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Why you can (should) never go home again:
Things learned from making the end all hip-hop CD.

By Maurice Downes

I'm not sure what I was doing when the idea struck me. It was just one of those decisions. I assume that the base for the decision came from my general grumpiness with the art form. "Hip-hop," I thought, "what a waste." It's almost like it came to an end so abruptly, because in its current form it truly IS a fad just like they'd been saying all along, and fads die. More than back in the days when you could come up with some kind of goofy gimmick (Three fat guys?) or costume (Rap in a JohnWayne outfit?)... at least back then you had different gimmicks. Now it's as if everybody operates off one set of moves, one sound, no love for the form, just the riches. If a fad doesn't evolve into something higher, then it has the effect of a parasite that doesn't know when to stop and ends up killing the host. My fear for current hip-hop.

But I've been saying that shit ever since '98, when bling-bling went into full bloom; when southern hip-hop started to become indistinguishable from west coast and took the east with it; when Cash Money Millionaires competed with No Limit, not in "emceeing", but in "spitting game". When artists started saying "...I'd have money even if I wasn't rapping." See what I mean? So many things that were once an insult were now more than just mere oversights, they were actually applauded. I went away to college for four years, and in that time I slowly lost any hope for popular radio, and certainly for hip-hop. The music that used to completely transform every 1-2 years has remained stagnant for about six years now. That's a fair estimate, I think.

So how's about I put my money where my big mouth is? If I know so damn much about the music, why don't I collect all, at least most, of the music that's worth listening to? (see, I may be a pathetic hipster, but I'm a self-conscious one) A perfect idea, but how in God's name would I accomplish that? On one hand, I'm rocking a 56k modem that takes an average of 20-30 minutes to download one stinking MP3. Even in all my unemployed glory I don't possibly have the time for such an undertaking. On the other crusty, wrinkled, horrible hand: Napster died. Where I could once think of any obscure, drunken whim of a song that played through my memories on those bored insomniac nights and download it with a keystroke… now I could only wipe away a bitter tear at the power I once held. The ultimate hip-hop CD would remain a theory.
Which was fine as I found myself warming up to Juvenile…

BUT ENOUGH OF THAT NONSENSE! Suddenly one day I found myself with a newfound vim and vigor that resembled the turnaround point in a Bruckheimer movie. Except what happened to me had much better plotting and direction.

See, Napster was dead, but after absent-mindedly playing around with the Internet, I found myself at the helm of a bevy of download protocols that would aid my search for some of the best that hip-hop has given us. Where my days were once filled with gloom over never again getting to hear Micheal Viner's Incredible Bongo Band do their acid junkie take on "Apache"… now I suddenly had the power to obtain this very song. I'm sure we've all heard the B.S. about the new programs that have taken over the throne of Napster, but until lately it's all remained to me a bunch of pathetic hot air after the constant dropped downloads and unintelligible interface of certain protocols discouraged me somewhat. However, I pressed on and was able to resume doing something quite naughty: downloading individual songs that are near impossible to find anywhere.

In case you may think that the next part in this little story involves me procuring the services of a broadband connection… ha. You clearly don't understand true devotion. Nick Hornby's book (you know, High Fidelity) chronicled the addiction quite accurately: music heads will do anything to preserve what they consider a lost art. Even if it does mean spending 20-30 minutes a song for what may prove to be hundreds of songs. And it has. Luckily, the computer's doing most of the work. Not so lucky is the fact that this would prove to take weeks and weeks of time to do what will eventually turn out to be an unfinished product. Such is the doubled-edged sword of a "best of" list: it's always unfinished in some respect. But complaints over, since the journey of hundreds of miles was possible by walking.

That was about three weeks ago. Three weeks of work for my almost complete "Best of Hip-Hop" CD… or should I say CD's. Every single second was worth it. What couldn't be accomplished by recording from my own collection had to be found with the various Internet music tools at my disposal. There were days of intense elation (finding "The Show" by Doug E Fresh), strong disappointment (never being able to find a complete "I can't wait" by Redman), utter confusion (I love M.O.P., but can't remember the names of many songs), and lost treasures (who remembers Nine?). Such is the nature of relying on other people to fill in your musical gaps. In all, the search has turned up over 300 songs that will be forced onto two CD's in one of the most beautiful labors of love that I've ever had the honor to be a part of. I suggest that everyone do something like this at least once, because the memories alone are something truly other than else.
But more than just getting to cry some nostalgic tears (talking with a friend, we kept calling this the "High School Album"), this collection has taught me something about my own regard for hip-hop. This alone has made the experience far more educational than I ever would've thought possible, and in the end has proven to be a self-sociological experiment.

