Tuesday, September 05, 2006
I'd rather listen to your instrumentals

When bad rappers happen to good beats.

The Beastie Boys - An Open Letter To NYC

OK, I like the Beastie Boys, they were my first favourite rap act, but To The 5 Boroughs had them sounding old and tired and utterly disconnected from contemporary hip hop. And that can’t be excused with tired old “Beasties are real while all the pop-rappers are fake!” arguments – the Beastie Boys just sounded like they had no business rapping at that point in time.

But when I came back to the album a year or so later (OK, the mp3s I had on my computer from the album), I noticed how incredible the beat for “An Open Letter To NYC” is. A few scratched samples give way to a loop from the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer," and the track takes on this nervy, claustrophobic air that has nothing to do with the lyrics the Beasties lay over it. But the thing is, it so easily could have - the whole thing is about post 9/11 New York, and while they may not want to create a response to the attacks that sounds terrified, the tense electronics and paranoid punk is certainly appropriate for 21st Century America.

But instead of reflecting this, the Beasties spout corny hippy couplets about how damn great it is that everyone in New York gets along, even though they're from all over the world. Which is naive and unrealistic as hell as well as gratingly upbeat; they don't need to turn their city into a liberal Eden to pay homage to it, but that's what they attempt to do. It makes something like Arrested Development (the group, not the show) look bleakly nihilistic. And the result is the "love letter" to their city sounds insincere, a collection of well-intentioned bumper sticker slogans that probably should have "The More You Know!" appended to the end of each one.

It doesn't help, either, that the Beasties haven't switched up their vocal style since Licenced To Ill, but instead have let it degenerate. The one time they do break out of that chant-a-line-and-then-on-the-last-word-SHOUT style that makes each song sound like a museum piece is the staggered delivery on the line "We're doing fine on the 1 and 9 line," and it shows what the song could have been, but it's only a glimpse. Juelz Santana is only on the hook of Cam'ron and Jay-Z's "Welcome To New York City," a far superior post-9/11 anthem, but his contribution alone is superior to this song.

Who would sound better on this?
If we stick with the New York theme, Nas or Mobb Deep would have killed this, delivering a performance cagey enough to go with the beat. Then again, Young Jeezy never fails to deliver on the steely, claustrophobic front, so I wouldn't mind hearing this rebranded as "An Open Letter to ATL," or something.

Jurassic 5 - Radio

It should be pretty obvious that Jurassic 5 working with Nas-and-others producer Salaam Remi would be a bad idea, but I kind of thought it could have worked, if only because Jurassic 5's turn as rap's Dave Matthews Band was becoming increasingly boring (full disclosure: I used to like these guys, and still don't mind them at times. Despite the dumb chorus, "What's Golden" was a pretty neat single, and "Thin Line" would have predicted the current Nelly Furtado singles run if the "Get Ur Freak On" and "Turn Off The Lights" remixes hadn't done it already). The way I figured it, the injection of a bit of hard-ass testosterone into their college-kid jams could only do good.

Well, I was sort of right. Salaam Remi really brings it, turning out the sort of cold, sparse banger that better rappers process into hot shit. It kind of nods to that whole "back in the day"-fetishism that Jurassic 5 built their career on in that the bells are vaguely reminiscent of that "Take Me To The Mardi Gras" sample that got such play in the '80s on things like LL's "Rock The Bells," and Run-DMC's "Peter Piper," but even so, the production aesthetic is one more modern than Jurassic 5 have ever been involved with. Abandoning stubborn regressivism is a positive move as far as I'm concerned, and I hoped something good would come of it, even though it'd be too much to expect Jurassic 5 to listen to some rap since 1989 and work on updating their anachronistic flow - honestly, kids, cut out that '80s revival flow. Y'all are acting like the rap version of Rennaisance Fair geeks, and damn near just as irritating. You can be into medieval history without running round in costume and you can be into early rappers without trying to be one.

So, strike one - J5 are still acting like they haven't heard a new rapper in the past 20 years. But even worse than the way they're saying it is what they're saying. Now, right now you may be thinking, "Hold up, Jonathan, you listen to coke-rap all the time and you're down with that. And you want to front on Jurassic 5 for criticizing Clear Channel?" And to that I say, why the fuck are you paying that much attention to what I say? but more pertinently: I only care about what Jurassic 5 is rapping about because they're making it an issue. From the opening declaration that they're putting "real hip hop on the radio," J5's subject matter is an issue; by announcing their self-congratulatory piety to the world, they are required to back it up. And good lord do they fail dismally. It's like a tightrope walk the way they stay so carefully on the talking points - their '80s fashion, their '80s idols, their good behaviour. (Possibly the most offensive part is that they say they never "indulged" in the street life, as if every ghetto in America is filled with people who'd be living nice in the suburbs right now if they only had a bit more self control.)

