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Where Hip-Hop Went

New Jack Swing Overview and Collected Works of Cut-Up Pioneer Tell Story of Rap Going Beyond Itself

Jess Harvell

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 6/18/2008

Roots are good. But what's even more interesting at this point than hip-hop's beginning is its middle period, when the music expanded beyond itself. On Steinski's new What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006 Retrospective (Illegal Art), you can hear hip-hop branching into an area of total abstraction that eventually separated itself from the style's main body. And on the various-artists collection Gold: New Jack Swing (Hip-O), you can hear how hip-hop transformed R&B from the inside out.

Steinski's story is one of hip-hop's great historical oddities. Advertising man Steve Stein and his friend audio engineer Douglas DiFranco were thirtysomethings who loved rap music in 1983, when Tommy Boy Records sponsored a remix contest to promote G.L.O.B.E. and Whiz Kid's "Play That Beat Mr. DJ." Under the moniker Double Dee and Steinski, the pair's "Lesson Mix" spliced dozens of sound bites into the track's mix. (One memorable segment strung together Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," the Supremes' "Stop! In the Name of Love," and Grandmaster Flash's "Wheels of Steel.") Long before sampling was even a factor in everyday record production, DiFranco and Stein took the industrial strength of "Wheels of Steel" into the software age.

DiFranco and Stein won the contest and within two years cooked up another pair of even hotter mixes, "Lesson Two: The James Brown Mix" and "Lesson Three: The History of Hip-Hop Mix," showing even more of hip-hop's roots to itself. The three "Mixes" made it onto a promo-only 12-inch that almost immediately became a collector's item. Stein kept going on his own, with "The Motorcade Sped On" as Steinski and Mass Media, splicing somber news footage of John F. Kennedy's death over a funky break. In the early '90s, "It's Up to You (Television Mix)" railed against the Gulf War by contrasting the first President Bush with both a TV ad about the adverse effects of mental illness and himself (Bush saying, "I am certain our cause is just," followed by Bush saying, "a gallon of gas").

The "Lessons" and "Motorcade" have appeared on many bootlegs, but What Does It All Mean? is the first "official" compilation of Steinski's work. Naturally, it appears on Illegal Art. Certainly, the wiggier ends of hip-hop production's sample era are impossible to imagine without them--the first De La Soul album, Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. While Steinski wasn't the first to overlay hip-hop tracks with sampled political commentary (see Keith Le Blanc's 1983 "No Sell Out" and Bonzo Goes to Washington's 1984 "Five Minutes"), he was the most artful, for many of the same reasons he was the most wildly entertaining. It's not hard to hear this stuff animating the likes of industrial-leaning groups like Consolidated and, later, agit-rap-rocker Rage Against the Machine.

But it's on the breakbeat-oriented instrumental music that would branch off from rap proper, into trip-hop and downtempo, that Steinski's mark is most permanent. Especially with "The Motorcade Sped On" becoming a quasi-hit thanks to a flexidisc copy being affixed to the cover of a 1987 issue of New Musical Express, Steinski became a cult hero in England, where his whimsical side matched especially well; the duo Coldcut and the label they co-founded, Ninja Tune, seemed to spring from the forehead of the collected "Lessons." Nothing to Fear, the 2002 DJ mix Steinski spent two years preparing for the BBC's Solid Steel program, which takes up the second disc of What Does It All Mean?, expands his vision over an endlessly entertaining hour; he hasn't lost his touch at all, looping Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" till it sounds, of all things, silly, and turning Nelly's "Country Grammar" into an ad for bong hits.

Like Steinski, Teddy Riley was a visionary producer, and unlike him, he approached hip-hop from the inside, as a kid in Harlem watching it come to life. His production career began in earnest with Classical II's "Rap's New Generation," made when Riley was 19. He scored his first serious hit with Johnny Kemp's "Just Got Paid," which hit No. 1 on the R&B charts in May 1988 and No. 10 in pop that August. Riley turned 21 that October having long since altered the entire nature of R&B. He did it by refusing to act as if it had been different than that of hip-hop--because up until that point, there was a difference, a pointed one. R&B largely meant upscale, mature, soft-focus. Apart from occasional L.L. Cool J ballads, you didn't hear very much hip-hop on R&B radio. Even uptempo R&B wasn't really hitting the same way hip-hop did, but when Riley came around, that all changed. It's somewhat hyperbolic to say that Riley made R&B relevant to a young generation again, but it's also to some degree the truth.

There are a number of pieces on Gold: New Jack Swing that are, in essence, the sound of the growing pains of the hip-hop/R&B hybrid that eventually left everything else on the pop charts gasping for air. New jack swing honored the cult of the singer less than any R&B style before it. Disco divas may not have been traditionally soulful, but the singing still mattered. But on this collection, despite spotlighting many very good singers (Bobby Brown still sounding bracingly brassy on "My Prerogative," the piercing harmonies on Hi-Five's "I Like the Way"), we get to hear two classic voices, El DeBarge ("Real Love [House Mix Radio Edit]") and Al Green, being battered around by tinny, hyper drum-machine snares and intrusive keyboard textures. This isn't like disco, though--if then-vocal titans had subsumed themselves to the beat, these new beats clanged, bashed, evoked glass shattering on pavement. They evoked street life, rendered Bomb Squad-style. Green in particular strains against his "As Long as We're Together" rather than nestling closely to it--making it most un-Al Green-like, but very new jack swing.

Much of Gold today sounds innocent in a way that would have seemed unthinkable at the time. "I Wanna Sex You Up" still drives right-thinking adults out of the room more than it ought to: Look beyond the callow lyric and you'll hear an arresting arrangement (vocal and musical) that stands with anything being made right now. It's also worth noting that of the collection's 28 titles only 10 do not have the words "version" or "mix" somewhere parenthetically in the title. Compilers Harry Weinger and Donald Cleveland deserve congratulations for one of the most shamelessly geeky assemblages ever made; only a true fanatic would know that the "Dub Mix" of Johnny Kemp's "Just Got Paid" is the one that really lights things up.

And its chronological assembly lets you hear firsthand how the sound altered, opened up, and eventually became what's just called R&B today. By the disc's closer, SWV's "Anything" (the remix featuring the Wu-Tang Clan), the new era has begun. Or maybe not: If the remix of Mary J. Blige's "Just Fine," which places her vocal over the track of Chubb Rock's "Treat 'Em Right," or the remix of Lloyd's incredible "Girls Around the World," which rides the beat and bass line of Coldcut's "7 Minutes of Madness Remix" treatment of Eric B. and Rakim's "Paid in Full," are any indication, clattering snares may yet drown us out again.

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