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Rap music's emerging new breed

By Michael McCall

AUGUST 24, 1998:  Even the most ardent supporters of hip-hop have been decrying the music's staleness in recent years. "Big money and commercial radio have made a mockery of rap," states a major article on the state of the genre in the September issue of Vibe magazine. While the same evils--money and radio--can also be accused of dry-cleaning the grit out of alternative rock and country music, rap has undeniably been struggling through a dismal artistic period hampered by superficial posing and uninspired ideas.

As in other genres, though, there are always a few obstinate individualists working around the edges, presenting interesting and sometimes groundbreaking work that helps lend the music a sense of relevance. So while 1998 may belong to the endless gangsta clichs of Master P and his million-selling No Limit crew, the future belongs to others. A couple of years from now, up-and-coming hip-hop performers won't be citing Master P as a musical influence; instead, they'll likely be tossing praise onto more original acts sneaking in from hip-hop's flanks.

In the Vibe article, writer S.H. Fernando Jr. rightly tabs Timbaland, Tricky, and Wu Tang Clan's RZA as hip-hop's current artistic torchbearers. But there's also a new underground of positive energy and clever creativity that's just starting to emerge. And judging from these newcomers' albums, rap is poised to move into a more interesting and viable direction. Already, this year has seen the release of such worthy records as The Sunz of Man's The Last Shall Be First, Goodie Mob's Still Standing, Queen Pen's My Melody, and, here at home, Utopia State's fine Where Y'all From?

Two other potential leaders in rap's future--Jersey City's Canibus and Los Angeles' Black Eyed Peas--have earned prime spots on hip-hop's annual summer extravaganza, the Smokin' Grooves tour. (The tour was scheduled to arrive at Starwood Amphitheater on Aug. 24, but the date was canceled this past Monday.) Canibus, a protg of Wyclef Jean, is getting the biggest boost from the tour, although he has already generated an enormous buzz in urban-music circles, thanks in part to his standout contribution to the Bulworth soundtrack.

Although Canibus has been celebrated for incorporating African and Caribbean influences into his work, there's another reason his upcoming album, scheduled for a September release, has become the most anticipated debut in rapdom. All year, the newcomer has been locked in a rhymin' duel with veteran rap star LL Cool J. Their on-record trading of outrageous insults has blown up into the biggest musical bout since the East Coast-versus-West Coast rap battles that ended with the violent (and still unsolved) murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.

While Canibus has gained loads of attention for his verbal sparring with LL Cool J, it's his prowess as a rhymer and his exotic musical tastes that set him apart. A native of Jamaica who grew up in Jersey City, Canibus indeed raps with articulate force and agility. His debut album overplays the boasts, but when he offers engaging commentary on personal integrity and space-age futurism, he shows that he's as inventive with his mind as he is with his mouth. Although he is guided in the studio by such formidable talents as Wyclef Jean and DJ Premier, the highly individual grooves in his tightly wrapped musical joints clearly belong to no one but him.

While Canibus may be the most-likely-to-succeed newcomer in hip-hop, Black Eyed Peas are more intriguing and certainly more original. With their new Interscope Records release, Behind the Front, this L.A. trio presents topical, life-enhancing rhymes based on positive vibes and progressive social thinking.

The three Peas--who go by Will.I.Am, Apl.de.ap, and Taboo--largely frame their raps with live instruments, a move that puts them in the small-but-potent tradition of A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots. Like those bands, the Peas combine exuberant music with raps that roll out like college essays, examining life and love in the inner city while offering plenty of high-minded advice. The group's slow-baked, funky grooves flow with laid-back ease, tastefully punctuated by trumpets, flutes, organs, marimbas, and other soul and jazz influences.

"We keep it at a higher level," Will says in the album-opening song, "Fallin' Up," which attacks the rap community's consumerist tendencies and its gangsta-fantasy excesses. ("We don't use violence to represent./We just use our intelligence and talent.") Like other up-and-coming rap teams, the Peas are among a new generation of rappers who have grown weary of corporate exploitation. They're coming from a new place, they say, "Where the music is the business, but the business isn't the music."

The band does use samples, but it employs them with an inventive ear: For instance, the Peas extract a great rhythm track from a Meters song on their own "Clap Your Hands." They recognized that replicating such an inherently funky sound would be a formidable challenge for other musicians. So the trio took the Meters' original rhythms, as well as their New Orleans-style chants, to build a fresh song that merges Crescent City grease with modern-day methods and meanings.

They're just as circumspect with other samples, which come from a wide variety of sources, including Brazilian percussionist Paulinho Dacosta, soul singer Angela Winbush, new wave rockers Blondie, and a Middle Eastern tune that throbs with liquid soul. Proving that they're populists as well, they even sample the theme song from the movie Grease, though it's all but impossible to pick out in the catchy "Joints & Jams."

With 16 songs and over 74 minutes of music, the Black Eyed Peas' debut sometimes gets in a rut; like many rap congregations, they're overly concerned with filling every song with lines from each member. Indeed, some prudent editing would have helped lift a promising debut into something with even more impact and importance. Even so, Behind the Front offers several of the year's most entertaining rap songs.

In "Positivity," the album's closer, the trio stages a resounding call for the rap community to move away from the violent posturing that has led to so much bloodshed among rap stars and the communities that spawned them. The song even includes a section that calls down those rappers who aim their words at each other instead of at more important concerns. "These rap fans are taking this shit serious," Will.I.Am sings. "It ain't New York versus L.A., 'cause really it's/Hip-hop with a big ol' problem/Let's see what we can do to solve 'em/We got to keep it on the positive."

Set to an inventive combination of acoustic guitar, tightly snapped snare, tinkling vibraphone, and low-key trumpet purrs, the song is as smart as it is sensitive. The Black Eyed Peas are serving up some serious soul food on Behind the Front. Given time to develop, they could become one of the bands that helps transform hip-hop into the kind of emphatically positive agent of unity and social change that soul music was three decades ago.

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