As a culture vulture, I have a particular fondness for the iconography of Hip Hop and Hardcore Rap; as a fan of trope and politic, I've always admired the complex rhyme and rhythm they bring to the table.
But I never really made a connection with hardcore rap as a cultural form. I'm an outsider on the streets; I can appreciate their gritty reality only as a sociologist can appreciate the poverty dynamic of his cityscape under the microscope. Though a six month stint in Boston's inner city as a member of Americorps makes me somewhat more than an urban tourist, I make no claim that it gives me credibility to speak to the relative merits of, say, East Coast over West Coast style.
Even when I try to embrace the less hardcore side of the hip hop world, I know I'm just visiting. I've seen De La Soul and KRS-ONE in concert, but I felt awkward in the audience. I tried to write a rap lyric, but my friends were right to laugh at me. (Two words: iambic pentameter.)
But where the plastic lip-sync spectacle of Britney Spears (see All Folked Up, Vol. 1) is the polar opposite of folk, and where the lighter forms of Hip Hop are probably closer to R&B spoken-word poetry and Funk than anything else, I think Gangsta Rap can make a legitimate claim as street folk.
Sure, musically, anything built predominantly out of beatboxing, drum machines, and an atonal delivery is about as far from the singer-songwriter model as it gets; you'd be hard pressed to find a folk song with no melody to carry it. And the highly stylized, high-adrenalin street pose of the Gangsta lyric is hard to reconcile with the open-hearted communion that most associate with the folksinger in performance.
But the way that Gangsta Rap captures the authentic experience and emotion of an urban generation is most definitely "of the folk". The collaborative process which typifies Rap and Hip-Hop performance - both onstage and with the audience - is very much in a vein with the traditional relationship between the folk performer and his audience. The use of sampled sound is a kind of cultural recycling which could arguably be compared to the tendency towards community ownership of traditional song in the folkworld. And if we make allowances for the differences in environment, both the storytelling and the narrative structure of hardcore rap forms turn out to be surprisingly consistent with the way folk has always used the natural world to speak for the inner life of the song's subject.
To note that today's songs are, one and all, truly beautiful in their own way is not to deny the beauty of the originals. The high tension between Nina Gordon's sweet voice and gentle acoustic guitar and the obscenity-laden lyric of NWA signature song Straight Out Of Compton merely reframes the deeply personal history and strong, complex emotion of the original, making it newly accessible. The etherial layers Ben Folds brings to Bitches Ain't Shit only exposes the frustration family man Dr. Dre feels about the unavoidably mysogynistic pose of the streets to which he owes his life and livelihood.
Gin and Juice comes off wild and desperate in The Gourds' juked up bluegrass, but wasn't it always a song on the edge? Alt-punkers Dynamite Hack join in with a great, mellow acoustic take on NWA's Boyz in the Hood (thanks to Adam, John, and Sledge for the recommendation). U Penn a capella group Off The Beat's oft-mislabelled version of Gangsta's Paradise is gorgeous and gospel, more tribute than interpretation.
Grandmaster Flash recorded The Message in 1982, long before urban blight turned to the gangsta life, but the weary note young alt-folkster Willy Mason brings to his recent rendition reminds us how prescient a warning the song really was. And the fact that the highest energies post-dorks Barenaked Ladies can bring to bear on Public Enemy's political hip hop anthem Fight the Power fall far, far short of anything remotely resembling anger only reinforces just how far most of Canada really is from the streets of the hardcore world.
I seriously considered switching out today's covers for the originals as an April Fools spoof. But the best hoaxes are subtle, almost beautiful in their believability. And each of these performances is something special, simultanously a hoax and a masterpiece, teetering on the edge of sincerity like a gangster caught between the rock of urban decay and the social pose that is, in the end, all that is left to matter. So mind the language, folks. And enjoy a short set of the folk of the street.
- Nina Gordon, Straight Out Of Compton (orig. NWA)
- Ben Folds, Bitches Ain't Shit (orig. Dr. Dre)
- The Gourds, Gin 'n Juice (orig. Snoop Dogg)
- Willy Mason, The Message (orig. Grandmaster Flash)
- Dynamite Hack, Boyz in the Hood (orig. NWA)
- Barenaked Ladies, Fight The Power (orig. Public Enemy)
RockapellaOff The Beat, Gangsta's Paradise (orig. Coolio)
Happy April Fools' Day, everyone. We'll be back late Wednesday, and again on Sunday, with a serious look at some real folk artists.