Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Singled Out

2Mex, Genius, and Brandy

By Alex Pappademas

JUNE 21, 1999:  This column's new theme song is Mos Def's solo opus "Hip-Hop," from Rawkus Unreleased, a bonus CD that's available when you purchase Rawkus's new Soundbombing II compilation. With fragments of Rakim's "Paid in Full" and De La Soul's "Breakadawn" crackling in the margins, Mos lays the following on the line: "Hip-hop is prosecution evidence/An out-of-court settlement/Ad space for liquor . . . A backwater remedy/A bitter and tender memory/A Class C felony/Stimulant and sedative/Original, repetitive/Violently competitive/A school unaccredited . . . It's all-city like Phase 2/Hip-hop will simply amaze you/Praise you/Pay you/Do whatever you say to/But black, it can't save you."

LA's Of Mexican Descent know a thing or two about hip-hop's bitter brand of tenderness; on their recent Éxitos y más éxitos EP, they kicked street-surrealist rhymes and wrestled philosophical pain, as if rapping itself had turned them into men who knew too much. Now, solo on the 12-inch single "Afternoon Focus" (Ubiquity), OMD's 2Mex poeticizes to a love object who's "b-girl hip-hop fresh" but, like the rap world itself, isn't ready "for me and my decree of misery." The uptempo production credited to "Nobody" -- all chase-scene congas and fishtailing bass lines -- brightens the corners. It's a split single; on "Caution," Aceyalone producer Mumbles surrounds the somber MC duo Dark Leaf with haunted-house murk, then gooses 'em with snare slaps straight out of a Bourbon Street funeral. Cut Chemist's rail-grinding mid-song scratch solo on "Caution" is the voice of the dude who knows all the horror-movie rules, chillin' in the balcony and heckling the suckas on the screen.

As a clutch of Southern rappers have recently demonstrated, hip-hop is the last place in pop where regionalism can still go national. But you have to take the bad with the Goodie Mob: Cool Breeze's East Point's Greatest Hit (A&M) isn't as rich and random a feast as the various Organized Noize productions -- like Outkast's superb "Slump," from Aquemini (LaFace) -- that Breeze has guested on. His "Cre-A-Tine (I Got People)" (A&M, 12-inch) thinks locally, paging through a photo album of ghetto stars and parolees, but fails to rap globally. Even with an underwater sonar bass hook, the song's a lowered Caddy that can't do nothin' but circle the block. My favorite Southern-rap product right now is JT Money's weirder, catchier single "Who Dat" (Priority, 12-inch). It features the irascible mixed-gender duo drawling rhymes about keeping territorial watch on 'hood and crew while the drum machines do a hummingbird impression and a Parliament/"Children of Production"-style choir hootie-hoos like crazy.

Whereas the "Dirty South" maps its self-contained kingdoms in funky detail, some of New York's finest -- like Genius/GZA, a core-group elder from the Wu-Tang Clan -- sound as lost in their own home town as Tom Waits's rain dogs. Early Wu revelations like "C.R.E.A.M." and Genius's own Liquid Swords (Geffen) had an air of basement-cloistered claustrophobia, so maybe we can blame the Clan's recent derelictions of dopeness -- the RZA's almost willfully wack Bobby Digital in Stereo (V2), Ol' Dirty Bastard's coast-to-coast courtroom tour -- on the vertigo of celebrity. For this crew, the world just got too big too fast.

On his new 12-inch single "Breaker Breaker" (MCA), Genius barks the CB-radio chorus as if he were calling his scattered Wu convoy for back-up; on the B-side, he updates his 1996 record-company name-check spree "Labels" as "Publicity," working rhymes around a string of magazine names -- from Ebony to Creative Loafing -- like a paranoid media critic bum-rushing the newsstand. It's a tight single, but it could use some of the flamboastin' flair NYC's Beatnuts demonstrate on "Watch Out Now" (Relativity, 12-inch), a givin'-the-competition-a-heat-rash anthem for b-boys who turn playa when the weather gets nice. The B-side "Turn It Out" features the return of Greg Nice (as in the pop-rap duo "Nice and Smooth"), plus a ridiculous flamenco hook that gets loose with the tapdance like Prince Paul & De La's "Pease Porridge."

Sometimes hip-hop remakes the unlikeliest personalities in its own image. Brandy tried to go that route last year, letting Ma$e call her his "dog chow" on her tune "Top of the World." On DJ Premier's mix of her "Almost Doesn't Count" (Atlantic), Ms. Moesha comes off significantly cooler. The original was a choice teen-break-up jam, the sigh of a popular girl in deep resignation. Premier strips the beat down to a stinging rim shot, isolates the acoustic guitar, and makes Brandy sound as if she were a year older and wiser, wondering where she went wrong. The song was a flesh wound, now it's a scar.

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