Look, I don't care what you say in your songs. Rap about murder, drugs, whatever. But if you're telling me that your songs are "real hip hop" and then you serve up this weak-ass shit, then, yeah, I'm going to say your subject matter needs some tweaking. And the thing is, other rappers have made music worth listening to on exactly the same tip J5 are on. Dead Prez's "Hip Hop" has the same righteous attitude toward radio rap that Jurassic does, but Dead Prez at least have some fire in their voices when they call these rappers out. And on the '80s rap nostalgia, Biggie's "Juicy" bests every Jurassic 5 track ever made, mostly because Biggie makes his nostalgia relevant by connecting it to the present. Jurassic 5 tries to do this, but it's a weak effort - ending each verse with "now my song's rockin on the radio" is entirely unconvincing, both because it sounds tagged on and because no self-respecing radio station would be playing this.

Who would sound better on this?

Remi usually produces New York rappers, but I want to hear some Southerners on this; the Dirty has a track record of laying hypnotic flow over this sort of stripped-back banger with excellent results. So, my wishlist for the next Southern Smoke is for UGK on this beat, maybe Field Mob, Chamillionaire, T.I. - anyone who can just lay something tight down over those bells. Maybe make it about dealing.

Rick Ross - Push It

This guy over here on our left is Rick Ross. Rick Ross is the founder and Executive Director of the Rick A. Ross Institute. He is an internationally known expert regarding destructive cults, controversial groups and movements. Since 1982 he has been studying, researching and responding to the problems often posed by such groups or movements. Dude could probably make a better song out of "Push It" than the guy from Miami with the Bin Laden beard. I daresay rap about destructive cults would be pretty great, too.

"Push It," by Rick Ross (the Miami guy, not our expert friend here) is a dismal waste of a good beat. If you read Stylus, you might notice that I gave it an [8] in this week's Singles Jukebox, which is testament only to how much I love the beat. Every time I hear this track, which is a hell of a lot, I can only think "Fuck Rick Ross. Fuck that fucking fat sack of shit hard with that white on white ride he can't shut up about."

Here are three different takes on Ross' Port Of Miami, and while they are all wildly divergent in their opinions, I agree with each of them. I speculated before it came out that in spite of his lack of talent, Ross could make an enjoyable record, but I can't really say he lived up to my hopes for him. In the Stylus review, Evan McGarvey described the albums thrust as "the city of Miami as gluttonous, deadly, sun-drenched metropolis," which would had have made for a pretty compelling slice of schlock if Ross wasn't so incompetent, and the best songs on the record do capture that Miami (though since I've never been there I can't speak for its accuracy). With the amount of money poured into the album, all Ross had to was get out of the way, let his big booming voice do the work, say something dumb every now and then and not fuck it up. He only manages to do that half the time.

Still, at the end of the year "Hustlin'" is going to be rubbing shoulder with "When You Were Young," "Wolf Like Me" and "What You Know" (good year for songs starting with W) at the top of my singles list. "Push It," though, won't, because Ross doesn't deliver. There aren't as many stupid quotations - "I'm building the dream with elevators in it" and "that fat girl would grow into Oprah" are about as good as it gets, and after the weak opening line, Ross sounds like he's constantly struggling to stay afloat. It's even worse in the context of the album, because it's the opening track, and it should be a stomping, glossy monster with a delivery triumphant enough to match, the sort of thing to get us primed for Rick Rawssss the bawssss. But instead the beat shoves Ross into the spotlight and he shits himself. Not to mention that it comes after a skit featuring a bizzarro news report from WCCC, whose reporters mispronounce "confiscated" and think the thrust of a drug-seizure story is how "the cocaine would have made drug dealers millions of dollars."

Who would sound better on this?

Do you have to ask? Killa Cam was made for production like this - ridiculous, over-the-top samples, tinkling keys, soaring vocals, blatant dealing references. Let's just hope "Push It" becomes a hit, so the next Dipset mixtape will feature Jim Jones, Freeky Zeeky, Juelz Santana and Cam'ron Giles doing what they do best over the type of beat they were born to do it over.

Buy the Beastie Boys' To The 5 Boroughs from Insound

Buy Jurassic 5's Feedback from Insound

Buy Rick Ross' Port of Miami from Insound

Posted by Jonathan on Tuesday, September 05, 2006 at 8:16 AM |

More, please

the push it beat is a fucking monster. i try to tell lady k! but she aint buying it.

also, his first line doesnt bother me at all.

yeah yeah yeah. lady k! just doesn't do that over-the-top synth shit *at all*

you all should've heard the dead awkward silence in the car when heightsy, adrian and I were driving together to go get pancakes and What You Know came on the radio.


as much as i'm still in love with licence to ill after all these years, I've goto say you're being awfully nice to the beastie boys re: to the five boroughs.

Post a Comment

Links to this post

Create a Link

The FunkyFunky 7 Are:
A group of kids with WAY too much time on their hands.