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Diversity training: The gangsta alternatives

Last in the series

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"I'm tired of people judging what's real hip-hop/half the time, it be some [n----s] whose album flopped."

-- Nelly

Nelson George says he was working at Billboard as late as 1990 and people were still asking the question: "How long will this thing last?"

Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette illustration

Click photo for larger image.

Bustin' rhymes series

Part One: From Kool Herc to 50 Cent, the story of rap -- so far

Part Two: What up, gangsta? The hardcore rap of the '90s

Today: Diversity training: The gangsta alternatives

The answer seemed to come with rap's ability to diversify and cross over with rock, R&B, jazz, soul and world music. Todd Boyd, who teaches hip-hop at the University of Southern California, says of the early '90s, "It was the era that indicated that hip-hop was going to be around for a long time, and there was going to be different varieties of styles and representation available."

Although gangstas stole the headlines in the '90s, it was also the decade when rap proved it could fly off in infinite directions, from the "jiggy wit it" style of Will Smith to the worldly vibe of the Fugees to the funky boys of the Dirty South.

Rap also continued to mix with rock, whether in the politically charged Rage Against the Machine, the thuggish Limp Bizkit, the blunt-crazy Cypress Hill or the white-trashy Kid Rock.

Far from the thug side was MC Hammer, who had no worries about clean versions. A onetime mascot for the Oakland A's, Hammer pounded home the pop potential and pop folly of rap. With his genie pants and "Super Freak" sample, he hit to the tune of 10 million copies in 1990, rising to the point where he became the poster boy for sellout and was over by 1994.

And yet, Hammer was Melle Mel compared to Vanilla Ice, who topped the chart the same year by swiping the bass line of "Under Pressure" for "Ice Ice Baby." The Miami native came packaged with a gangsta past that no one seemed convinced of, prompting white group 3rd Bass to beat up a likeness of Vanilla Ice (played by Henry Rollins) in its video for "Pop Goes the Weasel."

Will Smith managed to parlay his bubblegum rap into a serious acting career. Smith first appeared as the latter half of Philly's DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, a group that spoke to junior rap fans in the late '80s. They went multi-platinum and actually won the first-ever rap Grammy with "Parents Just Don't Understand." Smith went on to star in the sitcom "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and went solo in 1997 with "Big Willie Style," adding "jiggy wit it" to the mainstream vocabulary.

Naughty By Nature, discovered by Queen Latifah, had it both ways, hitting big with "O.P.P." in 1991 while still holding on to an underground following. P.M. Dawn, a group that came out of the bohemian De La Soul school, became a favorite among the college crowd with a blend of hip-hop and soul. The tension between pop and hardcore rappers peaked when KRS-One, reacting to a P.M. dis, stormed the stage at a P.M. Dawn concert and took over the show with his own crew.

Alternative hip-hop

Rob Widdis, Associated Press
Eminem emerged as one of pop's most talented, disturbed and disturbing figures.
Click photo for larger image.

MORE BUSTIN' RHYMES: Ladies First: Female MCs

Somewhere between the pop and hardcore rappers were the people of the Native Tongues movement, originated by Afrika Bambaataa in the '80s to celebrate a positive and spiritual side of hip-hop, without losing its edge or party vibe. It was a modern version of Zulu Nation, and its followers included critical favorite De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest, of whose record the Village Voice said, "You could play it in the background when you're reading Proust."

Also signing on to Native Tongues were Queen Latifah and Brand Nubian, an Islamic trio so aggressively Afrocentric they were branded as reverse racists. Native Tongues inspired New York jazz-rap fusionists Digable Planets and Arrested Development, who rose out of the South in 1992 with a breezy acoustic style of hip-hop.

David Tucker, Associated Press
Being stabbed and shot has added to the aura of 50 Cent, the toned, tattooed rapper from Queens.
Click photo for larger image.

The Fugees, a trio with a soulful singer from New Jersey and two members of Haitian descent, worked the socially conscious side of hip-hop, slowing down the beat with reggae, R&B, soul and folk. The Fugees' second album, 1996's "The Score," sold an unprecedented 17 million copies. When the Fugees split soon after, Lauryn Hill went on to win five Grammys in 1999 for her solo work, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," and Wyclef Jean became one of hip-hop's most ambitious innovators.

The Fugees were also the kingpins of the Smokin' Grooves Tour, which restored rap's standing as a touring genre. Smokin' Grooves shined the light on alternative acts such as Busta Rhymes, The Roots and Black Eyed Peas, who actually sneaked a topical song, "Where is the Love?," into the mainstream last year.

Following that lead, artists such as Common, Mos Def and Talib Kweli take on a broader range of topics and emotions -- anger to joy -- with a jazzy or funky flow that's not as burdened by the hook. On his top-notch "Quality," Kweli raps on the proliferation of weapons, the politics of Sept. 11 and the birth of his daughter without ever sounding soft. At one point he raps, "Kurt Loder asked me what I say to a dead cop's wife/Cops kill my people every day, that's life."

Def and Kweli both reject the "positive" and "conscious" label of rap. Kweli told the PG last year, "It gets overwhelming to have those prefixes in front of you. I get labeled a lot. But I try very hard not to become preachy in my music and just paint realistic pictures."

KRS-One says that keeping the likes Def and Kweli off the radio in favor of bling-bling rap is that same "sense of denial and apathy [that] is destroying this country."

