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Black Sky Thinking

End Of Play 2010: A Hip-Hop State Of The Art Report
Neil Kulkarni , October 25th, 2010 11:10

Neil Kulkarni rages about mainstream hip-hop and cowardly criticism in his end-of-year report, as well as telling you what you should be listening to

State of The States

Bit late up the creek ain’t ya, stranger? Haven’t seen you round these parts in a while. You got your bi-annual guilt-vacation from rock & roll and thought you’d foray up rap hill for a cheap holiday in other people’s misery, yeah dawg? Well podner, before you get up to your waders in gunk and start manhandling that pan, a warning. Hip-hop’s rolling in the rusty water at the moment. Drowning in the doodoo. Generational thing. Musically we’re now dealing on all fronts with the kids whose parents lied to them about pop, the kids whose parents wholeheartedly swallowed the pap they’ve been fed for the past two decades of music-press somnambulance. In much the same way that a generation reared on Oasis are gonna create some shockingly awful music in the name of 'rock & roll', in the same way that pop-up identikit tartan’n’eyeliner twats weaned to think that Blink 182 & Green Day are 'alternative' are gonna create ever-more-punchably-pogoing necrophilia & call it punk-rock, so rappers are spitting some lamentably lame-assed lukewarm piss roundabout now and calling it straight fire. A problem for those of us who want to hear more than mere bizness being done, the flow of cash from arseholes to arsehole, a problem for those of us for whom hip-hop is a mindset, a way of looking at the world.

If hip-hop was your mindset now you'd kill yourself. Deeper problem, all this power-point pop, the inability of the young to UNLEARN themselves a future cos they’re paralysed by a wide shallow access to the past, only able to shambolically throw together ghosts of fire in a vain attempt to spark intrigue, unable to let their own uniqueness be heard amidst the din of all that good bad taste they’re shoving our way. For hip-hop heads, so much of what you can find on XXL Bangers or DatPiff or YouTube is so profoundly dissatisfying, you start mistaking it for hip-hop and hating it with the zeal of any disappointed ol’ believer. Gucci Mane, Gudda Gudda, Weezy, Young Jeezy, Waka Flocka, Wiz Khalifa, Wale, Vado, the new Unimproved Rick Ross & Fabolous, way way too much god-damn Drake: you seriously ain't missing a pissing thing unless you crave yet more gold-plated groin gyration, stoned self-importance, the endless repetition of ad-copy rhymes & in-da-club shoutiness. Ugh. More than any other time in rap history it’s apposite to ask yourself - do you actually NEED this shit in your life? Cos if you don’t, it ain’t hip-hop, it ain’t music, just like music ain’t music no more. S’just a promotional device for the tour.

In five years we’ll have bands who think Trivium are metal overlords, You Me At Six are kick-ass vintage punk, Kings Of Leon are classic rock’n’roll and Cheryl Cole is old-skool r'n'b. That’s when I finally go on retreat. Booked my place at the Monserrat monastery and my coconut-matting grundies. See ya there by the black Madonna.

Of course, with things so publically dire in rap, it's no accident that so many big-name rappers (Drake, Kanye, Lloyd Banks) are saying they want to 'explore' other music, 'expand' what hip-hop’s about - i.e they wanna make hits like Black Eyed Peas, hits like they hear when they're drinking & dancing with their famous friends in one of any number of fashionable, sexy and expensive niteklubs in them big cities like London, New York and Gdansk. Crossover is a dirty and perhaps arcane word now: with times so tough, riskless maneouvres into the mainstream are presented as artistic-progression rather than lucrative strategy. But what rap's megastars don’t understand as they book their limos & collaborators for a swift evac from rap's stinkydoings is that the artform still contains so much more than its current mainstream limits suggest. When you wake up from bankable-rap’s current narcosis and you snap back from the fug, and you take a breath of fresh air from the gold that has come floating down amidst the mixtape flood in 2010 (Curren$y, J. Cole, Das Racist, the ever-dependable Wu & D-Block) you realise that what you’ve been hating isn’t hip-hop, but the numbers, the ratios, the glut of cobblers and the Great Shitwitted Public’s greedy gormless gape for it. All those club-directed, banger-stuffed sleeping-draughts masquerading as mixtapes, millions of downloads, unremittingly steady in their cankered infection of young minds & future possibilities.

