In the part of New York State I grew up in, you spent your study halls either googling Eminem lyrics or doodling the American Idiot heart grenade in your notebooks. Or maybe you didn’t care about music at all, but I tried not to talk to those people.
If you read this blog, you could probably guess how I spent my study halls. For better or worse, those musical choices you make in Middle School and High School stick with you, so I wasn’t into hip-hop for a long time.
Besides that fairly arbitrary Midde School choice, I think at the time, the lyrics and music I was hearing in hip-hop just didn’t appeal to me. The oldies station that I listened to in the car with my folks helped me understand songs about girls and driving fast, but it took me about eight years to figure out what Kanye was rhyming “Gold Digger” with. (Honestly.)
Since then, I’ve had a slow but steady rapprochement with hip-hop. I’ve come to this music late, and I’m still doing my homework. I know what I like—soul samples, literate lyrics, a certain degree of difficulty in delivery—but it has taken a long time to narrow it down. So here’s a few cuts from the last 10 years of study. Call it the Miseducation of John Boudreau.
1. “Blackalicious,” Reanimation
I heard this song, no joke, on a Sunkist orange soda commercial in like maybe 2007. I was curious enough that I looked it up on the internet, and it since then, this song has been my hip-hop North Star. Like a great chef, Chief Xcel simultaneously served me both new ingredients that I hadn’t tried (breakbeats and scratching) as well as familiar ingredients (horns) in such a way that I able to appreciate the whole dish rather than picking it apart. The lyrics, too, were no less masterful. Gift of Gab’s polysyllabic delivery and awesome rhythmic sense meshed with the jazz songs I was starting to listen to around the same time. And he was funny, too! The lines “Rappers want flames, man I injure these shrimps/skew ‘em on the barb’ with some hickory chips/I’m a level higher than the intermediates” pretty much sealed it for me.
Insofar as I can say anything about the genre being only a casual listener, it’s that if you are into hip-hop and haven’t heard Blackalicious (or have only heard “Alphabet Aerobics”), you might want to remedy that.
Again, another score for our consumer society: I discovered this song in an American Eagle not too long after that soda commercial (’08 or ’09?). K-Os hooked me with their musicality; I thought it was against the rules for a hip-hop group to play chords or use real instruments. Maybe it was, and K-Os just broke the rules. This time it was the bassline that grabbed me first. Not only was it huge and inescapable, but I loved that it was absolutely played on an upright bass rather than electric or a sample. The sax solo further cemented, it of course—exciting and raunchy, almost as good as Bobby Keys. The beginning to the second verse contained the lyrical syncopation I was looking for as well: “It’s a conniption fit and the microphone’s lit/I take it higher like a bird on a wire retire the fire I never/cause I’m just movin’ on up/choosin to touch the unseen craving the clutch.” Another instant classic.
There was a dry spell for a while in the late high school/early college years where I was busy getting into other stuff and scaring myself in the process (experimenting with country, etc.), but the next rapper who really caught me was STS. He’s got plenty of good compositions of his own (“Cliché” is one of the finest satirical hip-hop songs I’ve heard), but this is the one that first impressed me. STS is probably the first rapper who I was able to appreciate just on his lyrical merits alone. His ability to tell a story with humor and insight proved to me that narrative rapping was just as viable as the more stream-of-consciousness lyrics I was familiar with before that. A sample: “My sign’s a Sag/She a Capricorn/We incompatible, and I shoulda known/She put my number in her Blackberry/I use Iphone.” This music video edit is actually the best version of the song—the recorded version has one more verse that totally ruins it. STS just put out a new album with RJD2, which is definitely worth your time.
Like I said, I’m still doing my homework, and I slept through most of Hip-Hop History, so my chronology has been completely backwards. That’s why I hadn’t heard A Tribe Called Quest until last year, when my suitemate got out of the shower and blasted “Check the Rhime” as loud as possible from his speakers while dressing. That’s an introduction you can’t ignore. As it has for most people, the second half of The Low-End Theory blew my mind. My favorite track on the album is undoubtedly the koan-like “What?” From the excellent clavinet intro to Q-Tip’s mispronunciation of “gefilte” as “kapelka,” it’s just a fun song. There have been a few times where I’ve been playing it too loud at work, and I have to jump for the volume knob right before “What is a poet all balls and no cock?” and the bit about ménage-a-trois. Freak freak y’all indeed.
If I was going about this logically, my hip-hop education probably should have begun with a trawl through Mark Ronson’s back catalogue. He is a man who has absolutely done his homework. Before he became the poster child for the mid-2000s retro revival, he was a hot-ticket DJ in both London and New York, which means he knows what sounds best behind an emcee, and what album the groove came from. This is an original beat, but still sounds like he pulled it from dirty ‘60s funk album. Though Mystikal falls into the “crummy human being” category, he’s still a charismatic performer, with a magnetic, brassy timbre and great speed. He also plays with dynamics, which isn’t something I’ve really heard other emcess do. I think the song is so appealing because it’s essentially a funk song—something James Brown would have worked out in an alternate universe. Bruno Mars and the backup singers play Bobby Byrd and the J.B.s to Mystikal’s James Brown. Doing your homework pays off, I guess.