Days of the Wu
Hip-hop's quest for "the next level."
By Franklin Soults
APRIL 13, 1998: Not to slag stateside versions of drum 'n' bass, newfangled developments in art rock, or an ever-burgeoning alternative country scene, but the real "cutting edge" of American popular music is the same as it's been for much of the past two decades. If you want the equivalent of rock and roll the way your elders knew it in the '50s -- a scene where white people move to black culture, where highbrow bohemians study from lowbrow rebels, where youth solidarity breaches class divisions, where underground art and entrepreneurial zeal fuck the mainstream in every sense of the verb -- the only place you'll consistently find it is in the genre outsiders continue to call rap and insiders insist is properly known as hip-hop.
That point was brought home to me on the coldest night of this past winter when I went into the dying industrial heart of Cleveland to catch a rare, promising, barely advertised bill featuring underground "turntablists" the X-ecutioners and free-form alternative rapper Common. As Easterners from Boston to Beijing constantly complain, Cleveland is a town with no people, only cars dashing from nowhere to nowhere, yet the mid-sized club was packed with knots of rough-and-ready homeboys, bohemian white college kids, sexy middle-class black girls, and every other permutation in between -- a stylish, heterogeneous mix that gave the event a vibrancy sorely lacking at any local clubs' techno nights, or major rock shows from Cornershop to Dylan.
The stats beyond this anecdote confirm that dynamic feeling. As in every other genre, the sale of hip-hop albums and singles stagnated somewhat in the mid '90s, but according to an article by Alan Light in the April issue of Vibe, the music has now resumed a strong and steady growth that's seen its market share triple in the past decade. Where once R&B and hip-hop sold only a third as much as rock and pop, now the divide is more like 40/60 and closing.
Of course, the X-ecutioners and Common are at best just riding rap's renewed strength, not leading it. For the most part, honors for this return to form are divided between two complex camps of musicians and producers from NYC: Puff Daddy and Family, and the Wu-Tang Clan. Individual acts like Missy Elliot and the Fugees have done their part in broadening hip-hop's base and deepening its palette, and nobody apart from Ani DiFranco has challenged the major labels' market hegemony like New Orleans's self-made hustler, Master P. But they're just individual blips next to the steady stream of hit albums produced by Staten Island's inscrutable, defiant Wu-Tang brotherhood and Puffy Combs's stable of brilliant vulgarians at Bad Boy Records.
Yet both camps have reached a kind of aesthetic glass ceiling that neither they nor the masses of hip-hop crews beneath them seem likely to overcome. If hip-hop, now two decades into its lifetime, really is like rock and roll of the '50s, it should long ago have flowered into the multifaceted, self-conscious rock of the '60s -- and indeed, for a time in the late '80s the diversity of acts from Public Enemy to Ice T to De La Soul seemed to promise that it would. Since then, however, the pernicious racial antagonisms that have steadily worsened over the past few years have killed any hope that the music might reach out beyond the brutalities of ghetto life that have come to define its core mindset.
You can see that weighty truth play itself out in the recordings of either the Wu-Tang or the Bad Boy camp, but since Puffy's crew seem to be taking a breather from their tireless release schedule, a new string of albums out of the Wu-Tang brood will illustrate the point as well as anything. That's not to say these releases by associate Wu member Cappadonna, close Wu friend Killah Priest, and distant Wu business associate AZ don't have their strengths, only that there aren't nearly enough moments of brilliance to transcend the discs' limitations. And at this point, sheer brilliance seems to be the only thing that would enable these artists to take it to "the next level" that every rapper alive boasts of reaching (and so few ever do).
Even in the puny terms of pop music, this failure is no tragedy. There's more reach and pleasure to be had from the killer hooks on Cappadonna's The Pillage (Razor Sharp Records/Epic Street), the sharpest rhymes on Killah Priest's Heavy Mental (Geffen), and the imaginative, wide-ranging production choices that distinguish AZ's Pieces of a Man (Noo Trybe) than you're likely to get from whatever electronica compilation is being hyped in the pages of Spin this month. And this is all the artists seem to want. In fact, the terms on which Puffy and Wu-Tang have managed to revive hip-hop practically ensure that their records ain't gonna bring about the revolution. Wu-Tang and Puffy were saddled with an impossible situation when they started their careers. The West Coast Gangsta rap of Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and the rest of Suge Knight's minions at Death Row had run out of commercial steam. Yet the ever-increasing racial paranoia in this country made an alternative to hardcore seem like cultural suicide.
