Discussions of hip-hop by white people are usually laden with a great deal of egg-shell walking and uncomfortable undercurrent. I think this is because unlike the previous half-century of black music being consumed by white audiences, hip-hop has not skirted the issue of identity. Whether there is an aspect of minstrel show among white hip-hop fans is a touchy question. White kids have always wanted to be "black" in some respect; if for no other reason is that it drives the easiest wedge between themselves and their parents. And that's OK, the money is all green.
But the real insidious balance gets rocked when older white audiences try to put it in their world views, that declaration of "I am not a racist" a thin veneer over the reality under most of our pale skins. I'm not what I would call a huge hip-hop fan, but I do appreciate that when it took over pop music from the horrid regime of female diva pop and hair metal at the end of the 80's, the world has been a much cooler place. I think it has about the same signal to noise ratio as everything else, but I have fallen victim to saying that we like the "more intelligent" hip hop over the pop dross. I'll contend that Common and q-Tip could probably smoke 50 cent and Chamillionaire in Scrabble any day, but it still leave the can of worms labeled "What exactly are you sayin'" open on the table in front of you.
Mos Def and Talib Kweli
In 1998, two underground rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli emerged with an album Black Star that took care of a lot of these issues for me. It sounded sophisticated, plugging the consciousness and wordplay that won me over with Public Enemy at the time without succumbing to the cartoonishness of Quest and De la Soul and Del and other "intelligent" rappers sanctioned by well meaning honkies. It was soulful. It sounded "black" whatever that means. It wedged in nicely with my exploration of Funkadelic and Charles Mingus and Lee "Scratch" Perry and Fela at the time - all music white music nerds adopt when they realize they have been listening to far too much Elvis Costello and Tom Waits and that we realize we are about to become the very thing we fear most.
Fast forward 8-9 years and Mos Def has diversified his exposure as HBO poetry slam host and star of perhaps the whitest thing he could have sought out, the problematic movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I mean, was a recurring role on Babylon 5 not available? How about being Ray Romano's black friend? Anyway, his catalog continued with the soul vibe of Black Star, continually refining his dope-relaxed almost swallowed delivery. His clip on "The Chappelle Show" where he's driving around free styling over beats from "The Message" still registers as one of the coolest music videos never made.
The consensus is that True Magic, with its lack of a CD booklet and almost hostile, slap-dash feel is that this is a deal buy-out from Geffen. This may be true, but I still really dig this record. It has the feel of a mixtape at points ("Thug is a Drug"), and as a Marvin Gaye influenced consciousness engine ("Lifetime") at others. The thing that really resonates here are the Scratch style dub textures. The beats on "Undeniable" double up in a cold wind of tape delay, with the kind of twisted samples that affect a drug test by listening. The same thing happens in the bizzarro pop of "Napoleon Dynamite" and "There is a Way" where Mos flows through a tangle of rock steady and Stax soul.
Less successful are the more direct moments. I'm still a prime audience for Katrina pop, but the heavy handed "Dollar Day (Surprise, Surprise)" street report falls flat with me. The same issue muddles "Murder of a Teenage Life." Both of these tracks might be better served as being shorter spoken word pieces, in stead of marring the message with some overwrought backing tracks. The real winner on this record is found on "Sun, Moon, Stars" which harkens back to the last good R&B album made - D'Angelo's Voodoo from 2000. It mixes some reggae styling with psyche flute, Afropop horns and a classic R&B stomp. It's a perfect song in a lot of ways, one that makes me wish I still made mix tapes so I could drop this on them. Maybe this is what lies ahead when Mos escapes the bonds of Geffen, if that's what he's doing. I hope so. Save us Mos, Elvis and Tom are still releasing records.
Talib Kweli and Madlib
Kweli has fared better than his former cohort in the credibility department - maintaining a consistent critical favor throughout his career. This is his first collaboration with underground sample chopper Madlib, and it's a lethal combination. It is consciously informal, opening up with Kweli fumbling with headphones as Madlib pastes up a collage of soul and clever samples. I heard the voice of Wolfman Jack crop up at the beginning of "Time is Right" exclaiming his characteristic right on-right on's before Kweli skates over the surface with amazing form.
His reggae connections are rolled up and passed around on "Engine Runnin''" that manage to mix up some rock steady with the classic story rap style of rap's early days. "Over the Counter" is just weird, like the room is being invaded by robots. This sci-fi affectation usually kills underground hip hop for me, but it works here. Kweli passes a scabrous eye over all the world's drug scenes as his travel diary dissolves into a blur.
This record is a touch short at thirty minutes and just nine tracks, but there is thankfully no filler overextending this record. "The Function" is almost running on a spinning log of piano and shimmering maracas. I'm not sure if "Happy Home" is a parody of the sweet childhood memory jam or the real thing, but it has the horns and sweet accompaniment by Candice Anderson to sell it. The brilliance here lies in the sly disturbances in it, the hum and hiss in Madlib's production, samples you half hear in the saccharine chorus. "Soul Music" is exactly that, except eroded by the ravages of time and neglect. It's like a Beyonce Knowles song being transmitted from space, overcome by alien feedback and static. "What Can I Do?" does the same thing for classic soul sides. It almost sounds like the samples are at the end of a rope and are being swing around Madlib's head, going in and out of phase at the same time. I confess to not knowing Madlib's back catalog, but I will soon. This is innovative, always interesting shit. It is not exactly party music, not exactly ambience, not exactly thug anthems but located somewhere in the Bermuda triangle formed by the three.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com