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Friday, March 7, 2003

++ Breakbeat Essays: Hip-Hop's Forays From The Fold

++ Depending upon whom you ask, San Francisco's Gold Chains might be the most novel thing to happen to hip-hop in ages — or he might be just another outsider with a whole lot of hype, part Peaches (they both have nasty rhymes), and part The Streets (they're both white male rappers). Except if you ask Topher Lafata, the mild-mannered San Franciscan who turns into the megalomaniac Gold Chains onstage, he doesn't like either option. You can hear the wariness in his raspy voice. When an editor from an American Web site focusing on erotica asks him to explain the graphic details of his lyric, "I treat your cootchie like a maze," he flatly refuses. "I already told that to another magazine," he says, citing an interview with a third-rate lad mag. You can hear in his voice the suggestion that the very interview was probably a bad idea.

Gold Chains, in many ways, isn't even hip-hop. Underneath the rapping there's just as much dub and techno as there is funk or electro. That's hardly surprising: Lafata's background is in San Francisco's irreverent experimental techno scene, and his co-producer is Kit Clayton, of Stefan Betke's ~scape label. Just as listeners outside of England heard The Streets' rhymes and assumed it was just a British interpretation of American rap music — as opposed to a new mutation in UK garage — many people have so far misinterpreted Gold Chains' music as an ironic riff on hip-hop, at best; still others think it's a racist parody. But Lafata wishes people could get around the hip-hop issue entirely. "It's just a vehicle for having vocals for club-oriented music," he explains of his strategy. "I rapped a lot in high school, just fucking around. I think [hip-hop] permeates American culture so much that every kid raps. I was making tech-house tracks, and then I started writing rhymes to go on top of them. It's definitely just MCing over club tracks, as opposed to being some hip-hop thing. It's just a vehicle for the club."

++ On Eric B and Rakim's "I Know You Got Soul," Rakim rhymes, "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at." But hip-hop, which is constantly reminded to mind its history, is all over the map these days, and it's found itself in some very strange places. It's traveled from street-corner ciphers in the South Bronx to MC battles in Berlin. It's gone from being sold out of the trunks of cars to selling Cadillac Escalades. It's an historically African-American music whose most famous face worldwide is a white rapper from Detroit. One of the most interesting developments in hip-hop, though, concerns the way the genre has infiltrated any number of other musical forms — most notably electronic music.

Hip-hop has never been far from electronica, of course. Autechre themselves — probably today's most important experimental beat technicians — claim a heritage as B-boys. Mo' Wax and Ninja Tune alike steered the signifiers of breakbeats and graffiti tags away from the street and into the dance club. And let's not forget that Arthur Baker and Afrika Bambaataa sampled Kraftwerk to create "Planet Rock"; indeed, electro helped give birth to hip-hop and techno alike, making the two genres cousins of a sort.

But just as mainstream hip-hop, in the hands of Timbaland, the Neptunes, OutKast, and others, has become increasingly "electronic" in style, privileging digital futurism over funk samples and standard breakbeats, electronic music producers far removed from the Ninja Tune/Mo' Wax axis have for several years been modeling their music after hip-hop patterns. One of the first indications of this trend was East Flatbush Project's "Tried By 12." Released in 1997, the Brooklyn group's minimalist production and morbid lyrics caught the attention of the Chocolate Industries label's founder Seven, who had already dipped into a crossover between IDM and hip-hop with releases from Funkstörung and Push Button Objects. Seven signed up artists like Phoenicia, Funkstörung, Squarepusher and Autechre to remix the track: the results intensified the original's sci-fi sound by deconstructing the beats and converting the track's analog feel into a mosaic of digitized glitches.

You could fill pages with a list of the artists who have, at one point or another, adopted the rhythmic idiom of hip-hop to the angular lines and fractured flow of "experimental" electronica. Plug Research's Trash Aesthetic teamed up with two L.A. MCs to form the Shadow Huntaz. Japan's Ultra Living performed eerie plunderphonics with N.Y. rapper Mike Ladd for "Preppy MC Death of Hip-Hop Vol. 1." Florida's Push Button Objects, recording for Skam, Schematic and Chocolate Industries alike, has steadily developed his lo-fi electro sound, going on to team up with bonafide rap artists like Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox. Brighton's Req has taken beatbox minimalism to new levels on records for Skint and Warp. What's most interesting, though, is the way the lines between genres have steadily blurred, resulting in a middle ground that belongs to no particular scene.

