Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Some Relatively New Boom-Bappy Realness That Doesn't Suck (As Improbable As That Might Seem)

It's hard to believe that The Ownerz, Gang Starr's sixth and final album, came out the same year as Get Rich or Die Tryin, so far removed the former seems from the latter. In fact, the Gang Starr album is the younger of the two by four months. At the time, it was sharply criticized by some for making commercial concessions (Snoop on a Gang Starr album? Really?) and more importantly, for just being plain stale. When you start sampling DMX for your obligatory scratched hooks, as Premo did on Zonin, it's fair to wonder whether your formula's been used up. Looking back, though, the album looks like the last great gasp of the boom bap tradition. The Ownerz begins on a rather pessimistic note, as Guru and his weedcarriers cryptically complain that "niggas are wandering in darkness...you've got mass confusion, motherfuckers like rats in a maze and shit." The rest of the album can be read as Guru's attempt to dispel this darkness. Each song contains a lesson. Put Up Or Shut Up teaches rappers to quit fronting. Deadly Habits teaches listeners to (a) pay Guru their debts, (b) not get dangerously wasted, and (c) not to shoot up clubs. There's even a little message about American foreign policy. Sabotage, of course, teaches you not to betray your friends. Nice Girl, Wrong Place teaches nice girls to stay out of the wrong places. And so on. If it sounds a little didactic, it is, but there's a lot more to be said for this sort of thing than the vague political gesturings of the so-called conscious rappers (Common and Untitled Nas, I see you), and inasmuch as The Ownerz is another salvo in the "real hip-hop" wars (most explicitly expressed when Premo grabs the mic on 'Peace of Mine' to rant "what the FUCK is this shit that y'all are listenin to nowadays on the radio man? You call that shit hip-hop? THAT'S SOME FAGGOT BITCH SHIT Y'ALL ARE LISTENIN TO!", but implicit in every line of the album), the argument for the continued relevance of boom bap is a lot more convincing when it's yoked to some sort of politics or ethic than when it's simply put forth as an aesthetic preference for scratched hooks over what Guru calls "Tinkerbell beats."*

Unfortunately, Guru's case for his brand of hip-hop - that, through its emphasis on workmanlike storytelling over showy punchlines, scratched hooks over danceable synthetic pizazz, boom bap was of moral use to a troubled community - didn't really get picked up on, as your average backpacker's argument against what gets play nowadays often doesn't boil down to much more than Premo's "'THAT'S SOME FAGGOT BITCH SHIT YALL ARE LISTENIN TO." Too often backpackers sound like my sister did on a family trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, noting that she could've easily painted everything post-1950 in the whole museum. ("An all white canvas? You call that art?" = "You mean you don't spend days writing your lyrics before you get in the studio? You make your beats in fruity loops in ten minutes?** You call that hip-hop?") Or like me when I was 8, bragging on my mental math skills. Or like people in the mid-90s, fretting that "hypertext" would profoundly alter for the worse the way everybody thought. (Sven Birkerts in 1994: "Words read from a screen or written onto a screen–words which appear and disappear, even if they can be retrieved and fixed into place with a keystroke–have a different status and affect us differently from words held immobile on the accessible space of a page....I stare at the textual field on my friend's screen and I am unpersuaded. Indeed, this glimpse of the future has me clinging all the more tightly to my books, the very idea of them." DJ Premier: "Most of today’s producers do not sample and that’s okay, but if they are gonna play instruments to make Hip Hop tracks, make ‘em fonky, you see how I spelled it? That’s the way it’s supposed to sound. Hip Hop is a sound, and if you can’t create it to sound like the culture, don’t call it Hip Hop just because someone is rapping on it. All you’re doing is confusing people." DocZeus: "I know this firmly entrenches me as an insufferable, Mos Def hugging, Illmatic loving elitist but a mixtape by its very nature is a completely different artistic medium than an album." True, but so what?) So it's no wonder that Guru's brand of rap has died out, when the only argument its proponents seem willing to make for it is that (a) it takes more work to make than that fake shit, (b) it's the way it was always done (always meaning a decade or so), and (c) the other guys are dumb, or worse yet, minstrels.

