Hip Hop^

May 15, 2010

Continuing with what my “Metal!” and “Country.” articles attempted, “Hip Hop ^”  is my (opinion) list of the top 10 Hip Hop artists in the genre’s history, in terms of entertainment value and importance.

1) Afrika Bambaataa

Bambaataa gets my pick as the first most important and entertaining performer in hip hop history. Sure, the Sugar Hill Gang had dropped “Rapper’s Delight” a few months before Bambaataa’s  “Planet Rock” hit and Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” with better rhymes and more relevant lyrics was right around the corner after it, but those were singles games and Afrika beat them all in terms of consistency and output. Honing his skills as a DJ and block-party leader, he was a forefather of the entire hip hop culture and only Flash and Kool Herc can be considered as better early DJs. While hip hop artists forever after would sample James Brown, Bambaataa worked directly with the man. Sure, Run DMC would hit mainstream by rap fusion, “dueting” with Aerosmith, but Afrika paired his work around the pop genre field, releasing a single even with an ex Sex Pistol. His “Zulu Nation” inspiration would lead to De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. A lot of early hip hop sounds dated, fans listening now often do so for nostalgia or as students of the game. Afrika’s music still sounds great: “Lookin’ for the Perfect Beat,” “Jazzy Sensation,” “Planet Rock,” “Renegades of Funk,” and “Zulu Nation Throwdown” are all classic hip hop tracks that you can still blast today. His deft mixture of dance, electro, rap, pop, funk, and soul was a gamechanger and paved the way for the rest of the artists on this list.

2) Run DMC

It’s hard to over-estimate the imporance of Run DMC to hip hop’s history. They did it all first and often best. They brought a full sound to the music; it was sonically clean yet well-edged, it sounded great on a stereo system, they let listeners know they could sound as well as if not better than anything the rock crowd could produce at any record label. They made albums a hip hop commodity–no more one-off singles and novelty hits, Run DMC released full albums full of hits, deep cuts, and wordplay. They could rhyme, they knew when to use a proper chorus, they could make you dance, think, feel, fight, shout, all that stuff. Yeah, they did “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith and punched down the door that blocked rap from the mainstream, but they had already been doing great things before that. “Raising Hell”  and “King of Rock,” are classic Hip Hop albums and hip hop in the early eighties belonged to Run DMC.

3) Public Enemy

PE shook the scene…they melted it down and stormed the gates, made politics the central focus; revelatory, progressive, provocative politics at that. Chuck D rattled with baritone rhymes, Flava Flav ligtened it up with a little humor, Terminator X laid down fierce cacophonies of sound and samples as DJ, and the Bomb Squad Production made everything go boom. “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and “Fear of a Black Planet” are two of the greatest albums in hip hop history, and much of their later work had moments that came close to living up to those high points.  PE has it’s tarnish though; there’s the Antisemitism allegations (accusations which in Professor Griff”s case proved to be valid), occasional remarks were misguided (as is the case with any hyper-political group when emotion and outrage is being channeled at full-throttle), and Flav’s later devolvement to MTV eyesore made it harder to appreciate his even his early work. Yet PE was valid and strong; their work sought to push the boundaries, and it’s very sad in hindsight that the blueprint NWA laid won out so much more than PE’s. Singles like “Fight the Power,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “911 is a joke,” and “Rebel Without a Pause” are still unstoppable.

4) 2pac

Emotion drives the best work of 2pac. Overpowering, blood-pumping, heart checking emotion–it’s the reason he remains as beloved as he is today. Biggie had stronger wordplay in his rhymes and a whole list of contenders who had more relevant subject matter, musical hooks, and stronger beats can be pondered here, but 2pac wins out with posthumous longevity and hip hop martyr icon status, and not only because of his early and violent death. For music that became often unrepentantly dark and “gangsta,” 2pac’s music appeals to a remarkably diverse crowd; you can find strong, brilliant women in academia writing and teaching courses that reflect on even his most “base” work. The reason is that sense of emotion 2pac gave to every rhyme he delivered. Even when the rhyme scheme and verse structures were less than astounding, he threw it at listeners as if it was cut from his soul. His milieu of interests, background and inspirations kept churning in him it seems, so relevance, spirituality, and righteousness always found a place to emerge in his work even when it seemed he had lost such things. His early work shows the potential he had: 2pacalypse Now, with the social observations and political consciousness of songs like “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” showed that at 19 2pac had his path laid out in seemingly the right direction as a lyricist and MC. The work he did up until “Me Against the World,” was full of relevance, wit, and justice-seeking. Then, his talent perfected with his artistically strongest work, the above mentioned MATW. But by that time, paranoia, nihilism, and violence began to overtake his lyrical content and personality. Legal problems, jail time, and being signed to the West Coast Gangster Rap label “Death Row Records” sealed 2pac’s fate as the west-coast gangster rap persona extraordinaire. The albums he released for the label detail some of his most powerful rhymes and beats, yet the stereotype he began to become beat out the relevant persona he could have been. But even in such work, 2pac remained convincingly listenable; he developed into a consummate storyteller of the most blunt variety, and the atmosphere he was able to create in his music was attractive to listeners who could feel the emotions without necessarily relating to the context. There were moments of emergent beauty peppered throughout even his darkest work, and the hours of studio tracks he left behind that have been released posthumously have never been dull.

