Wednesday, August 11, 2004

PACKAGING HIP-HOP




Canon Fodder (from the S.F. Bay Guardian, August 11, 2004.

    'RAPPER'S DELIGHT' came into the world a quarter century ago, but the record's 25th birthday has passed with barely anyone noticing. Perhaps generating hip-hop nostalgia is hard when we're still living under rap's total dominance, but so far only Universal's Hip Hop Box has tried to commemorate hip-hop's silver anniversary. With 51 songs spread over four CDs, tied together by nearly 50 pages of liner notes, the Box assembles a populist canon in a tidy parcel. The benefit of being a megaglomerate is that Universal owns an unfathomable amount of songs, including some of hip-hop's greatest anthems: Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks," Biz Markie's "Just a Friend," Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth's "They Reminisce over You (T.R.O.Y.)," and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's "The Next Episode."

    Though fully stocked, the Box feels strangely empty. It's not who's missing LL Cool J, NWA, Jay-Z, and Eminem. Gaps are inevitable, even for Universal. The problem is we already know the songs: a nation of millions can recite the Pharcyde's "Passin' Me By" by heart. What's needed are the back stories, the sum of intentions and accidents that turn tunes into legend. The Box's notes provide publishing credits, chart info, and a few pithy praises, but these barely touch on the minutiae stacked behind the music. You could claim the songs say enough already, but why not pay a pimply teen to Kazaa together a definitive collection that would dwarf the Box? It's not a lack of inclusion that's bothersome it's the lack of exposition or exploration. Without either, the Box becomes what it was probably intended to be: a pretty package, pleasing to the eye, but hollow for the mind.

    When the U.K.'s Andrew Emery writes, "Hip-hop. That story is done," he could almost be commenting on the Box. Instead, it's Emery's way of explaining why his new Book of Hip Hop Cover Art (Mitchell Beazley) is an intervention, an alternative history highlighting one of rap music's most powerful yet ignored forms of symbolism: its covers. Hip-hop artwork has never inspired the kind of aesthetic worship lavished on Reid Miles's signature Blue Note designs, but rap covers are no less iconic. Whether it's the bold graffiti script of Wild Style, Run DMC's Kangol caps peeking up on King of Rock, or King T's gangster stroll on Act a Fool, the Book creates a kaleidoscope that refracts hip-hop's attitudes, ambitions, and illusions.

    The book includes valuable commentary from designers like George Dubose (who did Biz Markie's bugged covers) and an interview with Public Enemy's Chuck D. However, Emery's well-meaning essays suffer from the inverse of what limits the Box: Emery's not content with letting the images speak for themselves he needs to periodize everything, crafting an art history. His alternate rap canon through artwork is intriguing, but his valorization of certain periods (the late-'80s "Golden Era") while rejecting others (i.e., today's "Jiggy Era") replicates tired arguments best left to Internet message boards. For example, his comments barely pay lip service to the ghetto glamour of Pen and Pixel's ubiquitous CGI covers, even though their exaggerated displays of opulence are as important a statement of rap's mores as Emery's entire section on Afrocentric art.

    The thing is, hip-hop isn't the best-kept secret anymore. It doesn't need another canon erected in its honor1. People used to backlash against rap music because it upset the status quo, but these days people rail against it because it's become the status quo. While hip-hop still doesn't command the kind of academic dissection rock, jazz, or classical has enjoyed, its ascension into those ranks is already underway. The Box and the Book may be well-intentioned in their aspirations to document and organize, but in trying to honor hip-hop, both seem to only confirm how staid the culture has become now that it's part of the official record.

    Perhaps both the Box and the Book could learn from the new self-titled album by the U.K.'s Three Sinister Syllables (Chopped Herring). On their cover, these cut 'n' paste pirates spell their name using letters from 22 rap album covers: Black Sheep's L, EPMD's E, Sugar Hill's S, etc. Their music is similarly chopped and spliced a little MF Doom here, some Phife Dawg there, wedged in with a Nice N' Smooth sample. This is a hip-hop history that spans a quarter century too, jumbled up, with no liner notes to guide you, and it provides an irresistible challenge for rap junkies to untangle and identify. Intended or not, Three Sinister Syllables' homage to rap's visual and auditory past captures far more of the music's pleasures and power than either Universal's or Emery's conventional offerings. Their album is suffused with the most pure and basic of hip-hop essences: the giddy, confident satisfaction that comes from not caring whom you please as long as you please yourself. (Oliver Wang)


1. I realize this statement is rather ironic coming from someone who put out a hip-hop album guide last year.


ELSEWHERE


The South's sharpest mouth, Tony Green, writes an retrospective on Rick James for Slate.


Sharon Lerner (Village Voice) on Portland's insanely great idea: Rock n' Roll Camp for Girls (shout out to Carrie Brownstein - the coolest evah).
(credit: Sharon)