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The Rebirth of Cool ... Again

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

By Kevin Britton · October 27th, 2004 · The Ledge
It's fairly safe to say that my wife isn't a huge fan of Hip Hop. Sure, she'll nod her head to the "clean standards" -- the songs we've all heard at wedding receptions, family reunion cookouts and high school reunions. (Think "Rapper's Delight" and "Five Minutes of Funk.")

But I wouldn't count on her having the Oct. 12, 2004 release date of the mighty Mos Def's The New Danger marked in her Franklin Planner. And despite this, I still love her.

A few months back, I convinced her to listen to a mix CD a friend compiled for me containing a perfectly sequenced compilation of Blackstar unreleased tracks, freestyles and B-sides. Her immediate response after hearing the first four or five tracks was, "I thought you said this was Hip Hop. This can't be Hip Hop. I actually like this."

That's when I knew I had her hooked.

Since she was already a fan of Jill Scott, Vivian Green, Kem and other artists representing the new Soul vanguard, I knew the jazzy, "smoky lounge" sound of the mix CD would paint a radically different picture of what Hip Hop is (and isn't) in her mind.

Lately -- in Cincinnati Time, this means the last three or four years -- Hip Hop artists have been collaborating with non-traditional producers (i.e., not Kanye West), vocalists and musicians to create a sound that's light years ahead of, and behind, the stripped down, sample-and-loop driven formula with which Radio Rap fans have become so familiar. At first glance, the new direction in sound resembles a cleverly crafted marketing ploy to gain a broader audience and capture potential consumers ambivalent about the mostly negative direction that commercial Hip Hop has taken in recent years.

A trip down your local FM dial, however, paints a different picture: Heavy bass loops, overused samples, tired themes and forgettable catchphrases ("Shake it like a salt shaker" comes immediately to mind) continue to rule the commercial airwaves. Artists and producers daring enough to experiment with non-traditional sounds and retro-influenced samples are quickly labeled "underground" or "alternative" -- two nasty words that scare off radio program directors like the 2004 flu virus.

Newcomers Foreign Exchange (comprised of Little Brother's Phonte and Dutch producer Nickolay) and the similarly eclectic J-Rawls, K-Os, Zion I and Moka Only have successfully fused classic Soul, Jazz and World-inspired beats with intelligent, meaningful lyrics. (I can only imagine that dropping a verse about peeling someone's cap over a Roy Ayers sample would win few fans from either side of the "conscious vs. commercial" aisle.)

Behind the boards, seminal old-schoolers Amir "?uestlove" Thompson and Pete Rock along with 9th Wonder, Jay Dee and even the Wu Tang Clan's RZA (who contributed his cryptic, stripped-down production style to Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Volume 1 soundtrack) will lead this new Hip Hop movement much the same way that Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Raphael Saadiq did "Neo Soul" in the mid-'90s.

At its best, this new/retro Hip Hop trend taps directly into our memory banks and -- through the use of clever samples and familiar themes -- introduces something brand new that we're fairly certain we've already heard.

Hip Hop's early days are inextricably connected to its Soul, Funk, Jazz, New Wave and Disco origins. In fact, without the instrumental breaks from classic late-'70s and early-'80s singles to serve as a musical recycle bin, there might not be a vibrant Hip Hop culture today. The 30-plus crowd will recall that Treacherous Three's "Heartbeat Rap" lifted the hook from Tanya Gardner's 1981 dance hit "Heartbeat," while Soul Sonic Force's reinterpretation of Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express" on their 1982 mega-hit "Planet Rock" serves as a perfect example of a successful hybrid between two very distinct (culturally, economically and otherwise) music genres.

It's a well-known Hip Hop tradition that anything old will become new again. The barrage of cable television specials with titles like "Remember the (insert decade here)" speak to our collective longing to resurrect a piece of our past, as Hip Hop producers and MCs invoke obscure references to Hip Hop's yesterdays.

The underground sensations Little Brother reportedly came up with their name because they considered Hip Hop icons Rakim, Run DMC, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick and the like as their inspirational "big brothers," a reverence that shines through their impeccably produced music. Now my wife -- who still tends to be somewhat dismissive about Hip Hop music -- has been asking me to find a copy of Tomoyasu Hotei's Hip Hop-influenced "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" (from Kill Bill, Volume 1) that keeps popping up in the new Jag-You-Are commercials.

That's the beauty of Hip Hop when it's done right. Even when there's nothing new under the sun, it still sounds new.

KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.


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