++ A sampling of recent and forthcoming releases demonstrates how integrated the worlds of independent hip-hop and electronic music have become. London's Vertical Form, known originally as the home to Pub's minimal techno and Arovane and Phonem's delicate IDM, has added the Canadian producer and MC Sixtoo to its roster. His album Antagonist Survival Kit is a remarkably traditional rap record, pairing monotone flow with dark, minimalistic beats that evolved out of DJ Krush and DJ Vadim's bleak soundscapes of the mid-'90s. Sixtoo's record wouldn't sound out of place on New York's king of the indies, Definitive Jux, and that's partially what makes it so strange to see it coming out on a non hip-hop label. It's not "glitch-hop" or "click-hop," it's straight-up rap music, demonstrating the extent to which hip-hop has become a lingua franca that cuts across genre and geography. If anything, it indicates two very interesting things about the health of independent hip-hop. First, the genre is outgrowing its anxieties about authenticity and "keeping it real," moving beyond the backpacker orthodoxy wherein the culture only belongs to the "true headz." Secondly, the genre is turning out such a quantity of worthwhile product that non-hip-hop labels are required to take up the slack. Were Sixtoo one of only a handful of talents on the scene, he'd most likely remain wedded to a hermetic independent scene; but with so much good music bubbling out of laptops and samplers all around the world, non-hip-hop labels like Vertical Form play a new role in disseminating the music to wider audiences.

++ Noah 23's album Quicksand is another example of fairly straight hip-hop that's reaching out beyond hip-hop audiences. There's no doubting the breadth of the Toronto MC/producer's influences: his stream-of-consciousness lyrics cite 23 Skidoo and Throbbing Gristle, two references you're unlikely to hear in the new Nelly hit. Still, despite the quality of his production, his collage of cleanly trimmed drum breaks and acoustic samples (Nina Simone, standup bass, and other dusky sources that recall DJ Shadow's style) doesn't offer the kind of sonic novelty often expected from electronica labels. (Not, of course, that they often live up to it.) This makes it all the more intriguing, then, that the European and Japanese release of the record is via Germany's 2.nd rec, a label that until now has released Chessie's cinematic ambiance and epy's quirky post-electro.

Quicksand's appearance on 2.nd is a testimony to the increasing interconnection of any number of global, independent music scenes. Label co-founder Johannes Schardt found MP3s of Noah 23's album — originally released on Canada's Plague Language — on a peer-to-peer MP3 server, and decided to sign him based on that. ("Hail filesharing!" jokes Schardt.) Schardt agrees that the release demonstrates the kind of flexibility that was once rare among electronic music labels. "To be honest, when we founded the label we saw 2.nd rec as an electronic label, because I did another label focusing on indie rock," says Schardt. "But at some point we decided not to limit 2.nd rec to any genre. [Co-founder] Christophe and I are both into so many different styles of music, and we wanted to reflect that in the label."

"Hip-hop has been such a hermetically sealed genre for such a long time," continues Schardt. "I'm glad that something happened [to fuse hip-hop and electronica] because it had been getting more and more boring. But what is even more exciting than hip-hop and electronica in my eyes is the combination of hip-hop, electronics and indie rock. The contribution from cLOUDEAD on the last Hood album was amazing. It brings together totally different styles, but it sounds like the styles belong together."

++ Indeed, just as hip-hop's voracious appetite for new material brought together disparate genres — funk breakbeats with Blue Note jazz, electro with disco — and ended up constructing a new genre of its own, the new crop of "third way" productions and partnerships might finally have the effect of demystifying the differences between hip-hop and electronic music. Not that genres are irrelevant. I'm a staunch defender of genre as a means of understanding music (note to self: visit brass-smith about pressing up a belt buckle reading, "I'll give up my genres when they pry them from my cold, dead fingers"). But part of understanding genre entails not just telling the difference between apples and oranges, but figuring out what makes them both fruit after all.

Next week: Tes, Lex Records, Sound-Ink, and Prefuse73.


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