Cheat codes, as those who grew up with video games are aware, are exactly that – “secret” codes used by gamers to get ahead in the game. For Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) and Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) Cheat Codes is a Hip-Hop album a long time in the making. The work marks the first return to Hip-Hop and the art of sampling for Danger Mouse since his Danger Doom days back in 2005-2006, a time that coincides with his introduction to Trotter, MC for the now legendary and formidable group The Roots. Pieces of Cheat Codes date back to that initial introduction, but other work kept the focus elsewhere for both; Burton’s prolific production endeavors reaching from Adele, Beck, and The Black Keys, along with collaborations Broken Bells and Gnarls Barkley absorbed the better part of the last two decades, and Trotter with The Roots unleashed multiple releases over the same span eventually becoming the house band for Late Night then The Tonight Show.
With the time finally in hand and finding the spark never faded, Cheat Codes found its way into production with lyrical help from friends Michael Kiwanuka, Dylan Cartlidge, Run the Jewels, Raekwon, A$AP Rocky, and others including a posthumous verse by former collaborator MF DOOM, but Trotter’s verses are the apex: sharp, skillful, and poignant with no wasted words. Underneath, Burton lays atmospheric groundwork to match. There’s melancholy bouncing on relentless rhythm (“To Take Him Away” by Sandrose and Meatball’s “Funky Spider” specifically) underneath the Kiwanuka-featuring “Aquamarine,” smeary strings of Gwen McCrae’s “Love With Sex” opening the record on “Sometimes,” and syncopated sampling of Ebony Rhythm Band’s “Vanilla Fudge” and Michael Liggins & The Supersouls “Loaded Back” driving the title track, a stark declaration of a difficult, life-or-death reality in which the only way out is through finding “cheat codes” to get ahead.
Burton explained how finally working with Trotter in focus benefitted the process to The Ringer’s Justin Sayles, “Whether it’s working with people, or other musicians, or I’m sampling myself or trying to play stuff myself, it’s all a little bit of a different process, depending on who I’m working with. When it’s one rapper, it gives me a chance to be isolated and go into the stuff that I did early on, which was grabbing a lot of samples and messing with stuff and trying to do it that way. Knowing at the end of it I was going to have Tariq, that was great.”
The result of the long-term prospective collaboration come to fruition is an effect that’s timeless. Nothing trendy or rushed, no cheat codes necessary. Tracks from Cheat Codes are spinning at The Current, KUTX, WNXP, WXPN, KXT, KRML and more.
Photo by Shervin Lainez