Hip-hop concept albums are historically futuristic. Whether it's Deltron 3030's vision of apocalyptic consumerism in the next millennium or Mr. Lif's prophesy of a nuclear holocaust on his narrative-focused 2002 record I, Phantom, rappers have often looked at the concept album as an opportunity to critique today's society with an Orwellian outlook on tomorrow.
But Friday Night's self-titled concept album — which is a collaboration between F5 Records alums Hi-Fidel and Serengeti — succeeds because it takes listeners back to the future. A biting satire of the latest generation of coke-snorting weekend warriors, Friday Night sounds like an ultramodern hip-hop ode to 1985.
"[The sound] just screams excess, waste, decadence — cocaine," Hi-Fidel says over the phone from his East LA home. "It's the 1980s in the First World. And in the Third World too, 'cause they supplied half of it. [The sound] helps the message get across a lot easier; people can identify with it. Maybe not for kids who weren't born in the '80s, but they can watch an episode of Miami Vice and get it."
Using spoken dialogue as well as the songs themselves, Night tells the story of two Canadian Club-swilling coworkers Umar and Dave and their wild night on the town. (For what it's worth, Hi-Fidel and 'Geti's given names are Umar Rashid and Dave Cohn, respectively.) After getting stood up by their dates, the bumbling duo embarks on a bender of epic proportions. They stumble upon "half a brick" of free cocaine when their dealer is killed in a robbery, then hit the club and meet a couple of easy women who aren't quite what they seem. The pair sees it all unravel with an overdose, a car crash, a pair of transsexuals and a hilarious moment of clarity.
"Coke nights, they start out with such promise, saying, 'Yeah, it will be so great,' but it always ends in a dark place," says Serengeti, calling from his native Chicago. "It starts with glitter and lip gloss and sequined jackets but ends in a dark corner in a basement. That's funny to me. I find humor in that."
Cocaine is hardly the only topic that the album tackles — several cuts take aim at commercial hip-hop. The chorus of "P.S.R." asks, "You want a rhyme or a limerick?/Glimpse of the business/Trust fund benefit/Never had to work for shit/Pussy sells records." "Certified Platinum" opens with the subtle touch of a scanning radio dial before bursting into a sendoff of chart-topping materialism: "You can listen to this but don't listen to that/'Cause this is that what's good and that shit's whack."
"There's always the same story of the underground rapper making fun of commercial rap, but it sounds so lame," Serengeti says. "Underground pokes fun at commercial rap, but all it does is talk about what commercial rap doesn't do. They don't have their own voice. We were very conscious of not following that mode. We wanted to tell a story using themes and happenings."
The key to Friday Night's dark and absurd style of comedy, however, is not the antics of its hapless protagonists. Hi-Fidel and Serengeti subtly mock the party lifestyle — by creating the perfect party soundtrack. Utterly danceable and clever, the songs reinvent even the corniest elements of synthesizer-driven club music. Like other '80s revivalists such as Justice and LCD Soundsystem, the music has just the right combination of swagger and sarcasm to make kitschy keyboards and drum machines sound cool again.
"We wanted something viewed as classic but very current and progressive," Hi-Fidel says.
To achieve its aesthetic, Friday Night enlisted an LA-based production team formerly known as the Art Thugs. Now working under the banner of Breakfast Beats, Webster Groves natives Grilla (Sam McConnell) and Ish (Matt Risch) say that the final Friday Night product was the result of several revisions.
"We started out wanting to do a straightforward hip-hop record with more sample-based production, but Serengeti mentioned that he wanted to go in a more dance direction, more electronic," Grilla says. "We started doing research, going back to Gang of Four and Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, a lot of '80s pop and new wave. It was heavily influenced by early electro breakbeat and '80s and '90s hip-hop, all mashed together with a little bit of club/dance tongue-in-cheek going on. We like our music to sound smart."
Adds Ish: "Once we knew we were going in that direction, we needed them to put the story in place, so that we could actually convey it with the melody. It was like scoring a film."
Grilla and Ish, who have produced tracks for locals Rockwell Knuckles and Wafeek, aren't the only ties that Friday Night has to St. Louis; Black Spade's vocals are featured on the standout track "Str8 2 Voicemail." But the strongest connection to the area is Hi-Fidel, a founding member of the F5 crew and F5 Records. Celebrating its tenth anniversary this week, F5 was formed when Hi-Fidel and DJ Crucial were both students at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
"It started off with Crucial DJing around campus," Fidel recalls. "We were putting out mixtapes, he had me come over, and we recorded a mix and have worked together ever since. It grew into a label a year or two later."
Since then, the collective has come to include a broad array of local artists, including Serengeti, Nato Caliph, Altered St8s of Consciousness, Bits N Pieces and the Earthworms.
"We were like the Carbondale Wu-Tang," Fidel jokes. "Or the Jimi Hendrix Experience, if you think about how we crossed racial and cultural lines."
In 2000, Fidel moved to Los Angeles. In addition to pursuing a career in music, he has established himself as a successful painter in the LA art world, working under the moniker Frohawk Two-Feathers. He says that his adaptation to life in LA helped inspire the primary theme of Friday Night.
"I saw a lot of people really doing a bunch of blow," Hi-Fidel says. "I was like, Man, so this is it. But really [the] city [in Night is] a mixture of LA, Chicago and Miami. It's a composite type of city and composite characters. The bigger the city, the more you see it, but that doesn't mean that it's not going everywhere."
Ultimately, though, Friday Night is effective because of how it intertwines subtle character development with absurd narrative. The plot twists in the last few songs work because of foreshadowing and attention to detail which appear earlier on the record. For instance, a girl Hi-Fidel compliments on her tan and "neck-down niceness" in the midst of a drugged and drunken stupor, becomes "flat-chested" and "whorish and orange" when the high wears off.
"All these albums that I've made, I wanted to tell a story," Hi-Fidel says. "But I've never been able to tell it as concise and with as much energy and vigor and humor as I have with this one."