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Without A Pause (A Hip Hop Blog With Footnotes) Stevie Chick , April 17th, 2008 12:48


Without A Pause (A Hip Hop Blog With Footnotes)

by Stevie Chick

I’m looking at my Gucci[1], and it’s about that time: twenty-five or so years since hip hop was first roundly proclaimed ’the sound of tomorrow’, and easily a decade or so since its ubiquity and success declared it the sound of NOW. So where exactly in this timeline does 2008 find us?

Back in the Bad Old Days, the lie was that hip hop acts would never enjoy the career longevity of the canonical ’rock’ acts " an understandable (if still dumb-assed) assumption, perhaps, back in that Golden Age when PE, the Juice Crew, BDP, Rakim, Run DMC and a billion other firebrands rewrote rap’s rulebooks so swiftly and completely that early pioneers like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and Kurtis Blow were rendered (at least momentarily) passé by the genre’s fast-mutating evolution[2]. We now live in a universe, however, where PE recently toured It Takes A Nation Of Millions in its entirety, to adoring audiences, and last year released their eleventh full-length[3]; where an artist like Nas can, over the course of fourteen years and eight (soon to be nine) albums, enjoy artistic peaks and flatlines that read like a particularly frantic EKG reading[4].

The reason for this digressionary preamble is the recent return of Staten Island’s finest, the Wu Tang Clan. I wouldn’t call 8 Diagrams (Loud/SRC) a comeback, because that suggests that The W and Iron Flag, their turn-of-the-century one-two punch, were somehow gross disappointments[5]. But that the Wu themselves have described their first full-length since the death of Ol’ Dirty and the Disciples Of The 36 Chambers live album as their ’comeback’, acknowledges the challenge they’ve faced since that first initial barrage of Enter The Wu Tang and legendary solo joints: having revolutionised your genre, how the hell do you maintain pole-position on the cutting edge?

The RZA’s plan seems to have been, don’t be so self-conscious, just be yourself. The blueprint he inaugurated a decade-and-change ago, a sound still startling on the millionth listen (despite the countless followers sweetening and finessing flourishes like the sped-up soul samples and smudgy beats until they’re mere rote tics), still lies at the heart of each track, the perfect stage for the internecine verbals swarming about every verse. Taking tighter rein upon production duties than any Wu release since Enter|, though, his work here is lean, fierce, focused, hungry.

There’s nothing about 8 Diagrams that feels auto-pilot. The devil’s in the details: the way the brooding boil of ’Get Em Out Ya Way Pa’ blossoms into eerie bells and cold-sweat drums in its outro groove; the distant ghostly strains of ’Follow The Leader’ haunting ’Gun Will Go’; ’Windmill’ drawing a potent rhythmic menace from the syn-drum pops of Sly’s ’Brave And Strong’; the sheer brashness of ’Unpredictable’’s bluntly screaming funk, all Lalo Schifrin string stabs and below-the-belt bassline punch and guttermouthed wah-wah guitar, burnt-rubber tyre tracks tracing back to badass 70s cop-show soundtracks. It’s just familiar enough that you’re always aware that you’re listening to the Wu, but fresh enough that you never feel you’ve heard it before, the RZA here favouring evolution over revolution[6].

The celebrity guest appearances " George Clinton dribbling Atomic Dog doo with an incorrigible croak for ’Wolves’, the eerie ’The Heart Gently Weeps’ featuring Erykah Badu, Chili Pepper John Frusciante and Dhani (son of George) Harrison " work fine, especially the latter, which, with its Beatles-interpolating trickery, could’ve badly misfired. But, wisely, 8 Diagrams steps back from playing out like a ’comeback’ album, eschewing grand-standing gestures in favour of playing to their strengths. Their first full tag-team set in seven years[7], the Wu machine glides along like they’ve not broken pace since Enter|[8], still in a purple period. The Wu are not a supergroup but, when everything just clicks, as it does so often on 8 Diagrams, they’re a super group: those eight voices " all superstars in their own right for some time now " blending to perfection, complimenting and emboldening each other, more than the sum of their impressive parts.

