Antipop Consortium – Arrhythmia

Arrhythmia

Antipop ConsortiumArrhythmia Warp WARPCD94 (2002)


Hip-hop often is very boring, because so much of it is so conservative.  There are plenty of acts following the party line, so-to-speak.  Everything is wrapped in the protective blanket of genre “rules”, and expectations and ambitions are contained within carefully delineated formulas that can seem like an inescapable supermassive black hole.  Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there are acts like APC.  With cerebral, abstract lyrics jammed full of non sequiturs and poetic wordplay, plus production that bears more resemblance to European electronica than traditional breakbeats, these guys definitely offered a unique sound.  And they were willing to depart completely from convention to do that.  It seems APC are loathed by many solely because their records don’t resemble so much other hip-hop music.  But that kind of criticism (if I’m generous enough to even call it that) is so thick-headed and laden with narrow-minded assumptions that it hardly is worth the effort to debunk such obviously flawed logic.

One of my favorite aspects of Arrhythmia, clearly the group’s best album, is the way in which it sidesteps all the nonsense that I earlier dubbed “the party line”.  This album isn’t about grown men trying to live out adolescent fantasies.  It isn’t about macho boasting of vicious and violent tendencies, not to mention empty self-promotion and grandstanding about non-existent talent.  It isn’t really about demeaning women or homosexuals.  It isn’t an apologist’s monologue on life as a dimwitted fool.  Of course, the album isn’t explicitly about avoiding those things, in some kind of preachy, paternalistic fashion either (except maybe parts of “We Kill Soap Scum,” if I read the symbolism right).  Like I said, it sidesteps all that, and ultimately derives its power from allowing us listeners to ignore the party line out of existence.  Instead the listener is treated to esoteric wisdom, abstract personal narratives and funny musical tricksterism.

The group:  M. Sayyid was perhaps the best rapper around at the time, in terms of his technical ability to vocalize, and yet was still willing to joke around with his lyrics.  Then there’s Beans, who is an incredibly well-rounded rapper, capable of writing some impressively complex lyrics.  High Priest may have the least imposing talents, but he’s a master of rhythm and timing, and he can build tension by applying those skills like few others.  Producer Earl Blaize finely crafts minimalist, glitchy beats in a way that smoothly pulls together the contributions of three rappers who are really quite different in their individual styles.

This disc is definitely not the kind of thing you would throw on at a party or a dance club.  It’s more inwardly drawn and inflected.  There is hardly a single sample on the whole disc, stripping the affair of clear reference points.  This isn’t to say more dance-oriented stuff is automatically whack, but why must everything be that way?  APC go in another direction.  They certainly aren’t the only ones who do that.  Although I do feel like they were among the few acts around the turn of the millennium identified with the hip-hop genre that made music that was interesting for what new ideas it presented rather than merely how well it satisfied genre formulas.  Hell, there ain’t many act period that can do that, hip-hop or otherwise.

But of course, if there is no other reason to love this album, I must add that here High Priest delivers one of my favorite lines in hip-hop on “Dead In Motion”:

“Shasta after I slash rap with a protractor”

Airborn Audio – Good Fortune

Good Fortune

Airborn AudioGood Fortune Ninja Tune ZENCD95 (2005)


Years ago, the groundbreaking hip-hop trio Antipop Consortium broke up (they later reunited for a tepid “comeback”). Beans went solo, releasing two albums and an EP in the following two years. The other members, M. Sayyid and High Priest, formed Airborn Audio. A full two years after the breakup, Airborn Audio’s debut Good Fortune arrived. It would seem that an appropriate response would be, “Why the wait?” Good Fortune is pretty disappointing. It certainly is a solid album, one as good or better than any mainstream hip-hop album of the day you could name. Still, Sayyid and Priest have to be held to a higher standard. On Antipop’s landmark Arrhythmia, Sayyid could tear up lyrics with speed, clarity and rhythm that most rappers only dream of attaining (well, contemporaries like DMX and 50 Cent probably gave up on that dream a long time ago). Now, his rhymes are mostly lethargic, and always heartbreakingly mundane. Both Sayyid and Priest waste most of Good Fortune on pointless jabs at and nods to other rappers, boring pop culture references and lame self-promotion. Their raw talent bubbles up from time to time, but mostly it is hidden behind hokey effects.