Here's what I've learned from making a "Best of Hip-Hop Album":

1) Hip-hop sharply declined after 1996
Much like rock, the end of hip-hop has always been predicted for one reason or another. But unlike rock, where the end was predicted by whiny naysayers who were always a week away from groups like Black Sabbath, Sex Pistols, and The Cure, hip-hop's end was always predicted by the media and not by its fans. That was until it proved its resolve, its ability to change social outlook… its marketability. That was around 1992 when Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" came out and changed hip-hop forever. Then suburban kids started talking about true hip-hop on a grand scale… that's when the media backed off from calling it a fad.
Out of nowhere, hip-hop was a profitable music for the artist. Considering that most hip-hop artists were on the low end of the money scale for much of the music's existence, this was a new feeling. Sure, they often rapped about being rich, but now they actually were. Slowly, many artists migrated to a style or a producer who could make them an easily paid entity. After 1996, much of hip-hop adopted a uniform style to attain profit. After 1996, there was a formula for how to do it. Now I'm scared about hip-hop's end.

2) The term "player-hater" is completely useless to anyone who knows anything about hip-hop.
When hip-hop started its descent into hardcore pop, there needed to be a way to prevent the bottom from falling out. In essence, they found it with the term "player hater", one who hates a player merely because they're jealous of their wealth. What bullshit, especially since that puts a corny artist in the position of infallibility since it's you that has the problem, not the other way around. The prevalent term used to be "Sucka MC", an insult that should be self-explanatory. That should prove where the focus in hip-hop eventually went.
While I was making the album, I realized that I had songs about the plight of black people, songs about packing heat, songs about making money, songs about… well, nothing at all. Hip-hop was at its best when it was impossibly varied, and if I hate somebody in rap, it's certainly nothing to do with their bank account. It's their inability to rap.

3) Boogie Down Productions is probably the most important hip-hop group of all time.
It's currently being said that underground hip-hop is the foundation, and they certainly aren't off the mark there. But the current concept of underground hip-hop would probably not exist without the forming of South Bronx collective Boogie Down Productions and their lead emcee, KRS-ONE (Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone). There was a sort of beginning to pop rap around the time when BDP formed (mid 80's), but just like Grandmaster Flash with "The Message", BDP centered themselves around music as a direct means of social change. This was very unlike most popular music of the time, especially hip-hop, and gave BDP a niche audience immediately. If it weren't for BDP, then the introduction of artists like N.W.A., Arrested Development, Wu-Tang Clan, among others would've been altered drastically.

4) A lot of what's underground hip-hop now would've just been considered good, normal hip-hop years ago.
It's almost as if producing a rap record nowadays that shows care in musicianship automatically makes it "underground." Really, a group like Cannibal Ox is what I consider underground; not because they sound different from most of the hip-hop on the radio now, but because their sound and approach to music are so far ahead of what most artists are doing now. I think it's unbelievably sad that to create any musically strong hip-hop you almost always need to release an independent album. Real musicianship does not sell.

5) '88-'93 was my favorite period in hip-hop
De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, LL Cool J, Arrested Development, Dr. Dre, Digable Planets, Beastie Boys… ahhhhhhhh.

6) The next big thing in hip-hop is still a ways off
Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox, who both made SEVERAL appearances on the "best of" album, are for all intents and purposes too much for the average lazy jackass to handle. Intelligent, complex lyrics; Stunning musical backdrops… yep, not something that'll be eaten up by the Top 40. Hip-hop will prove much harder to stir up than rock, because rock's audience is, in all honesty, a lot more open to change. I've seen signs of boredom with hip-hop; I remain hopeful, but ultimately jaded. There have been bad periods in the music before, but this bad period has lasted for over half a decade. Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox may be far and away the best hip-hop artists at present, but it will take a very open mind… a lot of 'em… to realize it.

I'm still not quite done with the album yet. There are holes here and there, and corrections to be made. But, oh what joy. To span 1978-2001 in such an educational way. It gave me hope, however small, that there may be happy days again in the world of hip-hop. Here on my computer I have hundreds of examples of how good it can be.

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[email protected] | March 2002 | Issue 24
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