Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Hipocalypse Now

Hip-hop pre-millennial tension

By Alex Pappademas

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  Ever since Bob Dylan, that nappy-headed rhyme sayer known for his obscure press persona and healthy diss-respect for authority, visualized New York as a post-nuclear ghost town in 1963's "Talking World War III Blues," rappers have been picking the mike up to stare down Armageddon. Dylan's yarn was basically just a crack at human self-absorption, including his own, phrased as a droll shrink's-couch freestyle about joyriding down 42nd Street in a stolen Cadillac. But the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- a non-event that still forced America to contemplate its own destruction, sort of the Y2K Problem of the '60s -- gave Dylan's goof a considerable degree of topical resonance. What could have been mere surrealist tambourine banging turned into a warning wrapped in one-liners.

Fast-forward to 1998: Dylan's chillin' on the airport set of Wyclef Jean's "Gone till November" video, and in multiplexes across the country celluloid worlds are ending. Most people who saw the cataclysmically dopy Deep Impact shrugged off its vision of destruction-by-comet in less time than it took them to unstick their Pumas from the theater floor. But Busta Rhymes -- like this even needs to be said -- ain't most people. Busta took the title of his cusp-of-'99 album Extinction Level Event (Elektra) from Impact; the album cover restaged the film's climactic tsunami shot as an impressively realistic Photoshop fireball.

Too hyper an entertainer merely to stand back and pontificate, Busta packed the album itself with spring-loaded space jams and Janet Jackson steambaths, skipping over Armageddon and hailing a limo for Block Party 2001. But "Intro: There's Only One Year Left!!!", the album's opening skit, had hyperbolic hypotheticals (and exclamation points) to spare. After an adorable kid asks "Daddy, what's it gonna be like in the year 2000?", a genial white-dude father figure (whose voice gradually morphs into a studio-tweaked Satanic rumble) forecasts plagues, fish deep-frying in a boiling ocean, carnivorous extraterrestrials, and bloodthirsty cyborgs.

Busta's vision was built on thematic samples from junk-food blockbusters -- Deep Impact, but also Volcano and Independence Day, and the flash-forwards from the Terminator movies, all jumping off in a lurid pile-up worthy of Napalm Death's old LP sleeves. With its Hollywood-shuffled imagery, the skit exemplifies what writer Stephen D. O'Leary has called "popular millennialism" -- as if the Heaven's Gate sect had explained their mass suicide in jargon borrowed from Star Trek and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or the Columbine kids had built a rationale for murder out of mistranslated KMFDM lyrics.

There's still a lot of old-time-religious terror in America's conception of the Last Days, of course, but increasingly we seem to imagine the world going out not with a bang but with a secular pop. Busta's ill cyborg/alien montage, therefore, is both a sign of the times and pre-millennial hip-hop's defining moment: apocalyptic apprehension spilling out as slapstick overkill, the clamor of box-office nightmares blowing up in your face.

Paranoidly zooted but also deep-rooted, Y2K rap's sprawling, frequently self-contradicting visions of the future tap into themes that have been with hip-hop, and black music in general, since way back: distrust of authority, the early blues' yearning for an Earthly Promised Land, technophobia (and, occasionally, guarded technophilia), Five Percent Islam's the-black-man-is-God dicta, the cosmic loneliness of brothers from another planet identifying with the stars. Decades before Method Man Mad Maxed and relaxed, before the UFOlogists of LA's millennium-mad Celestial Recordings label bought one-way tickets to Planet Cybertron, before Canibus even had an e-mail account, Delta bluesmen were performing narrative songs about flood waters rising to erase their home towns, songs that gave Biblical catastrophe (not to mention the countless non-Western flood myths) a local, personal sting. My theory about all this is that the "flood song" re-entered hip-hop subliminally in 1989, via a Johnny Cash sample -- "How high's the water, mama?/Three feet high and rising" -- on De La Soul's first album, thus paving the way for songs like Outkast's "Da Art of Storytellin' (Part 2)," which is essentially just another talking blues about close-to-home disaster.