5) Jay Z

Jay-Z has been called the Frank Sinatra of rap so many times now that it seems like an unthought out comparison that music journo’s like to throw out, but it’s surpringly apt. Jay Z is laid-back cool. His music is often sophisticated and often abrasive, sometimes simultaneously. He’s a perfectionist and a rhymer of the highest caliber. He’s all about style and image from the top to the bottom without seeming vapid or superficial. He’s braggadocious without being obnoxious. He can lay out complicated rhymes with multiple bars without ever committing pen to pad to preserve those words, he just remembers them. He has a classic album from every point in his career and he’s one of the few hip hop musicians ever to age gracefully and occassionally embrace maturity.  From “Reasonable Doubt” to “The Blueprint 3,” and every hit single between them, he never ceases to be entertaining, up-to-date, and relevant.

6) Outkast

There were a few contenders that almost stole this slot; I came very close to giving it to A Tribe Called Quest who many would argue deserve it more thant ‘Kast. Yet I have to go with Outkast: “Aquemeni” may be the greatest Hip Hop album ever, from perfect one-two punch of the singles “Rosa Parks,” and “Skew it on the Bar-B” to the best post-funkadelic track George Clinton spotted on, “Synthesizer,” to genre-busting and expanding tracks like “Liberation,” and “Chonkyfire,” to perfect rhyme verses in “Return of the G” and “West Savannah,” right down to the cover art, “Aquemeni” is phenomenal. The southern smart hip hop they had paved the way with previously, notably in ATLiens, came to expansion and fruition in that album, and they followed it up by getting bolder, bigger, and hugely popular all without compromising. Stankonia and Love Below work  like the best hip hop albums Prince would record if he was in the field. Even the best moments on their semi-flop soundtrack Idlewild are classic. So where are these guys now?

7)Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli)

I’m cheating a little with this one, because the inclusion of Black Star is not just for their seminal self-titled album from Rawkus Records, good as it was. No, I’m throwing them on here to catch all the great solo records Mos and Talib have made-Mos Def’s classics Black on Both Sides, and The Ecstatic as well as many bright moments on his others; Talib’s entire canon, about to expand with another collaboration with DJ Hi Tek- Revolutions Per Minute. These two rappers have great flows, great rhymes, and generally spot-on lyrical focus and content (though Mos lyrically dropped the ball a bit  on The New Danger, which contained a few unnecessary missteps.

8 ) The Roots

The Roots are proof that hip hop is capable of so much; this is a tight, excellent band with consummate musicians on every instrument, combined with neo-soul and funk flourishes, great lyrics, great rhymes, personality, presence, humor, political engagement, everything you could ever hope for in any band of any genre. Grab an album or start out with the 2 “Understanding the Roots,” volumes, see them perform live, or catch them backing every other great MC on “Dave Chapelle’s Block Party” DVD.

9) Lauryn Hill

I discounted a lot of artists from this list that I love for lack of output or consistency. Let’s Get Free by Dead Prez is close to being my favorite hip hop album, it’s right behind Aquemeni. But it’s DP’s only strong album- they have a few other great singles and not much else released. Lupe Fiasco is my favorite current rapper, but I’m at least waiting for the delayed Lasers before considering his inclusion on such a list, despite him delivering two classic albums so far. Yet here’s Lauryn Hill, with one undeniable and widely praised classic album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and another album, a live unplugged album derided by much of the mainstream press when it was released but loved by her fans. Then nothing. Laury Hill makes the list for a number of reasons–her work with the Fugees, most notably the classic The Score. Her all-time classic work of any genre, “Miseducation”; and the hope that appears with the occassional glimmers of her return, such as her appearance a few years ago in “Block Party.”  Lauryn Hill is an amazing talent; a great female hip-hop artist of the highest caliber, one who can throw in soul, gospel, and R&B while still being authentically hip hop. Lauryn is a great lyricist and an excellent musician, a powerful voice and role model. She’s a picture of what an authentic and un-tainted by the industry hip hop figure should and can be, and she deserves to be on this list.

