2003 / Music

Review: Rap Innovators Vow To Save Hip-Hop

Common, Jurassic 5 Drop New Albums

Read The Reviews: Common | Jurassic 5

While a double-digit slide in CD sales is slowly strangling the music industry overall — causing the kind of large-scale cutbacks, layoffs and artist turnover that hasn’t been seen for years, no single genre appears to be in more dire straits than hip-hop.

Although rap superstars like Eminem and Nelly moved millions of units last year, a number of large media outlets, citing some intriguing stats, are questioning hip-hop’s overall health.

A figure quoted in an article in the Los Angeles Times last June said that sales of hip-hop albums in the first quarter of 2002 were down 26 percent from the same time the previous year. This was the largest drop among the major pop music genres, the report said.

According to industry insiders quoted in the story, they believe hip-hop isn’t selling like it used to because “innovation and star power are on the wane.”

Meanwhile, Canada’s National Post ran a story this fall that while not challenging the music industry’s assessment of the situation, defended hip-hop’s long-term prospects and suggested that its creatively adventurous, underground artists can and do prove the doubters wrong. They just haven’t been getting the necessary support from the record labels, the article said.

Two examples of non-mainstream rap artists who continue to bravely write and record albums that steer clear of rap’s current “gangsta/playa at the party” formula than Common and Jurassic 5, both of whom have released new records lately.

But will their albums be enough to give rap the jumpstart it needs? Read on to see how they measure up:

Common “Electric Circus”

Common has caught some flak of late for the fact that while courting an outsider image, talking in the press about keeping true to underground rap’s ideals and condemning many hip-hop artists for OD-ing on gangsta stories of “violence and sex and getting money,” he appeared in a cheerful Coke commercial with R&B singer Maya. Was he intending to lead rap out of its bling-bling dead end and into the arms of corporate America?

Photo: MCA Records

Photo: MCA Records

Whatever one thinks about his choices, what is clearly above dispute is that his new record “Electric Circus” lives up to his challenge to be musically adventuresome.

The record, produced chiefly by the Soulquarians (a collaborative of musicians centered around the Roots’ drummer Questlove) with a couple of tracks manned by hitmakers the Neptunes, captures the Chicago-bred rapper stretching out enough from hip-hop structures that during its finer moments, he blurs the lines between rap, rock, jazz and funk.

This dedication to musical diversity is well-suited to Common, who’s easily one of rap’s most pliable MCs. Like most of his contemporaries, he can puff his voice up and sound authoritative while sliding up against thudding beats, but Common is also brave enough to ease into a cheesy love song without concern for appearances. He’s an incendiary rabble-rouser on “Electric Wire Hustler Flower” and his vocal acrobatics are reminiscent of Eminem on “I Got A Right Ta,” but then shamelessly plays the sensitive Casanova on “Star ’69 (PS With Love)” and “Come Close.” For the Neptunes’ produced “Come Close,” Common’s rapping follows Q-Tip’s endearing delivery on “Bonita Applebaum” from A Tribe Called Quest’s first disc.

While each song bends musical boundaries, the record itself sounds fairly polarized. The first half of “Electric Circus” is dedicated to more beat-driven tracks, many of which are powered by bassist extraordinaire Pino Palladino. But as the record progresses, the songs become lighter and more sprawling. Although the eight-minute “Jimi Was A Rock Star” (which features the rapper’s lady friend Erykah Badu) steadfastly intensifies into a psychedelic rush of howling, guitars and keyboards, such musical chaos doesn’t hit with the same force as earlier tracks “Soul Power,” “Aquarius” and “The Hustle.” On those, Common is locked into the groove and nothing can interrupt his flow.

Common’s laser-like focus stems from the seriousness of his lyrics. On the track “New Wave” alone, he raps about war, revolution, and racism to a monster movie organ rhythm. As a surprise that lightens the mood, Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier angelically sings portions of the song’s chorus in French.

Another standout is “I Am Music,” a track that takes listeners back to Harlem’s Cotton Club for some Louis Armstrong-era jazz. Ducking between muted horns, soul siren Jill Scott has never sounded sweeter leading Common, Questlove and company in high praise of music.

“I help culture survive,” Common raps on “I Am Music” and this is his musical mantra. If not by being a celebrity pitchman, then by continuing to make barrier-breaking albums, Common is leading the fight to keep hip-hop out of a creative ghetto.

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Jurassic 5 “Power In Numbers”

By stressing hip-hop’s basic musical tenets, the six-member rap group Jurassic 5 have made true that old adage that you can go forward by looking back.

“We’re taking it back to the days of yes-ya’llin’/ We are holding onto what’s golden,” the group’s four rappers chant in unison on the cut, “What’s Golden.”

Theirs is a stance that has set the LA-based outfit apart from the hip-hop majority, but has nonetheless succeed in winning a select group of high-placed supporters.

Jurassic 5 was luckily included on last summer’s “Smokin’ Grooves” tour, which drew together some of rap’s more consciously edgy artists, because of their stylistic affinity for rap’s old school. With two DJs, four MCs and a stage backdrop consisting of an enormous, silvery boom box, Jurassic 5 certainly looked like the representatives of the old guard, especially in contrast to tour mates the Roots’ live band aesthetic or Lauryn Hill who performed with an acoustic guitar.

But beyond their dedication to rap’s roots, Jurassic 5’s worth can more accurately measured by their strengths — their straightforward, jazz-influenced production, PC-friendly rhymes and the varied vocal attacks of their MCs.

Take “Thin Line,” for example. Set to a strolling funk rhythm, the song finds the narrator — voiced alternately by the group members — wrestling with a “When Harry Met Sally” scenario. Each rapper seems to voice another emotion grappling with the situation. Giving the female perspective, Nelly Furtado adds backing vocals and an excellent guest rap, which makes plain that the narrator isn’t the only one struggling.

The group was equally comfortable making a stance. “Freedom,” which has a head noddin’ backbeat, utilized the same vocal trade-offs but with each rapper critiquing the state of the world.

For “Break” however, the MCs take a different tack with their voices. Instead of gentlemanly trading off, they’re briskly cutting each other off, and occasionally rapping all together, to the track’s relentless pounding beat.

Jurassic 5’s dedication to the past doesn’t mean they’re sheepish though. On “Sum Of Us,” they have the audacity to update Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” urging listeners away from meaningless action and toward solutions. “If you wanna fight the power, get the power to fight, ” raps Chali 2Na, the group’s deep-throated MC.

“Power In Numbers” blows down no walls except the ones that are erected to say what is modern and what is “old school.” The album is tangible proof that Jurassic 5 is single-handily threatening to reconnect hip-hop with its past and doing it with groove-filled songs. And with the group slated to appear on the reinvigorated Lollapalooza tour this summer, their message will likely find an even wider audience.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2003 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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