Ultimately, though, I think it's a mistake to chalk up pre-millennial hip-hop to the influence of any specific religious tradition. Busta and Brand Nubian draw on Islam, Goodie Mob and Outkast from various Christian faiths; and the Wu-Tang Clan throw both in the blender with a bugged garnish of Jeet Kune Do and Egyptology. Chances are that January 1, 2000, won't signal the Christian Rapture or the Islamic "haji," or "hardship"; what's harder to predict is what the next millennium has in store for black America. It's that fear -- specifically, the idea that unseen forces are inventing a future where the good guys have already lost -- that cuts across Y2K rap's religious divisions. As Goodie Mob's Gipp puts it on "Cell Therapy," "It's kept low how the new world plan/Means the planet without the black man."

Conspiracy-theory raps like "Cell Therapy," full of unmarked helicopters and computer-chip implants, could be installments from the African-American X-Files. But though Chris Carter's series (and movies like Oliver Stone's JFK) play on our shock and incredulity at the idea of a deceitful "shadow government" -- our sense that "it couldn't happen here" -- black America doesn't have the luxury of viewing this stuff in the abstract. From the Tuskegee Experiment to COINTELPRO in the '60s all the way up to new revelations about "racial profiling" on interstate highways, black America's been burned so many times that even the farthest-fetched accusations seem entirely believable.

In other words, Y2K rap isn't a subgenre that holds out a ton of hope for the future. Although rappers like Phoenix Orion and Canibus get geeky kicks from our increasingly virtual world, hip-hop as a whole is becoming more like Detroit techno, a genre in which the idea of an industrial society's selling the inner city for parts has always been less a scary what-if than a foregone conclusion.


The hipocalist: A definitive Y2K mix

Millennial marketing has already inspired a bunkerful of corny cash-in discs, like Y2K Beat the Clock (on Sony, celebrating 1000 years of Fatboy Slim!), and the amusing Why2K? Anti-Millennium Dance Party (featuring tracks like Donna Summer's "Last Dance" and the Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" and issued by Hip-O, the Canadian ghetto Rhino). But no one's compiled the definitive New Year's Eve of Destruction hip-hop mix yet, and time is running out. Ignore the following track list at your peril.

Jimi Hendrix, "If 6 Was 9" (Reprise, 1967). Ticking clocks, a black-hole sun, and sci-fi nut Jimi chuckling "Fall, mountains, just don't fall on me" over a sick Mitch Mitchell beat. Prince Paul's 1996 update, "If 9 Was 6," is an ill wind from Oklahoma City; DXT's "If 666 Was '96" invokes the Biblical "number of the beast."

Curtis Mayfield, "Underground" (Curtom, 1972). Backing away from the optimism of his civil-rights anthem "We're a Winner" and toward the Superfly soundtrack's haunted crime-drama-on-wax, Curtis issued this spooky semi-skit -- in which humanity, fleeing rampant pollution, deserts the surface of the Earth -- as the B-side of his "Freddie's Dead" single. Curtis also wrote "If There's a Hell Below, We're All Gonna Go," and he even called his 1996 Warner Bros. comeback album New World Order!

Sun Ra, "It's After the End of the World" (Evidence, 1972). In this overture to the pioneering free-jazz Afro-futurist's Mystery Science Theater 3000-quality screen opus Space Is The Place, Sun plays a Seventh Seal-style chess game with a Satanic pimp figure, sets up an Outer Space Employment Agency in the 'hood, warns everyone not to make plans for after the year 2000, tries to persuade sassy inner-city youths to join him on his home planet, and gets hassled by the Man. There's much dopy dialogue, some of it sampled recently on Phoenix Orion's tongue-in-cheek conspiracy-rap album Zimulated Experiencez (Celestial Recordings). But the mythical weight of Ra's message transcends the movie's porno-grade production, pointing a way out of fucked-up situations for the disenfranchised and forecasting a rain of shit for everyone else. "If this planet takes hold of an alter-destiny," Ra says, "there's hope for everyone. Otherwise . . . everyone must die." When the world (played by a Nerf ball) blows up, everyone does. (Disco advisory: in the late '70s, Black Belt Jones soundtrack composer Dennis Coffey updated Space's "Calling Planet Earth," with less Sun, more booty-shakin' Ra-rah.)

Funkadelic, "Maggot Brain" (Westbound, 1971). Mother Earth suffers another unplanned pregnancy; Eddie Hazel's extinction-level guitar solo sobs and gnashes its teeth. This was recorded while George Clinton was down with the Revelation-fixated Process Church of the Final Judgment, whose tracts fill the Maggot Brain album's liner notes. Clinton eventually abandoned explicit doomsaying, but Parliament's sublimely hydraulic 1976 single "Mothership Connection (Star Child)" updates both Sun Ra and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," as Clinton and his freakazoid entourage return to Earth "to claim the Pyramids." (Dr. Dre later jacked it for "Let Me Ride.")