The major disappointment with Good Fortune is that these former innovators have now thrown their hats into the same ring as countless others. Despite the claim on “Monday Through Sunday” that Airborn Audio has the “same agenda” as Antipop, it comes out sounding like a lie. If even if this album is slightly ahead of the pack that counts for little. That would give too much credit to direction in which the pack was headed! The best songs, like “Bright Lights,” lean on beats that probably would have been cutting edge eight or ten years ago on a DJ Spooky album. Today it’s hard to get excited about them.

Good Fortune proved far less interesting and nowhere near as the best releases from former bandmate Beans. This album seems like a step backward for two of hip-hop’s brightest young talents.

Eric B. & Rakim – Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em

Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em

Eric B. & RakimLet the Rhythm Hit ‘Em MCA MCAD-6416 (1990)


Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em was an ambitious hip-hop album in its day. The duo pulled rank. Their earlier albums were more popular and acclaimed then, but it’s those other ones that today sound like relics.

There are at least three stages to hearing this album. First, you just dig it because it’s a solid album with a snap to the beats. Next, you start to decipher Rakim’s intricate lyrics. Finally, you realize how intricate Eric B.’s mixes are and how they intensify everything on the disc. You don’t even have to get past phase one. Really that’s the beauty of it. Bobbing to it or dissecting it, either works.

That “Keep ‘Em Eager to Listen” comes right before “Set ‘Em Straight” says it all. Nothing on the album is accidental. This feels like the album Eric B. & Rakim always wanted to make if they could. Well they did it. The record receives all the talent like uninvited guests who arrive with inexplicable expectancy.

There seem to be more than enough James Brown samples to go around. It takes quite a Godfather fan to pick out precisely where they come from though. Eric B. breaks everything down a rebuilds something of an entirely different form. He was a bridge between old school and new school. As a DJ he could scratch with anybody, but he could build cohesive songs through improvisation. Eric B. seems to have a greater awareness of why he’s improvising and where this is all headed.

Rakim was simply one of the most talented rappers and lyricists of his day — a status that isn’t exclusive to hip-hop. “In the Ghetto” is the unsentimental tale of his grim existence. Rakim flexes his lyrical muscle to get some needed breathing room.

This is known as a lyricist’s album, but that sells Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em short. Rakim lays out some fine lyrics but it’s the delivery and the assembly of the choice whole that make this a classic. Bleak in a dense mass. The lyrics fit into an orchestrated statement said in more than words.

Hip-hop albums too often end up disposable vehicles for nonsense fads. Eric B. & Rakim set out to make an album for the ages. Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em quickened hip-hop’s ascension. A few have continued the challenge. The others perhaps ignore this as it might reveal their own weaknesses.

Sole – Live From Rome

Live From Rome

SoleLive From Rome anticon. ABR 0048 CD (2005)


Righteous indignation.

This is a much more overtly political album than Sole’s previous — and probably best — album Selling Live Water.  It isn’t nearly as successful.  Though there are good intentions everywhere on this disc, the music/beats aren’t always compelling.  I saw Sole live touring on this album, and he had a live band with him.  Frankly, many of the songs sounded better with the live band (the title “Live From Rome” alludes to the fall of the Roman Empire as a parallel to or hope for the fall of the American Empire; this is not a live recording).  The thundering “Dumb This Down” is probably the best here, but “Cheap Entertainment” is sort of subtly infectious.  Almost everything here is decent, but newcomers should start elsewhere.