Neither Puffy at his fledgling Bad Boy records nor the Wu-Tang Clan on their 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers/RCA), solved the tough-guy problem. They just circumvented it. Puffy did that by plowing straight through hardcore's constrictions behind the double-extra-large frame of the Notorious B.I.G., a rapper with the talent, charisma, and street credibility to loosen up gangsta's constraints like no one else. It's telling that when the lead West Coast rapper, Tupac Shakur, was gunned down, in 1996, it pretty much meant the death knell for Death Row. When Biggie met the same fate scarcely half a year later, however, he and his Bad Boy associates could still live up to the morbid title of the hugely ambitious double album that they had released two weeks prior to his murder, Life After Death. No matter how cheap "Missing You" might have seemed, the space he created left room for mourning -- that is, for his family as well as "The Family."
The Wu-Tang chose another route, burrowing under the hardcore dam with a style that was the aesthetic equivalent of a tantalizing and utterly indecipherable psychedelic comic book. The off-kilter, buzzing-and-droning production of resident genius RZA combined with the crew's kung fu cryptology for an effect that was both menacing and impossible to take seriously. Who could be offended at the misogyny, black supremacism, and gratuitous violence of the rappers when each one's flipped-out persona seemed to undercut the posturing of the other eight? (Or was that nine? Ten?)
Ostensibly the two styles are at odds with each other. And in fact, the tension between the two provides the kind of healthy competition totally lacking in the East Coast/West Coast bullshit that tore up hip-hop a few years back. It can be an entertaining competition too. One of the few highlights of the most dismal Grammy show in years came when Wu-Tang's resident clown, Ol' Dirty Bastard, bum-rushed the stage to say he was robbed of the Best Rap Act Grammy by Puffy -- and after spending so much money on his new suit, too.
In truth, the two styles are actually much closer to each other than either side is willing to admit. After all, the mere fact that Ol' Dirty Bastard actually expected to win proves how pop the Wu have become. Like everyone else in hip-hop.
Just check out AZ's Pieces of Man. Brooklyn rapper Anthony Cruz was caught in the no man's land of generic East Coast rap when he released a moderately successful solo album in 1995. Then he got lucky and teamed up with Foxy Brown, Nature, and Nas to form the Firm (who joined Puffy's extended Family on tour last year), a crew whose 1997 debut was as wildly popular as any supergroup disc from the early '70s, and just as awful. Now, however, he sounds as if he'd been listening hard to Mase. Varied, funky, and utterly amoral, Pieces of Man drops "smooth criminal shit" that reaches for the pop charts with one hand while blasting its way through the ghetto with the other. If it makes the thug life sound as free and easy as a good block party, credit goes not to AZ's pedestrian raps but to whoever is behind the boards. Sampling truly lovely slices of Spanish guitar, the grittiest steel drums I've ever heard, or Nina Simone softly crooning a tender blues, AZ's producers could easily have come from Puffy's school of surefire pop, yet in fact Wu-Tang's RZA contributed to one number, and the young upstarts who put together the others have simply hooked onto the new, expansive groove of Hip-Hop 1998 by themselves -- a groove defined by its ability to incorporate almost anything as a hip-hop sample, a groove that's now up for anyone to grab.
Cappadonna's The Pillage suggests that Wu-Tang are learning how to grab some of that pop groove as well. By now, RZA and his close disciples Goldfinghaz and Tru Master have developed chaos into a trademark. Warping their samples to find some kind of new blue notes, letting the beats break down in mid song, mining one keyboard sound for a hook and another for its menacing mood -- the tactics are all so familiar they sound almost friendly, just like the R&B choruses that slip into the last third of the CD. As for Cappadonna, he talks up some violent shit, some love shit, some utterly indecipherable shit, even a few tips of the baseball bat to black-power politics. It hardly matters -- it's all just polysyllabic counterpoint anyway.
If nothing else, these releases prove how a style can continue to move
forward, accruing fans and developing new sounds, without ever maturing. If
that's a boon for youth culture, well, it isn't necessarily a boon for the
culture at large. Killah Priest's Heavy Mental tries to make something
of this point. For the most part, it's a second-rate attempt to turn hardcore
into hard thought -- its raps are confused, its beats lugubrious -- but
occasionally it gets to someplace youth culture generally doesn't. "Blessed Are
Those" and "From Then til Now," for example, are two tales of historical
decline whose mystical bent only underscores the litany of troubles faced by
African-Americans today. "What goes down must come up again," Killah Priest
raps, hopefully. If we're lucky, that might be true. For now, though, we just
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