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Nashville Scene Beat Poets

Hip-hop/electronic deejays turn out discs bubbling with invention and sense of fun

By Bill Friskics-Warren

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  From Kool Herc to Afrika Bambaataa to Grandmaster Flash, hip-hop DJs have ranked among pop-culture's post-narrative pioneers since the advent of rap. The names of today's DJs, aliases such as Timbaland, the Dust Brothers, and Rabbit in the Moon, often appear only in the credits. But it's the digital alchemy of these mad scientists, their breakbeat bug-outs and omnivorous sampling, that has galvanized records by the likes of Missy Elliott, Beck, and Garbage, among countless others. Much as poets couch familiar images in foreign settings to convey feelings and ideas in a fresh light, these cut-creators chop up and reassemble beats, tracks, and whatever else they can get their hands on to make everything old sound new again.

Hands down, this year's DJ laureate is Prince Paul, a.k.a. Paul Huston, a Queens conceptualist who doesn't rap, sing, or scratch, but who produces brilliant, expansive, and often whacked-out records. Huston was at the helm for the first three De La Soul LPs, a trio of Stetsasonic albums, and crucial joints by 3rd Bass ("The Gas Face") and Queen Latifah ("Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children"). He released his second solo album earlier this year, A Prince Among Thieves (Tommy Boy), a gangland morality play that gives Superfly a run for its money. He did the same for Dr. Ruth on his 1996 debut, a sing-along sex-therapy call-in show called Psychoanalysis (What Is It?).

Paul's new album, So...How's Your Girl, is a pseudonymous trip through hip-hop's closet booked under the name Handsome Boy Modeling School. A collaboration with Dan the Automator of Dr. Octagon fame, the record pokes fun at the competition (i.e., Wu-Tang mixmaster RZA's kung-fu fixation), hanging its howlers on hooks from a fashion-spoofing episode of Chris Elliott's early-'90s sitcom Get a Life. Bigger and better than these well-aimed yucks, though, are Paul and Automator's beats, which range from ruminative to relentless. ("Oh, my God, they're gorgeous," marvels a dumbstruck Elliott at one point.) But even more telling is the take-all-comers tagline of the album's opening track: Over a crunching rap-metal riff that makes Limp Bizkit's Run-DMC rip-off sound, well, limp, some hired gun boasts, "Rock 'n' roll could never hip-hop like this."

The rest of the album delivers on the promise of "Rock 'n' Roll," enlisting a who's-who of alt-leaning friends and MCs along the way. Brand Nubian, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, the Beastie's Mike D, Money Mark, Sean Lennon, Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, Moloko's velvet-voiced Roisin, De La Soul's Trugoy, Company Flow's EL-P, and Father Guido Sarducci all add their two cents' worth. Biz Markie literally phones in a few lines from the Bee Gees' "Night Fever," DJ Shadow lays down some furious funk, while hot wax from Eric B. & Rakim, Three Dog Night, and early Aretha provides ample samples. If on first listen it all sounds like too much monkey business, listen again. This insider's romp through aisles of hip-hop styles is serious fun, an ecumenist's tour-de-force.

Far less serious, but just as fun, is Basement Jaxx's Remedy, a pop-house hybrid that harks back both to the turn-of-the-decade house music of Brooklyn's Todd Terry and to the transcontinental techno of groups like Snap and Dee-Lite. Simplicity and flair--splashy hooks and mile-wide grooves--are this British duo's stock-in-trade. Exotica abounds, almost always amid novel and voluptuous juxtapositions.

"Rendez-Vu" pits flamenco guitar against churning electro-house rhythms, robotic divas against sumptuous strings. The Bahian bomp of "Bingo Bango" likewise gains momentum from its digital boost. And the ethereal bossa nova of "Being With U" hints at what an Eno-produced Gilberto-Jobim collaboration might have sounded like.

Elsewhere, an agitated MC raps ragamuffin-style to the on-the-one stomp of "Jump n' Shout," while rubber-band bass whips the sexy "Red Alert" into a frenzy. "Same Old Show," with its moaning orgasmatron, promises to be even sexier--that is, until Basement Jaxx sound the alarm, letting listeners in on the joke as rescuers arrive with a hose and put the fire out.

If the record has a point, other than pushing the pleasure principle, it lies in the album's title. A tonic for the high-minded and often self-conscious opuses of the likes of Moby and DJ Shadow, Remedy is the stuff of sweaty bodies and elevated libidos--disco hedonism at its uninhibited best.

In a different vein, but also worth noting here is The Black Sounds ov Eternia (Outhouse/Revenge) by Mystik Journeymen, a West Coast indie-rap duo that keeps things loose, lean, and funky, and has loads to say about God, guts, and global politics. In the process, they also invoke playwright August Wilson, rewrite Homer's Odyssey, and refashion John Henry the steel-driving man as a modern-day rapper who, with sampler in hand, stands one of the music industry's big conglomerates on its head. As Prince Paul and company put it, rock 'n' roll could never hip-hop like this.

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