Keepin’ It Unreal

OK, first, some caveats: this post deals with hip-hop. In the interest of presenting an uncensored picture of the artform, there may be objectionable language (profanity, and use of the n-word or other objectionable language pertaining to race, gender or sexuality) in these videos; as well as references to, or simulated, acts of violence.

There will also be explicit references, both lyrically and visually, to illegal drug use. Altered states of mind are a long-standing tradition going back to humanity’s beginning, and art reflects that reality.

Do not proceed if any of this offends you; though feel free to comment about why it might, so long as all comments are non-political, civil and fair-minded.

A good rule of thumb before commenting on these topics is to think of the popular music genre or artform you are most familiar with, to see if there are maybe any equivalents there – for example, rock music certainly has its share of violent and drug-related imagery, and there is certainly no shortage of either in literature or film.

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Now that we’ve shot that man in Reno just to watch him die, a bit of history – Ultramagnetic MC’s 1988 “Ease Back” is a track showing a Public Enemy influence, though it’s a little less “hard”. The album it’s from, Critical Beatdown, has held up well IMO.

But Ultramagnetic MC’s are maybe most notable now for giving us the gentleman in red, on the right- he stands out even there, doesn’t he?

He’s Kool Keith, a rapper with not only a distinctive voice, flow and lyrical style, but a seemingly-boundless imagination, who creates and discards alter-egos at the speed of a 70’s David Bowie transported into the internet age and fueled by Adderall instead of Bolivian marching powder. (A list of known aliases may be found here.)

Like Bowie’s use of elaborate theatrical artifice (what the hell IS a “Ziggy Stardust” or a “Spider from Mars”, anyway?), Keith and many of the artists I will talk about here have little use for a fixed identity or even consensus reality, spinning fantastical soundscapes with their lyrics, music or personas. Some of them draw on the musical and conceptual Afrofuturist traditions of Sun Ra and Dr. Funkenstein himself.

These artists stand somewhat in contrast to the prevailing ethos of much hip-hop, which is often obsessed with gritty “realism” or questions of authenticity – which, in yet one more twist, is itself sort of an ironic stance in an artform with a rich history of musical sampling (rather than so-called “real” instrumentation), pseudonymous artist monikers (not “real” names), and constant larger-than-life self-mythologizing and boasting.

Kool Keith really broke into the popular consciousness with 1996’s Dr. Octagonecologyst. It’s possibly the only hip-hop sci-fi psychedelic concept album about a perverted time-traveling incompetent alien surgeon you will ever need:

Dr. Octagon – Blue Flowers

Like I said, Keith likes to create multiple characters (the non-Humana-accepting Dr. Octagon is but one Keith plays on that album alone).

Feeling hemmed in by the runaway popularity of Dr. Octagon, Keith “killed” the character in a move reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s slaying of his most popular creation, Sherlock Holmes.

But the murder of Dr. Octagon was no “whodunit” – he was explicitly done in by another Keith character, Dr. Dooom – a serial-killer/cannibal character, drawn largely from schlock B-movie slasher cinema.

Here is his confession:

Dr. Dooom – R.I.P. Dr. Octagon

Having killed off Dr. Octagon (at least for the time being – like comic book characters or Holmes himself, The Doctor has proven surprisingly resilient), Keith was free to take off back into outer space, as “Black Elvis” – the persona’s molded plastic wave of hair recalling The King himself…as well as Max Headroom and Devo, obliquely calling to mind themes of pop idolatry, media saturation and consumerism.

Or, maybe it’s just bizarre and funny as hell:

Kool Keith (Black Elvis) – Livin’ Astro

Somewhat similar not just in name to one of Keith’s characters but in approach is MF Doom. He has at least four personas or characters he often plays on his tracks.

The main one (the “MF” stands for “Metal Face”, and he always wears a mask) is patterned after Marvel’s Dr. Doom:

MF Doom – Doomsday

As in certain strains of psychedelic rock music, there is often a strong undercurrent (so strong it’s sometimes just a “current”) of drug use.

Each of the “ladies” in this MF Doom song is a thinly-veiled reference to a different mind-altering substance; sort of a “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” for the hip-hop age, a connection explicitly made in rhyme midway through the track:

MF Doom – My Favorite Ladies

The Madvillain project is a collaboration between MF Doom, and multi-talented rapper/producer Madlib.

Self-explanatory:

Madvillain – America’s Most Blunted

Madlib also has at least one alter-ego, a strange cartoonish aardvark-like animal named Quasimoto. Madlib uses a pitch-shifting effect on his voice for this character, sounding a bit like he’s rapping on helium:

Quasimoto – Low Class Conspiracy

Here’s Edan, with a track that superficially sounds (musically at least) like it came straight from the Summer of Love:

Edan – I See Colors

Here’s a jazzy anti-drug song.

