Arrested Development Play “Tennessee”

Listen to this track by Atlanta-based hip hop collective Arrested Development. It’s “Tennessee”, the first single taken from their smash-hit debut record, 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days In the Life Of … released in the spring of 1992. The group are widely known as being pioneers in southern hip hop and authors of the aural counterbalance to the rise of West Coast scenes during the early nineties, with their debut record as a fine example.

In contrast to the violence and nihilism of a lot of rap at the time, Arrested Development traded in more celebratory themes, while still acknowledging the same burdensome weight of history on black communities in America and the anger and sorrow it justifiably creates. Under the creative leadership of Speech and Headliner, the group concocted a potent blend of musical styles from soul, gospel, dub, funk (this song samples Prince’s “Alphabet Street” prominently), blues, and jazz.

Importantly, this song in particular eschews the braggadocio, posturing, and often very understandable cynicism of a lot of the rap coming out of the West Coast that dominated the field at the time and embraces a brand of vulnerable candour in its place.”Tennessee” is downright humble, being in the form of a prayer. Yet the themes built into this song are not to be dismissed as lightweight. In fact, it evokes much of the same darkness and struggle as is found in any example of socially aware hip hop of the time. Read more

The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy Perform “Television, The Drug Of The Nation”

Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy Hypocrisy Is The Greatest LuxuryListen to this track by social commentary-oriented hip hop and spoken word crew The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. It’s “Television, The Drug Of The Nation”, a notable track that was released as a single and taken from their 1992 debut record, Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury.

Musician, poet, and rapper Michael Franti envisioned a style of hip hop that more directly confronted the social issues of the day, while also combining original grooves with sampled material. As for the latter aspect of the music, drummer and percussionist Rono Tsu was on hand to serve as the crew’s DJ. In addition to incorporating spoken raps in a style previously laid down by hip hop forebear Gil Scott-Heron, Franti also referenced the lingual rhythms of Beat poetry, eventually cutting a record with Beat movement elder William S. Burroughs.

But what of this song, so popular as a soundtrack commonly heard winding its way up and down university dorms in 1992, a time when the Internet wasn’t even a gleam in the eye of mass media outlets? Well, to me, I think this song is less about media, and more about us as consumers of it. Read more

Missy Elliott Performs “Get Ur Freak On”

MissyElliottGetUrFreakOnListen to this track by producer, rapper, and genre-crossing hip hop auteur Missy Elliott. It’s “Get Ur Freak On”, a monster hit single as taken from her third album, Miss E … So Addictive from 2001. The song is a bona fide classic by now, and covered by many from Eels who made this song a staple during their 2003 tour, to Britney Spears during her Vegas residency, to FLOTUS Michelle Obama featured in her recent appearance on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, with Missy Elliott herself joining in while riding in the backseat. Talk about cultural reach!

“Get Ur Freak On” borrows heavily from bhangra in terms of its rhythmic make-up and with music of the Asian continent generally in terms of its texture. That latter aspect is particularly reflected in its use of the very sticky six-note riff sampling what sounds like a koto, that being a 13-stringed instrument used in traditional Japanese music. Other sources say it’s a tumbi, which is something akin to a Punjabi one-string banjo. Either way, that’s pretty far from just an 808 programmable drum machine and a microphone.

In that regard alone, “Get Ur Freak On” represents an evolutionary jump for hip hop in general, going beyond urban America and into whole new geographical and cultural territories by the early two-thousands. It opened the gates culturally speaking, and it has wider implications thematically, too; that of empowerment, and on all kinds of levels. Read more

Neneh Cherry Sings “Buffalo Stance”

Neneh_Cherry_Raw_Like_Sushi_coverListen to this song by international citizen and crossover R&B/Hip Hop/dance-pop maven Neneh Cherry. It’s “Buffalo Stance”, her biggest hit and featured on her landmark 1989 album Raw Like Sushi. The song was a smash success all over the world, scoring big numbers on the pop and R&B charts in the US, the UK, and even here in the Great White North.

The song itself is an almalgam of musical styles, and isn’t really affliliated with any one of them. There are some pretty broad strands of musical traditions that can be plucked out of this song. Soul, electro, and hip hop are certainly among them, with those strains of music growing more and more in stature as it was imported from the United States to scenes in the UK where it was also developing domestically by the end of the eighties. I think a lot of post punk textures can be found pretty prominently in here as well, with lots of light and dark textures weaving in and out of each other. Along with all of these ingredients, “Buffalo Stance” proved to be pretty adaptable to all kinds of musical channels, popular as a video, a single on the radio, and certainly in the clubs.

