By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
Len and Ugly Duckling already have all their ducks in place for blue-eared Mrs. Gore types, as not only are all the principal members as white as Stevie Nicks's aura, but neither of their discs sports that dread Tipper-offer warning sticker both demanded and feared by Al's spousal unit in her activist days. Yet Len's and Ugly Duck ling's hiphop beats just don't stop, either. So vote early, and listen up often.
As peppy product placement goes, Len's fun-means-summer "Steal My Sunshine" occupied the coveted second spot on the Go soundtrack this year, just after No Doubt's no-doubt-new "New," and created a subliminal buzz for a whole set of the same chops. Len hail from Canada, exude a downtown Toronto vibe, and include a cast of dozens (many fellow Canucks) answering to sibling rivals Sharon and Marc "Burger Pimp" Costanzo. "Steal My Sunshine" is a bright flash of hiphop-as-popart exuberance, built on a piano-tinged beat sounding like McCoy Tyner playing the Kraftwerk songbook, outlined in aural neon by Sharon's sweet-tart chorus. Ms. Costanzo's subtly insistent commentaries likewise provide irresistible colored lights around "Man of the Year" ("'Cuz Len'll take you out!") and "Cold Chillin"' ("We're partyin' Friday night!/And got nowhere to go!").
Len's crafters augment their line up with guest shots by south-of-the-border hoppers Biz Markie, Kurtis Blow, and Cincinnati-dread Mr. Dibbs, not to mention Poison guitar girly-man C.C. DeVille. Plus Canadian content courtesy of "the Cryptik Souls Crew,""the Drunkness Monster," "the Faith Chorale," you name it. Despite the staggering variety of musicians employed and styles essayed, from Kraut-spoken-here techno to Beasties-like gulp-punk to the 1968-white-turtleneck "jazz," everything on You Can't Stop the Bum Rush has the same fresh-assed vivacity. Samples are judiciously chosen, sometimes for texture (the Miracles' "Shop Around" in "Hot Rod Monster Jam"), some times for their sheer dimple-brained cheek (John Travolta's version of the Rascals' "A Girl Like You" in "Beautiful Day"). Every track does its snarky party duty. But as in-house MC D Rock himself would have it: "Sometimes I like to chill/And try to read Zen."
Far to the southwest of Toronto, as the Zen arrow commutes, lies Long Beach, California, home of Ugly Duckling, who share Len's Zen vision of vanilla hiphop as applied-joy music, but who are much more purist in their attempt to re-create the old-school ambience of their late-'80s youth (much as the white bluesers of the '60s tried to replant the Mississippi Delta on NYC's or London's concrete baseyou could say Ugly Duckling play John Hammond Jr. to Len's Crazy World of Arthur Brown). On their EP-length debut, Fresh Mode, Ugly Duckling favor slow-but-endlessly-catchy beats, seamless samples, and family-friendly, wit-friendly rhymes. The latter facility is what steers these postmodernized Huey, Louie, and Dewey types away from the ponderousness that could follow home their true-believer concerns for ecology, aging, and love-of-Jesus. What keeps their sincerity from coming off hokey are wonderful rhymes like "Elvis was a hero to most/I'm not from France/But I eat French toast!" Like Len, Ugly D. have learned a big lesson from the Beastie Boys: why sell your heart to the junkman when he can supply all the best lyric concepts on the cheap?
(The preceding has been a compensated apolitical announcement, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the staff or management of the Wu-Tang Clan.)