Lee Clarke, “Genes”
By Ben Salmon · November 23, 2022
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
✓ following
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
✓ following

To better understand and appreciate Lee Clarke’s new beat tape Genes it’s worth checking out a collection he released on Christmas Day of 2020 called ABC at the piano. Here, “ABC” stands for Ahvagene Bond Clarke, Lee’s grandmother and a university-trained pianist with perfect pitch. ABC at the piano features 19 recordings, some of them 40 years old, of Clarke’s grandmother playing and singing popular songs, mostly from the mid-20th century. These recordings are casual and homemade; listening to them feels more like looking through a stranger’s old photos than listening to an album.

Listening to Genes, however, feels like doing both of those things at the same time. It’s the first full-length project from Clarke, a Philadelphia-based producer who previously released a promising three-song EP in 2020. He followed that with a series of singles featuring collaborations with fellow Philly artists Ivy Sole and Kingsley Ibeneche, which showcased Clarke’s knack for richly constructed beats. On Genes, he uses samples of his music, as well as of Ahvagene and her sisters singing, talking, and playing piano, to create a set of compelling beats that feel hyper-personal, especially with the ABC compilation as context.

Clarke’s tracks pack a punch in a short amount of time. “Can’t Sleep” is 70 seconds of glowing tones set to an arrhythmic beat that sounds like DJ Shadow unbuckled in the back of a moving box truck. Opener “Dwight Likes Jazz” is barely over a minute long, but its combo of subaquatic dub and a fluttering horn line sets an ultra-cool tone for the rest of the tape. The longer tracks are no less effective. “One More” is Clarke in quiet-storm mode, using breathy sampled vocals and liquid string sounds to build an alien R&B jam; twinkling piano and brushed drums make “Two Chords” the jazziest song on the album; and “This Life In Space” uses its nearly four-minute lifespan to evolve from a melancholy vibe to a woozy, weird dance-floor banger and back again. It’s a short sonic journey that neatly summarizes one of Clarke’s strengths as a producer: He’s a wandering spirit who never gets lost in his own sauce.

Occasionally, Ahvagene Clarke’s voice emerges from her grandson’s gentle river of sound to drop a little wisdom or tell a funny story. “By that time, there were so many of us who played the piano,” she says in “Morphing Gene,” a murky mid-album interlude, “That our piano was going from morning till night.” It’s moments like these that make Genes feel like a threadbare peek into Lee Clarke’s existence—a lasting reminder of life’s impermanence and the enduring impact of love.

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