Which finally brings us to the relatively new boom-bappy realness that doesn't suck I promised in the title. Relatively new meaning a year old. It comes by way of Big Shug. Big Shug isn't even the most diehard Premo fan's idea of a good rapper. He's a little like a backpacker's Mike Jones, if Mike Jones didn't have an underrated flow and didn't have a southern accent and didn't do funny things like repeating his telephone number and had a way deeper voice and stumbled over big words. Some might say that's a little unfair, but this is a guy who's rapped:

You want the raw, it's pure and unCUT
Me and my cats, we're pure and unCUT

and when he said raw, he wasn't even talking drugs, just the pure and uncut-ness of his raps. Anyway, Big Shug, a longtime member of the Gang Starr Foundation (Premo's charitable foundation for dudes who can't rap but always dreamt as children of getting namedropped by Tim Westwood), put out an album last year, and of course it wasn't anything special. But the single, "Play It," was genius. Over an absolutely gorgeous Premo-produced bed of strings and chimes and something that sounds like it could be (gasp!)*** a synth, Shug does something very novel. He doesn't rap about how real his raps are, or how not real other rappers' raps are, or pretend to rap about politics - he raps about begging DJ's to play his records. And it's the most poignant and honest rap record you'll ever hear, because in 2007, DJ's just aren't playing a Big Shug's records, Premo cosign or not. Shug doesn't bitch and say the DJ's are wrong to play the more poppy stuff and ignore his superior work (okay, he does send a little shot at "coward cats who hide behind they raps and flashy Cadillacs," but the notion of wack rappers hiding in their flashy Cadillacs is so old-school that it only adds to the charms of the song), he simply asks the DJ's to "play all of the music," just to keep some "balance in the game." Shug isn't saying that the DJ's are missing out on something particularly good or worthwhile; at most, he thinks they're missing out on some musical diversity, that boom-bap still deserves a seat at the table just for inclusion's sake. "Give the fans a chance to hear the fly shit I say," he pleads, and though he eventually gets to threatening violence against DJ's who don't play his music, the overall tone is plaintive and a little elegaic, as if deep down he knows that his brand of rap is finished. Ironically, it's only in the act of begging DJ's to play his records that he makes something worth playing. Just as the only line from Godfather III (a work of an exhausted art form if there ever was one) that anyone remembers is the one that expressed its creator's true feelings about the project - "just when I thought I was out [of making more Godfather movies], they [Paramount] pull me back in," the only song in Big Shug's body of work that really rings true is the one that gives away what a dead end that body of work is.

Big Shug - Play It.

* Clearly Guru was hinting at the Neptunes there.
** This is okay, of course, if you're 9th Wonder. Though some heads feel 9th Wonder could be even more hip-hop if he spent some time crate-digging for some better drums.
*** Just kidding, even I know that Premo was sampling synth records back in '91.


Anonymous said...

Ayy, welcome back. I haven't heard this album. Should I? Keep in mind, I'm not a Gangstarr fanboy, even on their best days. Since hate is far too strong a word, I'm gonna say I dont feel Guru's monotone all that much. He's a decent lyricist and all, but something doesnt click for me when he starts rapping. Premo, on the other hand, even though I'm not the biggest fan of boom bap, I can totally love & appreciate.

maybe its fueled by pharrell and like-minded producers of this day and age hogging so much camera time, but I have a great amount of respect for a great producer who can keep a low screen profile.

And premo's outbursts? priceless. its not that there's quality in the outburst, but there's the great novelty factor of hearing a mime-like character speak - its sorta like when silent bob opens his mouth, and you go whaaa?? what about this freaking moment compelled you to open your trap??

Anonymous said...

also: "....the argument for the continued relevance of boom bap is a lot more convincing when it's yoked to some sort of politics or ethic than when it's simply put forth as an aesthetic preference for scratched hooks over what Guru calls "Tinkerbell beats."

You don't think there's room for boom bap aesthetic these days? I guess I never separated politics or social or economic roots from the boom-bap sound - i mean i know its raw, relatively-minimalist music that people like premo would argue is the very reflection of the ghetto essence, but I usually dont pay the most attention to the sociocultural history and implications of the sound. I just view it as an alternative aesthetic to the polished production of today - just gutter in sound.

and judging from your comments over at doc zeus', about rap preserving the classic cowboy Westerns notion of masculinity, I'd assume you were pro-the rugged boom bap sound.

tray said...

If you don't like Gang Starr, I don't see why you should bother with what's, objectively speaking, only their fourth or fifth best album (though you could definitely argue it's their most accessible, so if the drier stuff turned you off on the past, you may like this better). Although you should definitely hear Rite Where You Stand, that's probably the best thing on the record. I'm very pro-boom bap, but I just think the aesthetic's spent.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

you never mentioned "Skillz," which has an obvious topic, but i think is one of the better songs on the album.

jadakiss' verse was great, thanks for reminding me of that song.

tray said...

