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“In the sixties we believed in a myth—that music had the power to change people’s lives,” Stanley Booth writes in the afterword to a new reissue of True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. “Today people believe in a myth—that music is just entertainment.” I wonder if Booth listens to hip-hop, a genre of myth masters as surely as mixmasters, filled with sequels to “Sympathy for the Devil.” Take “Caution,” a track that Dilated Peoples rapper Rakaa-Iriscience gave to a new pro-Mumia compilation, The Unbound Project. Do I believe its Chuck D-style fantasy, a rapper on trial mad strategizing? In a way, yes, because the rushed narrative, evoking and exceeding a typical media frenzy, shows yet again why hip-hop is a loaded gun. Anyhow, why does entertainment deserve that “just”? It seems so cold war an aesthetic, so rock versus disco. Surely, no one still thinks Johnny Rotten was inherently more radical than Boy George or Neil Tennant?
With hip-hop, these eternal dichotomies are even more complicated, because the epitome of underground virtues, De La Soul (“It might blow up/But it won’t go pop”), made some of rap’s silliest recordings, helped out by producer Prince Paul. A group like Cali Agents, fronting on How the West Was Won (Ground Control) for one strand of indie hip-hop (All the battles but none of the bullets! All the macho but none of the bitches!), can grumble “never trust fools that be cracking a smile,” then sacrifice real talent to unimpeachable sterility. On The Platform, their debut album for Capitol, Dilated Peoples revisit the classic singles “Work the Angles” and “Triple Optics,” hectoring chants so catchy that the voodoo actually works. Still, their message, “takes respect to perfect an art form,” is guaranteed to stultify. Similarly, there’s a frustrating disparity between the jazzy liberality of the tracks and the stuffy categorizing of the raps on Question in the Form of an Answer (Om), the new People Under the Stairs album.
Shrewder hip-hop indie types are looking for a way out of this foxhole. Mike Ladd, a poetry slammer whose new solo album I can’t recommend, also just put out a theme album, Gun Hill Road (Big Dada) credited to the Infesticons, arch enemies of the Majesticons—you know, the people who show up at raves at Twilo and Inside.com launch parties. Fanfare: “God bless the Infesticons/Fuck the Majesticons!” Ladd and his pals even sound like they’re having fun chanting random numbers over what could be a PiL bassline. Better yet, Lootpack producer Mad Lib, the L.A. Prince Paul, pitch-altered his voice to a squeal that makes Q Tip sound husky, called himself Quasimoto, and put out The Unseen (Stones Throw), an extended skit of unlikely earnestness that nevertheless relies as much on comedy records as jazz records, even featuring a feets-don’t-fail-me-now moment (“Come on Feet”). Cartoon characters are always the most well-rounded protagonists, because they don’t have a reputation to protect. Probably just stuff Mad Lib made up in his studio downtime, The Unseen takes its courage mainly from triviality.
But for That’s Entertainment in hip-hop, the leading lights are Jurassic 5, a barbershop quartet of rappers with two DJs, showmen one and all. “World of Entertainment (WOE Is Me),” from their new Quality Control, cops to the role less ruefully than the song title makes it sound: “A rapper is a kid that’s trying to be the shit/An entertainer isn’t trying because he already is.” Chali 2na, a bass who takes it back to the Coasters and beyond, though he’s used for more than laughs, is the only truly distinctive vocalist, but just hearing four rappers harmonize nonsense syllables in “The Influence,” play verbal hot potato in “Jurassic Finish First,” or simply flow in confident unison on “Quality Control” is instant bliss. DJs Cut Chemist (who converted DJ Shadow to the pleasure principle on last year’s Brain Freeze album) and Nu-Mark are tap dancers of equal limberness, ending the album with a Gene Krupa-ish workout, “Swing Set” (which, in true swing revival fashion, is actually a rockabilly sample).
As they proved on their debut EP a couple of years back, Jurassic aren’t just Furious Five retro: They summon visions of lightly rocking grace like “I’ll Take You There,” the intro to “Dance to the Music,” or the Harlem Globetrotters passing the ball around to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” (Well, either that or the team in The White Shadow singing in the shower.) Like the more serious underground hip-hop acts, though, in the end they’re not quite sure what to do with themselves beyond boasting. Sometimes they’re Majesticons, opening for Fiona Apple, recruiting an endorsement from noted hobnobber Sean Lennon to begin track two. But then there’s also a strand of moral uplift, a Cosby side, that looks back to the Harlem Renaissance, rhymes “predicate” with “etiquette,” and motivates Chali 2na to pray five times a day.
I’m hoping that the inspiration for their oldest school of a name wasn’t Jurassic Park but the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the L.A. treasure chest of scientific curiosities where it’s impossible to be sure what’s real and what’s fake. Because speaking of names, Mad Lib gets it exactly right: Fill in the blanks any which way and you never know what type of madness you’ll liberate. The battle isn’t between entertainment and revolution, it’s between styles that feel like they’ve been mandated (which unfortunately includes most directly oppositional art) and styles that feel like they’ve slipped off the leash. And as a London paper editorialized when it was the Stones on trial, who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?