You’re young. The rhymes are flowing. Your bong is packed. How do you set yourself apart from the crowd as an underground hip-hop artist?
Well, it isn’t all that hard when Sheryl Crow and PJ Harvey are showing more flow than Puffy, who should be forced to share a cell with Rick James and Ike Turner. (I kid Puffy, but he’s got to understand that Scott La Rock didn’t die so those of us starved for something funky would have to resort to buying music from French people! Or to see our Detroit techno legends whisked away on the Concorde only to be manhandled by a drunken Björk in a Belgian warehouse. I realize a good breakbeat is color-blind, but who started this shit in the first place? At the very least Puffy could take advantage of a cash-strapped Japan and buy back some of those rare grooves they stole from our honest and beloved record dealers so as to make mad yen 24-7. Hand some wax out to the kids and let them do the rest.)
It all boils down to the beats, beats that rock the party that rocks the body. Never mind your skillz at the mic; what I wanna know is this: Would you die for your beats? Would you eat your beats, and do you have a deep abiding love for your turntables? Turntablism is a genre now, you know— right next to speed garage, speed dump, sex dump, drum’n’spunk, cough’n’spit, sit’n’spin, gabba fizz, and electrospuzz. So you better kiss your beats before you go to bed at night.
For every Busta Rhymes video, there are a thousand Beatnuts yearning to be seen. (My only reservation about Beatnuts would be their obligatory fag bashing. I’m no prude, and I’ve sadly long been accustomed to the bitches, ‘hos, and skeezers of rap. But fag bashing just seems beside the point, included for no good goddamn reason other than to yell “Fag” in a crowded room, not unlike Tarantino yelling “Nigger” in a crowded theater.) To me, any rap music not shown on MTV is underground. Does Killarmy’s affiliation with the Wu and the mudslinging RZA make them any less obscure to 95 percent of the Gen Pop? Every genre has its iller-than-thou wicked stepchildren, but in rap you can actually be mean and ugly and sell a million records right out the gate. So what makes the really real shit more real than the shit everybody loves?
Well, on one hand, you’ve got the Wu adding layer upon layer of crud to build their grand vision of a world run by honeybees and Jackie Chan. Now strip away everything except the killer beat, rapid-fire rhymes, and odd sitar sample, and you’ve got Company Flow, Styles of Beyond, and their lean-and-mean ilk. Company Flow are so hardcore that the guy from British metal industros Godflesh gave them a shout-out on his new art-hop dub drudge disc.
With a lot of below-street-level crews, experimentation isn’t really necessary. It’s nodding head music for nodding head people. You either thrive on repetition or you don’t. There is the odd Dr. Octagon pumping up Castor Bunch craziness here, and the odd DJ Shadow there, the kinda guys you read about in USA Today. But then there are turntable molesters like the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and X-ecutioners, whose noise isn’t really concrete enough to be called musique. This lack of experimentation is one of the reasons why da headz are left to their own devices, and most radical chic freaks opt instead for the big-beat cut-and-paste of whatever Brit DJ is aping old Steinski records this week. (Steinski, you may remember, was the kosher ofay mofo who was rockin’ bells back when the Chem Bros were in nappies.) Much like blues fans in Five Live Yardbirds days, most yobs grooving to Company Flow are probably in Brixton or Bristol.
Or maybe not: with less arithmetical abstraction than the Piklz and more funkmaster flexibility, San Francisco’s World Famous Beat Junkies throw beats like bricks on their new Vol. 2. In between the scratched vinyl and scratchy best wishes of cell-phone pals, these record players host a 3 a.m. pirate radio party where the Technics elite meet. They’re state-of-the-art enough to include rappers named Pokaface, Meatpie, Ocean the Bad Seed, and What?What?, but also old-fashioned enough to sample James Brown.
There will always be records that combine James Brown, Led Zep, and bongos. (I don’t know where Steinski’s radio announcers went. Or Ofra Haza. Or the rest of the Housemartins. Or those cool outfits Underworld used to wear when they were Sigue Sigue Sputnik.) But are mix tapes really albums, or just mementos for
stylus-competition fetishists? Brevity being the soul of something or other, Vol. 2 is minutes shy of two hours. I did the dishes, my taxes, and read a 10–page Brandy interview before I hit track seven of disc one. (In contrast, Steady B’s mid-’80s debut was a mere 35 minutes, and that included the bonus cut, “Do the Fila.” How come nobody does the Fila anymore?) Vol. 2 has rhyming galore by Mos Def, various Alkaholiks, and the Brooklyn-via-Mecca-via-Mars Divine Styler, but mostly it’s an excuse for the junkies to show us what they can do with a needle.
All of which brings us to the new Divine Styler album. His “lyrical fathom and harmony text” still intact after his seven-year, um, hiatus from hip-hop, Divine is once again battling the Devil from the depths of Hell in the name of the Almighty Allah. (Now we’re talkin’ underground!)
On his debut 10 years ago, Divine’s acid-drenched linguistic seminars were already fully formed— one song’s centerpiece was the sound of an extremely painful childbirth. But it was 1992’s Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light that would make Divine a household name (at least in houses where all the scary drugs were). It still stands as the most deranged and psychically damaged rap record of all time. It’s a harrowing and epic tale of the war between Satan and God for Divine’s soul and the inner torment he goes through in order to achieve wisdom and enlightenment . . . oh, and be careful of gothic stonecutters, too. At times funky and beautiful, there really isn’t anything else like it (not even that time the Jungle Brothers were picking up bad habits from Bill Laswell). You had to worry for the man’s mental health— even his mommy wonders at one point if he’s “psycho-spastic.”
Well, he’s back and as lyrically impenetrable as ever. Entitled Word Power: 2: Directrix, his new platter is a cyber-Islam assault on meaning, numbers, love, death, evil, and anyone slow enough to still gain inspiration from old Ultra Magnetic M.C. records. The last song even stresses the importance of vowels. (Hey, when Rakim asked, “Am I eternal or an eternalist,” in 1987, I didn’t understand what he meant either, but it sure sounded cool.) Metaphysics and theology get short shrift in other forms of popular music, and rappers don’t get enough credit for making cars shake with discussions of the Illuminati. Somebody has to ask the hard questions. (And what were those stonecutters up to, anyway?)
Whether Divine is the sound of the new millennium is immaterial. With help from Beat Junkie DJ Rhettmatic and other pals, he makes you think he is. When Newcleus came out with “Space Is the Place” in 1985, the future was all about a cyborg dance. Divine’s sci-fi vision is a tight buzzing sound that exists only in his head.