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This Month In... US Hip Hop By Neil Kulkarni
Neil Kulkarni , February 3rd, 2010 04:13

Neil Kulkarni delivers a righteous blast to the naysayers and recommends some boss mixtapes

Realise that 2009 was the year in which hip-hop ‘died’ again but sorry I can’t get get my rubber gloves and scalpel on just yet.

Sure, if you want it to be, hip-hop's dead. If you're looking at the charts, if you're looking at all the Lil Waynes & Jons, the Yung Docs and Jeezys, the chumps rolling in big cliques to hide their lack of individual vision, albums peppered with cameos in an attempt to mask the fact the men on the mic have nothing to say. It suits the Sunday Supplements and broadsheets to ask what ‘went wrong’ with rap, saves them from the bother of listening when there's all that Paulo Nutini to wade about in. It also suits them because they listen to rap in its deadest format, the major-label CD, the long-awaited album, the corporate throw-together. And the indie-labels, the mixtapes, the two places where US rap is still utterly thrilling at the moment (those same scent trails and stains thrown down by all undergrounds, the ones that funnily enough they scour like truffle-pigs for the next indie-rock page-fillers) remain utterly ignored by most mainstream media's tangent on hip-hop.

It's the wistfulness I can't abide, the fondness the fan-boy mentality has for time-freezing genres they're too lazy to follow, nailing them to an album, an era, a moment when it all went wrong. All those twats who think somehow hip-hop would still earn our respect if it had ended with Breaking Atoms (or if they're younger 2001) somehow con themselves into the tone of autopsy via a few too many bits of Dirty South nonsense they've foolishly mistaken for hip-hop's whole story right now.

We've been here before. Rap was first pronounced 'dead' in 82/83, or at least in danger of becoming a fad, a footnote, a technique rather than a form, a roped-in last resort to save floundering pop, rather than a revolution. It has slipped in and out of the afterlife every few years since then, prematurely toe-tagged by moral queasiness, scythed down and pronounced MIA by rockcrit's agit-pop nostalgia for 'when it was political' (it still is, dingbats, and compared to the hazy vague LACK of political bite in your music-that-matters it's still louder than bombs), supposedly sped past by its parasites (d'n'b/trip-hop/grime — like most parasites they won't outlive their host) — at every stage what's being played out is more white-boy bravado about truly understanding black music. Diagnosing its problems and fixing it. Helping it out of the free-for-all unfathomable heaven it's in, back to the file-able holes pop should be in, the lists and lineages and learning that helps avoid a new response, or the need to find one.

There’s a compulsion behind rockcrit to make black music step to a monolithic movement, a fixation on the manageable ‘classic’ era that kills the need for further investigation. The collector-mentality likes ticking off genres tokenistically, making sure their racks have the requisite amount of hip-hop, or reggae, or jazz or soul or grime in there to assuage any liberal guilt, but then leaves it there before the illiberal compelling heart of modern dancehall or hip-hop can confuse the order or integrity of the cannon. At the moment there’s plenty of people standing round a hole in the ground flinging handfuls of dust over hip-hop’s empty coffin, as ever, hip-hop itself stubbornly refuses to die or disappear so long as DJs keep spinning and MCs keep spitting: the infinite possibilities of the form are too enduring for it to just fizzle out merely cos the mainstream’s being cowardly. But when hip-hop kills it, as it still does across the web across the wires and in the head, when it lashes down the spontaneous combustion that is its forte don’t expect anyone with a word-count and a deadline to be listening, don’t expect their fixations on the past to even allow them to dig hip-hop’s endless parricidal progress into the future. Like the pencil-pushers who decried’n’derided Isaac Hayes as a purveyor of 'blacMuzakkk', insistent that r&b must never want more than the three-minute single, the production line, the tin-shack. Like the worst, most retro-fixated anti-mod-mods who think reggae ‘degenerated’ into dancehall, who stop listening to Jamaica as soon as Heart Of The Congos has stopped: those same people who even now haven't got an ear cocked Jamaica's way — damn foolish considering history and the stunningly camp turn things are taking over there (see next week for details). Pronouncing a music dead or washed up or 'in danger' is useful in covering up the reasons for that wilfully lazy ignorance, and the deeper racial reasons behind that music's continued marginalisation.

As ever the fans know different. And if hip-hop fans weren't worried in 82 that this whole rap thing was gonna be killed off by Morris Minor & The Majors, why should we give a fuck what Soulja Boy's farted into a steel-mesh this week, why should we think that characters as laughable as Weezy or Jay have become, could even momentarily ‘threaten’ rap’s future? As ever, with a higher hit-rate on the ol' mindfuck scale than any other genre, hip-hop heads have too much greatness to listen to in twennyten to worry about the rubbish that's always out there. The fans dig the sound of mourning cos it distracts the twats. Keeps shit bubbling.

