/ 24 February 2012

What rhymes with visionary?

What Rhymes With Visionary?

As the gritty space-age beats from Shabazz Palaces’ debut album unfurled from the hi-fi, I noticed a tweet about hip-hop in my Twitter stream. It had been posted by the editor of online culture website Afripopmag, Phiona Okumu (@ophiona), and it went as follows: “‘Intelligent hip-hop’, why don’t people ever say ‘intelligent rock’ or whatever. So condescending. Rappers, this is not a compliment.”

I remember thinking that Okumu had a point. It was condescending: Why did intelligence have anything to with the value of the hip-hop in question?

I guess it came down to a lack of vocabulary to describe the music by the writer with whom she was taking umbrage, but it also got me thinking about why there is a need to differentiate between hip-hop on this level?

Is the rest of hip-hop such dumb shit that we need a term like “intelligent hip-hop”? Because, let’s be honest, there is a lot of hip-hop that is just dumb shit — the kind of hip-hop Saul Williams attacked on his brilliant song Telegram from his self-titled 2004 album.

“Telegram to Hip Hop: Dear Hip Hop. (stop)/ This shit has gone too far. (stop)/ Please see that mixer and turntables are returned to Kool Herc. (stop)/ The ghettos are dancing off beat. (stop)/ The masters of ceremonies have forgotten that they were once slaves and have neglected the occasion of this ceremony. (stop)/ Perhaps we should not have encouraged them to use cordless microphones, for they have walked too far from the source and are emitting a lesser frequency (stop)/ Please inform all interested parties that cash nor murder have been added to the list of elements. (stop)/ We are discontinuing our current line of braggadocio, in light of the current trend in realness. (stop)/ As an alternative, we will be confiscating weed supplies and replacing them with magic mushrooms, in hopes of helping niggas see beyond their reality. (stop)/ Give my regards to Brooklyn.”

I have no way of confirming my hunch, but I think Shabazz Palaces would be the kind of hip-hop that Williams would approve of, but I would not dare to call it anything as condescending as intelligent hip-hop.

Pushing things forward
As the great Duke Ellington once said, there are two types of music — good music and bad music. So, using this as my gauge, I wanted to highlight three recent hip-hop releases that have made an attempt to push things forward, expand the language of hip-hop and give listeners something visionary.

Shabazz Palaces
The first of these is indeed the debut album by Shabazz Palaces, titled Black Up (Sub Pop). The Seattle-based hip-hop collective is the brainchild of former Digable Planets MC Ishmael Butler aka Palaceer Lazaro aka Butterfly and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire.

Black Up is the first hip-hop album to be released on Seattle label Sub Pop, a label that was once infamous for the rise of grunge and acts such as Nirvana and Mudhoney. It will soon be followed by the second album by local hip-hop star Spoek Mathambo, who has recently signed with the label.

But getting back to Shabazz Palaces, it has been a while since a hip-hop album blew my mind in the way that Black Up has done. It is both of its time and of the future, a beautiful new imagining of the possibilities of hip-hop.

From the opening ghostly howls of Free Press and Curl, which unfurl into a bass-thumping, scuzzy track that is reminiscent of Tricky’s musical high point, 1998’s Angels with Dirty Faces, it is clear that this is a visionary hip-hop album.

Butler recently told Clash magazine that he could understand why Shabazz Palaces’ music was described as abstract hip-hop, although it was not a term he would ascribe to it.

“I feel a common predisposition to being attracted to, and seduced by, abstract things,” he said, “visual things, concepts, feelings. So I wouldn’t disagree, but I wouldn’t say we were trying to achieve that.”

Butler went on to describe how he was drawing influences from more than just hip-hop, referencing both Animal Collective and Panda Bear as his musical influences.

Wherever Shabazz Palaces’ influences are from, their new album is an all-killer, no-filler work and therefore I am not going to try picking out highlights. It is an album that needs to be consumed as a whole.

Death Grips
The next visionary hip-hop album is titled Exmilitary (Third Worlds) and was released by Californian hip-hop crew Death Grips.

They formed in late 2010 when drummer Zac Hill from experimental rock group Hella hooked up with MC Ride and Flatlander to create their own twisted vision of hip-hop.

Their debut offering was initially released for free as a mix tape on the internet in April 2011 and has since had a physical release on vinyl and tape.

Death Grips’s sound is an aggressive and dark style of experimental hip-hop that adds elements of hardcore punk, dub and techno to very angry political lyrics.

Opening with a magnificent sample of a ranting Charles Manson, the album’s first song, Beware, clearly establishes that this is not going to be an easy ride.

Then comes Guillotine, a standout track that has bass so deep you can feel it in your gut until it explodes into a synth-driven rave-up.

Another highlight is Spread Eagle Cross the Block, which is built around a sample of Link Wray’s Rumble and features MC Ride spitting lyrics such as “I fuck the music/ I make it cum/ I fuck the music with my serpent tongue”.

Samples of hardcore pioneers such as Bad Brains, hip-hop peers such as the Beastie Boys, David Bowie, the Castaways’s Liar Liar and Arthur Brown’s hit single Fire all add to the mix, helping to create a powerful and, at times, nauseating assault on the senses.

Call Death Grips what you want, but the one thing they are not is boring.

The last visionary hip-hop album I want to highlight is MU.ZZ.LE (Warp) by the Californian artist Gonjasufi. He first drew attention when he featured on the track Testament on producer Flying Lotus’s 2008 album, Los Angeles. Then, in 2010, his debut album, A Sufi and a Killer, hit the shelves to critical acclaim.

Now we get his much anticipated follow-up MU.ZZ.LE, a 10-track, 25-minute masterpiece that Gonjasufi wrote and recorded on the road while touring his previous album.

Whereas Flying Lotus, the Gaslamp Killer and Mainframe handled the production on Gonjasufi’s debut, MU.ZZ.LE features the artist handling his own production on six of the 10 tracks and the other four have been done by San Diegan Psychopop.

On the whole, the album still ­bristles with the stressed-out dislocation its predecessor had, but this time the beats are slowed down and woozy. Gonjasufi still has that psychedelic-tinged sound that ­captured attention in 2010, but this time it is slower and more dreamy, like a perfect blend of Syd Barret and Tricky.

The sheer freaked-out nature of the electric piano-driven opener White Picket Fence bleeds into the psych-rock of Feedin Birds and, before you know it, it is 25 minutes later and you feel the need to put the record on for one more spin.

is sheer genius and a clear indication of what hip-hop heads can achieve if, as Saul Williams suggested, they begin to see beyond their immediate reality. More power to hip-hop’s visionaries.