Sole – Selling Live Water

Selling Live Water

SoleSelling Live Water anticon. ABR 0026 CD (2003)


Selling Live Water is hip-hop that can’t take for granted that it is hip-hop at all.  It is music made to engage an audience and provoke critical thought.  Hip-hop is just a convenient form that it adopts.  Sole pursues his music with a fervor that concedes nothing but complete, honest commitment to his agenda.  The most appealing part of this is the self-reflexive aspect. Hip-hop has been around long enough now that a more complex look at the genre itself is due. Sole contorts traditions with no hesitation.

On “Da Baddest Poet,” Sole admits how he isn’t smart enough for any techniques other than hip-hop. The necessity of his place amidst hip-hop culture means he really is making some sort of contribution to it. Sole is just trying to keep hip-hop as good as it was, and promised to be, in the age of “conscious hip-hop”, just… different. He says, “in the immortal words of Ice-T/ shoulda killed me last year/ but in the mere mortal words of me . . . ”  There is humility here that is quite the opposite of the materialistic, misogynistic, violent subject matter promoted most heavily in the genre, combined with an awareness that Sole is tilting toward something else.

“Shoot the Messenger” goes off with “I never learned to kill for oil/ but then again I never learned to sit still/ and probably never will.” “Respect pt. 3” even seems to be a little anarchistic.  There are politics all over this album — not in the sense of passing news, but in the sense of a commitment to bottom-up social transformation away from corruption and domination (Sole has noted that material on the album was inspired by Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States).

Sole is a good lyricist though he has only a passable delivery, something still impressive given what Sole does. His lyrics are very busy, giving him the difficult task of fitting it all in. He is either silent or in vocal bombardment mode. What turns out to make it work is the jokey attitude — full of gags and purposeful contradictions. By some manner of calculation he is aware of precisely how much ferocity separates his mind and his voice. Even though his rhythms don’t stretch and his dynamics are flat, deadly words still ooze from each of Selling Live Water’s cuts.  Nonetheless, he steps up for some more impressive vocal rhythms, shifts and drawls on “Salt on Everything.”

The anticon collective producers on board (Alias, Odd Nosdam, Telephone Jim Jesus) cultivate a sort of blurred, hazy melange of oversaturated sounds, while keeping to a sense of syncopated rhythm.  The beats contribute to the bleary feeling of being overwhelmed by media and the numbing spectacle of mass culture.  This complements Sole’s way of rapping that often seems like shouting out as many words as possible without planning his delivery beforehand.

Sole makes good on the idea of personal hip-hop. He may not have expansive vocal talents to rely on, but he has still made some great music here.  To appreciate Selling Live Water, a listener must accept that important statements can be made without access to large resources or authorization by the powerful, without being a supplicant or sycophant, by anybody who puts in the effort.  If you reject those premises, then realize that this is an album made against what you believe.

“Weird Al” Yankovic – The Essential “Weird Al” Yankovic

The Essential "Weird Al" Yankovic

“Weird Al” YankovicThe Essential “Weird Al” Yankovic Legacy 88697-58543-2 (2009)


Weird Al has forged a career much longer than anyone would have guessed when he first started making parody songs in conjunction with the Dr. Demento radio show.  The essential character of his music has been to appeal to individuals, mostly young men, whose aspirations and expectations extend beyond their realistic chances for social advancement in life.  He appeals to people with more time and (pop) cultural interests than money, whose lives tend to be dominated by people and forces outside their control — his career tracks pretty closely a time when a gap expanded between worker productivity and real compensation and his popularity came when the gap proved to be a real long-term trend (plus his biggest commercial successes were after the 2007-08 financial crash around the time this collection was released).  His humor tends to play on an awareness of the base and trifling nature of consumer pop culture.  It kind of stops there though.  He winks with his audience in making fun of trashy mass media artifacts, all the while resigning himself to the dictates of that mass media and all its whims.  Al’s music kind of resigns itself to the pop culture ghetto, and in many respects breeds dependency on it.

