off here) but the handmade space-cadet beats and superstar charisma of Mr. Manuva laid the early blueprint. Soon, Big Dada was distributing Slick Rick’s spiritual successor, smooth storyteller Ty (check “Look for Me” here); thrillingly incomprehensible pirate crew New Flesh; and drawing in free-spirited Yanks like Mike Ladd and his insular, hilarious Infesticons/Majesticons projects.
Its place in the underground already secure, Big Dada incubated a crucial critical success from cLOUDDEAD, a splinter of the Bay Area’s art-house Anticon collective. Represented here by a sing-along live version of “Physics of a Bicycle” (from the Peel Sessions, no less–art recognize art), cLOUDDEAD’s dreamlike, psychedelic nasal-hop garnered attention, incited a thousand message-board fistfights, and connected with the children of “Golden Era” rap. For all that, Big Dada has always remained aware that its place is in the headphones and the underground club, and Well Deep’s best banger comes from its most unlikely source: French rhyme crew TTC, whose “Dans le Club” from 2004 would still fit in the bassbins next to Timbaland’s latest, with hyperactive acid lines spiking the mix.
In that context, it only makes sense that Big Dada is now home to the (maybe retired) Wiley, once tipped as a superstar from the U.K.’s clattering grime scene, who found himself eclipsed by protégé Dizzee Rascal. Despite his brush with fame, Wiley’s “50/50” remains compelling, with nearly off-beat raps bouncing off squashed bass and pitiless synths, and nestled perfectly among the rest of the restless bohos who found a sympathetic ear at the label. But for all the grimy, occasionally dour authenticity of Big Dada’s original crew, it might be the carefree absurdity of one the label’s newest acts that sums up the possibilities represented in its first decade: Spank Rock’s “Sweet Talk” leads the pack of new contributors with its punk-electro rhymes and sing-along hooks.
A decade of the U.K.’s most intriguing hip-hop label can hardly be summed up in two discs, and if there’s anything journalists love more than knotty beats and dense rhymes, it’s freebies, so there’s a throw-in bonus DVD with every promo clip made by the label (check Roots Manuva’s audacious school-sports romp for “Witness”) and a video mix, all adding up to proof that Big Dada deserves its place among the vanguard of underground labels, without question.