Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96

I just listened to the Sound Opinions interview with Kembrew McLeod, author and producer of the documentary Copyright Criminals. Check out the episode if you are at all interested in the effect copyright laws in the early 90s had on the use of samples in hip hop. It's often thrown around that an album like Paul's Boutique by the Beastie Boys could never be made today, because the amount it would cost for the group to clear the hundreds of samples on the record would make for a financially impossible situation. Well, McLeod was interested in finding out the extent to which this tidbit is true. Turns out if the Beasties were to attempt another Paul's Boutique under current copyright law, they would be in the red by an amount to the effect of $20 million. Makes you want to go back to that record and pick apart all the intricate and diverse samples, honoring an era of creativity in hip hop that, McLeod argues, has been all but destroyed by the greed of the copyright industry.

Later in the episode, Jim and Greg play some of their favorite sample-heavy songs. They cite DJ Shadow's Endtroducing... as a genius work of sample collage. I agree. But I think there's a nice coda to this story that could have been added on the show. On that album, Shadow includes a brief song called "Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96". It's a slow drum groove that ends with a sample that, in turns, gives a witty answer to the question the song title poses: "It's the money!" It's perfect that Shadow uses a three-word sample to explain how hip hop artistry is crippled by an industry that limits its use of sampling. That's some self-reflexive shit right there.

And where did Shadow get all those sources anyway? The documentary Scratch (2002), sheds a little light on an otherwise dark basement.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Briefly, Like Six Words (1)


The Black Keys, The Big Come Up (2002)

Monday, March 14, 2011


I've tried for the last few days to sum up my thoughts and synthesize how I want to tackle a review of Lupe Fiasco's Lasers, released last week. Disparate ideas keep popping in and out. Here they are, roughly.

The Cover
When I first saw the cover to the album, I thought, "Hey, cool, a Dan Flavin reference." Then I thought.. contemporary art... hip hop... how often do these things reference each other? My first instinct was not often. Next: why is that answer my first impulse? I'm thinking listeners of hip hop have to try to always combat this idea that rap music is low culture and other forms of music and art (i.e., neon tubes hung up in art galleries) represent high culture. Meanwhile, Jay-Z's Decoded features Andy Warhol on the cover. And then you could just go back to Basquiaat and the whole paradigm is f'd up right there. Graffiti as high art, huh? And don't forget Kehinde Wiley, who juxtaposes black men in street wear with centuries-old profiles of European royalty. So, my take on this? Hip hop artists should keep blurring the boundary between their music and what has long been considered a more elite (and certainly less black) form of artistic expression.

The Hooks
I read in another review of this album that the melodies in the songs on Lasers are really overwrought. I couldn't agree more. Rap songs that are marketed for radio play rely heavily on the catchiness of their hooks (what's up T-Pain), and clearly this, Lupe's third album, is moving in that direction. Listening to this album, you feel like the choruses take up the majority of your listening time. That's a shame for two reasons. For one, the hooks range from mediocre to downright unlistenable. Second, and more importantly, Lupe FIasco is a fantastically inventive and dextrous MC. The more time I have to sit through another repeat of a chorus, the less time I am getting to hear him spit some excellent verses. It makes matters worse to admit that the verses here also do not stand up to Lupe's memorably playful and skillful rhymes from his first two albums, not to mention the one that got it all started, his guest spot on Kanye's "Touch the Sky". I wish there was something half as good on Lasers as what he put together for that golden single from Late Registration:

Yes, yes, yes guess who's on third?
Lupe still like Lupin the Third.
Hear life here till I'm beer on the curb
Peach fuzz buzz but beard on the verge
Slow it down like we're on the serve
Bottle-shaped body like Mrs. Butterworth's.
But, before you say another word,
I'm back on the block like a man on the street.
I'm trying to stop lion like a Mum-Ra,
But I'm not lying when I'm laying on the beat.

The Press
Finally, I give Lupe some credit for sitting through the dreadfully patronizing and offensive interview conducted by Guy Raz for NPR last weekend. Any radio spot that starts like this cannot bode well:

"Wasalu Muhammad Jaco grew up in rough neighborhoods in and around Chicago, where crack addicts would pass out on his front stoop. But, while his friends were drifting in and out of jail, he joined the chess club and the academic decathlon at high school. He was also a drama geek."

I think Raz mentions prostitutes and crack addicts three times in the interview, just to make sure the listener understands where Lupe grew up: in the GHETTO. And yet, he turned out okay! What? He read National Geographic and watched PBS? How astonishing. Once again, we are getting the message that growing up in poverty is some otherworldly predetermining influence; nerds, geeks, skateboarders, backpack-rappers, whatever label you want to throw, apparently don't exist in that realm, so when they do, it is worth it to take note. You know, once ran a column describing the D.O.R.F. hypothesis; that is, NPR only reviews new black music if the artist is Dead, Old, Retro, or Foreign. I know there has got to be a fifth letter to represent the type of interview that Lupe endured; leave a comment if you've got any ideas.

One thing Raz did get right is referencing the skilled verse on this song, "Us Placers." (Too bad he cited a Radiohead sample; it's from Thom Yorke's solo work.)