Well…maybe not so much “anti”:

Danger Mouse & Jemini – Don’t Do Drugs

The Eminem-affiliated D12 didn’t even bother with the fig-leaf of a misdirecting ironic song title:

D12 – Purple Pills

There’s also an edge of hip-hop that bleeds into electronic or experimental music (which has also long been concerned with new beats, unusual textures and manipulated samples). cLOUDDEAD sometimes sounds a little like Cypress Hill, with their nasal, almost chanted vocals; but the wavering, droning music is closer to the Beta Band or Boards of Canada:

cLOUDDEAD – Dead Dogs Two (Boards of Canada Remix)

Doseone was part of cLOUDDEAD, and has collaborated a few times with Boom Bip. With jazzy drumming and the cut-up surrealistic lyrics (also somewhat reminiscent of the rhythmic and textural free-form explorations of Can), this type of hip-hop to me has a clear spiritual link to the Beats.

Heh.

“Beats”:

Boom Bip & Doseone – Mannequin Hand Trapdoor Reminder

(Love that track ^^).

Boom Bip & Doseone – The Birdcatcher’s Return

This Gang Starr song is classic hip-hop – stripped-down, just a strong beat, a little bit of jazz influence, and an authoritative MC.

But as good a song as it is, I include it here more for the THX 1138-inspired video, to show hip-hop’s sometime sci-fi bent:

Gang Starr – You Know My Steez

Which means that it can take back off into space at any moment:

Beastie Boys vs. Herbie Hancock – Intergalactic Rockit

Or go to the far-future year of 3030:

Deltron 3030 – Positive Contact

Or go “back to the future”. Early hip-hop producers made liberal use of Kraftwerk samples. Kraftwerk is also one of the founding pillars of most electronic dance music.

Put all this together and you can get modern experimental hip-hop that sounds as futuristic now, as Kraftwerk did then:

Anti-Pop Consortium – Ghostlawns

As Sam has ably pointed out elsewhere, hip-hop producers can be just as forward-looking as backward; this is especially true in the UK, where various subgenres of speedy fragmented electronic dance music are used as beds for rhymes.

This first single from Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner wasn’t too jarring, with an oft-sampled but STONKIN’ big beat from Billy Squier:

Dizzee Rascal – Fix Up Look Sharp

But try this one, to get a sense of the jittery hyper-caffeinated, information-overload future shock that some of this stuff is capable of:

Dizzee Rascal – I Luv U

Chris was kind enough to put together a Spotify playlist with many of these songs. It can be found here:

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23 thoughts on “Keepin’ It Unreal

  1. I cheated and listened through all of this when you sent me the list for the playlist, but I’m going through it again, and in addition to remembering how much I like MF Doom (seriously, that’s just really good), I’m remembering just how weird hip hop got during the 90s.

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    • See, I was actually thinking after listening to some of the ones on your and Sam’s posts, that some of the beats/beds in this one (aside from Anti-Pop and Dizzee and cLOUDDEAD), while great, are actually pretty old-school conservative compared to some of the more “pop” mainstream stuff. It’s the CONCEPTS on Octagon and Deltron and Doom/Madlib that are so out there, not so much the beats (sick as they are).

      Also, I only found out about this the other day, or it would have gone in here somehow. Keith, Del, and KutMasta Kurt are working on something:

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      • People tend to look at me funny when I say that hip hop has reached a new peak today, but I really think it has. The line between the underground and experimental/alternative world and the mainstream has become so blurry that it’s sometimes impossible to tell if what you’re listening to is mainstream or not (and if you’re like me and don’t listen to much radio, it can be even more difficult, though occasionally watching 106 & Park helps), and the beats, rhymes, styles, etc. in the mainstream are incredibly diverse and sometimes weird. But the content is, for the most part, pretty straightforward: drugs, women, being rich, drugs, women, plus I got these problems (some of which might be women). The nineties, though, in that High Times/My Other Music is Reggae subgenre, even if the beats and flows were pretty un-weird, talked about some weird stuff. While wearing masks. And playing characters who murder each other.

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      • At the risk of losing whatever “cred” I might have here, when I first heard Big Sean’s “Dance”, I spent a long time trying to figure out if it was really smart and quirky and referential and deliberately out there goofy in an ironic way… or if it just sucked. I think I ultimately decided on the latter. But I still sort of liked it. Even though I’m pretty sure it sucked. But I remember being struck by it because the genre has seemed to branch off in so many directions that it is hard to tell what things are anymore. This after the 90’s where you were either East Coast or West Coast and a lot of other stuff was left for dead. At least in the mainstream.

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  2. Still working my way through. A lot of this just didn’t really hit me. But MF Doom was probably the closest, at least in terms of what I’ve gotten through.

    Also, I forgot D12 was a thing. Thanks?

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      • I was in high school when Eminem came out. When his second album dropped, I remember my friend making good money by downloading it before the release, burning it onto CDs, and selling them for $1. $1! And he sold well over 100 of them. That’s how damn big Eminem was. I remember loving his first two albums. But I was also very much the target audience for him.

