BUSTIN' OUT OF BLACKFACE

WHITE MEN CAN'T RAP. OR CAN THEY?

In 1992, hip-hop produced an artist whose accomplishments call to mind Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker and Donny Osmond. No, we're not talking about someone who changed the music like Public Enemy or De La Soul. Hip-hop's answer to the legends of blues, jazz and Mormon rock happens to be a white guy named Everlast.

Make no mistake. Everlast's name will be forgotten as long as Johnson's and Bird's and even Osmond's are remembered. Like his predecessors, Everlast began his career without a hint of future greatness, but after a spell, he emerged as a genius--or at least a mightily improved version of himself.

It's only fitting that Everlast should've been reincarnated in 92. Prior to this year, white hip-hop usually meant one of two things: the Beastie Boys or embarrassment. Before 1992, the history of white hip-hop wasn't a pretty one--with very few exceptions. 3rd Bass, generally considered the best of the bunch, featured a pair of rappers in MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice whose music was sapped of any intrinsic funkiness in their aching quest for authenticity. How bad was white hip-hop? You have to go beyond even the Pat Boonesque Vanilla Ice, past Madonna wanna-be Marky Mark, until you get to ex-Ramones bassist Dee Dee King, who rapped like the Abbott and Costello-era Mummy in 1989 on Standing in the Spotlight and who, for all we know, raps for food today. Then there are mediocrities and oddballs like the Everlast of 1990, woman rapper Tairrie B and Young Black Teenagers, who intrigued people who should've known better, like Ice-T, Schoolly D and Public Enemy's Bomb Squad, but failed to fool all but a few album buyers. And finally, there are those who have discovered hip-hop can be a rewarding hobby. Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian and R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe are two who proved that getting an opportunity to rap on a Public Enemy or Neneh Cherry album is just not as difficult as you would've thought if you're young, rich, white and perform with a successful rock band.

To be sure, there have been moments when Caucasian rappers besides the Beasties have caused sensations other than mortification. 3rd Bass' "The Gas Face" goes after white supremacy with a savvy and intensity that would make Public Enemy or Ice Cube proud. With the lyrics "Black cat is bad luck/Bad guys wear black/Must've been a white guy who started all that," "The Gas Face" is a powerful source of street knowledge.

Even in light of the occasional enlightened racial sensitivity, it was still easier to find white hip-hop on Billboard charts than on critics' Top 10 lists. Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark proved once again that putting a white mask on black music could be a frighteningly potent sales formula.

There are doubtless countless new Elvi of hip-hop on the horizon, but for the moment, the white presence seems to have tapped into methods for success far less disturbing. The Beastie Boys and Everlast's group, House of Pain, both made a lot of money this year, but they earned it with albums that delve into the art of hip-hop with as much fervor as Vanilla Ice fought his way past Hammer in Billboard a couple of years back. And perhaps more encouraging, the best white rappers are hip-hop musicians who aren't exactly members of the country-club set. Inevitably, the future will see many, many albums by white hip-hop acts go from recording studio to album buyer without black input at any stage. But albums by the Beasties, House of Pain and the Brand New Heavies, a group featuring a biracial mix of musicians, work on varying levels, thanks to a chemistry of black and white.

All right, forget for a minute that the three Brooklyn meshugas who make up the Beastie Boys are the best Caucasoid rappers in the history of hip-hop. Their latest offering, Check Your Head, has elevated the funky firm of Horovitz, Diamond & Yauch to the top of the field, and it doesn't matter if you're black or white. The feel-good disc of the year, spilling over as it does with Godzillian grooves, it gives the Beasties an unprecedented trio of classic hip-hop albums.

Check Your Head is essentially more than the sum of its predecessors' parts. Like 1986's Licensed to Ill, it's got a swinging rumpus roomful of fat-bottomed funk-punk and, perhaps more important, the trio's mighty, six-pack-of-gonads-on-chutzpah overload. And back from 89's Paul's Boutique is the Beasties' cheeba-fueled, Venice Beach-boho attitude.

Not that the Beasties merely pulled out the back catalogue and served warmed-over nostalgia. Instead of lifting all their beats from samples and a drum machine, the rappers dusted off the instruments they hadn't picked up since their Ramones-in-Brooklyn days in the early 80s.

You'll never mistake the Beasties' thudding garage-funk for the freaky-styley dexterity of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for instance, but there's no corporate hurlage … la "Under the Bridge," either. These ex-punkers play like they'd had their instruments taken away against their will. The Beasties pound out riff after lick after beat, freshly and messily. Add the guitar figure on "So What'cha Want" to the things in this life bound to make you go schwing. Ad Rock, Mike D, MCA and a small orchestra of percussionists and keyboardists pump out this joyousness in styles so far-ranging, it'd almost be easier to check off the genres they don't dabble in. You get straight-up funk, vintage Seventies cock-rock, anarchic hard-core and enough psychedelia to make this the pot-smoking album of the year. And that's not even including Biz "Pickin' Boogers" Markie singing over a Ted Nugent sample.

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