w/ Lifesavas, Boom Bap Project, Pale Soul, DJ Tre
I-Spy, Sat Dec 29, $13.
When Chuck D said that rap music was black America's CNN, he was only talking about his own band's ambition. Public Enemy wanted to be like CNN, offering news about how bad 911 service is, the impact of AIDS on the black community, and so on. Most of the hiphop world, however, has very little in common with CNN, which, according to Chuck D, is white America's main news source.
For one, hiphop music is the most beautiful music in the world, and there is nothing beautiful about CNN. It is ugly and hysterical, which precisely describes Public Enemy's music--ugly and hysterical. Secondly, hiphop does more than simply transmit daily events directly to those who buy cassettes, LPs, and CDs. At its best, hiphop offers assessments on main events within the context of an individual's relationship to his or her street, city, region, nation, and larger social, historic, and economic structures. In short, hiphop offers poetry and philosophy.
An example of the poetic side of hiphop would be Mobb Deep's Hell on Earth (a CD whose beauty I have been addicted to since it was released in late 1996) or DJ Premier's productions. A great example of the philosophical side of hiphop is San Francisco's Blackalicious, a group that's part of an informal rap collective housed by the record label Quannum Projects (DJ Shadow and Latyrx are also part of this Bay Area hiphop collective).
NIA, Blackalicious' 2000 release, which was one of the 10 or so CDs that ushered in the late stage of hiphop, contains a variety of hiphop experiments, political statements, fictions, and Afrocentric ruminations. All of these are inspired, as the title suggests, by Miles Davis' electric jazz period ('69 to '73). The CD frames an intricate philosophy between the opening track, "Searching" (which is about the meaning of existence), and the closing track, "Finding" (which defines a positive politics against the negative oppressive system known to Rastafarians as Babylon).
NIA questions the violence in hiphop ("Shallow Days"), and offers escapes into fantasy ("Cliff Hanger"). By sampling Fela Kuti's Nigerian masterpiece "Colonial Mentality" in "Smithzonian Institute of Rhyme," it connects the American inner city to global circuits, and on the track "A to G" it organizes and catalogues information into a rigid rhyme system.
There is a branch of rap that deals with the organization of knowledge; because it has no name, or has not been identified yet, I shall call it Epistemological Rap. Like a scientist in a lab or an encyclopedist in a library, the rapper sets out to organize street, urban, and personal data into coherent knowledge. The late rapper Big L, for example, catalogued street language in his brilliant study called "Ebonics." He rapped: "A burglary is a jook, a woof's a crook/Mobb Deep already explained the meanin' of shook/If you caught a felony, you caught an F/If you got killed, you got left/If you got the dragon, you got bad breath/ ...Angel dust is sherm, if you got AIDS you got the germ/If a chick gave you a disease, then you got burned/Max means to relax, guns and pistols is gats...."
Silent Lambs Project (the best hiphop group in Seattle) has a gem of a song called "I like" which catalogues very personal desires and emotions. The sum of these likes is the ordered world of the rapper. Blackalicious' "A to G" takes this cataloguing to another level. The group takes the song title literally, rapping with words that start with the letter A, then moving on to B, then to C, then to D, and suddenly ending with the letter G.
True, we can say that starting the letters out sequentially and then jumping suddenly to G is significant because the rapper Gift of Gab brings the cataloguing to an end--meaning, the song is about him, from A to Gift of Gab. But what is more impressive about "A to G" is that it's a formal experiment. The perimeters are set almost arbitrarily, and the rap meanings generated by the three-minute knowledge machine are done with no real reason or purpose except to show that information can be organized from A to G. This song is about what semiotician Juri Lotman once described as the beauty of information, and nothing else.
Not all of Blackalicious' experiments are aesthetically successful. The tracks that are ornamented with international (African, Arabic) samples tend to sound better than the ones with early '70s funk samples. But overall, Blackalicious is great because it offers us a philosophy, instead of CNN reports.