He performed parody songs but also wrote original comedy songs.  Those who like Weird Al best always express a fondness for his originals.  Some of this songs are more medleys of popular songs, done in a novelty manner.  Take “Polka on 45”  (from his second album In 3D).  He does a medley of mostly pop/rock songs played as polkas with his accordion.  This sort of mashup of the “hip”, contemporary pop with passé and all-to-ethnic polka might be compared to some of Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photography, or other such “high” art, but no one does.  Al gets a laugh from the incongruity of throwing the different styles together that normally appeal to mutually exclusive audiences who listen to certain genres of music to separate themselves from the other genres, obliterating those attempts at social distinction.  “One More Minute” (from his third, and maybe best album Dare to Be Stupid) is a retro rock/doo-wop romantic put-down tune in the style of The Mothers of Invention (like “Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder” from Freak Out!), but pushed to absurdist extremes in its lyrical exaggerations.

Over time, Al kind of got formulaic.  That isn’t to say his music ever got bad.  But the early material was something a little new.  There were no guarantees that it would be popular, any more than a passing fad.  Al’s kind of self-aware musical irony was a way to normalize and humanize the vacuousness of pop culture.  Over time, that seemed less daring and more of a favor to the institutions of the music industry.  There are many stories of celebrity musicians being proud that Weird Al parodied one of their songs.  That sort of confirms Al’s insider status.  This was the same problem the pop/punk band DEVO faced.

Weird Al is kind of a great musician for kids to listen to, because his self-awareness provides good lessons for young people.  Yet adults should, in theory, kind of move on to deeper, more informed critiques of pop culture.  That isn’t to say this music can’t be enjoyed by grown-ups.  It can.  This collection, which was selected by Al himself, if nothing else proves how good Al’s band was, how astute his awareness of the nuances of pop culture was (including which songs were worth parodying), and how his broad humor managed to avoid quickly dated jokes based on easily-forgotten current events.  This particular collection isn’t exhaustive, and it omits multiple albums.  But it still makes a decent introduction to his career.

Don’t Believe the Hype: A Guide to Public Enemy

Welcome to a humble guide to the music of Public Enemy, one of the most iconic, innovative, and long-running hip-hop groups in history.  This guide focuses on albums, rather than singles.  Links to other resources are provided at the end.  Credits listed below are accurate to a point; the band tended to skip attribution — and often intentionally obfuscate — who contributed to producing individual tracks and entire albums.  Information on available releases is current for the United States as of early 2016, and focuses on physical formats.


A Brief History

Public Enemy (PE), formed in “Strong Island” [Long Island], NY, in 1982, emerged at the forefront of “conscious” or “positive” hip-hop.  Biographer Tim Grierson wrote, they had “little interest in the materialism and bloodshed that had quickly become two of [hip-hop’s] major selling points.”  Instead, PE wrote songs mostly about political and social topics.  At the same time their music earned a reputation for being dense and hard, as in the most densely layered in all of hip-hop.  At the peak of their fame in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were deemed controversial by some — partly a conscious strategy —  and became embroiled in quite a few scandals — some deserved and some not.  As much as they tried to make intelligent music, sometimes looking back it doesn’t seem as intelligent as it aims to be (though usually it is).  They have survived for decades, innovated hip-hop music and various music production and distribution techniques, and fallen off from widespread public consciousness in later years.  Chuck D has engaged in various other projects, from speaking at conferences to TV hosting and more, and Flavor Flav starred in a number of “reality” TV shows (“The Surreal Life,” “Strange Love,” and “Flavor of Love”), a short-lived sitcom (“Under One Roof”) and launched some restaurants (he is a trained chef) that quickly closed.  Chuck D has maintained an anti-drugs (including anti-alcohol) approach, though Flavor Flav has had many drug abuse problems and his TV appearances are rather at odds with the core of Public Enemy’s artistic stance.  And yet, given that Chuck D has said that Flavor Flav “is the street,” the group’s willingness to include someone from a different sort of background faced with attendant challenges is worthy of respect.  The group was (and is) more than just Chuck (the MC) and Flavor (the hype man), though a self-serving (unaccountable and even hypocritical) opacity falls across much of their work as to who is involved (or not involved) in actually making the music on recordings — the credits that follow are accordingly incomplete.  There have been falling-outs, bitter rivalries, members ejected then later brought back, new members absorbed — accounts of those happenings vary widely and former members disagree with a few of the “official” accounts.  Technically, Chuck D and Flavor Flav are the band, in terms of who signs the contracts, and the others are their employees.  Professor Griff was forced out in the early 1990s, but he returned seven years later.  Hank Shocklee was perhaps the major innovator in terms of producing the beats on records from the band’s peak, though a combination of legal issues related to sampling, theft of the vinyl the band used for samples, and differences of opinion about whose contributions made the band successful, he left in the early 1990s.  Whether directly related or not, the band only briefly maintained both commercial and critical appeal following that split.  And despite all this PE has made good music decades after they formed.  Most interestingly, they have taken bold steps to maintain independence from the corporate, major-label music world while still touring and recording.  There are few hip-hop acts as long-lived or as deeply beloved by fans.



