After some delay (holiday season-related), it's time to pick up where we left off with the final stretch of Terminal Vibration. Tying up loose ends. The second of these post-post entries is a mop up of all the hip hop that fell between the cracks in the Edge Of No Control and Machine Soul chapters. The former a mash up of edge-of-industrial and hip hop, while the latter essayed the most electronic precincts at the edges of the sound, today we focus on the jagged line running through the hardcore end of hip hop.
This post actually had its roots in a handful of records that I've often though correlated with each other pretty tightly, a list that I gradually padded out to an extended 15. The correlation I'm talking about? Rap and rock 'n roll. Yea!! No!? I can hear you groaning in the back! Don't check out just yet though: even if mapping disparate genres to rock history is one of the great music journo clichés, in this case I think it's rather apt.
What was rap if not the continuation of rock's rebellion and sonic rupture in light of everything that came before, as if the needle had been dragged across the record to pick up again on totally different song with a totally different sound that nevertheless still made your parents uncomfortable. Machine beats and scratching serving the exact same function as amplification and the electric guitar did for rock, with rapping itself a turn of the tables in the same way the ragged fury of rock singers broke completely from the prior decade's idea of the parameters of what an acceptable voice on the radio sounded like.
If rock's de facto birth came in the 1950s, hardcore rap came into its own in the eighties, and in both cases technology had a hand in the transition. For the first time, amplification allowed the traditional big band to be upstaged by a noisy quartet or even power trio, while the arrival of the drum machine signaled the demise of the live band in hip hop, which had been the lifeblood of rap's earliest records.
The skyscraper-crumbling beats of Run-D.M.C. and Rick Rubin were like a line drawn in the sand, their unvarnished skeletal structure a complete affront to the fluid live funk of Spoonie Gee and the Sugarhill Gang. The landscape shifted completely by mid-decade, and crashing beatboxes became THE dominant sound in hip hop, at least until the sampler came in to offer an even broader palette of sound (rock's equivalent being Revolver, psychedelia and beyond). Producción, kimo!
So now, let's take a walk between the parallel dimensions...
Ground zero. After only a handful of LPs by figures like Kurtis Blow and Sugarhill Gang, rap's favorite sons laid down an album of their own. The Furious Five were arguably the scene's first hardcore crew to turn in a full-length, which pulls in a brace of their early 12"s. Similarly, Chuck Berry's debut pulls in a bunch of the 7" singles that put him on the map, and the rest was rock 'n roll history. In both cases, the single was the format of choice and the LP itself almost an afterthought. There's still a need to hedge their bets too, with The Furious Five's ballads and Berry's Havana Moon (incidentally, one of my favorite Berry tunes).
In both cases, the music might sound old to younger years, but when you finally do connect with it — really GET it — it quickly becomes apparent that it's lost none of its power in the intervening years. The Stones got their start with covers of Berry's tunes a decade later, while The Message wound up sounding like thee Rosetta Stone of modern rap, so far ahead of its time that it took about fifteen years for it to become obvious. Only Rammellzee vs. K-Rob's Beat Bop sounds more impossibly prescient, and that didn't come out until two years later.
Instrumentals. The Ventures were one of the many surf groups that kept the rock torch burning through the lean years after Buddy's death, Elvis' enlistment and Chuck's incarceration. Sadly, the instrumental would become decreasingly important to rock music as the decade wore on, but in hip hop it's remained a vital part of the culture. Malcolm McLaren an avowed outsider to said culture — he'd come from managing The Sex Pistols and Bow Wow Wow — he became enamored with the sounds he heard beaming across the Atlantic.
He managed to record a whole LP inspired by rap, which featured Buffalo Gals, a tune that even turned out to be an unlikely hit. Novel for its mash up of hoedown/hip hop and McLaren's own stilted rapping, its a charming document of the era's new wave/rap interface at its most porous. D'ya Like Scratchin' was something of a companion piece to that record, full of instrumentals like She's Looking Like A Hobo and World's Famous, which are peak-era examples of producer Trevor Horn's ZTT aesthetic (shorthand for nearly an Art Of Noise record, but not quite).
Interesting to note The Art Of Noise's outsized influence on rap and RnB, with two of this EP's tracks forming the basis for later touchstones of the genre (Amerie's Some Like It and Janet Jackson's Velvet Rope.
Run-D.M.C. and The Rolling Stones fit together like a glove. Both crews with their names up in lights, early superstars of the genre, setting the tone and laying down the vernacular. Perhaps the more obvious comparison for Run-D.M.C. would be The Beatles, a comparison they'd even made in passing on more than one occasion, but there's no getting around the fact that both groups hit harder and more dangerous than anything that came before. Run-D.M.C. even had their big crossover hit two years later on a collaboration with one of The Stones' stateside spiritual successors, Aerosmith.
