Sunday, October 26, 2008

The impact will blow trees back and crack statues

My favorite era in rap music was roughly ’94 to ’98, when East Coast hardcore was at its height. I loved the gritty, verbose, cryptic, violent sound of the Wu Tang Clan, Gravediggaz, Mobb Deep, the Boot Camp Clik and related groups. It was dense, paranoid and clanking music best suited for headphones on the subway.

Hip hop didn’t get any more anti-commercial than the GZA, who epitomized the cold world of the mid-’90s’ stern, Biblical-prophet wordplay, while his groupmate ODB rapped like a street-corner drunk a few seconds from toppling over, crooning and ranting at passing cars. Somewhere between those two poles, between sesquipedalian urban Jeremiads and raving homicidal lunacy, lay the essence of the Wu era’s greatness, and it was all set to great beats from the likes of the RZA, DJ Premier, Havoc, 4th Disciple and Da Beatminerz.

For a few years, it seemed as if everyone was weaving dense lyrical webs of comic-book, kung-fu, Scarface and militant Five Percenter references over ominous beats. It all came to an end sometime before the turn of the century, when, to make a long story short, a shrewd buffoon named Puff Daddy dominated an era of dumber, openly superficial, radio-friendly rap which increasingly incorporated baleful R&B caterwauling (the kiss of death as far as I was concerned).

Things got even worse as Nelly-style silly sing-song cadences and lyrically vacant Southern rap started to catch on in the ensuing years. Instead of lyrics like Deck’s superb alliterative/assonant “Poisonous paragraphs smash ya phonograph in half / It be the Inspectah Deck on the warpath / First class leavin mics with a cast / Causin ruckus like the aftermath when guns blast / Run fast, here comes the verbal assaulta / Rhymes runnin wild like a child in a walker”, we had “It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes”. Mo’ money, mo’ problems, indeed.

I thought for a few years there that hardcore hip hop was dead. As usual, I just wasn’t looking in the right places. People like Jedi Mind Tricks and M.F. DOOM were keeping the torch lit, and the web made it possible to find those few groups who were still putting out quality music. But for the past few years it’s usually been a depressing trickle rather than a steady stream of new stuff, and my old favorites seemed to have run out of steam.

Then, over the last couple of months, two albums from old favorites dropped which together have resuscitated my faith in hip hop. Heltah Skeltah, always the standouts in the Boot Camp roster, had been absent for almost ten years. Half of the duo, the hilarious Sean Price, had been putting out solid stuff, but it just wasn’t the same. Now there’s a new Heltah Skeltah album out, and it’s great. Don’t judge the following track by its slightly comical intro - things really get rolling around 0:30.

In addition, a great collaboration album between two of my favorite artists, one which plays to both of their strengths, recently came out. While they usually outshine anyone they share a track with, on their own solo albums, Killah Priest and Chief Kamachi can both be monotonous (Priest’s problem being a sometimes low-energy delivery and Kamachi’s Achilles heel being repetitive spoken hooks). The perfect solution was to have them combine forces on a tag-team album, and the result is electrifying. These elder statesmen of mythological-themed hip hop rap with infectious urgency, as if someone’s just slapped new batteries in their backs.

That’s all I wanted to say - I was worried there for a few years but clearly hardcore hip hop is back from the dead, and if you liked any earlier works from these artists, check out the new albums today.

1 comment:

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