I actually always hated Skillz, seemed like a flawed attempt to reach a wider audience. And the hook really bothers me for some reason.

Passion of the Weiss said...

Good to see you back to blogging. I can't wait for the inevitable Zeus/Tray flame war. It'll be fun...

I still think your blog's name should be Forgot about Tray.

tray said...

I don't want to be the blogger whose comment section is half comments by him, but it's an honor, sir.

Passion of the Weiss said...

Typically, the only way to get a lot of comments is to respond to them. I'm bad at this--shit just takes up a lot of time.

Anonymous said...

It's probably an ages/eras thing. The same parents who grew up on Dylan and The Byrds see nothing to like in Panic! at the Disco (let's be honest though, there IS nothing to like about Panic! at the Disco, so bad example...), heads that grew up blasting "Mostly Tha Voice" and "Come Clean" see very little value in "Donk."

I'm not disparaging Soulja Boy's business strategy. By all means, get paper. Just don't act like it's a) intelligent, b) good or c) anything BUT a business strategy. And DAMN SURE don't expect me to take it seriously or actually buy it.

Meanwhile, regional variants on the boom-bap aesthetic (Dilla and Black Milk's Detroit sound, Madlib's loping West Coast version, the P Brothers 'The Gas') have comprised some of the highest-quality hip-hop releases of 2008.

tray said...

I mean...

a) I didn't grow up blasting Mostly Tha Voice, but that was the sort of thing I started listening to when I started listening to rap - I just don't think there's a 2008 version of Mostly Tha Voice, just as, like, attempts to bring back the 50s black and white noir flick are total folly (see The Good German and The Man Who Wasn't There - terrible movies)

b) I really, really wouldn't call what Madlib does boom bap. Like, it has samples. And that's about the size of the similarity. Like, Kanye circa College Dropout and Pete Rock are a lot closer than Madlib and Premo. The P Brothers are really good from what I've heard so far. But isn't that more some kind of Havoc/El-P/RZA on Liquid Swords hybrid? I may be defining boom bap way more narrowly than you, but to me it's a kind of spare, bass-drum/vicious snare heavy affair, epitomized by people like Premo and Marley Marl. Now Havoc had boom bap drums, but he also got kinda horror movie with it. EL-P got really horror movie with it, and so do these dudes. So.... yeah, but Black Milk is definitely boom bap. And I'm not a huge fan.

DocZeus said...

Am I your Tom Breihan or something? That would be utterly apropos in a way.

I think the mass of boring ass boring rappers doing half-assed Common on Resurrection impressions over bootleg Dilla has given you a bad impression of the modern boom bap sound. That sound isn't inherently played. There are just a lot of hacks doing it, running around thinking they are breath of fresh air because they aren't making "Crank That."

I mean hell the presence of Elzhi and Black Milk alone prove that you can still make great boom bap in 2008.

For the record, my disdain for mixtapes is primarily based on taking other people's shit and rhyming over it while a DJ yells in the background and calling that akin to an original piece of art. If you can make a swath of original material in mixtape form and release it for free over the internet than you get props otherwise, I'm profoundly bored by the entire experience. If I wanted to listen to somebody rap over "Daytona 500" I would get out my copy of Ironman.

tray said...

"Am I your Tom Breihan or something? That would be utterly apropos in a way."

No, you're all my Tom Breihan (especially Breihan). I think you're typical of one strand of opinion, one which I'm not quite in agreement with - though of course, my favorite albums probably look a whole lot like yours, minus the Eminem - Breihan's typical of another, one which I'm totally in disagreement with, though I think he's spot on on, say, Cam or The Inspiration, Brandon's general outlook is another I reject, and the same goes for a lot of others. I think I'm closest to noz on stuff, though I'm probably a lot more pessimistic on hip-hop's future and down on hip-hop's present than he is.