Evil unchecked. That's what's maddening. Critics scared of irrelevance without realising that kind of 'irrelevance' is entirely irrelevant. The biz and the press that cheerleads it is even more stuffed with hobbyists for whom hip-hop is purely exotic; tourism; never a political truth that’s close to home. Don’t get me wrong, part of hip-hop’s early appeal was the notion that you were visiting a world more dramatic and desperate than your own - but when that drama itself becomes a 2-d prosaism, just more post-watershed gun-play and witlessness, what’s the point of celebrating that monomania? I can’t figure out why a lot of rap’s defenders actually love it the more clichéd it gets, get snotty & suspicious if anyone dares to question it, mistake the tired repetition of old motifs as somehow 'keeping it real' and wouldn’t dare slag off much mainstream rap for fear of being called backpackers. As with rockcrit, there's a fatal synonymising of 'the facts' with 'the truth' at the moment in rap, the laziness of thinking that if 'the kids' (whomever the fuck they be) love it you needn’t bother having a critical opinion, just assume the default position of prone reportage.

That unwillingness to try and find a way round/through/above/against the grisly shitpile we’re dealing with when we listen to mainstream rap (coupled with the instant ease we all now have in hiding in our own personal playlists & undergrounds) has left us with nowt but an amused chortling; an ongoing dialogue of condescension/ironic-hyperbole with the lowest-common-denominator of rap, whilst the underground keeps flaming on unheralded. Cos hey, why bother talking about what’s good and why it’s good and why certain things are bad when you can snigger about what’s mediocre and pretend it’s all equally godlike? Fuckin hipster cunts fucking it all up for everyone forever: not to piss on your parade pricks, this rag-mag bullshit’s fine if your life is spent giggling about pop, but for those of us who need it to make life worth living it’s simply not good enough. Too many writers aware of where pop should be fitted/filed on your ipod but utterly unaware of how pop fits with poverty, exhaustion, insecurity, fear, everyday life out here beyond NW1/BN1, where parents don't pay for everything, where music & life have to battle. Critics believing all those commentards. The inability for writers to change the world they write about has meant they all accept that limitation in their ever-apologetic writing.

I want someone younger than me to get foolish about pop again, to stop telling me all the things I could be listening to and start telling me why I SHOULDN’T listen to certain things. Reattach guilt to pop, reattach hierarchy, reattach shame, reattach style, remember style’s difference from fashion instead of just adding their void-voice to the general hey-if-you-enjoy-it-that’s-cool numbness of discussion. Stop fucking rehabilitating everything and start locking stuff up and out and AWAY. Out of reach for a reason. Pleasure forced to justify itself again. Make like music is a revolution in heart/head/soul that changes your life, not just a soundtrack to that existence of clickable consumption and commodity-fetishism that passes for living the dream in 2010.

And all that critical sleepiness is all the more aggravating in hip-hop at the moment, cos there’s fucking LOADS you should be listening to. Do some catching up on Big Boi's 'Daddy Fat Sacks', acquaint yourselves with the monster that is Sean Price via both the 'The Price Is Right' comp and DJ Food Stamp's 'Best Of' mix, then tread all those white sunglasses into the concrete armed with some Brooklyn ruffness down your neck courtesy of Joell Ortiz on 'The Ortiz Manifesto', 'Defying The Predictable' and 'Freestyle Massacre'. Curren$y is a name who should've figured large in your listening this year - catch up with the 'Where Haven't We Been' best of, and then pick up 'J.E.T.S' & start praying the majors don't swallow him whole (send similar orisons skywards for J.Cole who's 'Mixtape For The Ville 2' I can't stop playing).