10)Kanye West

Hated more than Puffy thought he was when he filmed the over-the-top “Hate Me Now” song with Nas, Kanye can’t keep his mouth shut and can’t stay out of the spotlight doing things that make everyone shout “jerk!” (or worse) at him. But Hip Hop in the first decade of the 2000s belonged to him. The College Drop Out merged backpack, street, and club rap, offered up lyrical focuses that people all over the map could relate to. It gave us “All Falls Down,” “Jesus Walks,” and a handful of other instant classics. Kanye’s ear for detail expanded, and though his successive work would rarely be as lyrically poignant and relevant as “Drop Out,” his positive polish and glittering sound would continue to sound better. Late Registration is almost equal to the debut, with moments of sheer fun balanced with moments of social concern. After that second album, Kanye became merely a show-off, but a talented and entertaining one, at least on Graduation. The only falter ‘Ye’s had since (besides various moments in the media) was 808s and Heartbreaks, which still yielded a few great singles and valiantly tried to be sonically progressive–it’s an album no one can fault for ambition. So, if Kanye can keep his ego in check, get his priorities lined up, and get in the studio, who knows what we might get?

a note on an exemption: Eminem:

If a ranking of MCs is done based sheerly on verbal talent, there is no valid and unbiased reason to exclude Eminem. His talent is jaw-dropping; he can throw out ridiculously complex rhyme schemes and verse structures, drop in and out of a multitude of voices and personalites, channel emotion more raw than any artists since ‘pac. Yet, despite all of that, he remains the most wasted talent in hip hop history. Many would scoff at that, since he’s sold millions of records and been a culture phenom, but his talent has been largely wasted in my opinoin. There’s no denying the appeal of much of his work, but where has the content been? Storytelling, shock tactics, and provocation all have their place, but Eminem never evolved past that. Sometimes in his attempts at pushing boundaries and lambasting hypocracy, he rhymed irredeemable things that were taken by teenage fans to be more than he ever likely intended and in many cases that was irresponsible. But more than anything, he didn’t use his talent often enough to push holes and point fingers in the areas that deserved such ire and passion. He did occassionally, and when he did it was amazing. But he never dwelt there– the closest he came was on The Eminem Show, and the “Mosh” single. Each time he flirted with big ideas he skirted back to throwing pot-shots at b-list celebrities and fantasizing about serial murder or inventing new gender slurs. With such undeniable talent, is it too much to ask for meaningful, or at least respectable, subject matter?


Other Notable albums: Outkast – Aquemeni; Dead Prez – Let’s Get Free; A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory; The Fugees – The Score; Lupe Fiasco – Lupe Fiasco Presents The Cool; Dave Chapelles Block Party; The Wu Tang Clan – Enter the 36 Chambers; Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx; Dr. Dre – The Chronic; Gift of Gab – Escape to Mars; Ice Cube – The Predator; Missy Elliot – Miss E…So Addictive; Cee Lo – Cee Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections; Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die; DMX- It’s Dark and Hell is Hot; The Spooks – SIOSS; Redman – Whut? Thee Album



May 6, 2010

Earlier this year, I posted a blog on who I thought to be the 10 greatest Metal bands. I enjoyed doing so, and now I feel like doing the same for a few other genres. Today I’m going with the often maligned genre of Country music. I mentioned in my Metal article my history with the genre, so why not do the same here?

Well, prior to my early teenage “metal” phase, I was strictly a country music fan. I probably listened to predominantly country music for 3 or 4 years, ending by middle school. I jumped away from it, probably because most of it wasn’t any good. Looking back now, most of it wasn’t; sadly, much of what comes out as country music on the radio is crap: repetitive, ignorant, over-produced, under-thought…all of the things that too many people think of when they hear about “country” music. But I’m writing here to refute that. To refute that fallback answer that too many pop music fans give to the “What do you listen to?” question that prompts them to say: “Anything but country.” That answer writes off a lot of good, essential, necessary music. You can’t write off the entire history of country music because of Sugarland or Big & Rich, anymore than you can write off metal because of Limp Bizkit, Rap because of Gucci Mane, or Rock because of Nickelback.

Country Music was a leg of the foundation for all  popular music to come after it. It’s half the foundation, the other half is the Blues. Both Country and the Blues tread largely the same territory from only slightly different vantage points. They employ different textures, varying sounds, and different vocabularies, but they run so close together that it’s hard to picture the existence of one without the other. Jazz, Rock, R&B, Soul,and Hip Hop all flow out of the foundation built by Country and Blues. Gospel breathed in and under the whole affair, but Secular and Popular music of any stripe owes Country and The Blues quite a large debt.

