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Friday, December 1, 2006

the problem with American hip hop today

I bought Jay-Z's new album Kingdom Come the day it came out, but I find I can't listen to the whole thing in one sitting. So far, it feels more like a collection of singles than an album. I have to listen to it a bit more before offering anything like a review of the album as a whole, but it has set me thinking about bigger problems in American hip hop today.

One thing that always attracted me to rap was the way the DJ, now the producer, would take old cultural material and assign new meaning to it by sampling it in a new composition. The combinations could deepen the significance of the new work or they could surprise by bringing out unexpected meanings in the old. The best example of the former has to be Public Enemy's classic 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Sampling Malcolm X and James Brown together not only borrowed X's militant credibility but also used Brown to buttress the claim that 'The rhythm is the rebel', i.e. that the rap form itself could do the work of political education and agitation. The best example I can find of the latter is Jay-Z's Hard Knock Life. Who would have thought that the most treacly-sweet work in the American musical theatre canon would so aptly lend itself to a rap re-fit? But as soon as one hears it one has to admit that, yes indeed, the street life of a hustler is a hard-knock life.

But nowadays samples are boring. A rapper writes some lyrics and each song's music gets outsourced to a different producer. The fit between the song and the sample is rarely earned. I tell my writing students all the time to reflect on the texts they quote, but I don't find many rap artists doing that work anymore. Today's leading hip hop producers specialise in sampling different periods just because they sound good. I can't deny that current producers make good beats and whatnot, but the intellectualism and ├Žsthetic conviction are gone from American hip hop today. All the excitement in rap now is in the UK: Dizzee Rascal, The Streets, Lady Sovereign, and their partners in grime. I was looking forward to the new albums by Lady Sov and Jay-Z, but I did not expect the Biggest Midget in the Game to overtake the Chairman and CEO on her first try.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is my first time checking out your blog. I agree with you that sampling has gotten boring, take any Usher, Lil' Jon, or R. Kelly album as examples too.

While "modern" rappers such as Kanye and Jay Z still turn me on, it is more so in the mastery of their craft to produce more traditional musical joints, i.e. Kanye's Late Orchestration where he scored his entire album and had a full orchestra perform it while he rhymed for a show in the Abbey Road studios.

However the best hip hop in the game for me right now is the Stones Throw record label where the producers J Dilla (now deceased), Madlib, and MF DOOM all contribute. Most specifically MF DOOM who is a veteran of the game (former member of KMD) and who creates the type of rap songs which I would compare to free verse poetry or free Jazz in semantics. He, as well as other rappers like Ghostface, are all part of a word association club which is a style where clever or timed verses are more important that coherency or plot in the narrative of a song including taking multiple personas as a rapper (some characters MF DOOM raps under are Madvillain, Viktor Vaughn, or King Geedorah). His samples are crazy, for instance he did an entire album as King Geedorah, the monster in the film Godzilla vs Monster Zero, and sampled the entire film much like Wu Tang used to. check him out.

"He's got more soul than a sock wit a hole." -Madvillain


6:59 PM, December 05, 2006

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Thanks for the tips. I will do some research and write a proper reply. I like what you said about Ghostface Killah. I am starting to think his work is akin to a pure ├Žstheticism in its elevation of an almost free-floating wordplay over the song form itself. Would it be too much of a stretch to link this move in his work with the underplotted, underscripted cinema of a Wong Kar-wai or someone like that? I will have to give it some thought.

3:07 AM, December 06, 2006

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I have to retract some of what I said above. I had just gotten Ghostface Killah's Fishscale album less than a week before my previous comment. I have listened to it a lot more in the past three weeks and I must say that it is the most focussed and narratively coherent work of his to date. And the most smartly sampled and quoted. It is also the opposite of all that I identified as the problem with American hip hop today. The same cannot be said of all of Ghostface Killah's solo work. Fishscale, however, is a great accomplishment and deserves its own headlined entry. Reader, stay tuned.

12:18 AM, December 21, 2006


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