Somewhere deep in his exhausting, overlong new LP Ego Trippin’ (Geffen), Snoop Dogg sleepily informs us he’s been “Fifteen years in the game / and I’m still relevant”. His maths can’t be faulted, but the second point’s arguable at best. If I’ve thought of Snoop at all in the last ten or so years, it’s never been because of his music. He’s a multi-media supremo, the go-to guy for lame porno, shitty movies, and cinema ads for cell-phones. Ego Trippin’ is exactly the sort of album you might expect from a dude for whom music has become just one avenue for merchandising his buyable, endlessly-sold persona, a bloated set of serviceable tracks heavy on the pop hooks, hoping for another crossover hit like 2004’s ’Drop It Like It’s Hot’. Snoop When it’s good " on the Terry Riley-produced, Prince-sampling ’Cool’ " Snoop’s contribution to the whole affair seems the least crucial, understated and phoned-in, without conviction. It’s the steamier tracks where the strain shows clearest, Snoop snoozing through his own bedtime baby-whispers, dirty talking out of habit like Priapus muggily tugging his ever-erect penis in his sleep. It’s not a terrible album " it would be a more fascinating listen if it was. It’s just hugely impersonal[9], a polished, committee-produced product. When, on track sixteen of this 23 track monster, Whitey Ford steps up with his slide guitar on ’My Medicine’[10], an awkward fusion of Rap and Grand Ol’ Opry, the sheer boneheadedness of the scheme will wake up listeners long grown drowsy on the predictability of Ego Trippin’s scamming grabs for chart action.

Elsewhere, two young firebrands decidedly evade the sophomore slump. Keen ears will remember Bostonian MC Dagha from his collaborations with Edan, namechecking a celestial noise canon on ’Rock’n’Roll’ and helping make rarity ’Raw Rehearsal’ one of the more electrifying freestyle face-offs committed to cassette. His second solo album, The Divorce (Lewis Recordings), is as its title suggests something of a concept piece, and a personal one at that. Similar circumstances prompted Marvin Gaye to record Here, My Dear in 1978, a dizzying, deep treatise on love and heartbreak and bitterness and redemption. The Divorce is not such a record, Dagha not yet in so philosophical a place; wisdom has yet to visit him, but his wit’s intact.

DJ Real’s production, a confection of scratchy vinyl-sourced beats and sugary old skool soul (strains of Marvin’s croon often bleed in past the beats, trills of romance sourly ironic), leavens the bile, Dagha finding the locks changed on his family home, bargaining with lawyers to see his daughter, his glass always half-full. But there’s a gritty humour to Dagha’s lines, blackly glorying in the weirdness of his new life, cursing his bad luck with a grim chuckle, one his exasperated and deadpan drawl will have you sharing.

Cadence Weapon’s debut, 2005’s Breaking Kayfabe, was an acid-spitting, cold-chill blast of angular, home-cooked noise, Edmonton-based Producer/MC Rollie Pemberton’s cadence a blunt weapon of broken flows and impenetrable wordiage. The follow-up, Afterparty Babies (Big Dada), is a different beast, an addictive listen that bristles with moments of vibrant pop alongside the more subterranean twists, Pemberton’s rhymes balancing modern urban angst with a youthful confidence and askance take, sharp and thoughtful. Again written and recorded on cheap, fucked-up computers, Afterparty Babies shakes Breaking Kayfabe’s avant-rap shackles in favour of unabashedly nagging hooks and a cocky dancefloor sensibility, the stomping ’In Search Of The Youth Crew’ a slaloming, fist-pumping clubber’s classic, ’Unsuccessful Club Nights’ twisting Electro pulses, turntable flourishes and bleating horns into a steroidal slugger.

Cadence Weapon

He’s loosened up lyrically too, finding himself in a playfully confessional flow, pealing off unforgettable opening lines (“Have you ever done coke off a book?”) with audacity, and following them up with narratives that peel away the vanities and puffed-chest posturing of the social battleground, his lyrics reading like focussed and composed blog entries, or thought bubbles appearing above the heads of young urban barflies. Picture Pemberton sat in the corner of the room, a little fucked-up and a drink in his hand, scanning the scene, one ear ever-cocked to an internal monologue dissecting hideously complex interpersonal relationships. Afterparty Babies is the sound of all that paranoia he’s eavesdropped upon, Cadence a virus infecting the social networking site of your choice, so the Status Updates spell out how the users really feel about their friends. It’s also an endlessly-listenable hour of House-emboldened, funked-up and skronky hip hop, announcing this MC from the hinterlands as a true talent, deserving your money and devotion.

[1] Actually a Casio F91-W, £7.99 from Argos [2] Often aided by the early pioneers’ swift devolution to pale self-parody and pandering, hopeless trend-chasing [3] Which was at least intermittently inspired [4] When plotted on a graph, said career might read not unlike those day-by-day Gallup polls of the Democratic Primary candidates [5] The truth is, there’s more to praise on The W (the brutal ’Careful (Click Click)’ and mournful ’Hollow Bones’, for example) than on 1997’s bloated Wu Tang Forever. [6] Robert Diggs’ revolutionary credentials are very much a matter of public record [7] And one with a troubled genesis and production, according to Angus Batey’s recent gripping piece on the Wu in MOJO [8] Impressive not least for the mis-steps they have made in the intervening years [9] Odd, when the public persona of the rapper would seem to be the album’s strongest selling point [10] Which Snoop dedicates to Johnny Cash, “a real American Gangster”

Wu-Tang Clan - 'Windmill'