|Hip Hop Don't Stop|
[Hot Air magazine, 1999]
A LITTLE over two minutes into The Fugees' 1996 hit Ready Or Not, the voice of Lauryn Hill is thrown into relief by a brief lull in the backing track as she declaims:
So while you're imitating Al CaponeEven by the indulgent standards of its genre, this unlovely image manages to sound both clumsy and squalid. But it does succeed in summing up the divide between the two biggest rap acts in the world today - each of whom, in turn, represents a strand which runs back through rap and into its prehistory.
The divide is one between politicised piety and cocky, gleeful flash. On the side of the angels - in her own eyes, at least - stands Hill. One-third of the largest-selling rap group ever, and now, thanks to her album The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, a solo superstar in her own right, she is far and away the most successful woman ever to foray onto the macho turf of hip hop. Blessed with striking vocal prowess, captivating features and a beatific smile, mother of two, founder of a bustling children's charity, Hill says of herself: “I feel beautiful because of my heart. I think I have a very loving, kind spirit. I think it's the God in me that makes me beautiful.”
Not to mention modest. Still, if these are not sentiments you're likely to hear from Sean “Puffy” Combs, it's only because they fail to pile on quite enough conceit. Puffy - “Puff Daddy” to his fans - is an industry phenomenon, an impresario and label boss who took to appearing on his own records and found he could make even more money that way. Not only does Puffy live large, he lives large on the proceeds of informing everyone exactly how large he's living. He does this in rhyme, or something rather like it. Puffy is the embodiment of a school of rapper which wants to rub the public's nose in its triumph. The cars, the clothes, the jets, the inevitable buttock-thrusting bikini babes - Puffy has it all. You don't. He just wants you to know that.
On the face of it, these two would seem to have about as much in common as Florence Nightingale and Larry Flynt. Although pitched far apart on hip hop's broad stylistic spectrum, they have ascended thanks to a shared formula: karaoke rap versions of already popular songs. The Fugees broke through worldwide on the back of Roberta Flack's Killing Me Softly. Puffy, for his part, remodelled Every Breath You Take by The Police for his first British number one.
Hip hop has always plundered the past. That's its nature. One of the many revolutionary things about early hip hop was the way it treated other people's records as simply another tool, like a guitar or a set of drums. And as with any such device, the results depend upon the skill and inventiveness of the people who use it. The best hip-hoppers will take an existing recording and turn it into something new, thrilling and often unrecognisable. The laziest - and this is a fast-expanding category into which both The Fugees and Puffy have often fallen, like somnambulists down an open manhole - simply nick the chorus and replace the verses with, for example, uninspired mutterings, or the shouts of a slang obsessed fairground barker.
THIS wasn't always the way. The very first rap hit, 1979' s Rappers' Delight, saw Sugarhill Gang lift the bassline from Chic's invigorating Good Times to ingenious effect. Rapping was something of a novelty then, even in terms of hip hop. Hip hop was and is a style that encompasses music, clothes, graffiti, dancing; New York hip hop originator, DJ Kool Herc, had been mixing up records for a good while before anyone thought of talking over them - although that was already a long established tradition, known as toasting, in Herc's native Jamaica. Herc's trick was to use two copies of the same record to build an extended rhythm track, with fragments of melody making brief, tantalising appearances. It was only a matter of time before rapping, which had previously meant unaccompanied rhyming, became an integral part of the sound. Sugarhill Gang didn't invent this new form of rap. They were simply the first of many competing acts to get a record out and noticed.
Inevitably, rap was dismissed as a fad. It was still being dismissed as a fad three years later when Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five released The Message, a chilly indictment of America's inner cities which irrevocably etched itself upon the brain of anyone willing to listen. The fad-dismissers barely had time to brush it aside before Afrika Bambaata's Planet Rock arrived, drawing Kraftwerk's Teutonic electronics into the orbit of hip hop, and they had to discount that too. In 1986, rap trio Run DMC teamed up with Aerosmith, a rock band who even then appeared to have been clinging barnacle-fashion to the hull of the music business since Edison invented the wax cylinder. The ensuing video for Walk This Way became the first rap promo to receive substantial play on MTV. Only now was it grudgingly acknowledged that rap might not be going anywhere but up the charts.
Run DMC were closer in spirit to the amiably boastful Sugarhill Gang than to Flash or Bambaata, whose records were message-laden to the point of actually being called things like The Message. The pattern was already set. There were rappers who wanted to Tell It Like It Is. Then there were rappers who wanted to tell you how much their shoes cost. There wasn't exactly a schism between the two groups, because they were still all rappers, and equally accustomed to being treated with contempt by critics, apprehension by the white public and complete insensibility by radio and TV stations. All the while they were selling ever more records. And that wasn't all. When they rapped about their trainers, the trainers themselves started running out of the shops as if encasing the feet of Carl Lewis. Almost overnight, Run DMC's My Adidas transformed a somewhat bewildered German sports equipment manufacturer into the most desirable brand in America.