Legend:

⊕⊕⊕ = top-tier; an essential
⊕⊕ = second-tier; enjoyable but more for the confirmed fan; worthwhile after you’ve explored the essentials and still want more
⊕ = third-tier; a lesser album, for completists, with perhaps only one or so notable songs


Continue reading “Don’t Believe the Hype: A Guide to Public Enemy”

Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet

Fear of a Black Planet

Public EnemyFear of a Black Planet Def Jam CK 45413 (1990)


Fear of a Black Planet is still considered a watershed hip-hop album.  It was meticulously sequenced.  At a time when cassette tapes were a common format for releasing commercial musical recordings, this album was put together so that each side was essentially the same length (down to a matter of mere seconds), so that there was minimal silent runout at the end of one side of the tape (a byproduct of having sides of unequal length).  The use of non-musical recordings also took a big leap here.  Public Enemy had already done some of this on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, but now the skits were more elaborate and the excepts from mainstream media commenting on Public Enemy (“Incident at 66.6 FM”) were extended and clearly positioned to coincide with the provocative messages of the new songs.  These weren’t just isolated songs thrown together haphazardly, like in the early days of LP records when 45 RPM singles still held commercial dominance.  This was a cohesive album-length statement.

The band’s popularity was at an all-time high when Fear of a Black Planet dropped, thanks in large part to a hit song, “Fight the Power,” used in the Spike Lee movie Do the Right Thing and released as a single and soundtrack cut during the prior year.  Lee also directed a music video for the song — this also still being the height of popularity for MTV and music videos as promotional (and artistic) devices.  It is one of the most blunt statements of what the band’s music is about.  The thundering, irregular bass line, like a modern Bo Dilddley beat, is set against a metallic wash of noise, and an array of disjointed drum beats.  There is scratching and little snippets of vocals and keyboards too.  The lyrics go a little overboard, but they make a point that is not to far off from what the #blacklivesmatter movement would be about decades later.

Just to give a sense of what Public Enemy’s music meant around this time, here’s a story from Boots Riley of The Coup in Tell Homeland Security — We Are the Bomb (2015):

“A woman named Rossy Hawkins and her two twin sons who were eight years old got beat down, bloodied by the police in the Double Rock projects [of San Francisco].  The neighborhood immediately came out, hundreds of people, and surrounded the police.  What had happened a week or two before was a guy had gotten beaten up by the police and been taken in the police car and driven around until he died — because they didn’t take him to the hospital.  So people wanted to get Rossy and her kids away from the police and take her to the hospital because they feared for her life.  So they surrounded the police, and the police got scared and started shooting up in the air.  ***  And everybody ran away.  But at a certain point everybody turned around.  They turned around and came back, got Rossy and her kids away from the police, and sent those police out without their car.  The car was turned over.