About mixtapes, I have to disagree. It isn't at all that I'm a fan of the ones that get all the press, or don't think that they don't have something of a harmful effect on rappers' ultimate output. But I do find that, for instance, to the extent that great New York rap lives on at all, it's mostly in the mixtape. Jada and Styles's mixtapes, to take one example, top any album they'll ever put out. And for good reason - they don't feel the need to include a poor pop single, they don't need a song with Mariah Carey, and they can rap over way, way better beats than they can necessarily afford or even have made anymore. That is, you can take a 'Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers' instrumental and rap on that. If you go to Premo today, he's just not capable of making you a 'Return of The Crooklyn Dodgers' quality beat anymore, and neither are his stylistic heirs, frankly. You would admit, of course, that many of the best album tracks we hear nowadays are just recyclings of old beats. Ghost rapping over 'Please Listen to My Demo' and 'Know the Ledge.' Jim Jones rapping over 'Boyz N The Hood.' Z-Ro rapping over 'Paid In Full.' Da Bridge 2001. Surely you wouldn't say, "if I wanted to hear someone rap over Please Listen To My Demo, I'd get out my copy of Unfinished Business." No, you liked The Big Doe Rehab, and if I'm not mistaken, you specifically liked that track. What's the difference then? A mixtape is just 'Killer Lipstick' times 20, usually minus the annoying Method Man hook that makes it a "song." You see my point. Are mixtapes "original pieces of art"? It just seems like the wrong question to be asking. Rap's about originality, but it's not about that type of originality.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to popular hip-hop, I tend to view the mainstream audience through the filter of my girlfriend. When I'm making beats and playing them back, I watch for her to bob her head. And it's largely the more-synthetic beats that get her going. The melody doesn't seem to be as important as the crispness and deepness of the drums.

If I have a beat that uses a natural drum loop from back in the day, it usually doesn't do it for her.

And while extrapolating that to the whole mainstream hip-hop audience is certainly not scientifically accurate, I think it's one of the things that has helped to define the decline of boom-bap, however a person might define it.

Dilla and Madlib, to some extent I think, recognized that and began to take those natural drums and warp their sound even further, as well as remove the continuous hi-hat, a staple of boom-bap in almost all its forms.

Jesus, it's almost 2'o'clock... I gotta get back to work.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

"as well as remove the continuous hi-hat, a staple of boom-bap in almost all its forms."

but the hi hat is also a staple of southern rap, and someone like pimp c or t mixx is not boom-bap.

i think it's partly the sound, but mostly the approach of boom-bap, which can be reactionary a lot of times, that led to its downfall. tray touched on this with lupe and termanology, so i won't beat a dead horse.

tray said...

I'm kinda more in the "everything dies out eventually" school. Why this is the case is a bit of a mystery, but history teaches us that it's true. Look at any art form you like, any given movement gets stale after a while.

Anonymous said...

My fault, I should qualified it: the quarter-note continuous hi-hat. I agree, the continuous hi-hat is also a staple of Southern rap, but it's that quarter-note-sixteenth-note switch that wraps around the back of each few bars.

I'm more of a subscriber to the everything's-mainstream-popularity-eventually-dies-out theory. Take the Termanology album. Sure, it sounds like it could have been made in 1994, but it's still really good; unlike Large Pro's latest, which just sounds dated, period.

I'll agree that someone like KRS-One, going around saying "if you're not making the boom-bap, you're not making real hip-hop" is not really fair to most rap artists (KRS-One: the Hip-Hop Bill Cosby...?), but I also think producers just need to have an ear for what does and doesn't sound dated. Like Doc said, Black Milk is proof that great modern boom-bap is still possible.

My girl's complaint is that all the music from boom-bap's classic era sounds the same to her.

But for someone like me, who has that itch to always be looking for the sample no one else has found, I felt the same way she did about almost every single song on "The Recession" except for 'Circulate.'

tray said...

I... think the Killa Sha album that Robbie was plugging way back sounds like it could've been made in '94, as do parts of that P Brothers. Termanology, no, not so much. Part of it's this self-conscious "we're bringing the old sound back" vibe that hangs over the whole project, part of it's that Premo obviously isn't what he was back in '94, nor is Large Professor - all I can say is it's damn hard to put your finger on. You know, it's like the difference between Godfather III and Godfather II. Yeah, a ton of it is the bad acting, idiotic story, all sorts of identifiable factors, but if you go rent Godfather III and take any given minute in that movie, even parts where Coppola's daughter isn't making a fool of herself or Pacino isn't overacting, you can just feel that the whole thing has turned into a parody of itself. And some people see that, others don't.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

it's also a problem that boston has like 3 good rappers ever (and not much of a critical eye for good rap talent) so termanology just sounds like he's copying another city's style, which he is.