A Whisper in the Crowd

Hip-hop rediscovers minimalism, thanks to a sea of surprisingly great singles

In the beginning, there was rhythm. Hairy hominids banging bones. Then, pokey Neanderthals touched the monolith and discovered the handclap -- they grunted with glee -- then konked on a coconut, thumped on a stump. "Mmm. Good . . . beat. Dance . . . to . . . it."

Eventually, the bones morphed in a flash into microphones. Early rappers rhymed about meat, arrows and -- some things never change -- gettin' paid and gettin' laid. Faster neural action resulted in the forging of metals; clangs, clinks and pings followed, adding more texture -- the shiver of a high hat, a cymbal crash, the ring of a bell. Then, ladies and gentlemen, came the drum kit and crazy arm flailing, followed by the synthetic beat, which mortally wounded the drummer; hot on its heels arrived the sampler, which stabbed the drummer in the back by swiping his handiwork and transforming it into another beast altogether.

The sampler also allowed clever thieves to steal other sounds, pile them on top of each other seemingly ad infinitum, until a virtual symphony could consume a song and battle with rappers for supremacy. Next thing you know, the Bomb Squad is slathering Public Enemy rhymes with tracks containing 100 dueling textures -- whistles, sirens and screams; buzzers and whirligigs; shouts and foghorns and staccato breakbeats -- all of which combine to overwhelm the eardrums.

Of course, you can only go so far until all the pretty colors merge into brown. Superstar of the moment 50 Cent is great and everything, but nothing about his music is revolutionary. The songs are just catchy. Crunk -- the Oi! of rap -- is old school slow and hard. The basic template is getting rusty, taken for granted, abused or simply used as a vehicle for copycat mediocrity.

But, alas, a new style is beginning to emerge, one that pares beats back to their essence: rhythms that support rhymes.

Fancy academians call it minimalism: Less is more, homey. Minimalism swept classical music in the '70s; infiltrated rock in the '90s; ignored jazz; conquered Chicago house in the mid-'90s; headed to Germany, where techno producers harnessed miniatures to make weirdo tracks; and is now being harnessed by hip-hop producers who hope to thump listeners over the head with simplicity.

Whereas in 2000 hip-hop radio was littered with 1,000 Jackson Pollack canvases, in 2003 Mark Rothko rap is on the rise: Producers such as Megahertz, Digga, the Neptunes and Tedsmooth have uncovered a central truth, one that the Shakers (and, later, Krazy Kat) sang the praises of 300 years ago in New England: "Tis the gift to be simple, Tis the gift to be free/'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be."

Plainly, there's some weird shit on rap radio right now, tracks that seem half-finished, still raw on the inside, that bump without getting all crazy-like, that don't need samples. Because, really, what more do you need for rhyming than a beat? Maybe a hook. But some general assumptions about the construction of a great rap track are being upended by a bunch of producers who are pondering the gift of simplicity, boiling down tracks to their essence.

On the surface, it's nothing new; early rap that pre-dated sampler art was quite sparse. But the difference now is intent. At a time when million-track marches are all the rage (see Lil' John & the Eastside Boyz), innovative producers are whittling cuts down to the core.

Stardate, 2002: The Neptunes join forces with fellow Virginians Clipse to release a song, one that serves as the precursor to this year's avalanche. The song is called "Grindin'" and, musically, there's not much to it. It uses just bass drum, handclaps, finger snaps and some monster snare. It sounds like an army march -- intimidating, but not overwhelming. The rhythm stretches well into the second verse unimpeded. Then, amidst all this simplicity, there's an epiphany: a muffled pingmelody that stretches a mere 32 bars until it disappears. It's little, and were it buried in the morass of most hip-hop tracks, it would be inconsequential. But as it's presented, it's like a rose bush in the desert. The surrounding starkness glorifies its existence. After it vanishes, there's another blossom: 32 bars of high hat. You didn't even realize its absence -- all rap songs use a high hat -- until its appearance, two minutes into a four-minute track. Again, it's tiny, but within the track, its arrival marks a seismic shift and transforms the song. The melody appears again, then again, and every time it sounds better, and sticks in your noggin long after the song ends.

The Neptunes, who have succeeded fellow Virginian Timbaland as the kings of rap producers, are churning out minimal tracks left and right. Their coolest so far this year is buried on their uneven but admirable Clones. It's called "Hot" and features newbie Roscoe P. Coldchain. Again, the track is nearly vacant -- just a backward kick drum and a few handclaps. But all that silence weighs heavy, and bells and whistles would only diminish its power.

You can thank Jamaican dancehall producers in part for the rise of rap minimalism, especially Steven "Lenky" Marsden, the producer responsible for a rhythm track called "Diwali," which has served as a template for three hit singles in 2003: Sean Paul's "Get Busy," Wayne Wonder's "No Letting Go" and the ubiquitous summer hit "Never Leave You -- Uh Ooh, Uh Oooh!" by Lumidee. The two formers aren't that minimal, but Lumidee's brilliant gem, produced by Tedsmooth, who harnesses a "Diwali" loop, recalls both Haitian voodoo trance and the Dixie Cups' 1965 girl-group smash "Iko Iko." "Never Leave You" is one of the best singles of the year, odd because it seems so inconsequential: just a woodblock beat looped over and over again. There's no instrumental melody, only Lumidee's beautiful vocals. The magical transformation arrives not as a string of notes, but as a single bass note plucked thrice. This note is nothing, really, but amidst all the percussion, it's a deep earthquake that rumbles all that is above it.

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