I still reckon Nicki Minaj remains a compelling voice despite her profligacy - check 'The Official White Label' to hear her at her most alluring and alarming. Murdoc's Knight Mayors EP is some Bosworth-archive-ripping murkage that goes down a treat round our way, and Philly's Peedi Crakk proves those amazing cameos & mixtapes were no fluke with the rocksolid 'The Epidemic: The Best Of Peedi Crakk'. Elsewhere Willie The Kid does some raw unfinished teasing on 'The Cure', likewise Drag-On on 'The Crazies', Sinapse on 'Smoke Rings' and 'Prelude to The Odyssey', Asher Roth on the wonderful 'Seared Foie Gras W/Quince & Cranberry' and the infuriating/inspirational Charles Hamilton ostensibly bowing out of the mixtape game on 'The Binge 3' (and I shouldn't need to tell you about Das Racist's 'Sit Down, Man' and 'Shut Up, Dude'). On the D-Block tip, Styles P's 'The Ghost Dub-Dime' and 'How Hard Do You Hustle' mixes from back in May were doozies, as was 'Fire On Da Lean 2', 'Menace 2 Society Pt.5', Jada/Louch's 'D-BLock Island' (but definitely ignore Sheek Louch's 'Donnie Def Jam').

Another stable to trust is the indestructible staten-strongarm force otherwise known as the Wu: check Sonz Of Wu's 'Young Godz', the Wu-Academy 'Meaningful Music' series 1-3, Raekwon's 'The Vatican IV', Inspectah Deck's 'Lyricism', Wu-affiliates 'Poisonous Dartz Vol 2', and the archive-rifling 'Headz Ain't Ready For The Throwbacks Vol 7' and 'Avenging Eagles' mixes. If Wu-style grittiness is your bag, then DJ Yahtz's 'Paybacks A Mutha' mix should be soundlounging your sordid little grief hole, as should the 90s ripping 'New York Reality Check 101', Bostonian DJ TKO's sporadically great 'Knockout Radio' series, Public Defendaz 'Premier' mix (the DJ Skipmode 'Guru RIP' mix is the best of the myriad tributes), Joker's 'Undiez Vol 1 & 2', the 'Underground Tactics' and Capone'n'Noreaga's 'Camouflage' series of mixes n'all.

All the above cost nowt, but what's bracing for headz as the yearsend approacheth is how the hip-hop album is reasserting itself as caustic denial of all the mixtape mediocrity, the encircling fluffblizzard that nearly obliterates your urge to find the good stuff. Some ideas for your next trip to if you want things you can hold and touch and hear: Celph Titled & Buckwild's Nineteen Ninety Now (No Sleep), The Left's smoky Detroit trip Gas Mask (Mello Music Group), 7L & Esoteric's fantastic 1212 (Fly Casual Creative), Hezekiah's nutzoid Conscious Porn (Soul Spazm) and Iron Lyon's even-more nutzoid Foundation EP (Fat Beats), Breez Evahflowin's As He Goes On and Grey Matter's Grey Matter (both Domination), and Skyzoo & Illmind's devestating Live From The Tapedeck (Duckdown).