Em and 50

When producer Dr. Dre heard Eminem on tape, he issued a simple order: "Find him. Now." He didn't even know he was white. But, sure enough, in 1999, rap found its Elvis in Marshall Mathers, one of the most talented, disturbed and disturbing figures in all of pop music. The kind of kid who grew up on government cheese, he's got a voice that can cut through white bread. Eminem earned his respect in Detroit freestyle battles and then at the 1997 Rap Olympics in Los Angels with white-hot rage and staccato flow.

Violence, homophobia and misogyny are taken to extremes on "The Slim Shady LP" and "The Marshall Mathers LP," which include fantasies about killing his wife and references to his own mother as a "slut." That, combined with various violent real-life escapades, made Eminem's damaged psyche an American soap opera.

Oddly enough, between his Grammy duet with Elton John, his fatherly songs on "The Eminem Show" and his sympathetic portrayal in "8 Mile," columnists were soon writing that he was loved even by soccer moms. Eminem has sold more than 20 million records, of which he's rapped, "Let's do the math/if I was black/I would have sold half."

The extent of his skills is a hot-button issue. Andre 3000 of OutKast and MC Sway rank him among the best. Bakari Kitwana, author of "Hip-Hop Generation," says, "I think he is exceptional, but people are so surprised and stunned that he's white and can rap so well, they are quick to elevate him above black rappers."

One thing's for sure. Eminem is the favorite white boy of Curtis Jackson, or 50 Cent. The Eminem/Dre camp, known as Shady/Aftermath, introduced 50 last year with a gangsta back story to beat all -- the dude's bulletproof! Yet another onetime dealer, the toned, tattooed rapper from Queens was signed to Columbia and already infamous for "How to Rob" -- a single detailing how he'll stick up a whole host of rap stars -- when, first, he was stabbed at the Hit Factory and then was shot nine times with a 9 mm.

He lived to talk about it but was too hot for Columbia, which dropped him. Eminem put up seven figures to sign him, and the investment paid off as his retro-gangsta debut, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," sold 5 million last year on the strength of "In Da Club" and "P.I.M.P," songs that even pre-teens seem to love.

"Musically, in his delivery, he is an exceptional rapper," says Kitwana. "The content of what he's saying, sometimes, I find offensive. It continues to push black people into these stereotypes. In 'P.I.M.P.,' he's making this association of black people as pimps, bitches and hos. Black people have to realize that it may just be a song to them, but there's some kid in Europe and Japan, and it's not just a song. [It's] representing black people in America."

Midwest and Dirty South

In Part I of this series, Nelson George said in regard to Run-DMC that to the hip-hop pioneers in Harlem and the Bronx, Queens might as well have been Kansas. Well, not far from Kansas is Missouri, home to Nelly and the St. Lunatics. They put St. Louis on the map in the summer of 2000 with the infectious "Country Grammar." Good-natured and full of sing-along hooks, Nelly is the rapper most likely to be quoted by your 5-year-old niece, as in "it's getting hot in herre. ..." The St. Lunatics have spun off Murphy Lee, who asks the musical question "What the Hook Gon' Be" and answers it quite convincingly.

Deeper in the Dirty South, no one dishes the dirt like Ludacris, the man in charge of Disturbing tha Peace (a Def Jam South affiliate). One of the raunchiest -- and funniest -- of the party rappers, Ludacris is rocking the airwaves with "What's Your Fantasy?" and "Stand Up" and riding shotgun on everyone's records. Disturbing tha Peace along with him is Chingy, a St. Louis rapper who lays his Southern "slurr" on heavy in "Right Thurr" and "Holidae Inn." While you're throwing your Dirty South party, don't forget Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz, the kings of "crunk," a raucous style of call-and-response party rap, best captured on "Get Low," with the Ying Yang Twins, who sound remarkably like Cookie Monsters.

Despite not hitting every rapper or every rap story, to wrap it up you can't leave without name-dropping the biggest act out of the South, out of anywhere, at the moment: OutKast. Big Boi and Andre 3000 throw it all in -- rap, rock, soul, Southern funk, Parliament, Prince -- to unite music listeners from gangstas to punks to Gen. Wesley Clark. The Hot-lanta duo won Best New Rap act at the Source Awards in 1995 and have been on a streak ever since with albums like "Aquemini," "Stankonia" and "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," which just won album of the year at the Grammys and the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll, and could very well be dropping singles through most of 2004.

Fade out

OutKast is hip-hop's finest ambassador at a time when it's sorely needed, when there are outcries that rap is all about booty and bling-bling -- a situation that is not entirely the fault of the artists.

"My biggest objection to mainstream hip-hop," says Kitwana, "is that the industry continues to control the music. ... The business execs run the industry -- they set the tone."

But hip-hop-heads, those who dig for the good stuff, are always busy. They can still be enlightened by old-schoolers like Public Enemy, go deep with conscious rappers like Kweli, go underground with Mr. Lif or England's Dizzee Rascal and the Streets, rock with Lil Jon and party with Nelly.

At a recent stop at the University of Pittsburgh, Def Jam founder Russell Simmons looked at the bright side, saying of hip-hop, "I don't see color, I see culture. Hip-hop is the most unifying cultural source this country has ever seen. It forms a relationship between people in trailer parks and people in the projects. They are not only seeing their common thread of poverty, but also their oneness."

Scott Mervis can be reached at or 412-263-2576.

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