A few cool looking dudes pose on the corner with faux Fila and Iverson jerseys, knowing that the club they loiter in front of will remain merely a backdrop for a night of hanging with the homies.?They are under 21.
Hip-hop beats sprinkled with latest R and B spill out on to the street as the hustlers and transvestites come on shift to practice their nightly occupation. A high police presence keeps tabs on the activity and randomly shakes down the odd street vendor, or administers a spot piss test.
The scent of narcotics is in the air but no where in sight. A recently emancipated teenager joins the Original homies before the club, amid high fives and head shaking as he celebrates his pardon. Flashing lights and whirring energy filter panoramically, and door of the bar across the way opens with a blast of rhyming and a peek of glowing dancers under hot strobes. Around two a.m., the scene shifts and the drunks filter into the street to fend off the beaming prostitutes tugging at their arms and wallets. Others jump into taxis to hit the ‘after hours’ spots with locals in the know, escaping the desperate transactions for intimacy.
Arm in arm, singing girls let loose with a heartfelt ballad, eternity stretching before them, baleful and confident. Not making heads of tails of said lyrical gestalt, it dawns that we aren’t in 80’s New York but present day Bangkok. Urban realities have graduated from the streets of America to capitals of the rapidly developing world, investing urban music with energy now buried, in the land of its birth, under a mountain of gold chains.
A worldwide baby boom tied to the solid gains made by middle classes in Asia and South America since the end of the cold war, has anticipated an explosion in teenage fashion and culture. While kids in Britain have made up their own progressive Brit-hop and Garage styles, its still the US sound that dominates the sonic palate in places where people spend most of their time out of doors.
The impassioned style of Eminem, brilliantly coordinated for global dominance with 8 Mile, reaches deep into the experience of teens who are not lost in the fantasy of being gangsters as much as how to make something out of mediocre prospects. It’s mostly the B-boys with state health care, as in Germany, who have the deepest seeded gangster fantasies, and the most lurid graffiti art these days.
The textural malleability of rapping on the ears of the Brazilian or Czech native carries the sound of resistance, a cold stare back at reality, and the klaxon of American authority all at once. Trance, Drum and Bass, and even House music can’t even compete with its delivery. With their alienating repetitions, western club music logic is all about distances and the names of artists are strictly for headz. Hip-hop’s ‘rapping heads’ jump right out of your idiot box, whether you are in Jakarta or Morocco, provoking anything but anonymity. Nobody listens to techno, indeed.
What power is flexed through the rhythm and cadence of the now formalized MCs fronting on the various MTVs worldwide, has been cloned in every conceivable language by now, and is as ubiquitous as the string of forgettable stars the Neptunes production team has ushered into platinum riches.
Not since Phil Spector developed a sound that could painted every exaltation of 60’s Black America in Technicolor, has one outfit stamped their particular signature on pop music. R and B’s durability bodes well for the future of hip-hop, even if in the place of its birth, Kid Rock and Fred Durst occasionally gets props. The ‘Tunes success, while more than deserved underlines the power of the beat over lyrical content these days. After more than a decade of chart toppers, today’s rhymes rarely hit harder than Machiavellian fantasy and the odd cautionary tale.
This would all be lamentable if there wasn’t one significant stride forward from grinding mid 90’s Gangstsa styling. Whether it’s Timberlakes’ wafer thin seducer or Nelly’s populist nudist (Global warming message not withstanding) that is fillin’ the dance floor, it’s not a cheesy feeling when the grooves are Pharrell Williams tight. Jordan wearing wallflowers be damned, global audiences demand Hip-hop they can dance to.
Go underground with the Streets, Big Dada records or even the Gorillaz (Del can’t make a wooden nickel on his home turf) if science is what you seek these days, or read the lyrics off the net, because today’s rapper is now the spice for a saccharine J-Lo chorus, or creamy filling for dour Evanescence digi-grunge.
It’s the Monosodium Glutamate rather, because the more they serve up apparently the deeper we reach in our pockets. In our Bangkok club its not unusual to hear the same tune a few times in a night, flapping lips trying to mouth the unknown words over familiar enough phonetics. The fire of Eminem’s delivery conveys an inner strength and control on the verge of combustion rendering articulation, which would most likely dilute his technical purity, unnecessary.
Consider that there is probably no more important American artist with a worldwide following today. Snoop, 50 cent, Nelly, Missy Elliot also inspire emulation, a cool that represents more about how to carry oneself rather than the ‘hard knock life.’ Whether surrounded by nubile dancers posing as girlfriends or dissertating on the wonders of their tricked out automobiles, the videos confirm the message of the music, that life’s a party. In between the lines, the subtext behind designer tire rims have or how many girls wanna get with you is lost in the flow of words going by, and the easy E for ecstasy grooves.
While the pop charts are chock full of schlock featuring a verse by a Made MC, the return of the beat, and the religious devotion of hip-hop fans, has been the real key to socializing the music, and powering the producers to hit-maker status. You can pick up the new Justin Timberlake and count how many hits the Neptunes have kicked down (2) and how many filler tracks, and the same goes for Dr Dre. It’s gotta be hilarious how many agents try to gain ‘credibility’ for has beens and no talents, by begging for just one single. Did someone say Busta Rhymes and Mariah Carey?
MTV Asia has already been shifting its playlists towards local artists in the last two years, and has had remarkable success selling Korean artists to Japanese music buyers, and vice-versa. It’s hard to imagine that the RIAA is accounting correctly when they say that sales for music are slumping. The median age of populations in developing markets is getting younger and has greater disposable income. Without the hip-hop cash cow, they certainly would suffer further loss of market share. Yes, it’s Hammer time once again.
The history of hip-hop is one of tension between the flow of the funk, and the depth of the microphone technique. Before being embraced by MTV, and make no mistake that it was shunned, college radio was instrumental in growing the edgy new art form to wider audiences, and also arguably provided a certain imperfect quality control, that kept the focus on the MC. From the outset, with the embrace of Run DMC and MC Hammer, the images attached to hip-hop were glitzy and non-threatening.
College radio meanwhile, has become alternative, kids who grew up with Gangsta funk and ‘Yo, MTV Raps,’ have a completely different perception of the science. Lauren Hill, while cool, is not really an MC but wins awards in the category. Hip-hop has emerged from the underground worldwide thanks to a return of the funkiness to the music. That beat retains its sample ability and mixes identifiable reference points with a lot of room for experiments, ensuring its survival, even if the soul of the genre is lost on global ears or to bottom lines intermittently.
The flows of the American idiom remain dominant in hip-hop, but there’s no reason to doubt that the DIY nature of beat science, and the amazing simplicity of digital production, won’t make the industry’s attempt at global domination as thin on the ground our increasingly watered down New World Order. The Limeys are already moving ahead. Let’s hope there’s less ambivalence about the illness of the nations Rap, than there is about our foreign policy.