Strict ethnomusicologists say that the first great musical innovation came from prehistoric men blowing on bugs' wings. And to the cave men, that probably sounded fine. We know that later in human history, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and the rest were fairly inspired when they mated hillbilly music with R&B.
But for every musical genius that puts chocolate in someone else's peanut butter, there's bound to be an unlikable madman somewhere concocting a never-before-heard, putrid-sounding musical discharge.
For some reason, the classical-rock strains of Emerson, Lake and Palmer come to mind, as do the discoveries of the Christopher Columbus of pop, Paul Simon.
It was only a matter of time before hip-hop, a particularly active hotbed of innovation, was invaded by some dude whose Edisonian instincts were so far off, he should be plagued by a bodyful of pustular sores.
We're talking, of course, about Me Phi Me (a.k.a. Laron Wilbur), an irritating twerp from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who is so much the James Taylor of hip-hop that humor doesn't even enter into it. Here's his shtick: folk-rap. And he does neither part very well.
The idea isn't a bad one, theoretically. It is possible to mix pasty-white music with apocalyptic black beats and come up with something genuinely revolutionary. Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith did a riveting hip-hop/metal weld on "Walk This Way," and Public Enemy did it again on "She Watch Channel Zero." The Beastie Boys have been doing it all their lives--laying a hip-hop template over punk and losing nothing in the translation.
There are enough similarities between folk and hip-hop to suggest they could breed successfully. Both have contributed mightily to their respective cultures' oral traditions with unadorned instrumentation and topical storytelling. The words "raw" and "honest" describe Woody Guthrie as well as they do Ice Cube. Add stripped-down, three-chord melodies to fat beats, or join hard-core rhythms with impassioned playing in just the right way, and you've got some heady, interracial possibilities. Not to mention wider audiences. Chuck D once said that Tracy Chapman's music had a bigger white than black audience because you couldn't dance to it.
But building a sound from two disparate musical styles doesn't automatically make you a genius. M.P.M. may be an innovator, but his execution lags. The rhyming guitarist slicks up both hip-hop and folk as much as he can get away with on his debut album, One. Unlike P.M. Dawn and De La Soul, who have both proved you can be as mellow as an opium den without giving up the funk, the Me Phi guy melds beats with strums by filing the edge off of both. Therefore, you get the kind of effervescent vibe usually associated with Lawrence Welk. Various cuts on One would fit well in a number of different radio formats, but, ultimately, the disc would probably find its home at the adult-contemporary end of the dial.
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One flitters out of your speakers ephemerally, with Chris Cuben-Tatum's production delicately designed to evaporate upon eardrum impact. Me Phi Me even weaves part of Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" into one track on this barfaganza. And jazz eunuch Michael "Popsicle Toes" Franks tiptoes on the scene to simper on "(Think . . .) Where Are You Going?" More maddening, even the James Brown samples sound curiously emasculated, quieted down so as not to overwhelm the rest of the near-men flitting about.
Overall, M.P.M.'s rhythmic gracelessness on the mic is the weakest link here. No way this guy would've ever gotten a major-label deal had he not been a rapper toting an acoustic guitar. Funky, six-string riffs are locatable from time to time under the glossy production, and they'd generate real heat if any pro rapper got hold of em. (Anyone remember L.L. Cool J taking over MTV Unplugged a couple of years back?)
M.P.M.'s lyrical philosophy, like his musical tenor, is designed to be patently inoffensive. The rapper-strummer proselytizes for individuality in a way that'll leave you with as much insight after you listen to the album as you had coming in. Suffice it to say that "nigga" and "trigga" aren't among the most commonly uttered words on One. "Sunshine" and "day," however, are. Look to Ice Cube if you want to hear truths like "the Statue of Liberty ain't nothin' but a lazy bitch." Go to Me Phi Me for add-nothing rewrites on black-on-black crime (Not My Brotha") and homelessness (Black Sunshine").
Ironically, though, Me Phi Me could serve as an inspiration for a generation of rapper-songwriters who can rip the guts out of folk and hip-hop and tie them together with their souls intact. They can study Me Phi Me as much for what they could do as for what they shouldn't.