Bring Hip House Back

beatmasters.jpgNever forget

Hip-house is the first music I ever loved. In 1988, when I was nine years old, my family moved for a year from Baltimore to Twickenham, a suburb of London, so that my dad, a history professor, could work on a book about British army barracks that he never ended up finishing. I started paying attention to pop music maybe a week or two after landing there. In Baltimore, most of the kids I knew were pretty much oblivious to any pop culture that wasn't Nintendo or Transformers or the Orioles. In Twickenham, though, kids actually listened to the radio and bought records and rode their bikes outside; I guess Nintendo hadn't really penetrated the market there yet. And pop music suddenly became a whole lot easier to follow because of Top of the Pops, the weekly TV show that counted down the top 40 singles and had artists coming out to lip-sync on weird sci-fi stages with lots of scaffolding and dry ice. It was pretty easy to figure out what was lame (Simply Red, Rick Astley, Jason Donovan) and what wasn't (Poison, Roachford, S'Express). I wasn't really cognizant of the differences between musical genres; all I knew was that some stuff was slow and boring and some stuff was fast and bright and fun. And about half the tapes I spent my allowance on were hip-house compilations. I didn't know that rap was underground black music from the US that had begun crossing over to the mainstream a few years earlier back home and was just beginning to catch on in the UK. I didn't know that house music was this revolutionary electronic mutation of disco or that kids a few years older than me were gathering by the thousands in fields near my house so they could get high and dance to it. I didn't know that hip-house was a briefly popular combination of the two, that American rappers were jumping on the bandwagon and recording a song or two before it would fall out of fashion and get regularly clowned for years in magazines like ego trip. I didn't know that the stuff was huge in clubs back home in Baltimore, that it would eventually pick up a bunch of other influences and mutate into Baltimore club music. All I knew was that the best tapes at Woolworth were always the ones that said hip-house on the cover.

Going back and listening to those old tapes today (I still have most of them, thank God), the people putting together the compilations didn't really understand what hip-house was either. None of those tapes have the Jungle Brothers' "I'll House You" or Big Daddy Kane's "The House That Cee Built" or most of the other house records that credible American rappers were making. Most of them, I guess, took the term as shorthand for black dance music with something that sort of sounded like rapping somewhere on it. So most of the compilations had Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative" and Neneh Cherry's "Buffalo Stance" even though neither of those songs had anything to do with house. My favorite one, the one just called Hip-House, was a total stylistic mess. I lost the tape's case years ago, and the tape itself just has an MCA logo and a note that says "please see inlay card for details," which is some bullshit. I can't remember the names of a lot of the artists, but the tape had a bunch of obscure acid-house tracks with no rapping and a few embryonic hip-house tracks from British rappers like the Cookie Crew and the awesomely named Wee Papa Girl Rappers (sample lyric: "Rap rap / Rap ra-rap rap"). It also had one straight-up disco track (Adeva's histrionic cover of "Respect"), a bunch of dancey pop-rap songs (Rob Base's "Get on the Dancefloor," Kid N Play's "2 Hype"), and "Straight Out the Jungle," a Jungle Brothers song which wasn't "I'll House You" and which didn't sound anything like house but which did sort of bite go-go, which I guess could've confused some people. It had Salt N Pepa's absolutely inexplicable version of "Twist and Shout," which is terrible but still better than the Beatles and Isley Brothers versions (not as good as the Ferris Bueller one, though). And it had Milli Vanilli's "Girl You Know It's True," which had rapping and house pianos and disco strings and Duran Duran breathy pop vocals and which, now that I hear it again, was just a great, great song. The compilers' confusion as to the actual meaning of the term meant all this great and uncategorizable stuff found its way in; it's like they were accidentally proposing a big-tent definition of hip-house that was better than the pretty-great genre that already existed. The tape is probably still one of my five or six favorite albums ever.

Baltimore club notwithstanding, hip-house didn't last much longer than the year I spent in Twickenham. A bunch of mysterious continental European collectives like Snap and Technotronic and C & C Music Factory turned it into facelessly muscular jock-jams and had a bunch of early-90s American hits. Madonna sort-of rapped on "Vogue," which was sort of a house song. Deee-Lite, a group of pan-global utopian hipster club-kid weirdos based in New York, somehow convinced Q-Tip to rap on "Groove Is In the Heart," which might be the best song ever. In England, acid house morphed into hardcore rave and then drum-and-bass, and it always kept a few elements of rap and dancehall somewhere in there, so I guess grime is a distant descendant. In 2000, the house DJ Armand Van Helden decided that he wanted to be taken seriously by rap dudes, so he recruited Common to rap on one song on his album Killing Puritans, but nobody noticed because the album was terrible. (Paradoxically, the one song where Junior Sanches and Van Helden himself rapped about girls' coochies was pretty good.) I don't even know if Fannypack exists anymore, but their two albums are both totally hip-house in the Cookie Crew mold, and they're both great. A couple of years ago, the Rub guys put out a couple of hip-house mix CDs, which should've caused a full-on revival in Fader circles but didn't. Hip-house still lingers a bit in Southern rap and in dancehall. Six or seven years ago, Timbaland and the Neptunes were jacking tricks from dance music all the time. Missy Elliot's "4 My People" and "Lose Control" are totally hip-house songs; so is Kanye West's "The New Workout Plan." According to Simon Reynolds, Mannie Fresh apprenticed with Chicago house producer Steve "Silk" Hurley. Lil Jon claims to be interested by the cheesed-out Euro-techno they play in strip clubs, which probably counts. And the new Diddy album, as I wrote on Friday, is basically the dance album he's talked about making forever.

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But we'll probably never see another complete recombination of rap and dance because both styles of music have since fractured into a kajillion different subgenres and because they've both drawn boundary lines and become isolationist. Case in point: the column Noz wrote today where he indicts remixer CJ Mackintosh as an enemy of hip-hop because rap nerds bought import UK singles with house remixes on them. So hip-house's brief little moment in the sun might've just been a freakish anomaly, a tiny little sliver of time when two subcultures dropped their defences and found common ground. I miss it.

Voice review: Jon Caramanica on DJ Ayres and Cosmo Baker Present: Hip-House


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