The big draw for me here on Run-D.M.C. are the massive beats, hitting harder than anything else at the time, and with a razor sharp precision. Songs like Hard Times and It's Like That are essentially rock hard electro grooves stripped of all the trimmings, a connection borne out in the crew's delivery, which is directly descended from Planet Rock. In fact, I've often thought their style sounded more old school than the early rap they supplanted, but there's no getting around the intensity they brought to the table.
The technicians. Mantronix was the first producer to really make a point of employing electronics in his beats, putting them center stage (the Kraftwerk of hip hop?). Nevertheless, with a few exceptions, his music hit harder than just about anything else around, a perfect marriage of power and precision. I reckon that's like The Who: Pete Townsend using his guitar as a sonic tool, shaping sounds as often as musical progressions, while Keith Moon's drumming ran with clockwork precision even as it sounded impossibly wild.
Then there's the fact that both groups inspired die-hard revivals of their own about a decade after the fact (Mannie Fresh/Cash Money in the case of Mantronix vs. The Jam and all the mod punks in the case of The Who). Townshend even turned out to be a relatively early adopter of electronics in rock, famously heard in the opening bars of Baba O'Riley on Who's Next! Which, of course, brings us to the Spike Lee connection in Summer Of Sam. I rest my case.
Ah yes, now we're getting into the records that inspired this list in the first place! The idea here is two artists that not only hit harder — with a raw power unmatched at the time — but were also virtuosos in their respective arenas (Hendrix's guitar and LL on the mic). It's not uncommon to hear either of them touted as the GOAT to this day. Both artists sloowwwed down the tempo, focusing the intensity like sunlight through a magnifying glass (or even a lens made from ice), setting the pace for hard/core rock/rap in the process.
It's easy enough to pair I Can't Live Without My Radio with Purple Haze, both of which are blazing statements of intent that remain playlist staples to this day, but both figures also had a sensitive side, essayed in songs like I Can Give You More and The Wind Cries Mary). As if to drive the point home, LL's partner in crime (and architect of this record's beats) Rick Rubin was a total metal head, going so far as to get thrash pioneers Slayer signed to Def Jam!
The bastardization! Where LL Cool J and Hendrix's power was informed by nimble technique, this lot bludgeon you over the head and let the chips fall where they may. DJ Code Money's scratches ricochet across the crashing drum soundscapes that back Schoolly D's twisted nursery rhyme delivery, just as Leigh Stephens' wild guitar histrionics stalk around the edges of Dick Peterson's quintessential hard rock wail. In both case, where rock meets block rockin' (even if Schoolly D goes so far as to title a track I Don't Like Rock 'N Roll).
Surely everyone's heard the stories surrounding Blue Cheer, a band so loud that the lead singer quit the band out of fear he'd go deaf. Schoolly D's delivery of criminal-minded tales managed to be simultaneously hardcore and nonchalant, putting him down in the history books as the godfather of gangsta rap. Perhaps the Beastie Boys License To Ill might have made an equally valid conceptual fit, but Schoolly-D's beats hit that much harder. Besides, he's the one that inspired this whole list in the first place.1
Good time boys in the house. If Ice-T was always a hardcore rapper at heart, he nevertheless always maintained a sense of humor. This in contrast to many of his more po-faced progeny, who often proved guilty of trying too hard to be hard. Maybe that's why he never seems to capture the lofty heights of figures like N.W.A. or Public Enemy in the public imagination? I know, I know, there's also his heavy metal band Body Count to consider, along with his healthy stream of acting gigs that have continued right up to the present day, but you can't knock the man who brought down Nino Brown.
Similarly, Grand Funk Railroad are rarely brought up in rock retrospectives but they were a huge proposition in their day, filling stadiums and turning out blockbuster albums in rapid succession. Emerging from Flint, Michigan around the same time as all the great Detroit rockers, at their absolute hardest Grand Funk came as loud as any of the competition. Just check out their 1970 Live Album (rock's greatest live album ever?). Of course, Ice-T and Grand Funk also both leavened their good time music with a healthy dost of protest and street-level political commentary, a further connection between the two.
Taking things even further, Public Enemy and the MC5 were by their very nature political revolutionaries, putting together their own alternative networks (PE's Security Of The First World vs. MC5 manager John Sinclair's White Panthers). On the sonic front, both crews' music was wilder still than anything else around, raising the stakes yet again. Just a moment ago, I asked whether Grand Funk's Live Album was the best rock album ever... well it's in the running, but Kick Out The Jams is even better. The MC5 fused straight up garage punk with molten proto-metal, hitting with a raw combination of heaviness and speed that's still in a class of its own.