So began a long and profitable symbiosis between hip hop and fashion houses. Sometimes the companies concerned welcomed the support, as with Tommy Hilfiger. Sometimes they were alarmed at it; like Timberland, who thought they were making boots for yuppie cowboys, not crack-dealing homeboys. Clocking the sales figures of their rivals, many of the cannier labels began to actively solicit the endorsement of rappers the way they did athletes. It was hip hop which turned sports gear into its exact opposite, clothes to loaf in; hip hop which made shapeless, baggy schmutter into a global youth uniform. What was the purpose of concealing yourself within a vast, crumpled morass of fabric? Perhaps it confused potential assailants as to which bit to shoot at. More likely, it was simply down to the stuff being warm and available. Plus it was cheap. That quickly changed.
Eventually the rappers got wise to the fact that somebody else was coining it from their image. Today, aspiring hip hop acts are as likely to be flogging a street couture ensemble as they are a demo tape. Puffy, as befits somebody named after a jacket, has launched his own fashion label, Sean John. Influential Staten Island collective The Wu-Tang Clan, whose members include Gravediggaz, Ghost Face Killah and Ol' Dirty Bastard, do a nice line in nail polish. In the meantime, Tommy Hilfiger has started his own record company. We can only hope his CDs don't become as prey to bootlegging as his clothes have been
MIDDLE England might have remained completely oblivious to rap and rap's accompanying trends had it not woken up one day in 1987 to find the badge missing from the bonnet of its Golf GTI. This was because its children had wrenched off the emblem and worn it to a Beastie Boys show. In a note-perfect repetition of rock'n'roll's formative era, a bunch of white kids took a black musical form and thrust it, wriggling like a pop eyed space octopus, into their parents' horrified faces. The hysteria which accompanied the Beasties' first UK tour would have been more appropriate to a flying visit by the Four Horsemen Of the Apocalypse. No doubt the only reason that particular quartet failed to show up was that they weren't signed to Def Jam.
Def Jam were the rap label of the hour. They had the biggest names: Run DMC, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys - of the major rap acts, only the brilliant Eric B and Rakim had eluded their trawl. And they had just recruited to their roster a band called Public Enemy, whose first album, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, made the rest of 1987 sound quaint and a little feeble. Public Enemy were every white suburban nightmare made flesh, or at least vinyl. Led by a fiercely militant agitator named Chuck D, next to whom Malcom X would have resembled Uncle Remus, Public Enemy were angry. They were angry at the government. They were angry at history. They were angry at everything. But most of all they were angry at you.
Chuck was a polemical genius, a Rimbaud of rhetoric, the most exciting rap talent ever to pick up a microphone, and living proof that high intelligence and common sense rarely cohabit in one noggin. There was no conspiracy theory so improbable, so nutty, so outright wacko that Chuck wouldn't buy it, believe it and make it into a record (with a title like Fear Of A Black Planet), just so long as it insisted that Whitey was trying to keep the black man down. Of course, Whitey was trying to keep the black man down, but Chuck probably gave him some useful new ideas. And not only Whitey: every political firebrand crew to hector a pack of self flagellating liberals ever since - Rage Against The Machine, Senser, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy - is up to its armpits in hock to Chuck.
Things were really moving now. Simultaneous with the arrival of PE, ungodly Yin to Chuck's fervid Yang, came Gangsta rap. Gangsta was the domain of Ice T, the witty, amoral incarnation of Blaxploitation's anti heroes, who delighted in dropping knowing references to badass forerunners like the semi-legendary Iceberg Slim and the wholly mythical Staggerlee. Ice-T was suave. He'd seen a lot of movies. He was a gangster the way Jimmy Cagney was a gangster.
NWA, on the other hand, were gangsters in as much as they were in gangs - or at least would have you believe they were. Their initials stood for Niggaz With Attitude. They came from South Central Los Angeles, home - as it doesn't say on the tourist literature - of the Bloods and the Crips. They shared one persona: bloodthirsty teenage sociopath. Their raps were an inflammatory concoction of violence, sexism, boasting and noise. They were brilliant, vile and quite hilarious, although lot of people didn't see it that way. The American comic Chris Rock would later sum up the band and their era in the beautifully observed rap comedy, CB4, with his NWA parody, Straight Outta Locash:
I'll fuck ya sistaSouth Park owes them a great deal.