“So two things.  One, none of this was put in any mainstream newspapers or anything like that the next day.  ***  And the other thing that happened is that what made everyone turn around was this:  It was the summer of 1989, and the number-one song on the radio was ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy.  And somebody started chanting ‘Fight the power, fight the power, fight the power.’  And everyone said that then is when they knew that they all had a job to do.

“When that story was being told to me that day is when I realized the power that music could have, that hip-hop could be a rallying cry that consolidates our ideas into action.”

As inspiring as this was to Boots Riley, Public Enemy were (rightly) perceived as a threat to an established system of oppression.  Touring in late 1990 in support of the album, PE appeared at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom in late December with rock band Sonic Youth opening.  Following the show a police riot erupted.

Public Enemy was, for the most part, still a large collective at the time that Fear of a Black Planet was recorded and released.  Hank Shocklee had helped work up a lot of the songs on the album, some of which had percolated for years before being recorded, but he wasn’t directly involved in the production for the album.  It is still an album made in his style, with some constraints and omissions with regard to his predilections for unconstrained raw noise and atonality.  But given his lack of involvement, the name “The Bomb Squad” was coined as the production credit for PE recordings.  Calling the production team by that name obscured — quite intentionally — who was really involved.  Although a conscious strategy by Chuck D, this became kind of a contradiction in Public Enemy’s message.  They seemed like hypocrites by deceiving fans this way.  Yet, they still delivered some amazing songs.  Hank’s brother Keith stepped up.  He wrote “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” one of the band’s best songs anywhere.  Professor Griff had also been booted from the band after a media dust-up about anti-semitic comments (despite his lack of involvement, his photo appears in the liner notes).  He would return in the late 1990s though. This was another semi-hypocritical move by the band.  Rather than stand together, and assert that Griff was not anti-semitic but rather made a mistake when caught off-guard as the result of typical anti-black “gotcha” journalism — during the black power movement journalists would often quote only the one extremist statement made in passing during hour-long speeches, to try to discredit black leaders with much to say.

The departures of Hank Shocklee and Professor Griff would have a big impact on the band in the coming years.  But for a time, inertia (and the efforts of the remaining crew) kept the band going full speed.

This may not be It Takes a National of Millions to Hold Us Back, but nothing is, and this comes as close as anything.  Well, truthfully, albums like this didn’t come along much in later years for one glaring reason.  A legal crackdown on sampling arrived just after Fear of a Black Planet, which effectively ended hip-hop of this sort — for instance, by some calculations, the cost of royalties (a contested topic by itself) for the samples on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back would have meant the band (and its label) would lose over $4 (US) on every copy sold.  There was nothing inevitable about the sampling crackdown, which could have been ruled a “transformative” fair use, and therefore not copyright infringement.  In the end, the legal battle was political.  The courts sided with the “vested interests” (to use economist Thorstein Veblen‘s term), meaning that what was effectively a new and unprecedented art form would be subordinated to the interests of self-important has-beens, greedy absentee owners of intellectual property rights who own large back catalogs of recordings, and lazy heirs and estate trustees.

“911 Is a Joke” was the song Flavor Flav delivered for the album.  It might be his very best.  His rhythm is impeccable.  He delivers his lines with his usual prankster humor, though the subject matter is actually incisive social commentary (about public emergency services being withheld from or limited in black neighborhoods for racist reasons).  Flav delivers “Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man,” which is a good song that occasionally shows up on compilations but lacks the benefits of the social commentary of “911 Is a Joke.”

“Welcome to the Terrordome” (probably a reference to the 1985 film Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome) is one of the harder-hitting tunes.  A looping, siren-like wail drones on through much of the song, setting a kind of baseline level of aggression.  Chuck D sounds absolutely fierce on the mic.

Fear of a Black Planet comes across as a very premeditated sort of album.  There is nothing that happens on this record that isn’t planned and then executed precisely.  It can be a bit exhausting, but it is just as exhilarating.