Nothing is ever all-good. So don't go to and just dl any ol' shit with heavy-gold lettering and big bum-cheeks on it. [Ah, shit — Ed] There's so much chaff out there it's agricultural, guest-crammed and rmxd and all heavily endorsed by the Autotune Manufacturers Of America and mostly gash in every way. Great for the kiddies and the old-folks but c'mon — why would you wanna waste your time frowning at a guy drowning in gold and syrup when you could be hearing JOJO PELLEGRINO tear into some of the most stunning Staten-Island rhyming this side of you-know-who. Pelle, a self-christened Italian/American 'black in a bleach accident' has a mixtape out called Pellafreestyles Vol.1 that sounds like both spontaneous transmission and future classic — the rhymes mind-melting, the beats&rhymes stunning throughout, the odd couplet stopping your whole world on a dime. Mixtapes flow, hold together in ways albums don't anymore, avoid the cramp of business pressure and crossover need that make so many hip-hop albums such dull exercises in neediness these days. Albums are made & assembled by rappers worried that there's not enough singles, rappers worried about their investments, producers and labels worried about the hotbeats for the hotclubs and the fratboys&gals that want hip-hop to stay at the party and never stretch out to the cosmos as it really can. In contrast, in terms of narrative togetherness, mixtapes have that single-vision confidence, that one-take cumulative build-up of persona and fidelity that hip-hop's official albums seem nervous of attempting anymore. Mixtapes lash down in an hour what albums spend six months trying to iron out and deodorise. Wrap your ears round Pellegrino's 'Other Way Around' or 'Ask' or 'Murals' and try telling me hip-hop's dead again — as live transmission, as a poetic leap between worlds.

The sheer sense of command in BUN B's voice sets him apart from his Southern peers, no accident that his gruff ol'boy delivery reminds you of the Geto Boys' harshest moments – throughout his utterly fantastic 2 Damn Trill tape he's got that Houston hoarseness, that Port Arthur punch to his flow, DJ Logikal matching his near-asphyxia with dry-as-dust lattices of pristine beats, digi-dub grind, coke-paranoiac synth and needling riffola. Music perhaps a little too close to the desert, a little too damn hot for our cold days and colder nights, but perfect with weed & water-pistols. And when Logikal's smart enough to just let all that heat evaporate in the icey Throbbing Gristle-meets-Model 500 grip of 'Cuckoo' & 'On To The Next One' this goes beyond being checkable to downright essential, (and don’t miss the simply staggering garage-psyche dronefunk of 'Freestyle' that flames through you near the last reel).

NEAKO’s ‘Junk Food’ has the most jarring non-sequiturs, the most unsettlingly swish Philly-soul arrangements, the coldest moments of electro-space, the dubbiest moments of slo-mo menace: play it end-to-end with YELAWOLF’s ‘Trunk Muzik’ mix for the best fill-in 'til the next Outkast album you’ll ever need. The narcotic gunplay and grogginess of RAEKWON'S Coke Up In Da Dollar Bill mixtape make for a typically addictive blast from Wu-world, the gorgeous sound-loungee that is DRAKE's ever-improving Heartbreak Drake series hits should-be-a-superstar-soon levels with 4 (check out the old stuff on the ThankYou tape to see how he got here), and a couple of J dots blow minds this month. J.Cole’s ‘A Nigga From The Ville’ may well be the last document from this N.Carolina native before he goes stellar – check it for some bumpin’ beats and blistering verbals that roll with an infectious confidence, but more imminently make sure you don’t miss JAY ELECTRONICA's stupendous, startling 'Victory'. This isn't just a mixtape, it's technology harnessed to beauty's service, it's a snapshot of the future that transforms the way today looks, it's poignantly from New Orleans & it defies and denies the bounce-bored crunked-out confines of that region's rap-stereotypes. A tower of words, words that shift your focus in all directions and dimensions internal & external, the suite of grainy gleaming grooves that backdrop the words similarly able to give way to sudden, stereo-strafing moments where something unearthly and beautiful gets threaded through the mix. Uncut sonic bliss that leaves the body puckered and the mind fed and why isn’t Eno listening to this? Why aren’t you?

If you don’t do mixtapes there’s still no excuse to not be keeping up: the US rap underground is shooting out fullphat genius at an unmissable rate right now. Granted you can’t pick this shit up at Tesco’s but that’s no excuse: dig into X-RAY’s fab collage of instrumental intrigue on ‘The Ear Hustler’ (Mindbenda Recordings), STRONG ARM STEADY’s stunning In Search Of Stoney Jackson (Stones Throw), CRITICAL MADNESS’ Bringing Out The Dead (on the incredible Domination Records), & make sure you catch up with late-breaking corkers from ’09 you may have missed like DILLON & PATEN LOCKE’S delicious Studies In Hunger (Domination) and GRAYSKUL’S ‘Graymaker’ (Rhymesayers).

Next week: why you should still be listening to dancehall, and the week after that: why UK rap still matters. Sure, with hip-hop really opening up as a global form there’s plenty of good arguments for saying you don’t even NEED to listen to US rap anymore. I’d say the mixtapes & underground albums above make that an easy but insane option, a blinkeredness not so much enforced by the drek in the US mainstream but dependent on your refusal to dig any deeper than the shit MTV Base, BET and other assorted chuckleheads want to sling your way. Don’t deprive yourself. Get back on it and keep 'em peeled.