Ooh, and a couple of interrelated CORKERS on Raw Koncept Records. Nottz is a name you should latch alongside Black Milk & Chad Dubz as a modern US hip-hop producer gratifyingly free of the protooled myopia of his peers. Impressive CV (Kanye, Dilla, Swizz, Diamond D, Pete Rock, Biggie, Fiddy) notwithstanding, his solo debut LP You Need This Music is a totally compelling mix of old-fashioned sampladelia, new-style digi-noise and hook-laden swooners (check the fantastic 'Shine So Brite') that gets more soulful and lush the longer it lingers on yr deck, and it will. EVEN BETTER THOUGH he's produced the new album from hip-hop goddess Rah Digga and mygod, Classic tears your fucking head off. Digga's been a long-time gone since Dirty Harriet announced her unique presence to the cosmos way back in 2000. She rose up through the ranks of New Jersey brick-natives The Outsidaz & (on a Q-Tip recommendation) Busta's Flipmode Squad to drop that masterpiece, Nottz handling much of the production alongside Swizz Beats, Pete Rock & Premier. 11 years on and Nottz takes the helm for all of Classic - consequently there's a unified ferocity to the album that a long-list of guest knobtwiddlers would never have got close to, Digga still rhyming unlike anyone else: poetic, conversational, introspective, but capable of a fury, a humour, a freewheeling spirit of play & performance that makes all her lines wicked-smart, rewindable, and supremely self-aware. Where so many rappers chat tortured shit about lives they've not lived, Digga comes off as someone who's lived a life but would rather just enjoy her own art as much as possible (albeit with the occasional head-detonations that entails). Nottz matches Digga's dazzlement throughout with beats that hit hard, wibble-n-wow that always suits the subject matter perfectly and the kind of Betty-Davis style thrumpafunk & pulsating electro grooves Diggas' rampaging vocals deserve. Her first album in only a decade and she's lost nothing. 'This Ain't No Lil Kid Rap' indeed. An absolutely essential earthstrike of mindfuel amidst the shortages and burnout elsewhere.

State of Here

"If you don't listen to UK rap, you're a racist" - fuctifino anything I ever wrote that got me on more people's shitlists. But, nigh-on 15 years gone and I still stand by the sentiment if not the detail - right now I'd say instead 'you don't listen to UK rap because the UK music industry is racist'. Oh and I'd add 'and it hates poor people too'. Of course, in the US I can kind of understand hip-hop hacks blathering about the daily effluent like it's ambrosial manna, cos hip-hop pays their wages. It's in their interests to pretend rap is bubbling on and getting better all the time. In the UK, where rap pays NOBODY'S wages, where most of its protagonists are dads and mums and daughters and sons and workers who have to squeeze their art AROUND their need to eat and live the continued marginalisation of rap voices in UK pop grates and galls harder than it has done my whole life. As in the US, crossover success narrows the chances for any wider recognition of the genuine genii out there: the 'success' of every Dizzee, Tinie Tempah, Chipmunk, and Tinchy (and particularly the previously-brilliant Roll Deep's cowardly career-move to the ploppermost of the poppermost) tells up-n-coming grime/hip-hop spitters to forget about innovation, harness the slick spirit of Guetta, find a chorus the herd can bray and hope for the best.

The gagworthy banality & blandness of the UK rap-that-Jo-Whiley-likes only makes it more urgent that you seek out those voices that do matter - funny/tragic how no-one in the press or on the radio or on TV is really telling you where to look, inevitable when so many writers come from such a narrow dilettante base. Race, although I'm constantly told otherwise, still exerts a powerful control here. 20 years ago it felt like I was nigh-on the only Asian/black person bar the mighty Dele Fadele and Marcia the Accounts Goddess in 30-floors of magazine-publishing who wasn’t pushing a tea-trolley around. I never guessed 20 years on things’d actually feel even more constricted, more bullied by consensus and the tyranny of pure commerce but I didn't see one end of year list in 2009 that mentioned Jyager's fab Encrypted Scriptures (YNR), Foreign Beggars lurid, lairy United Colours Of Beggattron (Dented), Dubbledge's scintillating One Inch Punch (Hidden Agenda), Micall Parknsun's heartbreaking First Second Time Round (YNR), Squid Ninjaz skunked-out Revenge Of The Blowfish (Metabeats), Diversion Tactics brutal Careful On The Way Up (Boot), Kyza's snarling S.O.S (Dented), Tactical Thinking's stupendous hooligan-savant hysteria on Too Broke To Go Solo (Dented) and the utterly fantastic Feeding Time At The Zoo' comp (YNR). Wilful ignorance? Nahh course not: I'm always reassured 'maybe it's just because people don't like UK rap, it's just not their taste', as if 'individual' taste can't be seen as an expression of a wider culture's prejudices & fears. I've also been constantly told that UK rap never quite 'matches' or surpasses it's US sources - again, utter bullshit as the frabjous mix of immigrant cultures going into UK rap right now is creating far superior/intriguing music & rhymes than 99% of the US deluge, (and pretty much 100% of the mighty-whitey rock shit the NME/Radio 1 shovel our way every week).