The deluge of commercial country crap forced me away from the entire genre. Then I discovered “Alt  Country, or “No Depression” music. This stuff emerged in the eighties and nineties from punk, indie, and alternative rockers who discovered a truly “alternative” integrity and voice from country music. As outsiders to the sound, they made it with Rock and Punk sensibilities, but usually what they produced was closer in spirit to true Country music than anything on Nashville radio. Great artists from this sub-genre are: Son Volt, Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, Lucinda Williams, Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams, Old 97s, The Jayhawks, and Neko Case, to name just a few.

Through that, I learned to appreciate the sounds and qualities of good country music, which led me to re-evaluate pure country music and find out that a lot of classic, older country was as edgy, entertaining, relevant, and as excellently played and produced as anything in classic rock’s history.

So here I go; I’m not an expert in Country, but the following artists are the ones I feel to be the most important, essential, and entertaining musicians in the history of the genre.

1) Hank Williams

Hank is the undisputed champion and founder of all that Country music came to be. He “lived fast, died young, and left a beautiful memory behind” as a later country song opined. The ballads (“Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), honky-tonk (“Honky Tonkin,” Move it On Over”), novelties, and blues adaptations he performed became the first major classics in “modern” country music and the string of performances he tore through that were over so quickly due to his early death inspired every artist in the genre thereafter. His son’s music’s a bit lacking (but highly popular), but his grandson (Hank III) keeps his memory alive.

2) Loretta Lynn

Whether “Fist City,” “The Pill” “Rated X,” or “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Loretta Lynn never worried about putting herself completely into her songs no matter what sensibilities or feathers it might ruffle. She was (and is) Appalachian to her bones, brave, fierce, fighting, yet loyal, honest, and caring. Her music gave voice to a region and a people so often ignored, yet she voices her songs so individualistically that it’s clear she’s her own woman and not a spokesperson. She’ll advocate from the point of view she comes from, and she’ll go against that when she feels she must. Tammy Winette might have sang that she’d “stand by her” cheating man, but Loretta let the listeners know she wouldn’t take any crap. With the help of the White Stripes’ Jack White she proved herself still relevant with 2004s “Van Lear Rose,” and though few modern Country Music women (or men)  live up to her blazing blueprint, it’s hard to imagine the success of any of them without her paving the way.

3) George Jones

George Jones was the most consistent and powerful voice in mainstream Country music for about 30 years (1957 to 1987, give or take). His voice, through every change it’s overuse took it through, always sounded like the epitome of Country. Every label change his career took him through resulted in another batch of hits. Though his party songs (“Five Dollars and It’s Saturday Night”), goofy novelties (“White Lightnin”) and Grand Ole Opry Pleasers (“Race is On”) were great, his specialty was always the blues-country ballad. No one can sing a more bone-chilling and heart-broken country ballad than George: “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “The Grand Tour,” “A Good Year for the Roses,” etc.

4) Johnny Cash

Cash is one of the biggest giants of popular music from the 2oth Century. Those far outside of Country’s usual audience will readily acknowledge an affinity for the person and at least some of his art. Cash is beloved by both Gospel listening grandmothers and punk rock teenagers, and for good reason.  At his best, “the man in black,” showcased every aspect of his humanity– his spirit and love of God and his brokenness and flaws. There are 3 great Cash periods of recordings: his Sun recordings in the late fifties (“I Walk the Line,” “Get Rhythm,” etc.) with the band and the chugga-chugga sound; his late ’60s Prison Concert albums (“Live at Folsom Prison,” “Live at San Quentin”); and his Rick Rubin produced American recordings which stretched on for 10 years and showcased vital and personal songs even when they were covers, right up to his death.

5) Willie Nelson

The history of Country music seems to lend itself to a cycle: mainstream builds to a formula, innovators flee the center and make music from the outskirts until a version of that kind of country matriculates back into mainstream country. Willie Nelson is the most notable of the “Outlaw” country figures of the ’70s. He went from penning hits that others sung (“Crazy,” made famous by Patsy Cline, to name one) to fleeing to Texas, growing braids, ingesting a massive amount of pot, and producing one of the finest canons in country music history. He’s done the excellent country concept album (“Red Headed Stranger”) successful duets (with everyone from his friend Kris Kristofferson to Ray Charles and Aerosmith), and a slew of hits (Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”). He took musical inspiration from everywhere: Gospel, Blues, Jazz, Spanish Mariachi, etc. He’s very eccentric, but as a musician can work with and appeal to folks from all over the musical and political spectrum without toning down his passions, concerns, or sensibilities.

