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MUSIC: Hip hop is dead. Long live hip hop.
 

 
August 30, 2002
Under the Radar

Everywhere you turn, the secret is being whispered. In the aisles of independent record stores, where groove lovers congregate among dust-covered slabs of vinyl; in the neighborhoods of New York and Los Angeles, where hip hop has shaped two generations of youth; on college radio and in cyberspace, the words are heard and seen.

“Hip hop is dead.”

How can this be? After all, hip hop, a “fad” born in the Bronx two decades ago, has weathered the media’s ceaseless attacks to become the dominant form of pop music. Rap’s mainstream acceptance, enabled by multi-platinum pretenders MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, created a cottage industry that comprises not only albums, but stadium tours, film franchises and fashion imprints.

Yet the secret persists, winding its way through smoky nightclubs and streetcorner ciphers. Hip hop remains alive in name only—a brand like any other. As a voice of dissent against “Amerikkkan” culture, it has ceased to function. These days, P. Diddy proclaims, “Don’t worry if I write rhymes / I write checks,” and listeners nod their heads in agreement.

But for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Hip hop’s underground, much maligned after years of in-fighting and self-obsession, is showing signs of renewed vitality. The first element of this renaissance is musical. While Eminem recycles Aerosmith tunes and Jay-Z squeezes the last drops of soul out of Bobby Bland, innovative “undie” producers are employing vintage vinyl, digital software and live instruments to create new classics.

Take Fat Jon, a Bay Area producer with a knack for putting everything in its right place. His new LP, Wave Motion, combines slow-burning jazz-funk with ethereal trumpet solos, phased guitars, swirling keyboard licks and haunting vocal samples. His grooves are neither as complex nor as challenging as DJ Shadow’s (with whom he is often compared), but for listeners craving head-nodding soul in a melancholy vein, Fat Jon supplies satori through simplicity.

A more ambitious, trippy and downright bizarre instrumental voyage spans the 19 tracks on Angles Without Edges, the debut LP from Yesterday’s New Quintet. Billed as a jazz-meets-hip hop jam session among mysterious players with names like “Malik Flavors,” YNQ is the musical brainchild of L.A. producer Madlib. Juggling a mind-boggling array of vintage instruments, Madlib whips up a ’70s-flavored melange of jazzy improvisation and inventively programmed beats.

At the other end of the spectrum, Atlanta’s Prefuse 73 mixes experimental, glitch-infused computer programming with the “beats first” aesthetic of hip hop to create completely idiosyncratic instrumentals. On his latest EP, The ’92 VS ’02 Collection, complex keyboard melodies surf fearlessly over steadily evolving electro-breaks, while minute vocal samples are woven into intricate webs of rhythm and sound.

But what about the words? When rap first emerged, it was a venue for the voiceless, the neglected residents of America’s inner cities. Seminal artists KRS-One and Public Enemy rapped about a world most white Americans had never bothered to notice. They were confrontational, angry and, above all, honest.

Today, rap lyrics resemble a twisted fusion of the Robb Report and hardcore porn, holding conspicuous consumption and sexual conquest in equally high regard. Jay-Z drives a Bentley and spends summer “lampin’ in the Hamptons,” while Nelly prefers “fuckin’ lesbian twins now.” Hip hop is moving backwards, having traded real life for the phallocentric fantasy Hugh Hefner patented in the ’50s.

New York group Company Flow opted out of this charade back in 1997, declaring themselves “independent as fuck” and deconstructing the American mythos on venomous tracks such as “Patriotism.” Though their moment was short-lived, group member El-P went on to form Definitive Jux, a record label whose artists are emblematic of the underground’s return to socially conscious lyrics.

On his debut solo LP, Fantastic Damage, El-P spits razor-sharp rhymes over bombastic beats built from white noise, distorted synths and unidentifiable blasts of sonic violence. Incredibly, El-P’s flow is as intense as his music—a dendrite-dense stream of consciousness that sounds senseless at first but is poetically precise once deciphered.

El-P rhymes as if trying to exorcise his thoughts upon formation, and with good reason—his thoughts are often terrifying. On “Stepfather Factory,” he imagines a company that manufactures abusive android surrogates. Brilliant allusions swim through his murky sentences: Americans are “Simple headed vagrants / Trying to chase where Forrest’s feather went;” El-P is “Monkey number one million / Flipping Tempest texts.” Accidental genius or no, Fantastic Damage is the 21st century’s first hip hop masterpiece.

While El-P conjures America’s dystopian future, fellow New Yorker J-Live brings the present into sharp focus on his album All of the Above. A literate, passionate tirade against the industry pimps and music moguls who have “turned hip hop to a get-rich-quick scheme,” Above skewers thugged-out MCs who “keep it real” by imitating the movie mobsters in Goodfellas.

Many underground MCs focus on fixing hip hop because they lack the vision to address the bigger picture. Fortunately, J-Live’s eyes are wide open. Above is a State of the Union Address, delivered with more candor and heart than any president could muster. On “Satisfied,” J-Live rhymes: “The poor get worked / The rich get richer / The world gets worse / Do you get the picture?” Addressing America’s recent adoption of patriotism as fashion statement, he observes, “Now it’s all about NYPD caps and Pentagon bumper stickers / But yo, you still a nigger.”

A coast away, Blackalicious draw similar conclusions on their major label debut Blazing Arrow. From the blackest streets to the Whitest House in the land, MC Gift of Gab captures the fall of the American Empire in chilling detail: “Liquor stores upon every corner and younger people done accepted defeat / In the melting pot the lava’s seeping and the hood is all the mind can conceive / … The cops is the Klan and the planet’s run by a government of genocidal thieves.”

Fortunately, Blackalicious and J-Live buttress these dark treatises with bouncy, sun-soaked songs that celebrate life’s pleasures—friends, family and hip hop itself. Less optimistic, but no less funky, is Oakland’s The Coup, a pair of Marxist revolutionaries who drop communist theory over rump-shaking instrumentals.

On “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO,” (from the LP Party Music) MC Boots Riley sums up America’s captains of industry in three brilliant lines: “They own sweats shops, pet cops and fields of cola / Murder babies with they molars on the areola / Control the Pope, Dalai Lama, Holy Rollers and the Ayatollah.”

Over the next few years, the secret of hip hop’s demise will reach everybody’s ears. But when consumers move on to the next trend, the underground will still thrive. If today’s crop of artists is any indication, it will be a resurrection well worth listening to.

Evan Endicott is a freelance music writer in Los Angeles.


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