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A Return to the Crossroads

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

By Kevin Britton · February 23rd, 2005 · The Ledge

"I am the teacher from the far and beyond/Turn an apple to a lotus, turn a rib to a wand"

-- Grand Verbalizer Brother J

I recently stumbled upon a blog suggesting that the early '90s Hip Hop collective X-Clan was making a comeback.

But before I jumped out of my seat and threw a triumphant black fist in the air, it occurred to me that every group from Hip Hop's so-called golden era has been making "comebacks." Rakim's eternally forthcoming album has been a topic of discussion for years; Big Daddy Kane was allegedly working on a new project; and A Tribe Called Quest has been dropping hints about a reunion album for some time now. But where was the proof?

To complicate matters, present-day Rap artists are often expected to become complete entertainment packages. No longer satisfied with mere album releases, industry-types now want their clients to appear in videos, movies, reality TV shows and print advertisements.

X-Clan? Unless there's a bull market for oversized ankh medallions, I don't anticipate many major labels rolling out the red, black and green carpet for a group whose last major release dropped when Bush One was still in office.

However, my curiosity now piqued, I dug a little deeper and discovered the Web site for Dark Sun Recordings, the current label for Brother J's new group X-Clan Millennium Cipher. Downloadable snippets of Mil' Cipher's first two singles "The One" and "Blackwards Row" are proof positive that J has somehow managed to maintain (and perhaps improve upon) the lyrical stamina that fueled X-Clan's first two albums over 13 years ago.

But 13 chronological years is like, well, two lifetimes in Hip Hop years.

In the early '90s, Rodney King had become the reluctant symbol of a racial divide that everyone knew existed but was afraid to discuss; Spike Lee's three-hour docu-drama, Malcolm X, sparked a renewed interest in the martyred human rights leader; there was sincere anger behind Ice Cube's ever-present scowl; and about half the Rap music played on MTV had a positive message behind it. Oh, and Public Enemy's Flava Flav was light years away from leaving his dignity on the set of VH1's Strange Love.

Hence, the soil was ripe for the emergence of the explicitly Afrocentric group who called themselves X-Clan, which, according to Brother J, represented a spiritual crossroads where the original four members of the group met. With an ingenious formula of combining arcane, Egyptian mysticism ("... weapons of Heru, the verbs of great Thoth") and political commentary ("I said free South Africa, ya went to Berlin ...") with irresistibly danceable music, fans were left scratching -- and nodding -- their heads in wonder. Those of us who were barely out of diapers during the 1960s were quick to embrace the burgeoning cultural activism represented by X-Clan's "boots and beads, bags and braids, sticks and scrolls, rings and shades."

Yes, even I owned a leather Africa medallion.

The group's only full-length albums under the name X-Clan -- 1990's To the East, Blackwards and 1992's X-odus -- are widely considered timeless classics, in part due to the liberal sampling of popular, timeless R&B/funk loops like Zapp's "More Bounce to the Ounce" and Funkadelic's "(Not Just) Knee Deep." After Brother J's little-known 1996 solo project under the name Dark Sun Riders dropped, it appeared that the vainglorious red, black and green had been X'ed out and replaced by the now infamous East Coast vs. West Coast war for Rap supremacy.

Of course, we know that there were no winners in that war.

Fortunately, those of us who become misty-eyed over Hip Hop's bygone era can look forward to X-Clan Millennium Cipher's forthcoming album tentatively titled Trinity: The Music, The Mission, The Cipher. Regretfully, the album will not feature the familiar, raspy admonitions of Lumumba Professor X the Overseer, nor will it feature the group's original deejay/producer Rhythm Provider Sugar Shaft who succumbed to AIDS in the mid-'90s. And, it remains to be seen whether present-day heads are ready to embrace Brother J's obscure, new-age catechisms (after all these years, I'm still trying to figure out the whole pink caddy thing). But in an industry where even the most positive-minded lyricists try to duck and dodge the dreaded "conscious" label for fear of marginalizing potential fans, it's refreshing to see the re-emergence of a group unwilling to abandon their core audience.

In an online interview available at www.darksunrecords.com, Grand Verbalizer Brother J is asked what song he would choose if forced to listen to that song for the rest of his life. He responds, "I would like to hear the original sound that brought the universe to order."

So, I would hardly consider the release of X-Clan Millennium Cipher's new album a comeback. They never went anywhere. We did.

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


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