NWA soon disintegrated amid one of the most entertaining feuds ever to enliven the music business. Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr Dre and Yella engaged in a four-way grudge match during which the participants would issue video clips portraying the others being mocked, humiliated, terrorised and threatened with murder. A few years on this sort of thing wouldn't seem quite so funny. Dr Dre, NWA's producer, set up shop at a California label called Death Row. This moniker proved to be unfortunately apt. Dre's protege, Snoop Doggy Dogg, became a great success, despite - or perhaps aided by - the fact that he was standing trial for homicide (he was acquitted.)
Death Row's other star turn was Tupac Shakur, aka 2Pac, best known in the UK for his hit single California Love. 2Pac found himself out of his depth in a vendetta far more dangerous than NWA's little spat, pitting the West coast, as represented by Death Row, against the East coast, symbolised by Puffy's New York-based Bad Boy Records. There is no evidence that anyone from either label was directly involved in this imbroglio, but that didn't do 2Pac any good. He survived one attempt on his life during which he took a bullet to the scrotum, leading to the immortal headline “2Pac now 1Pac”; but in 1996 his luck ran out in, of all places, Las Vegas.
The following year one of Bad Boy's most substantial acts in every sense, 27-stone Biggie Smalls (aka Notorious B.I.G.), was gunned down in what looked like a tit-for-tat killing. He never stood a chance; they could hardly have missed. No charges have been brought in either case. Death made both 2Pac and Biggie even more prolific than they were in life. After the umpteenth posthumous record release, even their most ardent fans must have been wishing they would lie down and shut up.
AT THE mellower end of hip hop, matters were far from uneventful. In 1989 a band called De La Soul had issued their debut album, Three Feet High And Rising. Acclaimed as rap's own psychedelia, this was the first hip hop LP to deal with what you might call its creators' inner life - as evidenced by tracks like Eye Know and Me Myself And I - rather than describing events in the ghetto, laying into the white devils, or keeping the listener posted as to exactly how many girls had volunteered to perform sex acts upon the rapper in question when they heard how much his shoes cost.
Unfortunately, all De La Soul's good work was almost immediately undone by the coincident appearance of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. Hammer, a gallivanting, huge-trousered fool, was the first rap act to ostentatiously and effectively sell out to the pop market. He triggered a reflexive obsession with “keeping it real”,, which even today stifles creativity in some sections of the hip hop community, who live in terror of doing anything the slightest bit different just in case it bears a faint likeness to MC Hammer. As for the tough-talking but patently weedy Vanilla Ice, so thoroughly did he queer the pitch for white rappers that only now, a decade on, can a conspicuously original performer like Eminem - the trailer trash rap star - make a go of it.
The passing fad of 1979 is now - in conjunction with its offshoot, modern R&B - one of the most profitable and popular musical forms in the history showbusiness. Being a Gangsta is no longer the thing; the likes of Puffy, Jay-Z and DMX will brag of being a Playa. Turn a Playa upside down, hold him by his Bruno Magli shoes and shake him, and two things will happen. Firstly, high denomination banknotes will flutter from his Versace V2 suit like confetti. Shortly afterwards, two very large bodyguards will stamp on your head. In terms of conspicuous consumption, the Playa is a direct descendent of the silky-smooth soul crooners from the seventies whose album covers generally featured some combination of champagne buckets, sports cars and cast-aside lacy underwear.
The nearest female equivalent, and the pick of the bunch, is Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot. Elliot, a pocket dynamo as broad as she is tall, is one of most gifted and sought-after writer/ producers in the business (Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Mel B have all benefitted from her attention.). She fronts her own records with mixture of ebullience, pugnacity and sauce that the male Playas can only dizzily clutch at. She is, in other words, Da Bomb. Or Da Hand Grenade at the very least.
Lauryn Hill, on the other hand, can trace a very different cultural ancestry. Her solo album, a far more imaginative piece of work than anything attempted by The Fugees, owes a sizable debt to sixties soul. Her style has elements in common with early seventies proto-rappers The Last Poets, particularly her habit of rhyming lots of words that end in “-ation”. Her ideology seems to have been bought in wholesale from Bob Marley, a figure on whom she could reasonably be said to have a fixation, to the extent that her two offspring happen to be his grandchildren. Marley, it's worth remembering, was not only a musical titan, but also a nebulous, esoteric mumbler par excellence.
Still, Puffy and Lauryn balance each other out quite neatly, the materialist and the mystic, their egos exerting an equal and opposite force. Meanwhile, back in the shadows where rap first grew and flourished, as yet unknown hip-hoppers are getting on with the business of constructing something formidable and fresh out of record decks, microphones and bits of string.
All material on this site is copyrighted © to David Bennun and may not be reprinted or reused without permission. Peace. We out.