But, what is this song actually about, and what is its real relationship with its singer? It is certainly rooted in ideas about finding common ground, and finding likeminded people with whom to surround oneself. But, it also has an aspect to it that is often missing in pop music that is made to dance to; a political edge.

Read more

De La Soul Spin “The Magic Number”

De La Soul Three Feet High and RisingListen to this track by three-man “hippie” hip hop crew from Long Island New York, De La Soul. It’s “The Magic Number”, a single as taken from their 1989 landmark album 3 Feet High and Rising. That record would stand as one of the signs that hip hop and rap were branching off in different directions by the end of the eighties, not only in the way that it was musically structured and textured, but also in terms of presentation and persona.

As the gangsta rap of NWA, and the politicized “CNN for black people” approach of Public Enemy began to make headway by that same era of the late eighties, this record was full of bounce and whimsy, referencing source material outside of hip hop’s traditional wheelhouse, including a sample from a song by Johnny Cash  (“5 Feet High And Rising”) found on this track that also suggested a title to the album. Despite the off the beaten track musical choices it represents, 3 Feet High And Rising is commonly cited as a record that served as a bridge from the 1980s into the next decade of the 1990s, and a leap further into the mainstream for hip hop in general. Not bad for a debut record.

As innovative as the record is, De La Soul adhered to many of the tenets of the genre that still can be found in hip hop today; self-reference, self-awareness, and breaking down the fourth wall to remind listeners that that are listening to a record made by artists. The innovation part of the equation on this song is connected those ideas to some things that is found in music of all kinds; mystery and wonder! Read more

DJ Shadow Spins “Midnight In a Perfect World”

EndtroducingcoverListen to this track by turntablist poster boy and instrumental hip hop auteur DJ Shadow. It’s  “Midnight In A Perfect World”, a single as taken from the seminal record released in the fall of 1996 that kicked off a genre, Endtroducing. That record garnered near universal praise across the critical spectrum at the time, noted as much for its technical achievements as it was for the eerie and evocative atmospheres for which it is now known.

The album was created solely by its author, fuelled by raiding a local record store, Rare Records in Sacramento, in between work on the tracks, including this one. The cover of the album is pretty true to how it was made, searching the racks for grooves and textures, and then carrying them by the armful back home to be repositioned and transformed into a work that would establish a career and reputation for DJ Shadow, born Joshua Evans. The tools he had to hand to create this song were a sampler, a turntable, and a tape recorder. They were enough to garner not only rave reviews and sales, but also a Guinness World Book of Records entry for first album to be comprised solely of samples.

In an age before Garage Band, this was a neat trick.  But, this song and the rest of the album is far, far more than an amazing technical feat, although it certainly is that. It was the beginning of a new paradigm that generated all kinds of discussions about something in pop music that is rarely considered; context and how it relates to the way we hear the music within one, as well as the nature of what it is to “write” a song in the first place. Read more

Beastie Boys Perform “Sabotage”

Beastie_Boys_Ill_CommunicationListen to this track by three-cornered rap-rock pioneers from New York City, Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Mike “Mike D” Diamond; Beastie Boys. It’s “Sabotage”, a single as taken from their 1994 record Ill Communication. By this time in their career, their reputation preceded them, and this record debuted at number one.

By this time in the early to mid-90s as well, they had branched out stylistically speaking, including a wide range of musical styles. This included playing live instruments along with samplers, matching a rock arrangement with rap delivery. This would spawn a number of lesser (to say the least) imitators during the decade. That wasn’t pretty. But, the Beasties showed how versatile they were as a unit, doing what most bands who dealt in alternative rock and hip hop could not do; bring out the strengths of both of those musical poles without betraying one for the other.

But a deciding factor as far as the audience was concerned how they were able to hook into an emerging phenomenon in the 1990s; the rise of the “alternative” tag. Read more

Interview With Common Grackle Performing ‘The Great Depression’

Here’s a clip of indie singer-songwriter/hip-hop outfit Common Grackle, with the singer-songwriter aspect covered nicely by indie-pop proponent Gregory Pepper and the hip-hop textures as laid down by producer Factor. Yet, is the stylistic split as easy as that? Probably not. What the collaboration signifies most is the seamlessness between styles. As such, this is a true 21st Century concern where genres mean very little, and with this song being the title track to the full-length The Great Depression.

