I called Jason Lewis one day, during his first stint in the Twin Cities, probably close to ten years ago. He’d just said “Rap isn’t music!” – hardly an original idea among talk show hosts. “It’s just rhythm”.
I called in, and got on the air quickly; Joe Hansen always got me on the air pronto back in the day.
“Jason”, I asked, “were Gene Krupa’s albums “not music” just because they were mostly a single drummer playing solos?”
There really was no answer, of course.
So yeah. I like rap.
And when I say I like rap, I mean “I disdain the vast, vast majority of rap, and I can honestly think of maybe three rappers in the past ten years that haven’t bored me stiff, and the rise of gangsta rap has pretty much killed most originality not only in rap but in most of R’nB, which has largely adopted the thudding bass/tinkling ornament/big attitude style that west-coast rap adopted ten or fifteen years ago or so, and it’s not like I’d know most originality anymore anyway because I really don’t go out and actively find much new music in any genre anymore, certainly not like when I was a nightclub DJ and had whatever was left of my brain marinading in new music all the dang time”.
But yeah. There’s been plenty of rap that I liked. A lot.
Run/DMC’s King of Rock de-mystified the whole thing for me as a college kid in North Dakota.
It’s when I realized “Hey – it’s not some strange cult ritual! It’s – like – music! Only without guitars and stuff”
It’s hard to say “Leave aside all the references to Louis Farrakhan and militant Afrocentrism on Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions Hold Us Back; it’s like staying “ignore all the George Harrison on that Beatles album”, or “dig Simple Minds, but ignore the parts where Jim Kerr preens”. It’s everywhere; militancy and all the most bombastic trappings of black anger as of 20 years ago jumped from the grooves and pimp-slapped you from almost every cut; by the time Flavor Flav brought the comic relief (on the hilarious “Cold Lampin’ withe Flavor”), you need it. Chuck D at his peak (and this album was his peak) made Kirk Hemmett seem laid-back.
But listening to Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was a little like listening to Phil Spector the first time.
Alan Shocklee produced it – and he was to rap, in those days before the courts clamped down on the use of samples and loops, what Spector was to producing Rock and Roll; the king of everything. And while the material was raw and angry and really, really provocative, and I think my Jewish friends had a point about the anti-semitism hidden in all that black militancy, and the group really did start to believe their media after not very long at all, the album had the two things that all the best rap had twenty years ago; great production, and really sharp, intricate wordplay delivered flawlessly. Someone once called Chuck D the Bob Dylan of Rap. I think it sticks.
And before the courts shut down looping and sampling (a court decision in the early nineties required artists to pay royalties to whomever had written the songs from which ones’ own song sampled), there was time to squeeze out one more great production masterpiece – one of the two best rap albums ever done by white guys:
The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique is like a jazz album – all fluent interplay between instruments, where “instruments” means Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D’s voices and the avalanche of loops, drops and samples behind ‘em. If you’ve never listened to it, then curb your preconceptions and give it a shot. And if you don’t like it? Well, fine, but don’t come whining to me. The album capped a brief flash of time where the thing that makes any kind of music fun and interesting – cross-pollination – was happening, when white/black amalgamations like Third Base and House of Pain were doing great stuff (shaddap about Vanilla Ice and Snow and Gerardo if you know what’s good for you), if only briefly.
The late eighties were an awful, dry spell for music; if you get a copy of Paul’s Boutique, Tunnel of Love, Appetite for Destruction and Nation of Millions, you’ve got most of the good stuff.
Well, that, and maybe one more:
It’s tempting to blame NWA’s Straight Outta Compton for all of its’ successors’ excesses. It was the first really big ganster rap album. And after the ghastly crimes against culture that the genre has given us (and, worse, given right back to “urban” culture”), it’s tempting to try to make a case for censorship. And it launched the “west coast” rap “mystique” that has inflicted so much stupidity, criminality and really bad music on the world (to say nothing of Dr. Dre’s producing career – of which more below – and Ice Cube’s acting career).
But if George Jones made it safe to visit the world of the regretful cheater and the wistful drinker, and Merle Haggard and Gretchen Wilson and Hank Williams Junior made it possible to vicariously line-dance through the world of the budweiser-pickled redneck, and Born to Run gave everyone a taste of roaring down the turnpike in a suicide machine (even if you were just a schlubby high school kid), Compton - whatever you think about gangster rap and the ills of urban culture – is a lyrical thrill ride in the theme park of the wanna-be badass. And – here’s the wierd part, if you’ve listened to what’s passed for rap this past decade and a half – it’s fun. I mean, if you can get past all the prattling about killing cops and the gleefully-casual misogyny, it’s just plain fun to listen to.
Which most of rap since then has not been. With two exceptions – both of ‘em crackers from Detroit:
Eminem is to the vocal technique of saying things real fast to a beat, and around a beat, and in between the parts and sides and, I dunno, underneath the beat, what Eddie Van Halen is to the guitar; with both, you hear them start a passage, and you wonder “how’s he going to get to the end of this?” And then – both of them do, and only with style, and you go “Dayum” from wondering it all. Don’t believe, me? Try to copy either of ‘em. Get ready to feel very humble when you’re done.
And Kid Rock?
If Eminem is the Van Halen of rap, Kid Rock is the Ian Hunter. He’s been around forever, he’s done everything, he brings an air of gleeful excess to the whole thing, he goes outside the form just for the pure fun of it; he’s the first person I’ve seen try to tie redneck rock’n roll and sh*tkicker country/western into something like rap, ending up with an amalgamation that doesn’t really match any style at all, and who really cares anyway?
So yeah. I’m “supposed” to hate it. And most of it, I do. But not just because it’s “rap”, but because most of it, like most rock and roll or most C’nW, is garbage.
As with most things in life, it’s best to focus on what’s not garbage.