Jangly, quickly strummed, hard-edged guitar lines and popping bass riffs shuck and jive over stuttering, nearly danceable beats in the song "Buckle Down," off the Red Hot Chili Peppers' eponymously titled 1984 debut. The voice of lead singer Anthony Kiedis is distinct: "Hah/On the ice/No holdin'/My soul/I want men/Not mice."
With those few words, and plenty more similarly rhymed ones, Kiedis and his bandmates, along with acts such as Faith No More and Fishbone, helped initiate the change in popular music, especially in heavy metal and hard rock, that has swept Top 40 and college radio alike. Some call it rapcore. Some call it rap-metal. Some call it tired. Whatever its label, current bands such as Limp Bizkit, Korn, Rage Against the Machine and, to a lesser extent, Kid Rock and Insane Clown Posse, have parlayed the sound into platinum-selling records and worldwide tours.
Yet while hard rockers at heart have made fine use of rap, those on the other end of the exchange have been reluctant to reciprocate. While some, such as Sean "Puffy" Combs, Sir Mix-A-Lot and Q-Tip, have either incorporated bits of metal riffage into songs or even collaborated with metalheads, no one rhyme master has made a living from metal-rap.
Remotely reminiscent of the way Britons, such as the guys in Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, aped U.S. bluesmen in the 1960s, or how Bob Marley and his Wailing Rudeboys copied the smooth moves of Philly doo-woppers in the same decade, a recent crop of Jamaican rappers are using modern metal, a genre undeniably nurtured on American soil, to update and toughen up their rap.
While North American metalheads have learned to reshape rap's sound and culture into commercial and sometimes artistic successes, some Jamaican rappers learned the inverse: how to transform heavy metal's best assets into marketable rap. Leading the way is DJ/producer/rapper and former record-label mogul Buccaneer. His song "Soca Nama" appears on the soundtrack to Third World Cop (a Palm Pictures remake of Jamaica's highest-grossing film ever, The Harder They Come), which is set for U.S. release this month. Through the movie and soundtrack, which was released in February, American ears are finally receiving a small sample of this amazing trailblazer.
Continental U.S. rappers should take heed -- if they still value bone-rattling, booming sonorities, which we think they do. The influence of heavy metal on Buccaneer and others -- including Capleton, Red Rat, Ward 21 and even Jamaica-born-but-Brooklyn-raised "Boombastic-Mr.-Fahn-Tahstic" Shaggy -- has affected not the melodies of songs but the beats. Thing is, not a single electric guitar is played. What you hear in some of Buccaneer's songs, such as "Bruk Out," one of a handful of his metal-influenced dancehall hits, or the aforementioned "Soca Nama," are either metal samples or synthesizers cued to crunchy guitar effects.
Getting a guitar-sounding growl from a keyboard allows a musician such as Buccaneer to inject otherworldly percussive elements into his compositions. The best way to understand it may be to imagine drumming a heavily distorted Les Paul on 10. You strum a guitar. But you can slap a keyboard. This technique opens up the possibilities of the guitar, allowing for more and faster chord progressions. The effect, especially when experienced at a club or on a phat hi-fi, is earth-shaking and unlike anything ever heard across our fruited plains.
"Soca Nama" originally appeared on Buccaneer's second album, Da Opera, which was released on his Opera House Productions label in 1998. Until that point, he had been generating considerable international acclaim for his inventive and unquestionably creative blending of rap, dancehall and opera. One of the few rappers anywhere with vocal chops as well as ciphering skills, Buccaneer was lauded for his 1996 debut, Now There Goes the Neighborhood, and the operatic rap singles "Man Tief Sonata," "Bad Man Sonata" and "Skettel Concerto," which were all released beforehand. Rapping over "The Blue Danube," "Moonlight Sonata" and a section from The Barber of Seville eventually earned Buccaneer the nickname the Fourth Tenor, as if he were the guy Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras forgot to call.
After appearing on numerous compilations, and now on Third World Cop's soundtrack, and releasing a best-of disc, Classic, in 1997, Buccaneer (née Andrew Bradford) appears to have taken the inside track on Beenie Man and Cobra in the race to cross over into U.S. boom boxes. Heavy metal hues -- or "heavy metal riddims," as Buccaneer has called them -- only propel him closer to the finish line. (If anything prohibits the growth of Jamaican rap here, it may be the sometimes sloppy business practices of the labels with which the artists align themselves. On the first pressings of Buccaneer's Classic, for example, classical pieces were credited to someone named "traditional." Buccaneer and his distributor at the time, Greensleeves, whose stable of artists includes Mr. Vegas, Black Uhuru and Shabba Ranks, among others, quickly rectified the situation, but only after attention was called to it.)
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"Soca Nama" is the best of both Buccaneer worlds. Pounding bass-drum beats, which alternate between high and low registers and which resonate deeply as if someone were striking a 40-foot rubber washbasin with a sledgehammer, thump in sets of two in time with the operatic refrain: "So' ca-nahhhh-mahhhh/Soca nama/Soca nama." This line is sung over flanged guitar riffs and barely audible rat-a-tat-tat accents.
As with most Jamaican rap, it is nearly impossible to comprehend the lyrics, which are sung in what BET fave Shaggy calls "dog-a-muffin" style. English syntax gives over to something resembling French; objects precede both subjects and verbs, and adjectives follow their nouns. Though the words are in English, they are slung together so wildly and are prefixed or suffixed by "sah" and "yah" so often, they challenge listeners to the point of distraction.
But language has never historically been a problem for English-only audiences here. Stereolab (primarily French), Pizzicato Five (primarily Japanese) and Los Lobos (occasionally Spanish or even Spanglish) have all been received lovingly by radio listeners and trendier-than-thou college heads alike. And who can forget the "Macarena"?
As with opera, language is a barrier only if the delivery sucks. Buccaneer, with his intensity, transcends obstacles, whether language- or genre-based. If metal samples and sounds work for him and a handful of other rappers in a place like Jamaica, they can also work for artists and audiences here. Anywhere.