Another aspect of all of this is how the record was made, involving less garage space, and more Internet bandwidth. The two artists built the record together, with musical ideas added by way of file sharing. With the meeting of pop melody and crackling beats together with psychedelic sonic swirls that evoke pop tributaries spanning the decades, one can only conclude that it’s its own thing, offering some of the features of what’s been laid down before, but ultimately unbound by any one genre. And we haven’t even got around to talking about the lyrics, heavy with irony and dark comic timing.

After the record was popped in the post for me, and after a spin or two, I talked to the guys via email about musical divisions of labour, undercutting listener expectations (aka “fucking with people”), beer accessibility quotients from city to city, and about their live shows. Read more

Andre 3000 Peforms ‘She’s Alive’

outkast-speakerboxx-lovebelowListen to this song by hip-hop genre-hopper and one-half of Outkast, Andre 3000.  It’s ‘She’s Alive’ as taken from his 2003 album, The Love Below, a tribute to the struggles and sacrifices of a single mother (and indirectly, maybe all single mothers). The album was packaged with his musical partner’s solo record; Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx.

The approach to this record was out of the ordinary to say the least, after a number of hits to precede it.  Here were two innovators in hip hop  effectively releasing their solo albums as a twofer, branded under the Outkast name, and among other achievements producing two number one hits of stunning quality; “Hey Ya” and “I Like The Way You Move”.  It was a feat of marketing genius that paid in dividends in the form of massive crossover sales and awards to boot.

But, the real genius, particularly on Andre 3000’s The Love Below is, first, the bold eclecticism, mixing straight-ahead jazz and tin pan alley, hip-hop, soul, funk, electronica, and rock.  And second, in its thematic content, with the ups and downs of love presented in an unabashed manner, whether between a man and his paramour, or a mother and her son. This record represents out-of-the box thinking, and a big artistic and commercial risk where hip-hop, and even rock is concerned.  To do it in the early 2000s, when record labels were still clutching the reins of distribution and marketing, and when radio was controlled by large corporations disinterested in musical evolution, was yet another level of risk.

This is not even to mention the subject matter of this particular song, working as it does against the grain of the misogyny and braggadocio that is associated with hip hop (as much as it’s associated with rock music, to be fair).  This is a song about the triumph of womanhood, and the contrasting weakness of men when the shit comes down.  Now, this could be seen as a personal tale of triumph over adversity, with a single mother abandoned by an incapable father, and forced to raise a child on her own.  Or it could be seen as a social statement about fatherless children in inner cities all over America, reported to be up to nearly 40% of children in homes without fathers.

Either way, I think it’s a song about gratitude, expressed by one generation to the one that preceded it, and from a son to his mother who made sure that he never had to go without.

For more information about Andre 3000 and Outkast, check out


Lyrics Born Performs “Callin’ Out”

later_that_day_album_coverListen to this track by Japanese-born, American-raised hip hop messiah Lyrics Born. It’s “Callin’ Out”, a party tune with something of an inwardly-looking point of view, underpinned by a groove inspired by 70s funk as much as from modern hip-hop.  The track is taken from 2003’s Later That Day…, a debut album that is the product of an active career in hip hop as a support player.

When I first heard this at an office party of all places recently, I thought of both Parliament Funkadelic and DJ Shadow, just because of the unabashed funk approach, and with plenty of bottom in the Larry Graham sense of the word.  And I thought “At last!  A hip hop record that understands the importance of textural variety!” which is a common complaint of mine.

Another reaction was that Lyrics Born isn’t the only voice you’re hearing on this track, which is another important element of traditional funk. The best of  the form always gathers multiple voices together, and make it sound like the most communal, community-oriented music in the world.  And this one seems to take up that mantle quite nicely.

Third, because the sonic variety on this opens things up for the ear, I could really begin to appreciate the sheer vocal skill it takes to deliver material in this style, which is a combination of singing and rapping, one technique often intertwining with the other.  And this is not even mentioning the breathing control it takes to pull off the phrasing in a number like this, which borders on the superhuman.

I have a lot of musical interests, yet I mostly feel shut out by hip hop.  Yet, this track seems to welcome me in, by the sheer sweatiness of the groove, and by the vocal skill of Lyrics (born Tom Shimura) himself.  My education continues!

To see and hear a selection of Lyrics Born tunes, check out the Lyrics Born YouTube playlist.