Prince, "1999" (Warner Brothers, 1982). Prince was raised by Apocalypse-fearing Seventh Day Adventists, so his ongoing obsession with this stuff is a whole other story. Basically, he's terrified of Armageddon but digs the idea of repopulating the Earth afterward.

Project Future, "Ray-Gun-Omics" (Capitol, 1983). Pop-locking voice-bots critique Reagan's foreign and domestic policies over catchy laser-beam synthesizers. Sweating the possibility that our commander-in-chief will reach for the pencil sharpener and elbow "The Button" -- not an uncommon concern back then -- the chorus wonders, "Politicians are aging/What price are we paying?" (The B-side is a funky/cheesy "Pinball Wizard" update called "Arcade Lover" that anticipates Captain Funkaho's recent "My 2600," so maybe we were just pumping our whole allowance into a "Defender" machine.)

ESG, "UFO" (99 Records, 1983). This sampled-to-death art-funk classic's air-raid whines added ominous atmosphere to Public Enemy's "Night of the Living Baseheads," Gang Starr's "Take a Rest," and countless other hip-hop milestones. It sounds like the flying saucers from War of the Worlds zooming through the Lower East Side and disintegrating all the no-wave bands.

Time Zone, "World Destruction" (Celluloid, 1984). The end of Planet Rock is near. Afrika Bambaataa name-checks Nostradamus; sneering ex-Pistol John Lydon toasts marshmallows over society's ashes. The Signs of the Apocalypse Hot 100 chart in Bambaataa's 1996 album Warlocks, Witches, Computer Chips, Microchips and You (Priority) ranks hits like "Clones," "New Age Religion," and "Smart Card." In its 666th week at #1: "Extraterrestrials"!

Model 500, "No UFOs" (Metroplex, 1985). This distress call to the alien nation -- transmitted live from economically post-apocalyptic Detroit by Juan Atkins, one of techno's founding structural engineers -- builds on Ra and Clinton's mothership mythology but sounds way more urgent. "They say there is no hope, they say no UFOs/Why is no head held high?/Maybe we'll see them fly," a steely voice says as Atkins's precision-engineered synth-bass patterns dive-bomb your car.

Public Enemy, "Countdown to Armageddon" (Def Jam, 1990). With Chuck D as your unfriendly pre-millennial hall monitor barking "Armageddon is in effect! Go get a late pass!" And tuck in that shirt, mister. The fine print on the cover of PE's recent sorta-comeback There's a Poison Goin' On (Atomic Pop) says, "The millennium for many is the wall."

Leaders of the New School, "The End Is Near" (Elektra, 1993). From their expansive, Pete-Rock-smoking-dancehall-dust opus T.I.M.E.: The Inner Mind's Eye (The Endless Dispute With Reality) (Elektra). Checking the milk carton, Boogie Brown realizes it's "Expiration 2000 for the rebel or the devil on the planet . . . possible, casualties, fatalities, probable." Busta Rhymes chimes in: "Better start runnin', 'cause the end is comin' . . . sucker, motherfucker, behave yourself." There's also a reference here to Nena's new-wave nuclear-apocalypse jingle "99 Luftballons," which both Scarface and the Fugees' Pras later sampled. But the Leaders count 1999 red balloons. Eerie.

Freestyle Fellowship, "7th Seal" (Sun Music, 1993). J. Sumbi sees avenging angels emerge from "a pure black whirlwind" at Conjunction Junction and gets dragged down to Middle Earth by elves. No, really. And in the middle of the song, J. remembers how his friend got shot and how nothing in the Bible could explain it.

Killah Priest, "B.I.B.L.E." (Geffen, 1995). This bonus track on Genius's Geffen debut Liquid Swords predates Priest's philosophically dense, musically soggy Heavy Mental (Geffen). True Master's beat (unusually funky by Wu standards) makes a kid's giggle bob on the breeze, and Priest -- on hand to kick the "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth" -- vows that "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first" before bouncing whole bookmobile's worth of poignant, tangled theological scholarship off your unsuspecting cranium. Some of it even makes sense.