They were a live force to be reckoned with as well, captured here on Kick Out The Jams — recorded over two nights (Devil's Night and Halloween Night) at Detroit's Grande Ballroom — while twenty years later Public Enemy were widely recognized as rap's greatest live force on stage. The Bomb Squad's dense tangle of hard-hitting beats and nagging sampladelia put Public Enemy in a class of their own, with Chuck D and Flava Flav's raps sounding unlike anyone else around. Taken altogether, there hasn't been anything quite like it since.
There may have been records that gestured in the general direction, but for all intents and purposes this was the birth of metal (gangsta rap). Led Zeppelin took a profane angle on the delta blues, turning the volume up to the proverbial 11 and imbuing the proceedings with a Gothic dread that would only continue grow with time. Likewise, N.W.A.'s self-styled street raps took Public Enemy's ghetto reportage and delivered it with the equivalent of a punk sneer, spiking it all with more than a little criminal intent and — there's no getting around it — misogyny.
There's also crossover here with breathless contemporary stories of hotel room shenanigans, living the rock star life. Par for the course, really. Also, these being debuts (setting aside N.W.A. And The Posse, which is really more of a Ruthless label compilation), there's still a fair bit of holdover from the old guard, with Led Zeppelin's relatively straight electric blues numbers and Straight Outta Compton's old-school battle raps (there's even an electro number!). All of which, if you've been paying attention, leaves the door open for someone to raise the stakes yet again.
Whatever went down on the West Coast, you could always count on Houston's Geto Boys to take it to the next level. Again and again, like the title of their next album said, We Can't Be Stopped. Without the innovative intricacy of Dr. Dre's peak-era production, the Geto Boys fall back on hitting rawer and harder than anyone else around. Similarly, Black Sabbath were Zep's degenerate cousins, playing with less technique than Page's crew but with far more abandon in terms of pure heaviness and Gothic gloom. Just look at that cover!
At this early stage, even Sabbath still had some traces of the blues and a shambling approximation of Cream's jamming, but there's no dodging the fact that something wholly different has entered the gene pool here. Rock would never be the same. Similarly, the Geto Boys brought southern rap crashing into the limelight with an unvarnished, none-more-raw sensibility that was miles away (literally and figuratively) from the two media centers on the coasts.
The Geto Boys is essentially a rework of the crew's earliest material, given the prime time makeover by hard hip hop's man behind the boards and usual suspect Rick Rubin. This was the mainstream's introduction to the Geto Boys, making them rap's most beloved hard men in the process (see also Ozzy Osbourne).
The Wu-Tang Clan were rap's first true Gothic architects. Indeed, there's a sense in which they are the ones that should've been paired with Black Sabbath, but there's long-running continuity to The RZA's crew that aligns them even more closely with a down-and-dirty speed metal outfit like Motörhead. Just as Lemmy's gang always managed to square their music with the straight up rock 'n roll of Chuck Berry, so did Wu-Tang seem to connect music directly back to the danger and excitement of rap's original grimy impulse.
Strip away all the sonic trappings, and Enter The Wu-Tang plays like a series of no-nonsense battle raps that could've gone toe to toe with LL Cool J and Schoolly D, just as Motörhead's biker metal rebuilt rock 'n roll's original muscle car into one of Ed Roth's drag-race-from-hell monstrosities. And just as Motörhead simultaneously connected with the punks and provided a key inspiration for thrash, Wu-Tang burst out of hip hop's underworld and left the door open behind them, with an increasingly bizarre parade of the strange creeping out behind them.
Super producer El-P is one of the great heroes of rap's underground, going all the way back to the early years of Company Flow. I always think of his remark that underground rap was originally a part of hip hop's whole — at the other end of the spectrum from the mainstream — but at some point it broke off and became a separate entity altogether. That's just like prog. Initially a part of rock's vaulting ambition in the wake of psychedelia, prog gradually sheared off into its own self-contained subculture. If the twisted rap of Company Flow was hardcore like Kool G Rap made for concert piano, by the time cLOUDDEAD rolled around it was all but unrecognizable.
Cannibal Ox's El-P-produced debut The Cold Vein offers a gnarled, apocalyptic vision of hip hop, full of widescreen cinematic soundscapes and abrasive, claustrophobic onslaughts in equal measure. Cross reference immediately with King Crimson's epochal debut In The Court Of The Crimson King — a stone tablet in progressive rock's genesis — which finds space for everything from the hard rock crunch of 21st Century Schizoid Man to the vast, sweeping vistas of the title track. In both cases, there's a stunning breadth of vision in evidence throughout, as if the music is straining at the very confines of the rock/rap classification.
