Perfect Sound Forever

What Killed Underground Hip-Hop?

Company Flow: photo courtesy of Rawkus

By Chris Smith (November 2001)

1. I'm sitting here in my fairly dinky, poorly-lit dorm room listening to Faust IV on headphones and thinking of the way a certain breed of music fan concentrates on, to the exclusion of all else, certain sonic attributes of music genres. Take, for example, Krautrock: pulses, drones, and polyrhythms. When certain bands or artists who possess these attributes get picked up on and name-dropped ad infinitum, it always appears as if aspects of their musical oeuvre get subsumed by what's regarded as "influential." Can were perhaps one of the few outfits to truly throw the rules away-to not only open fissures in a musical landscape and then get out the jackhammer, so to speak-their output as far-ranging as the soothing proto-"world-beat" (which, actually, brings us to the problematic nature of classification, particularly when music collectors become at once tourists and taxonomists) of Future Days and the visionary psychedelia and noise freak-outs of, respectively, "Mother Sky" and "Peking O." Yet hipsters today tend to neglect the true power and beauty of their music, reducing them to a name and little else. Maybe, I'm now thinking, this is what happened to the Wu-Tang Clan.

In 1993, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers dropped into a musical landscape littered with bland R&B crooning and soon-to-become-stale permutations on the G-Funk sound (Zapp's "More Bounce to the Ounce" beat was ubiquitous). Past hip-hop innovators such as De La Soul were descending into bitterness and sameness, while A Tribe Called Quest's tightest and most inventive album yet met with a lack of commercial success; Del tha Funkee Homosapien and the Souls of Mischief were both dropped from their label. There was, however, hope on the horizon: Del and the Souls would re-emerge as the independent Hieroglyphics collective, while the Bay Area's DJ Shadow and Blackalicious would release a 12" that created quiet ecstasy among those in the know. And, to the greatest fanfare, arrived the Wu.

Their debut album recanted any and all pre-existing templates for hip-hop sound, opting for a befuddling (and almost Godspeed-You-Black-Emperor!-ish, come to think of it) combination of grimy Stax beats, claustrophobic string loops and lurching, dissonant basslines, and musique concrete detritus such as scratchy kung-fu dialogue. The self-described "rugged and raw" 9-MC unit seemed, for the next two years, nearly unstoppable as they gained momentum in the mainstream. But signs of contamination soon set in (Method Man's duet with Mary J. Blige and subsequent leading-man ubiquity, Ol' Dirty Bastard's even more unlikely guest appearance on a Mariah Carey track), and cries from the underground rap press of sell-out-of KISS solo-album syndrome-were uttered, paralleling the hey-this-lowbrow-rap-stuff-isn't-so-bad-after-all heralding of the Wu as sonic innovators by new-music magazines such as The Wire, who one can't imagine the RZA gleefully feeding his out-of-control, Pynchonesque paranoid fantasies to.

By the time its 1997 double album package arrived, which many said was high on dross, the Wu-Tang had begun to fade. Though last year's gritty, choppy, and slapdash The W was heralded by some as a return to form (it is, at any rate, a damned entertaining listen, its numerous jarring edits and haphazard performances evoking something like Mingus' legendary, disastrous Town Hall Concert), most will continue to see a record like the Genius' Liquid Swords as not only their sonic but lyrical apogee, before Prince Rakeem began experimenting with tinny Casiotone keyboards and the group's kung-fu slang began to seem like it was holding an extended, increasingly incoherent ganja-fueled conversation with itself.

On the fade-out of Liquid Swords' dourly hypnotic "Shadowboxin'," a lo-fi sample from one of the old-school martial arts films seen on low-budget inner-city UHF affiliates proclaims that a group of assassins were torn apart at the height of their fame. Opportunism and groupthink seem the most likely culprits for Wu-burnout, but sometimes I can't help but think a sleepwalking, honeyed (if understandably fascinated) critical response had something to do with the group's sudden artistic decline and descent into laziness. If critics told the Wu they could do no wrong, if RZA began to believe that he possessed some prolific Sun-Ra-like genius and it was not the curious low-budget-ness of his stark beats (that music-press types so often fetishize) that created their signature sound, soon copycatted by everyone from Bone, Thugs, and Harmony to Puff Daddy and Nas' (to name another artist who "fell off") unbearably turgid-complete with a crucifixion video clip-"Hate Me Now," then maybe we've got ourselves to blame, folks.

