What happened to this guy?
I was out of town over the past few days, so I missed a big weekend for rap nostalgics. Over the past couple of days, the New York area saw three huge festivals full of rap veterans: Rock the Bells on Randall’s Island, the Wild Style 25th Anniversary show in Central Park, and the Rock Steady Crew 30th Anniversary show in Newark; I wonder how anyone chose among them. If those three shows prove anything, it’s that older New York rappers are still totally capable of holding down successful careers but that those careers are more likely to center around the reunion-tour circuit than around any real interaction with circa-2007 pop-charts. It’s been years since we’ve heard new albums from Rakim and Slick Rick and EPMD, but all of them can still tour. And some of those rap veterans who maintain active recording schedules (I’m thinking specifically of the Boot Camp Clik here) have smartly adjusted expectations, catering to a growing cult audience rather than making pandering pop-moves and attempting to stay commercially relevant. New York rap’s two big hall-of-fame exceptions are Jay-Z and Nas, both of whom are keeping their crossover appeal mostly intact even as both of them are now releasing albums primarily concerned with aging. But when aging New York rappers attempt to maintain their popularity, they’re more likely to pull embarrassing moves: Busta Rhymes’ last megabudget album, LL Cool J joining G-Unit. In the rest of the country, though, things are different. E-40, Common, Bun B, and Pimp C are all getting up there, but they’ve all managed to adjust to rap’s changing styles without seriously compromising their own core aesthetics. Given all that, I’ll be really curious to watch what happens with the Fixxers, the new duo of two West Coast veterans who aren’t even bothering to pretend that they’re doing something other than chasing trends. I’ve yet to hear “Can U Werk Wit Dat” on the radio in New York, and the song’s low-budget video hasn’t been getting any Rap City burn, but I’m told that the single has been inescapable out west for months now. DJ Quik and AMG now have major-label deals for the first time in almost ten years, and they’ve achieved that with a song that sounds absolutely nothing like the stuff that they’ve been doing for years and years. So is this a triumph or a capitulation? Or both?
Quik is one of the great producers in West Coast rap history, and his sound has always been fuller and more orchestrated than those of his peers: guitars, organs, pianos, synths, DJ cuts, sleighbells, horns, bass-pops. Up until a couple of years ago, he was releasing indie-label albums that only slightly updated the warm, organic hum of his successful early records. I really liked Trauma, his 2005 album, but nobody talked about it much. Last year, he spent five months in prison, apparently for pulling a gun on his own sister. He must’ve spent those months making adjustments, since he came out sounding nothing like he had before. When he got out, he formed the Fixxers with AMG, a rapper who I mostly just know as a frequent Quik sidekick, which says more about my ignorance than AMG’s career. The first song the new duo put out was “Can U Werk Wit Dat,” and it’s basically a snap song. Quik has eliminated all the fripperies from his production and gone minimalist: a spare drum-track, an itchy and repetitive little synth-riff, nothing else. And Quik’s voice is also totally different, a hoarse snarl in place of his old darting, high-pitched conversational flow. Listening passively, there’s barely any hint that this is the same Quik. And he’s even changed his name, dropping the DJ for some reason. The change between Trauma and “Can U Werk Wit Dat” is sweeping and fundamental; it reminds me of that episode of Seinfeld where George decides to follow the opposite of all his natural impulses.
I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss Quik’s old style, but “Can U Werk Wit Dat” is a really good song. Quik and AMG sound more relaxed and assured than the thick-accented teenagers who usually make this sort of hook-centric dance-rap; I hear no desperation in their voices. And as simple as the track is, it’s also beautifully constructed; everything hits at the exact right time, and all the sounds gleam. Quik has always been a gifted imitator; his track for Truth Hurts’ “Addicted” made better use of a histrionic Bollywood vocal sample than Timbaland managed on any of his tracks from the same era, and “Can U Werk Wit Dat” beats the Atlanta dance-rap kids at their own game. The Fixxers remain a somewhat mysterious project; up until very recently, that one song was all anyone had heard. But now they finally have a couple of new track on their MySpace page. There’s a “Werk Wit Dat” remix with a predictably garbage Jim Jones verse and a funny moment where AMG gives instructions on how to download the ringtone. And there’s another new song, “So Good,” which follows the same template: lyrics about sex, 8-bit synths, barely-there drums, a sung hook from AMG that sort of works despite being terrible. Quik is back to rapping in his old voice; maybe he just had a cold when he recorded “Werk Wit Dat.” Rich Boy is on it. It’s OK. It’s not embarrassing, anyway. And maybe Quik can really ride this stuff back to commercial prominence. Either way, I can’t blame him for wanting to actually sell records. If it doesn’t work out, the nostalgia circuit will always be there.