Ask yourself, are you a music fan? If you are, you surely know that one of the most magical things about music is that it enables communication between people beyond time and space. Why is it mandatory to listen to music from all kinds of worldwide pasts (Nigerian rock, Ethiopian jazz, Arabic pop come on down - the critics will see you now) but never the local present? And if you are cocking an ear to sounds from this island why the fuck would you limit your intake purely to white/middle-class music if you weren't tacitly agreeing with rap/grime's tabloid demonisation, if you weren't a snobby cunt disdainful of 'chav' music? All the above emanations from the UK in 2009 revealed poets of huge talent talking about modern British life with a depth, honesty and suggestiveness that pisses from a great height on the observational witlessness of the rest of britpop right now, so why are these folks shut so consistently out? Might their music, if heard, threaten to fuck up the party? Why do we all accept this appalling state of affairs where our young genii are sidelined in favour of those young mediocrities sure not to scare the grown-ups with their schmindie pootling? Sure, tell me things are getting better, then go find me a black/asian/estate kid who works in those big office-blocks where pop's present day is decided. No fucking different to when I started out. No fucking different at all. Worse in fact. What we've got now is a private club called British pop in which the kids of famous people get cheered to the top by the less popular spoddier kids they shared a private education with. Fucking grim pickings.

And not likely to change now that Cleggerons cabal of cunts are making sure everyone's looking the other way whilst the CDEs become something paranormal, something forgotten, something to exorcise from the healthy ABC march forward. As the fireworks start changing hands and the Xmas-tat hits the shelves you can almost sense pop's hackerati sniffing the air, wiping their noses on their shoulders and tweaking those end-of-year lists with some Yemeni death metal and Bhutanese glitchcore (they've been listening to Foals all year) to prove what hip eclecticians they are, like a frowning virgin arranging their collection just so in case they pull someone home. You can expect their refusal to acknowledge the following and therefore make it a matter of duty to your soul that you hear, remember, recall the following homegrown transmissions from 2010: Skandal's twisted Hunger Pains (Hidden Agenda), Fliptrix Theory Of Rhyme (High Focus), Rhyme Asylum's bleak'n'brilliant Solitary Confinement (Rhyme Asylum), Ramson Badbonez The Official Part 2 (Boot), Durrty Goodz essential and righteous Born Blessed (Awkward), Invisible Inc's Exit Strategy (NA), Klashnekoff's Back To The Sagas (Abstract Urban), and Cappo's Genghis (Son). And fuck fuck fuck - you must, repeat must, check out Kashmere's just-dropped masterpiece Galaktus: Power Cosmic (Boot).

Some explanation needed before you let it through the door: Boot are perhaps the most consistently demented, shambolically sporadic label in the UK but everything they put out is incredible, usually laced with the psyche-smeared groggy fucked-upness of Zygote's beats. Galaktus itself is an insane stew of avant-garde funk and ear-stinging rhythms over which Kashmere mixes concepts and confusion to delirious yet strangely convincing effect, like a conspiracy theory you know is guano but you can't stop believing. Superb. Oh, and if you just like watching numbers fall on a screen rather than holding some thick vinyl in your hand, find and download Basement Sessions x Hype Dog's 'Headspace' Mixes, Scorzayzee's 'Raging Bull' mix, Pro P's August mix, Mavro and Gripper's mix on Soundcloud and Tricksta's stunning 'UK Runnings' series. British music we can be unjaundicedly proud of, a genuinely urgent replenishment of firepower in an age of ever-encroaching zombification. Dig under the street, turn that corner, cross those tracks. No more music by the suckers.