6) Merle Haggard

“I’ll be honest. I hate “Fightin’ Side of Me,” and “Okie from Muskogee.” I can see they’re successful, well done, populist songs that a target audience ate up. Hearing later that “Okie” was done almost in jest, singing against the hippies from his father’s point of view rather than his own didn’t do anything for me in learning to enjoy listening to the song…but it did make me go back and dig into the rest of his catalog, and I’m glad I did. “Mama Tried” may be THE greatest country song ever performed. In fact, every song Merle sang about prison was phenomenal. Heck, every drinking song he did (“I think I’ll Just Stay here and drink”), working (“Workin’ Man Blues”), tearjerker (“If We Make it Through December”) and other song (“Daddy Frank”) he has done ranks near the top of it’s respective category. His Bakersfield California Country paved the way for Americana, roots rock, and country music to follow.

7) Dwight Yoakam

Dwight Yoakam became every rock fan’s favorite country musician in the eighties. But he made thoroughly consistent and true to form Country music, without much odd genre-mashing. Yoakam played hard honky-tonk tunes but he did so with such passion and authenticity that non-Country fans began to take note in rapid numbers. And he didn’t seem to care if the Nashville radio crowd wanted things done a certain way, he did them the way he thought they ought to be done. Though born in Kentucky and raised in Ohio, he was living in the Bakersfield, California area when he began perfecting his sound, and it’s evident that the school of Merle and the other West Coast Country greats were his bloodline more than Texas or Nashville. “Guitars, Cadillacs, etc.” and “Hillbilly Deluxe,” earned him instant praise from country, rock, and college radio critics and fans in the eighties and were loaded with hits: “Honky Tonk Man,” “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Little Ways,” “Little Sister,” “1000 Miles.” Dwight has been surprisingly consistent, releasing great work every year or two, with or without mainstream attention and always without compromise. Even his album of cover songs, “Under the Covers,” is great, and the work he’s released in the past couple of years is just as enjoyable as his commercial highs in the eighties and early nineties.

8 ) Lyle Lovett

Lyle and Dwight can both be thought of in the same sentence for doing real, good, true, and exciting Country music at a time that mainstream county was on yet another major step to losing it’s way. Dwight kept the California Country Revival alive, Lyle came at you straight from Texas with boogie-woogie, western swing, ballads, Mexican influence, pop sensibility without contrivance, and some of the best written lyrics for country music songs in years. Lyle’s debut and it’s follow-up “Pontiac” are country music masterpieces, and he kept going with pretty much every release that followed. His songs veer from novelty pop (“An Acceptable Level of Ecstasy,” “If I had a Pony”) to chilling character-study ballads (“Pontiac”), to strong reworkings of American traditionals (“Ain’t No More Cane”). Lyle has one of the best voices in Country music history, writes some of the best lyrics of any genre, and always heads a terrific band (“it’s not big it’s large”) which manages to work sounds not usually found in the genre while still being unadulterated country.

9) George Strait

Okay. When the nineties country music popularity was at a zenith, and cheesy pop was the under-girding of the entire affair, a few neo-classicists kept a grounding on the real deal, most notably Alan Jackson and George Strait. I was never a fan of Jackson, every time I almost liked him, I’d hear the cornball factor creep into the song and lose my taste for his entire work. Strait can get cheesy too, but not as often. I guess it’s a toss up, but I opt for Strait here. He knows how to be subtle, to play forceful songs with graceful understatement, even when the lyrics and tone cry out for hyperbole. He’s a Texas musician through and through, and while everyone else was doing the “boot scootin’ boogie” or stomping in Nikes about their “Achy Breaky Heart,” George was singing “All My Exes Live in Texas,” “Ocean Front Property,” “80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper,” and “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?” Grown folk songs about real life issues, played beautifully on the guitar and sung sincerely.

10) Steve Earle

Earle bridges the gap between pure country and alt country; he’s that middle point that fans of either can use to cross to the other side and learn to appreciate both. “Guitar Town,” and “Exit 0” progress through roots-rock edged country music and “Copperhead Road,” his commercial hit, layered electricity and energy over the whole affair but remained country at its core. When Earle wasn’t having legal or drug problems, he spent the nineties pushing the experimental boundaries of Country music and then reverbing back to pure bluegrass, folk, and Americana. His later work over the past few years (aside from a terrific and straightforward Townes Van Zandt tribute album) has delved into modern social protest tunes.