Hopping Up the Hip-Hop

The Dungeon Family gets it right on Even In Darkness.

High is high, low is low/Everybody wants to get to heaven/But nobody wants to die/Nobody wants to die/Nobody wants to do the don'ts/Don't the dids/Color outside the lines/Nobody wants to try.

Ignore the probability that the above paean to transcendence was written under the influence of amphetamines, hallucinogens, or some combination thereof. That's (arguably) beside the point. Taken from the slow, syrupy "Are You Rollin'" -- from 2001's best hip-hop album, the Dungeon Family's Even in Darkness -- the lines reveal a beautiful philosophy that's creating hip-hop bliss in an unlikely setting: commercial radio. A few major league hip-hop producers are hitting heaven because they're willing to die (read: flop), because they're coloring outside the lines and making the music go bang.

Are Timbaland and Organized Noize the Phil Spectors and George Martins of the new millennium? Are they important? Do they matter? Damn straight they matter, and even as Rolling Stone gives a Mick Jagger solo album five fucking stars, rap drops new beat bombs nearly once a week -- masterpieces so shocking that we won't understand the extent of their collective brilliance until the dust settles. Timbaland and Organized Noize are taking hip-hop on a strange trip -- one that draws not only from the music's insular recent history, but also from drum 'n' bass, house, experimental laptop electronica, Miami bass, Jamaican dance hall, and sturdy Detroit techno. If rock 'n' roll was created by the merger of seemingly disparate country, blues and R&B, the equally revolutionary merger of all music computerized is transforming hip-hop into a new kind of freak show.

Organized Noize, a production crew consisting of Rico Wade, Pat "Sleepy" Brown and Ray Murray, is part of the Atlanta collective Dungeon Family; also under the umbrella are OutKast, the Goodie Mob, Cool Breeze, rapper Backbone, and a couple of others. (Got all that?) Organized Noize regularly collaborates with both the Goodie Mob and OutKast. Best known is its work with the latter on the lauded Stankonia (specifically the brilliant "B.O.B.") and on OutKast's new shuffle single, "The Whole World." The crew has also worked with Ludacris, TLC, and En Vogue.

At the core of Even in Darkness, the Dungeon Family's first collective effort, are unbridled joy and experimentation. Each track is filled with giggles and smiles, the kind that make you wish you were a fly on the wall -- or a roach in the ashtray -- of the Family's studios. Where others loop and repeat for four minutes, the Family's work shows a meandering quality, a willingness to stretch the beats and fill the space between them with weirdness. They suggest influences without explicitly sampling them: The stuttering Kraftwerk high-hat on "Trans DF Express" (itself a reference to Kraftwerk's seminal hip-hop blueprint "Trans Europe Express") exists only as a shadow, an unspoken appeasement of the gods of hip-hop history.

You can hear the fun of singing all together on "Follow the Light," a song reminiscent of classic P-Funk. The Family's songs aren't derivative like the songs of Dr. Dre or Ice Cube, whose grooves seem merely lifted from funk jams. They pepper the funk with modern computer sounds: Hollow bamboo beats (on "White Gutz") recall new German techno, and stuttering snares (on "On & On & On") suggest drum 'n' bass.

Whereas Organized Noize started in the '90s as a conservative crew banging out relatively unsurprising sounds and gradually climbed to outer space, Timbaland started freaky and is getting more so by the track. At the heart of his sound is a stutter-step rhythm; perhaps because it's so jarring, perhaps because amid all the noise on the radio, the itsy bits of silence inherent in his sound seem to jump out -- perhaps because it just sounds so future, Timbaland is the man of the moment, and you can't miss him if you listen to hit radio. He's behind Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," Aaliyah's "Try Again," Bubba Sparxxx's "Ugly," and one of the great hip-hop tracks of the last decade, Timbaland and Magoo's "Up Jumps Da Boogie."

Because of Timbaland's ubiquity, it's tempting to dismiss him. His sounds are funny, he's all about the money, and he pimps his wares everywhere. He doesn't seem to care whether the rappers who use his tracks are any good (despite the brilliance of "Get Ur Freak On," Elliott must have scribbled the words out when she was half-drunk or asleep) or whether their message is interesting (witness his recurring partnership with Magoo, a rapper who, despite his fascinating style, is a lame-ass bigot). So his indie cred's in need of some attention.

But track down some of the 12-inches, most of which contain instrumental versions of the songs, and you can hear the music untainted by mediocre rappers. Timbaland has stolen from Björk (and he says that her Vespertine is one of his favorite records right now) and lifted melodies and ideas from English folk (on "People Like Myself," from his and Magoo's uneven new Indecent Proposal), Japanese hakuhachi flute music, new wave, electro, dance hall, and rock.

Timbaland's at his best on the singles. His commercial breakthrough came with Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody?" in 1996, a song so breathtaking in the scheme of things that it's impossible to overestimate its influence. He broke out the next year with Elliott's Supa Dupa Fly, which featured the sturdy "Sock It 2 Me." But he hit his stride and changed everything with a little track he recorded with Magoo called "Up Jumps Da Boogie." The single's buggin', an exclamation point so much at odds with everything else on hip-hop radio at the time -- and just so damned weird -- that its mere existence was surprising. Inside the little beep and burp beats -- no pounding bass drum here -- was a sound that seemed to sneak onto the radio straight from 1982; think Newcleus' "Jam on It" or the Jonzun Crew's "Pack Jam," equal parts new wave, rap and electro.

What's most curious is that Timbaland and the Dungeon Family are making this music under the intense microscope of the major-label system, a system petrified of anything extreme that's not Extreme. But it makes sense: It's simple capitalism at its best. They make it sound so crazy because they have to; as with all art designed to succeed in a commercial atmosphere -- and rap is the most capitalistic of music -- stunning originality is necessary as a distinguisher. The shock of the sound is what gets a producer paid; if his tracks sound like everything else on the radio, his days are numbered from the get-go. The lines extending outside their studios, waiting to buy their tracks, are proof positive that we're in some sunny days in the world of rap, and that the aural hammer that is the new hip-hop -- despite its lyrical flaws and occasional lapses into the get-paid-quick mentality -- can slam down hard on heads looking for some pounding.

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