2. Of course, it's probably not that simple. In 1997, not long after the release of the ill-fated Wu-Tang Forever, a group by the name of Company Flow released a compilation of its early, buzz-generating underground singles and B-sides on the then-new imprint Rawkus. A grimmer, darker, lower-fi, and far more prolix record than the Wu's debut, Funcrusher Plus seemed intent on upping the ante (if Ghostface Killah's obscurantism had grown a bit humdrum, Co Flow's El-P-the only MC to thank Philip K. Dick in his liner-notes shout-outs-one-upped him instantly with a plunge into sci-fi terror). It was an amazing record, glowing with the definite aura of happy-accident innovation, a sort of disbelief that this is all happening in a studio and on hissing tape in real time, that one hears on the greatest garage-rock (think the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, the Monks) and many post-punk oddities (This Heat and Napalm Death's Peel Sessions). However, it was also at times monomaniacally obsessed with proving its own authenticity. Threatening so-called pimps, players, and hustlers within an inch of their Cristal-soaked lives, El-P and his occasional cohorts often came off as almost unbearably self-righteous, though it was the sense of desperation and hunger one got from their fired-off verses-the idea that they'd been spitting on mics for years with nothing to show for it-that made the album into a kind of strangely magnificent work of outsider art (those cohorts, come to think of it, are still unknowns).

But it was this emphasis on authenticity that, I will posit, led to Rawkus' downfall. Though the release of a series of staggeringly great 12"s featuring Mos Def culminated in the focused, concise, and often beautiful Black Star album, recorded with Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek (who has since revealed his commercial aspirations) and Mos Def's solo follow-up, which had many comparing the label to Tommy Boy in the Native Tongues heyday, many think subsequent volumes of the Lyricist Lounge compilation-even if the second contains Co Flow's "Patriotism," an overbearing, self-aggrandizing, heavy-handed, and of course insanely great tirade on jingoism-to say nothing of a contrived and unfunny MTV comedy series whose connection to Rawkus seemed tenable, revealed a dilution at work. Was this the result of a backlash against the likes of Co Flow, a general fatigue with keepin'-it-real authenticity?

Maybe some accused Rawkus of being afraid to let it loose, of not exactly being the most fun-loving label in the land (though the mannered pretention of Anticon would certainly give them a run for their money), but something stranger seemed to be happening; one only needed to give a listen to the crossover-ish and sadly witless Pharoah Monch's "Simon Says" for evidence that the label, perhaps suffering from megalomania induced by looking at one too many laudatory Village Voice articles while realizing that political consciousness of the free-Mumia sort doesn't sell. Co Flow, now disbanded, began somehow to seem as remote and Godard-ishly detached as all those processed-vox R&B divas of the now-distant past on its (awful) final single, "End to End Burners." Maybe it was the paradox between trying to please the critical/intellectual "backpackers" and the freewheeling club-music crowd that led Rawkus to trip over its own fat laces. Faceless would-be-mainstream MC's in the vein of the gimmicky and overrated Thirstin Howl III and thugged-out cameo appearances by now-irrelevant rappers made a once-iconoclastic label's roster start to seem more like the cast of the latest Funkmaster Flex mixtape.

3.  Now I'm listening to Power 99 FM, a station which proclaims about nine echo-plexed times an hour that it is Philadelphia's Number One Station For Hip-Hop And R&B. Sure. The funny thing, though, is that I'm absolutely loving it. If my seventeen-year-old self, a kind of Holden Caulfield in baggy pants with DJ's Vadim and Krush in headphones permanently welded on, could see me now, he'd want to kick me in the teeth-shamelessly grooving to Jay-Z's delirious "I Just Wanna Love U" and whatever Mystikal's bellowing out these days ["Mystikal Fever"?] two of the most shameless and cheesy records to exist since Midnight Star said they wanted to be your freak-a-zoids and Motley Cre were asking Illinois arenas if they were ready to shout at the devil.

It could be, of course, that I've become a victim of what's in vogue among the critics this season, now receiving my musical nourishment from the sleek, sly, and of course very mainstream burnished-to-a-sheen Nintendo-blip sound of producers like the Neptunes and the heralded Timbaland, who have stolen the thunder from the stumbling tongue-twisters of the self-proclaimed underground.

But at the same time I can't help but feel that this music, however bleak or joyous or futuristic you want to call it, doesn't care how critics respond to it; these tracks may be absurdly funky, sure, but this derives from the fact that they're italicized, airbrushed, ballooned-out wildstyle caricatures of funk. Like the early Wu-Tang and Gravediggaz tracks that sounded like they'd been soaked in formeldahyde, it's the fact that someone would release anything this, well, outrageous that fuels these songs' near-brilliance. The skittering tablas of Missy Elliot's "Get Ur Freak On" (the subversive brilliance of which I didn't realize until I heard it working on the loading dock of a department store) or the my-first-303 bass-squelch riff on Li'l Mo's "Superwoman" are essentially signifiers about as empty as pummeling, Iommi-deep guitar chords or shouted countoffs, after all; they're in the song not because of the self-conscious spirit of innovation but because they're sneering fuck-offs of the sort that have fueled all gloriously mindless music. Someone simply thought those tablas sounded stupid fresh, not because they evoke the windswept vistas of Muslimgauze's output, right?

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