Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Don't Sweat the Technique...

I was having a discussion with a musician and music and art teacher friend of mine this weekend, about the state of Hi-Hop today, vs. what we both feel was the "golden age" so to speak, the late 80s and early 90s.

In particular we were lamenting the lack of flow in todays MC's.

The "golden age" begins roughly in '86 with the release of Boogie Down productions first album and Eric B. and Rakims first singles, and ends sometime around '94, after Dre. went multi-platinum with "The Chronic" and Wu-Tang went multi-platinum with "36 chambers".

Not that Dre and Wu-Tang weren't amazing and skillful artists, but they aren't old school or golden age. Dre and Wu Tang flipped the trick, and popularized their separate styles of g-funk and hardcore hip-hop; setting the stage for the "east coast/west coast" battles of the mid 90s through early 2000s.

This stylistic change left most of the golden age MC's relegated to the sidelines of underground and alternative hip-hop; many of them unable to get recording contracts from mainstream record companies, if at all.

Since the golden age, hip-hop has gone through a stylistic, and content revolution in several stages; from gfunk and hardcore, into the "Bad Boy/Rocafella" period, and now into dirty south; but the general complaint has been over time the focus has moved away from lyrical skill, and towards all flash, all style, all bling, all name checks, all "feature", all gimic, all bitches and money, etc... etc...

Thus we come to the the hip-hop dominating todays airwaves...

The top selling hip hop artist right now is Lil' Wayne, who while he does have a certain skill at producing the style of music he epitomizes, simply could not compete on a lyrical basis with the MCs of Old Skool rhyme centric hip-hop.

The same is true of MOST of the current crop of best selling hiphop artists. Right now, and for the last six or seven years, the best selling style is loosely, the "dirty south" style; which is beat heavy, repetitious, catchy, hooky, and focused primarily on partying to gratuitous excess.

Most of the dirty south school of hip hop possess very little of the verbal facility that was prized in east and west coast MC's of the 80s and 90s. They tend to focus on hugely produced wall of sound tracks, with vocal gimmicks like vocoding, and "featuring" other famous artists.

There are a few in todays hip-hop who have real lyrical skills (Outkast, Nelly, Eminem, Common; and god help us because he's a total ASS but he does have skills, Kanye), mostly in alt/underground and heavily old school influenced; but very few who could stand up toe to toe against say, Big Daddy Kane, or KRS-One (or even earlier less sophisticated MC's like Melle Mel, or Kool Moe Dee).

Except for Eminem (who whatever you think of him, is certainly the best rap writer, and probably the best freestyler, with most native lyrical skill of anyone on the last 15 years), the best of "new school" mainstream hip hop, roughly '95 to today, but especially pre 2002-2004 with the utter dominance of bling and crunk crap of the last six years; are either "retired" or dead...

That would be Biggie (dead), Tupac (dead), Nas (retired) and Jay-z (primarily a producer, retired as anything but a "feature" artist)...

Of them, really only Biggie had the chops to play with old school masters (though Nas at his best was close). Nas was maybe one step behind, but that's all it takes.

Tupac was great, but his was a more prepared, produced, and polished style... more published poetry set to rhyme than rap. He was a great writer, but he only had moderate skills on the mic.

Not to diminish Jay-Z's skills on the mic, which were substantial... but to my mind, not nearly as great as people give him credit for.

He is a VERY good writer, but his actual on-mike performance, his style, his rhyme, his delivery, isn't nearly in the class with the master MCs. He's still a great one, because of his writing and his intelligence... just not one of the greatest. Jay-zs real strength was in finding what worked together, and producing that, not in his flow. He created the modern "feature" culture. He created the modern east coast hip-hop sound, and it's culture. I really believe it's because he casts such a big shadow, that people give him to much credit on the mike.

Frankly, Jay-z and Dre, for all that they accomplished on the mike, are FAR more important as producers. People freely acknowledge that with Dre, but for some reason seem reluctant to say so with Jay -Z.

Dead on honest, I don't think anyone in mainstream hip-hop today has the flow, or the skill, to keep up with Rakim or Big Daddy Kane, or KRS-One... Eminem is close, but not close enough.

Only in underground and alternative hip-hop, and mostly with the guys who were around in the golden age like Talib Kweli, Cee lo, Q-tip, MC Gift of Gab etc... ; do you get that combination of lyrics and style and rhyme and rhythm that is "flow".

Oh and anyone with an appreciation for golden age hip-hop will note I left out one really crucial name thus far, Chuck D. It's not because I don't have love for Chuck, but because I don't classify him (or public enemy) with other artists of the golden age.

With the release of 1988s "it takes a nation of millions to hold us back" and even more so with 1990s "Fear of a Black Planet"; Chuck D and Public enemy were REALLY, the first act of the hardcore hip-hop movement that would come to dominate the east coast scene in the mid 90s. In their content and their lyrical attack, they resemble new school much more than old school; even if their sound is firmly rooted in the late 80s styles.

At any rate, that had me feeling a little old skool today, so I made myself a Pandora station of just old school mcs with serious flow.

Not coincidentally, the first artist I populated the station with was Rakim.

Do yourself a favor, and listen to the rap. don't watch the video. The videos are just your standard ridiculous rap videos, and to my mind take away from the raps:

This ladies and gentlmen, is what is known in hip hop as "flow", and Rakim is it's innovator, and master:

And the Mack Daddy of the Golden age, Big Daddy Kane:

And finally, the lyrical professor, KRS-One: