The Stranger vs. Bumbershoot
What is "conscious" hiphop? Depends on who you ask. Some would argue that the subgenre doesn't even exist. (What does the word "conscious" mean anyway? Aren't all humans "conscious" to a certain extent?) Others label this music with different titles such as indie hiphop and underground hiphop.
It is clear, however, that the music made by Common, Talib Kweli, Little Brother, and several other hiphop groups appearing at Bumbershoot is a far cry from the rap music you usually hear on the radio. Then again, the latter has become such a mediocre self-parody—its content, as any casual viewer of MTV will tell you, is almost solely dedicated to partying in nightclubs, drinking and using and/or selling drugs, sleeping with exotic-looking "bitches" and "hoes," asserting physical dominance through fighting and shooting guns at one's enemies, and occasionally redeeming oneself through hard-luck tales of a pre-stardom hard-knock life filled with casual abuse from friends, family, and stuck-up "bitches"—that it isn't very difficult for an artist to portray a consciousness that's comparatively deeper and more profound.
Common, for his part, is currently benefiting from the biggest album of his decade-plus career, Be. Produced by Kanye West, Be blends West's soul-on-45 methods, which involves speeding up his samples so that the voices sound like R&B chipmunks; and unabashedly neo-soul beats (two of them courtesy of producer Jay Dee) and loops that approximate the "dusty" sound of cracked vinyl. The sound is meant to evoke timelessness. Meanwhile, Common's lyrics are dense, dedicated to observing street activities legitimate and illicit on some tracks and confiding in lovers past and present on others.
Much like Common, Talib Kweli has achieved some stature in the mainstream hiphop world; unlike Common, he hasn't had the benefit of a Kanye West to help marshal his considerable talents into a satisfying, commercially successful album. But Kweli is still insanely talented and highly respected, and underground heads know him fondly from his stint in Black Star, a superstar duo with rapper/actor Mos Def, as well as hot singles such as "Get By."
Thematically, Common and Kweli deal with many of the same issues that Zion I does. But MC Zion and producer Amp Live, whom hail from Oakland, California, are more radical. Rather than resurrecting the "golden age" hiphop of the early '90s, Amp Live creates a uniquely mystical sound that thumps on some tracks, melts into soulful butter beats on others, and even occasionally breaks into a skittering drum and bass rhythm. Amp Live, for his part, is usually forthright, eschewing complex metaphors for raw, tightly wound rhymes that deal with political and personal situations in a rational manner.
All three draw some inspiration from the Pharcyde and Digable Planets, two groups that recorded their most memorable work in the early '90s. They don't aspire to politically correct depictions of hiphop culture—which Common and Kweli are sometimes accused of doing—so much as creating alternative worlds. For the Pharcyde, that means an optimistic, weed-inspired vision of Los Angeles. But it's not necessarily utopian; their biggest hit, "Passin' Me By," concerns unrequited love. Digable Planets have just reunited after breaking up in 1996, and haven't recorded an album since Blowout Comb in 1994. When the trio was active, however, it was best known for "Cool Like Dat," a word play on a jazz-inflected, bohemian existence.
Of all the rap acts appearing during Bumbershoot, the most highly anticipated may be Little Brother. These three friends from Durham, North Carolina, are generating heat from their forthcoming second album, The Minstrel Show. Joshua "Fahiym" Ratcliffe recently resigned from his position as editor-in-chief of rap music magazine The Source when his superiors refused to give The Minstrel Show a higher rating. In an interview, he called Little Brother's music "a breath of fresh air." What makes them so appealing? Different from the mainstream without being too avant-garde, Little Brother use skits, raps, a classic hiphop style, and even R&B singing to explore daily situations, from beefing with a girlfriend ("Nobody but You") to being separated from a child ("Far Away from Me").
Common and his peers are well aware that people perceive them as ultra-serious "conscious" rappers, one step removed from the crusty old hippies who lecture audiences in between bands at rock festivals. Yeah, they make records that are supposedly good for you, but who really wants to hear it? The industry pressure to fit in, to be capable of rocking the ubiquitous club as well as drop lyrics for backpackers studying your rhymes, seems enormous. You can hear the struggle when these artists perform, and the results often lead to music that can't—and shouldn't—be ignored.