BUSTIN' OUT OF BLACKFACE
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.
All this noise almost makes the Beasties' rapping a moot point. They whip up their sonic nasal whine for the tone and emotion, smoothing out the density of their rhymes to assume front-men personae. Their rhymes don't suck, per se, but the obnoxious brilliance and ultrarich lyrical pastiche of their first two albums still beat the cornball philosophizing that distinguishes this one. If the Boys can bring rapping on the Ill tip to their current playing level in the future, forget about it.
@body:Unlike the Beasties, who filter hip-hop through an unmistakably punk sensibility, House of Pain's style could've come straight outta Compton. Everlast, who debuted solo a couple of years back with Forever Everlasting and promptly dropped off the face of the planet, raps about Boss Hog, his big shillelagh and Philly Blunts--essentially old themes with new names. What makes this fly is Everlast's supreme confidence, the biggest difference between his album of two years ago and House of Pain. He raps with one hand fastened on his eggs, as he's prone to calling them, at all times, and he's good enough to make you not care that he's hip-hop's equivalent of a truck with six-foot tires. He's got that great authoritative voice--half Baptist ministerial bray, half wise-guy sneer--that L.L. Cool J and Ice Cube use to such great effect. He squeezes off words with the crisp report of automatic gunfire, all the while putting a premium on keeping rhymes fresh through rhythmic improv, energetic bombastitude and the flat-out unexpected. You have to admire anybody brave enough to rhyme "John McEnroe" with "ho."
The House's backing tracks don't have as large a personality as their leader. They're essentially a collection of great old blues, R&B and gospel samples. You won't find any hints of hip-hop's future sounds in House of Pain's beats, but even if deejays Muggs and Lethal are no Bomb Squad, they're the consummate archivists, letting hall-of-fame riffs by people like Bob and Earl, Willie Dixon and the Staple Singers pretty much speak for themselves. The House's "Jump Around" uses a simple skank n' screech duet to fuel the year's most explosive single.
But what you're likely to remember most about House of Pain is not so much Everlast or the beats, but the often quirky and occasionally delightful bumping up against one another of lyrics that celebrate Irish Americana by using a decidedly African-American art form. And name-dropping John McEnroe isn't the half of it.
First of all, the lush greenery of this disc wasn't nearly as in evidence on Everlast's solo outing, so either it's a cultural awakening or a carefully crafted marketing campaign designed to establish an immediately identifiable selling point. Dublin descendant Everlast drinks only Irish beer, dines on corned beef and cabbage and croons "Danny Boy." Catholic-school nuns, leprechauns and the Irish mob all make appearances.
Against this backdrop, Everlast's mind opens and closes under his shaved skull in random fashion. He's an expert at walking the racial tightrope, bragging that white men can rap, and wearing peace signs on his sleeve like "Ya call me a skinhead/I call ya a pinhead." As for his raps on gays and choice, let's put it this way: Everlast wouldn't be out of place on the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade organizing committee or in the Irish Parliament.
Ultimately, House of Pain's shtick figures only to get old. Irocentricity is at best a flavor of the month. What if the Beasties wrote about the hora and the Torah? Surely, Everlast's too good a rapper to serve his Irish stew as leftovers.
@body:The Brand New Heavies came up with the highest concept of the year, next to House of Pain. The British trio, which features both white and black musicians, invited ten different rappers from America and Jamaica to rhyme over their jams. In this live, revolving-door format, there's no opening anywhere for boredom to creep in.
With the arguable exception of Gang Starr, none of the rappers on the Heavies' album is a household name. And even here, it's not difficult to tell why. Granted, these vocalists aren't going to waste their best material on someone else's album, but still, none of them has much to say if the subject's not rapping, fucking or fighting. Besides Gang Starr, none of the Heavies' guests' performances makes you wish their stay on the album was any longer than the allotted one song.
Not that any of the tracks are particularly worth skipping, though. There's no Vanilla Ice types here, and everyone keeps the variety flowing in his own small way, from Gang Starr's kinetically cool Miles Davis vibe on "It's Gettin Hectic" to Jamalski's speedy, dance-hall workout, "Jump n' Move," to Kook G. Rap's gangsta screamer, "Death Threat."
The Heavies provide a behind-the-scenes continuity designed to make the rappers and listeners feel at home. Anyone whose interest sags when the energy level dips beneath that of, say, the Chili Peppers probably won't get past the first couple of songs. The Heavies' genius is in providing a cozy atmosphere and working out on mellow, jazzy funk designed not for stage diving, but for intimately connecting on a common groove with the vocalists.
Most of the vocalists are working with a live band for the first time, and sound thrilled to have the opportunity. When turntables and samples do come into the mix, it's only for adornment, but the vocalists adapt well to their new surroundings. In the midst of this musical bonding, there's an elasticity and emotion you just can't get most times with artificial backing tracks. The rappers' exposure to live beats, bass lines and guitar riffs is full of eager discovery, sort of like a mass musical deflowering.
Bring on Heavy Rhyme Experience: Volume 2--before the next Vanilla Ice album.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.