        Even then, I could tell he had talent. His flow and sense of rhyme and rhythm were off the charts. But listening now… there was just so much silliness. Not playfulness and experimentation. Straight up silliness. “Cum On Everybody”? And it felt like he was never really saying anything. He was talking about his experiences or pushing buttons or just being him, but he there never really felt like anything deeper going on. I can’t really listen to those old albums (I’m talking SS LP and MM LP… probably less so with Eminem Show). Some of his more recent stuff, what I’ve heard at least, is better. He seems to have evolved a bit, and thankfully so, because if he wasted his talent seeing how many times he could work the word “faggot” into a song about killing his ex-wife, that would have been a real shame.

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      • I think her love of Eminem comes primarily from his work in the Aughts, or at least post-8 Mile. She’s turned my son into a bit of a fan, too (he asked me for an Eminem t-shirt just the other day), so I’m afraid I’m going to be bombarded by him. I appreciate his talent as well, but I find his voice grating, and some of his themes, even his later stuff, disturbing. Particularly his approach to women. Which, given the genre, is saying a lot.

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      • I always thought Eminem was worse than most, perhaps the worst, when it came to the misogyny and homophobia. It wasn’t just gratuitous or reflective of his experiences… it seemed to be gleefully encouraging it. I know some of that was the button pushing, but it wouldn’t shock me if Eminem was sympathetic to the MRM and crap like that.

        However, now I’m curious… do you think other factors were at play?
        Some possible ones…
        A) Eminem’s delivery was some of the clearest in the game. A lot of people listen to rap and think, “I don’t even know what they’re saying.” That wasn’t the case with Eminem.
        B) Eminem being white helped him cross a lot of barriers. He used to get play on the local rock station back when NYC had a modern rock station (WE DON’T HAVE A MODERN ROCK STATION!!!). So people who might otherwise have sought to ignore rap couldn’t anymore because it was now part of white culture in a way that it hadn’t really been before.
        C) Eminem being white might have altered expectations. Black guys were supposed to be misogynistic and homophobic, but not white guys.
        D) Eminem was just so huge and probably would have been huge regardless of race AND he was more extreme so he’s probably said the F-word more times to more people than anyone else and is deserving of being recognized for his extremeness.

        If I had to peg them, I’d say D, B, A, and then C, from most to least relevant.

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      • His being white has definitely influenced his popularity, but I don’t think it has influenced my interpretation of his misogyny. His misogyny takes on a violent air, where if he’s not talking explicitly about harming women, he’s certainly hinting at it. Most misogyny in hip hop comes in the form of treating women as sex objects, and while that’s bad, it’s not quite as bad as bringing it to the level of violence.

        If it means anything, the way he talks about women is also one of the major reasons I can’t listen to Lil Wayne very much. Interestingly, he’s one of my girlfriends other favorites.

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      • I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply your interpretation, but more broadly the societal response to Eminem. He became Public Enemy #1 for a certain segment of society.

        Your point that the violence vs objectification is a good one. Ugh, how stupid that we have to make such distinctions?

        As for Weezy, he definitely suffers from a, “I don’t always know what he’s saying” thing for me. It is a bit disappointing to learn that he might be as bad an offender as Eminem.

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      • RE: Eminem and how he pushes the “shock”/misogyny factor pretty far in a genre not really known for its restraint, I am reminded of this Chappele bit (NSFW, obvs.):

        http://youtu.be/hIRjB6CPxLE?t=1m30s

        If it doesn’t start at the right point, 1:30 is the part I am talking about.

        I wonder to what degree, to avoid being dismissed as a “Vanilla Ice” or a joke, Eminem might have felt he had to push things that much farther. You’ve got “race” and “masculinity/respect” colliding in interesting ways there.

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  3. My beef with D-12 is the presence of Eminem, a performer who never stopped being angry, long after he had every reason to stop being angry. It’s like Jay-Z trying to claim the streets while he’s riding in limos and managing vodka labels. Things have changed. Reflect that. It isn’t an accident that Eminem stopped being interesting as soon as his anger stopped making any sort of even remote sense.

    That said, D-12 made a few absurdly listenable tracks. That’s to the good.

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    • On the one hand, there is no D12 without Eminem. On the other hand, D12 would be much more interesting without Eminem. It’s some sort of metaphysical paradox.

      Glyph, do you ever listen to Themselves or 13 & God, a couple of Doseone’s other manifestations?

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      • I only have a Themselves remix album, and couldn’t tell you a thing about it. But the s/t 13&God is pretty good (I like “Men of Station” & “Perfect Speed”).

        The musicians they are collaborating with there is a German band (the Notwist) that went through a really weird evolution. They were originally kind of a punk/metal band, then they went sort of Dino Jr. indie rock, but with occasional jazzy accents (!!, and it’s better than that sounds), then they finally went the glitchy laptop beat-pop route they seem to have settled on. I saw them in that last incarnation and they were pretty good. There are several other bands that shared a label and similar style with them that were pretty good too, maybe I will pull all them together into a post sometime.

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      • I still occasionally listen to Themselves first album, which was called Them, as was the group at the time. I don’t know much of their later work except the stuff that pops up on Pandora occasionally. “Joyful Toy of 1001 Faces” is a memorable song:

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  4. edan’s popularity confuses me greatly.

    one of the dudes from antipop used to work in other music. always saw him around.

    future hip hop post request: “unpacking the backpackers”

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