DJ Shadow, "Transmission 1-3" (ffrr/London, 1996). Fuzzy, scary recurring-dream interludes ("We are transmitting from the year one . . . nine . . . nine . . . nine . . . ") lifted from John Carpenter's 1987 Antichrist flick Prince of Darkness. Extra credit: Shadow's 1993 B-side "Hindsight" samples Tower of Power's "Mahdi, the Expected One," Mahdi being the Islamic prophet whose return is said to signal the beginning of the End.

Canibus and Youssou N'Dour, "How Come" (Interscope, 1997). At midnight on January 1, 2000, Jupiter will become a star, and a space probe will guide humanity to "Channel Zero." Weird -- that's the channel on which the girl in Public Enemy's "She Watch Channel Zero!?" watches her "straight-up garbage." Don't confuse this with the B-52s' haunting "Channel Z," where static fills Kate & Cindy's attic and satellite parts rain down through the ozone hole. A true conspiracy geek, Canibus talks to dolphins about cattle mutilations and disses Carl Sagan. But the Masons, or possibly Ma$e, keep slipping him weak beats.

Wu-Tang Clan, "Impossible" (Loud, 1997). "Apocalyptic" rhymes with "cryptic." This one's from Wu-Tang Forever (Loud), probably the only platinum album in history to open with a six-minute lecture about Five Percent Islam. Overflowing with references to Armageddon, racial confrontation, Bible code, Watergate, bee pollen, and Bat Day at Yankee Stadium, Forever found the Wu on some Lenny-Bruce-in-DeLillo's-Underworld shit, screaming "We're all gonna die!" on stage just to hear it screamed. "I think niggaz ain't gonna figure it out until the year two-G," the RZA says of his byzantine brainchild, and that's an optimistic estimate.

Ras Kass featuring the RZA, "The End" (Priority, 1998). Sampled talk-show host finds Illuminati in the Chevy Lumina logo. Ras enjoys "reciting a Biblical verse before I make your melon burst/Like that nigga Jules in Pulp Fiction." Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), you'll recall, kinda invented baffling one's opponents with Biblical quotations, and he probably paved the way for more than a few of these songs.

Goodie Mob, "Just About Over" (LaFace, 1998). Hip-hop's Skynyrd plug their eulogy for the Dirty South into the black-metal legacy of the Boo-Ya T.R.I.B.E. Irony check: the Mob have been talking the conspiracy-theory blues since their 1993 Cell Therapy EP (LaFace), but the monitor-freezing "multimedia" portion of 1998's Still Standing logs you onto America Online without asking permission. The struggle continues.

Outkast, "Da Art of Storytellin'," parts 1-2 (LaFace, 1998). They're teenagers staring at the stars, then their friends start ODing. Cut to them as reeling adults ducking the Four Horsemen while the sky caves in, punching rhymes through cell-phone static, and worrying about their wives and kids. The world that's ending has actual people in it, and when "Sasha Thumper" dies in "Part 1," it puts the terror and noize that follow in human perspective. Outkast are essentially alone in depicting Armageddon that way, but they nail the real-world suffering pre-millennial myth usually sublimates. Plus, nobody else's apocalypse sounds this musically vivid -- Jimi's alarmed clocks resurface in a storm of garage-rock preaching and broken-winged piano.

Method Man, "Judgment Day" (Def Jam, 1998). From Meth's highly underrated life-of-grime suite Tical 2000: Judgment Day (Def Jam). Meth surveys the post-apocalyptic landscape -- starvation, plague, misery -- and shouts, "I LIKE THIS WORLD!!!" Not to mention the bad-ass Wu-Wear Beyond Thunderdome-style cues (Gwar-inspired armor, beartrap dental work, safety pins) that come with it.

Busta Rhymes, "Intro: There's Only One Year Left!!!" (Elektra, 1998). Young Busta gets knocked out while playing on the lawn. When he wakes up, paranoid androids and hideous mutant freaks (like Ozzy Osbourne) are laying waste to the planet. Critic John Soeder said it best in last year's Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll: "I don't know about the rest of you, but I personally feel a lot less stressed about Y2K now that Busta Rhymes is working on the problem."

Presage, "The Illuminati" (Future Primitive Sound, 1999). Produced (probably in a small, dark room, with tinfoil on the windows) by Cincinnati's 1200 Hobos DJ crew, Presage shreds beats like classified documents, introduces Chomsky to Zappa, and exposes speed-pass gas stations as a fiendish Trilateral Commission trap. Imagine Donald Sutherland's park-bench CIA spook from JFK as a homeless b-boy with a boom box.


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