Friday, July 11, 2008

7/11/08 - Next Steps

So, sure, Run-DMC's "Walk This Way" was a watershed moment, but it feels like the combination of rap with rock 'n' roll music still hasn't explored any past the front gates. I know that there was a period there where rock radio was filled with the likes of Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park and such, but just because something combines rap with rock doesn't mean that the music is any good. Conversely, it doesn't necessarily make it bad either, but the graceless lunkheads sprayed across hit radio after the Fred Durst & Co. hit it big sure would give that impression to the casual observer.

Rage Against the Machine is probably the most critically and commercially successful example of the genre, and I would posit that the Roots crew is the current paradigm of underground indie success. But both represent very specific paths toward the fusion of hip hop and rock, which means, Occam's Razor style, that there are a multitude of paths still left unblazed.

Because of the lack of workable models, Rage stands as the paradigm of the primarily "rock" act working in the hip-hop mode, which is somewhat strange due to the limited nature of their focus. Limit not meant in the pejorative sense, but literally - Rage's music is designed to accomplish a narrow set of aims - namely, make the listener feel just as pissed off and energized bout left-wing politics as Zach De La Rocha. The name of the band is the thesis statement of their sonic and lyric concerns - this is not a band given to experimentation. In this way they operate with the same kind self-limitations delineated by punk - like the buzzsaw pop of early Ramones, Rage's bludgeoning assault operates within a narrow range of tempo, attitude, and sound.

Now, this is not to denigrate the band - just to frame it. Rage has a lot of crucial strengths, and their central (and only) innovation was/is a powerful one. Recognizing that hip-hop's lack of melody and ratatat rhythms allow form of vocalization more assaultive and dramatic than anything sung could be, they proceeded to alloy said vocal style with the similarly amelodic and staccato rhythms of metal. The produced music that was assaultive to the core, but catchy through its rhythm (as opposed to its melodoy). Thus, the perfect message of form and function - when de la Rocha pops off about bulls being on parade, he really does come across as calm like a balm. There's no sing-along chorus to blunt the impact, but it's not deliberately alienating or off-putting like the Cookie Monsters of metal - it's just aggression, flattened down and welded the hip-hop's insistent beat.

So, a triumphant example of an aesthetic realized, but not exactly a viable model for the genre - Rage is pretty much a niche unto themselves (similar to a band like the Violent Femmes, and similarly inextricably linked with the powerful and powerfully peculiar personas of their frotnmen), and as such are more of an evolutionary cul-de-sac.

An actual step toward a successful fusion is the Roots crew, whose live performances are legend and well-known as bringing serious instrumental fire. Like Rage, the Roots musical dynamic is a push and pull from the musically restless ?uestlove and the solidly earnest MC Black Thought. "Here I Come" is the most rock 'n' roll song from the band that I'm familiar with, and it, like Rage, courses with the best of the 4/4 rock beat and aggression, riding ?uestlove's drums and the wah'ed guitar out of the gate all the way to the close.

Still, though, the Roots work solidly in the vernacular of hip-hop - their commitment to live instrumentation sets them apart and gives them a rock sheen, but really their project is to bring live instruments to the hip-hop sound. Thus, their songs are not structured as rock songs; with riffs, verses, choruses, bridges, and dynamic shifts/peaks/valleys. They're structured more as hip-hop songs - with the instrumental there as the bed for lyrical dexterity. It's somewhat of an fallacy to say that the play rock/hip-hop - really, they're almost pure hip-hop with live instruments. "Here I Come" rides the same riff the whole way through - were it taking from the rock vernacular there would at least be a solo - or the guitar part would change during the chorus (like Bulls on Parade).

Still, Black Thought is a more varied MC than de la Rocha, so stacking the 2 bands up next to each other illuminates the yawning gap that is still open for a fusion of genre to fill. Pop acts have taken hip-hop sounds for a while now (see: "Every Morning", Sugar Ray), and vice versa (see: every hip-hop song with an artfully placed female-sung chorus) - rock is a genre that's encrusted with a bit more traditionalism. Still, though, it's 2008 - it's time to get with the program. I'm about ready for Led Zeppelin fronted not by Robert Plant, but by Nas - which means not just hip-hop with live instruments, or aggression-dialed-to-11, but a full range of moods, styles, and instrumental color in the rock style with some rhyming woven through. Too much to ask? I'm keeping the faith.

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