Which inevitably leads to the backlash, as lesser lights run the sound into the ground. Inescapable, this one. At the peak of rock's mid-seventies entropy and self-indulgence, early American punk by the likes of the Ramones and The Dictators stripped it all back to basics, but it took U.K. acts like The Clash and The Sex Pistols to really nail the sound and catalyze it all into a movement. In contrast, grime may have not made the same waves as punk when all is said and done, but then it was never the darling of the rock press the way punk was (of all the big critics, only Simon Reynolds really championed the scene at the time).
What we're looking at here is sonic extremism, two artists taking the sound to the edge of no control. Johnny Rotten and Dizzee Rascal both seem one step away from snapping (even if — upon closer inspection — they both turn out to be sensitive souls at heart), while sonically speaking Dizzee Rascal's industrial-strength sheet metal beats are the spiritual echo of the slashing guitar/bass attack of Steve Jones and Glen Matlock. You could even make the argument that Dizzee Rascal's Showtime was grime's Metal Box...
...but no one would agree with you.
Similarly, both of these crews dropped into their respective eras like an atom bomb, crashing through the stasis of hair metal and superstar rap with a lean-and-mean sensibility that came fully-loaded with a raw sonic attack. Neither Axl Rose or Malice and Pusha T are nice people by any stretch of the imagination (just look at the names!), which adds a further layer of authenticity to the coke-fueled misanthropy in evidence throughout. In both cases, this music has a raw danger to it that had been missing from the scene(s) for some time.
Guns N' Roses ripped out all the synthetic trappings of eighties rock to bring the sound back to its essence, improbably sounding like a blueprint for whole swathes of nineties rock in the process. Conversely, Clipse reveled in the electronic Neptunes-produced beat matrix they found themselves inhabiting on Hell Hath No Fury, with curious pre-echoes to the alien soundscapes of the following decade's dead-eyed raps and no hope sentiment. Of course, both crews seemed to be having a lot more fun than anyone to come in their wake.
Innit. I mean, it's almost too easy! Previous generational figureheads deface their own image and come up with arguably their best work in the process. Album openers On Sight and Serve The Servants (respectively) come crashing in right out the gate, delivered with a blinding intensity almost unexpected after what had come before (808s & Heartbreak/Nevermind). Both records also bring in producers notoriously synonymous with noise in their respective scenes (Rick Rubin — again! — for Yeezus and Steve Albini for In Utero.
And no one sounds like they're having a good time. Both records fronted by generational figureheads reveling in existential misery. For all the wild boasts on Yeezus (from the title on downward), the record is consumed by discontent. Even I Am A God ends in West's tortured screams ringing out across an apocalyptic synthscape, while Kurt Cobain's contemporary state of mind almost goes without saying.
Interestingly enough, in both cases the music seemed to be mirrored by its surroundings, setting the general tone for the scene. This last decade certainly seemed like rap was living out rock's ultimate fate as the 90s drew to a close: not all endings are happy.
- Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five The Message Sugar Hill
- Chuck Berry Schoolday Ring Ring Goes The Bell Chess
- Malcolm McLaren D'ya Like Scratchin' Special Version Island
- The Ventures Walk Don't Run Dolton
- Run-D.M.C. Hard Times Profile
- The Rolling Stones I Just Want To Make Love To You London
- Mantronix Bassline Sleeping Bag
- The Who Out In The Street Brunswick
- LL Cool J I Can't Live Without My Radio Def Jam
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience Purple Haze Reprise
- Schoolly D P.S.K. "What Does It Mean?" Schoolly D
- Blue Cheer Out Of Focus Philips
- Ice-T 6 'N The Morning Sire
- Grand Funk Railroad Paranoid Capitol
- Public Enemy Bring The Noise Def Jam
- MC5 Kick Out The Jams Elektra
- N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton Ruthless
- Led Zeppelin Good Times Bad Times Atlantic
- Geto Boys Mind Of A Lunatic Rap-A-Lot
- Black Sabbath The Wizard Warner Bros.
- Wu-Tang Clan Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber Part 2 Loud
- Motörhead Iron Horse/Born To Lose Chiswick
- Cannibal Ox Iron Galaxy Definitive Jux
- King Crimson In The Court Of The Crimson King Island
- Dizzee Rascal I Luv U XL
- The Sex Pistols God Save The Queen Virgin
- Clipse Wamp Wamp What It Do Slim Thug Star Trak
- Guns N' Roses Paradise City Geffen
- Kanye West On Sight Def Jam
- Nirvana Milk It DGC/Sub Pop
Terminal Vibration: Metal Beat 15
Don't worry though, the Beasties will get their due in Terminal Vibration's penultimate chapter, dedicated to sampladelia.