The Permanent Record


Hip-hop was originally the creation of DJs, but people can make too much of this, and what they make of it is usually wrong. Two guys in the last month have told me in tones of great significance that hip-hop is built on sampling, implying that anyone who builds it on drum machines and tape loops and musicians is doing it wrong. The big point is supposed to be that the DJs who invented hip-hop were using other artists’ records to create their own work—which is true as far as it goes, but it isn’t really a point, since DJs have always used other artists’ records. This is what DJs do, in classical and jazz and rock as well as in hip-hop: They play records, play them in juxtaposition with other records, from all over, interspersing them with DJ patter.

So to say that hip-hop is built on sampling gets the story ass-backward. What set the original hip-hop DJs apart from their colleagues wasn’t that they used what was already there—did they have a choice?—but that they restructured it, altered it, added to it. And this was a logical extension of previous DJ behavior anyway: If in the mid ’70s DJ Afrika Bambaataa ran Monkees songs into funk songs, this might have something to do with the fact that Top 40 stations 10 years earlier were playing Monkees and funky broadways and Famous Flames and Rolling Stones back-to-back. What Bambaataa, Herc, and Flash did that was new was to interject records into each other rather than just play them in succession. And in this they were just usurping what had formerly been musicians’ prerogatives, to be the ones to put Song A together with Beat B and so forth—as of course was having your MCs rap on top of the instrumental breaks rather than leaving the raps to between-song patter. I imagine that if you’re a DJ or an MC playing parks and clubs and parties in the South Bronx, a good way to rock the house and engage dancers and onlookers is to add surprise by cutting up the sound and by yelling “Throw your hands in the air, and wave ’em like you just don’t care.” The paradox, actually, is that, though DJs use pre-recorded music, they use it in live settings to create live music.

But when a DJ starts to make records, he’s entered a new game, and all the practice he’s had spinning and altering them and running them into one another doesn’t necessarily give him a leg up, since there’s a big difference between playing records to rock the house—creating the emotional flow of a room for four to six hours—and making a four-minute CD track for the permanent record, so to speak, that crosses airspace and cyberspace and that people are going to play in their own rooms at different times. So he’s no longer a DJ, he’s a record producer. And sure, maybe he’s got his special DJ’s sensibility, his skill at riding his pony across the world, scooping booty as he goes and reconfiguring the results so as to give the dancer a musical surprise. But since he’s only got four minutes to make his impact, DJ overload may not always be the strategy that works.

In fact, on the excellent Many Styles by the three DJs Shortkut, Vinroc, and Apollo, who collectively call themselves Triple Threat, the sparer tracks are generally the best. For sure, Triple Threat use lots of DJ techniques: cutting up a word for the stuttering-duck effect, scratching, pulling in conversations and musical snippets from who knows where. But beyond the symbolism (“We are hip-hop DJs”), these techniques are basically there for percussiveness and mood, and as far as I’m concerned, Triple Threat would be just as hip-hop if they’d done it with maracas and sousaphones. What may be Triple Threat’s most significant virtue is the adaptability they acquired playing a lot of different rooms—a willingness to work with what they’re given. The skits on their album are hilarious. In each, someone approaches the hapless DJ and demands he play something different from what he’s actually playing, tells him he’s got to be more real or more South or more Jamaican or more Dre (“something I can really pop my collar to”), or to scratch more. “Cut it, scratch it, do it all, I mean don’t even play the music. Do the scratch a cappella for me, please dog. I want to hear the combo, the stabs, the flares, the clicks, anything.” As it happens, the couple of tracks where Triple Threat come across most obviously as “turntablists” (a word that has all the sex appeal of “probate specialists”) don’t really get into a groove, whereas the rest—the ones featuring rappers or the ones in which dialogue and song shards pursue each other across the soundscape—maintain their momentum, the cuts and scratches dancing around on the periphery. Since Triple Threat are not afraid to be simple, an otherwise diffuse track can be held together by a repeating bouzoukee motif or a Brazilian tour-boat melody. The three DJs have mastered the Ennio Morricone trick of taking a pretty tinkle riff and making it ominous simply by repeating it and repeating it. And this is a great guitar album; the LP could be subtitled “How to Use Guitar Chords for Maximum Effect,” which Triple Threat do in the Jamaican manner, by truncating the sound so that it reverberates against silence. (The opposite of rock’s power chords and solos.) I assume they got the guitar sounds off records, but I don’t see a difference between playing a guitar and playing a record, anyway.

The rapping, by a host of MCs including Main Flow, Zion I, Black Thought, and Souls of Mischief, is hard and serious, contrasting well with the rest of the music, but still too constrained by indie rap’s basic emotional hush. The DJs travel the world while the MCs protect their own turf. The rapper here who breaks out of this most effectively is Talib Kweli, because he’s the most easygoing and conversational while communicating the most arrogance and anger. I’m intrigued that in his lyrics he’s attacking a fan of his, whose microattitudes and microdifferentiations Kweli gets precisely (“White boy with a backpack I overheard talking about how Black Star’s wack and how their tracks was flat . . . Said I’m in his top five of MCs he’d love to see perform live; he said KRS was the best”); and it’s really funny when Kweli retorts, “You’re not a purist, you’re pure SHIT.” But Kweli himself falls into the same sappy moralism as the backpacker: “You don’t preserve the culture, you disturb it,” like that’s supposed to be bad. (What’s so great about the concept of “culture” anyway, given that in hip-hop the word is always used to hurt and exclude someone?) Backpackers are an easy target, and menace linked to morality makes me feel queasy—but then, making me queasy isn’t necessarily bad, either, especially if there’s an aesthetic payoff. Here the spoken threat—”Is hip-hop worth dying for?” i.e., if you want to battle, we’ll give you a battle—plays against gentle blips, pretty flamencodelic guitar runs, a round bass, and, on the menace side, sharp, hard guitar chords.

I can envisage Triple Threat continuing to explore these creative tensions: between vocals and music, between cutting and grooving, between various DJ roles. In the skit where the guy tells the DJ to go all scratch and cut, the DJ counters that it’s a club and there are lots of females here who want to party. I think Triple Threat feel both ways: They want to rock the party but also want to rock people out of their party; want to rock the groove but also want to rock us out of our groove.