Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

Music

Boxed Beat

Thank God Some DJs Still Wanna Hit You in Your Booty Before Your Brain

By Bret McCabe | Posted 11/6/2002

Sometime between the days when Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash practically created hip-hop in late-1970s New York clubs, and mook-metallers splashed DJ kicks into their nü snooze, hip-hop heads went out and did something odd: They developed theories. Purists made a hard-line roots maneuver, calling for a return to hip-hop's proverbial four elements, resulting in a catholic view of what the necessary essentials were and are. Worse, sound essayists (see DJs Spooky, Faust, Shadow, et al.) poured interdisciplinary-studies piffle into hip-hop's soundscape and argued beats and samples as their the cultural footnotes. Thing is, hip-hop--like jazz--never needed an explanation for its existence. Yet some DJs out there are still trying to hit you in the brain before the booty.

Perhaps it's better to spotlight examples to the contrary rather than stoning the culprits. And the best place to start is with the DJs unfortunately known as turntablists. These DJs remember that the beat is there to keep people moving. And Power in Numbers, the sophomore album from the six-man crew of Cut Chemist, Chali 2na, Marc 7, Akil, Zaakir, and Nu-Mark--aka Jurassic 5--literally wears that mantra on its sleeve. Its cover features a wrap-around photo of the group awash in a sea of upraised arms. J5 even puts the people first: The band appears on the album's back.

Trouble is, J5 sounds like it's trying to please all those people all the time. Power scores when it sticks to J5's groovalicious glides. "A Day at the Races" gallops along with a blaxploitation bass line and the still-breathtaking delivery of original pimpster Slick Rick. "Remember His Name" percolates like the sound of pounded balls at a table-tennis tournament. And "Hey" floats along a cool-breeze shimmy as relaxed as cruising down a sunset-baked Pacific Coast Highway.

J5's vibe falters when it cops others' chops. "What's Golden" sabotages Blackalicious' '70s soul swagger and turns it into bankable Beastie Boys bounce. Canadian chorus girl Nelly Furtado crops up inexplicably on "Thin Line." The wobbly bass blackouts in "After School Special" are mo' better in Big Moe's codeine-syrup swirled stutter steps. And Kool Keith--who is one wacky guest appearance away from becoming rap's Paul Lynde--free-associates a freestyle mixing and matching bugs and thugs. It's bent, but expectedly so. These weak tracks reek of Santana-esque preening, as if each guest appearance was market-tested prior to performing. Power has the right idea--hip-hop is the music of the masses--but it doesn't have to have mass appeal. By the time J5 flaunts its turntable charisma in "Acetate Prophets"--almost an hour into Power--the crew comes across like the kid in school trying too hard to be popular.

Peanut Butter Wolf is one guy who shirks the in crowd in favor of those who love him just the way he is. And he's a tripped-out dude. The self-avowed seven-inch obsessive merged his fetish with his practice and started releasing hip-hop singles on his Stones Throw Records in 1998, and he's collected a few sides from various artists on the 22-track sampledelic sampler, Peanut Butter Wolf's Jukebox 45's. (He didn't want to put all the singles on CD because, you know, you got to show love to the people who coughed up cash for the vinyl.)

Like Stones Throw itself, 45's often runs like a highlight reel for Madlib, the mind behind the helium-voiced MC Quasimoto, Yesterdays New Quintet, the Madlib Invazion, and Lootpack, all of which show up here. Quasimoto's "Microphone Mathematics Remix" discombobulates down the street like a drunk lumbering 'tween parking meters; Yesterdays New Quintet's "I Am Singing" rides a smoky electric piano and drum-chop groove that radiates late-night suavity; the Madlib Invazion's "The Ox (Fantastic Four)" is riddled with a high-hat/snare kick that diffuses into the crinkle of a paper bag collapsing on itself; and Lootpack's "On Point" somehow manages to create an entire song out of a simple beat folded into a piano solo that's cut into call-and-response melodic morsels.

But he's only one of Stones Throw beat rockers. Medaphoar runs rings 'round Rhodes organ lines. A-Trak scribbles scratches in the best-named song here, "Enter Ralph Wiggum." PBW cuts a funky backdrop for his ex-bandmate, the late MC Charizma, on "Devotion 92." And Captain Funkaho's "My 2600" is the most that-ain't-right shag this side of a Blowfly album.

The true treasures, though, are some little-known soul classics PBW unearthed for his singles series. Ernie and the Top Notes' "Things Could Be Better" blues rumble sounds very Ramada Inn lounge circa 1972. The Highlighters' "Poppin' Popcorn" revels in its 1968 Booker T. and the M.G.'s-style sax strut. And the Stark Reality's 1970 "Rocket Ship" takes off like an Isaac Hayes' meditative R&B odyssey but quickly jettisons the funky fuel for some gleefully weird yet riveting psychedelic soul.

Even better than hearing something new in something old, Rob Swift makes the old feel new. A member of the ridiculously talented X-ecutioners crew, Swift is the most roots-reverent out of the four-man group. Fond of head-spinning breakbeats, rabid wicky wicky wick scratching, and whiplash-fast switches between his decks, Swift's gift is being a turntable polyglot of the so-called old school.

Since X-pressions, Swift has been all about exploring beats. His 1999 The Ablist turned turntable acrobatics into a pure groove thing. The almost rap-less outing didn't try to argue that it isn't the words that make hip-hop matter. He just let his rhythms hit 'em.

Sound Event goes even further into letting the music do all its talking. Swift recruits more MCs this time, though they're there only to provide rhythmic and melodic counterpoint for his breakneck agility. He sticks to the DJ-MC basics for "2 3 Break" and "A Supernatural," samples some trumpets and piano for the cool-jazz stroll "The Great Caper," and layers breakbeats into club jam for "Hip-Hop on Wax." He even dabbles in deep house's echoing bass paisleys ("Tronic"), Latin jazz romance ("Salsa Scratch"), and Marvin Gaye's soulful social realism ("The Ghetto"). But he's not making any overintellectualized theses out of his merging styles; for Swift, they're all hues in his sonic palette.

It's an approach that succeeds because, whatever the genre, Swift keeps his beats slippery yet propulsive, smart but never so sharp they cut right through the song forcing its component parts to comment upon one another. Swift simply allows his music to gain momentum as it moves along rather than reflect upon itself. It is a strategy that other producers have picked up on as well. It's why the Neptunes' graffiti gloss can make the soulless Britney Spears feel funky. It's why Timbaland reaps more from less in Missy Elliott's latest banging single, "Work It," a pelvic taunt sculpted out of a few tones, unabashed naughtiness, and silence. Hell, even Kid606's freak glitch remixes smoke because, beneath his impenetrably dense production, he never buries the hook. It's just something that Duke Ellington knew this more than half a century ago. Nobody ever made a memorable song by explaining it to people. The meaning is in the swing.

Related stories

Music archives

More from Bret McCabe

Unnatural Wonders (7/7/2010)
Soledad Salamé's works become more persuasive through distortions

That Nothing You Do (6/23/2010)
Will Eno embraces the banality of everything

All Eyes on Him? (6/16/2010)
John Potash's The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders offers a different version of the slain rapper

Comments powered by Disqus
Calendar
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter