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Hip-Hop Flip-Flops

Besides trading lines with R&B singers and jazz trumpeters, hip-hop acts have been joining up with blues crooners, punk poets and yes, art-rock bands.

It was Kane's ability to hold his own against all those jazz greats that proved hip-hop could compete with any musical form.

The primary hip-hop rite of passage is the in-your-face put-down. With a few perceptive rhymes, Kool Moe Dee has shut up L.L. Cool J, and 3rd Bass has given M.C. Hammer the ultimate gas face. But rappers aren't shy about dissing the non-hip-hop competition, either.

Indeed, everyone from KRS-One to Chuck D is only too happy to put the rest of the music world on the spot. On Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back manifesto, Chuck roared against pop balladeers: "You singers are spineless/As you sing your senseless songs to the mindless." And on Boogie Down Productions' Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip-Hop textbook, KRS wagged his finger in a gleeful I-told-you-so rap: "R&B, disco, pop, country, jazz/All thought hip-hop was just a little fad."

With the growing prominence of hip-hop--both politically and commercially--rappers have wasted little time letting most of the pop-music world know how soft--socially and musically--it is. Hip-hop may be merely the next generation of musical rebellion--the rhymes above would do little to dispel that notion. But several acts in recent months have quit genre-bashing and instead actually have embraced the "enemy." Instead of shunning the music that at first snubbed them as temporary and musically inferior, these artists have decided to join up with the competition. Besides trading lines with R&B singers and jazz trumpeters, hip-hop acts have been joining up with blues crooners, punk poets and yes, even art-rock bands.

ON HIS LATEST ALBUM, The Iceberg (Freedom of Speech . . . Just Watch What You Say), Ice-T vented anger at sellout singers and black radio stations too wimpy to play hip-hop. The same rapper then showed up on Quincy Jones' new one, Back on the Block, collaborating with Michael Jackson sidekick Siedah Garrett, among other popsters, on the title track.

The way many rappers have touted hip-hop as black music's superior genre, you'd think the M.C.'s Quincy Jones asked to work on Back on the Block would've turned up their noses at the producer. After all, while Block guest stars like Kool Moe Dee, Big Daddy Kane, and Ice-T have been rapping out unvarnished reports from the streets, Jones has been producing multiplatinum Michael Jackson albums.

Not so. When Jones rang up the rappers, they apparently jumped at the chance. Asked why he decided to rap for Jones' album, Big Daddy Kane noted Jones' status as a music-industry legend who's worked with everyone from Ray Charles to Miles Davis.

(Actually, Jones might've never invited the rappers to appear on his album had it not been for his son, Quincy Jones III. In a press release, Dad claims Junior "introduced me to the whole rap scene. He's a hip-hop freak like I was a be-bop freak.")

The rappers' decision to work with Jones might seem hypocritical in light of their no-sellout code of honor. But for all its self-congratulating, harder-than-thou attitude, hip-hop is fiercely capitalistic, too. Unlike punk bands, hip-hop acts have been willing and able to bust the charts without compromising their music or their message. Even so, many musicians have scoffed at hip-hop for being unmusical. The street sound's stylistic downplaying of melody, lyrics that are chanted instead of sung, and severely pumped-up rhythm and beat is a radical contrast to most other pop-music formula. Jones' work, then, gave hip-hop a prestigious invitation to the music establishment. Jesse Jackson may have called hip-hop the most important development in American music since jazz. But it was Jones who actually put Jackson's words into action and proved that jazz and hip-hop aren't so different after all.

On "Jazz Corner of the Word," another track on the album, Big Daddy Kane introduces solos by jazz giants Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, rhyming a few lines about each. But instead of being relegated to a role as the unmusical public announcer, Big Daddy Kane turns into the leader of an all-star band. His parts aren't raps so much as they are jazz solos themselves, showing off Kane's be-boppish delivery--flurries of intense improvisation on the lyrics and meter.

Jones says of the be-bop/hip-hop connection, "As with the jazz greats who were my mentors, the hip-hop artists are doing it for each other as much as for the public. Their concepts of improvisation, syncopation and rhythm are very familiar to those of us who grew up with be-bop and now have a chance to see those cycles come around again."

Jones' decision to throw Big Daddy Kane in with the likes of Miles Davis certainly was a show of support for hip-hop. Still it was Kane's ability to hold his own against all those jazz greats that proved hip-hop could compete with any musical form.

Jones has been hailed for his recognition of hip-hop as an important new extension of black-music tradition, but rappers themselves willingly embraced their roots and their siblings before Jones gave them his stamp of approval. Hip-hop grandpa Afrika Bambaataa and James Brown, for example, recorded a single called "Unity" in 1984. And in the past year alone, a trio of acts has worked on records featuring hip-hop kin of all kinds. Def Jef found a place on his latest album for blues singer Etta James, KRS-One hooked up with Jamaican reggae riddim kings Sly and Robbie for a major dance-hall statement, and PE's Chuck D and Flavor Flav rapped a few lines for funk founding father George Clinton on his latest.

Hip-hop's up-yours attitude makes some call it black punk. So it was only natural that Ice-T explored the link between hip-hop and punk by inviting Jello Biafra (of the now-defunct Dead Kennedys) to sit in on a couple of songs for his latest album. Specifically, Ice-T brought in Biafra to help him fight an issue that's plagued both--censorship.

As the lead singer for punk group the Dead Kennedys, Biafra was an early casualty of the anti-rock 'n' roll right wing. The DKs' 1985 album Frankenchrist contained a poster featuring penises and buttocks, and the following year, Biafra and others were charged by California authorities with "distribution of harmful matter to minors," according to the New Trouser Press Record Guide. The charges eventually were dropped, but the band broke up in the wake of the controversy.

Ice-T, meanwhile, has been one of the biggest targets of record-labeling advocates because of his lyrics, which contain graphic descriptions of sex and violence. In pooling his protests with Biafra, the rapper has formed one of the first high-profile intergenre stances against censorship.

Unfortunately, that stance gets overshadowed by the album's glorified sexism. Biafra's 1984-style spiel at the beginning of the album is wryly effective, but near the end, the ex-DK defends pornography in the same breath as rock 'n' roll. In light of Ice-T's own graphic, sexist lyrics throughout the record, Biafra seems to be defending not the First Amendment in general, but the rapper's X-rated rantings.

Thankfully, the Ice-T/Biafra duet is neither the first nor last word on hip-hop projects with white acts.

Run-D.M.C.'s cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," which featured appearances by the song's originators, has proved to be the biggest crossover hip-hop hit yet. The song went to No. 4 on the pop singles chart, helped introduce hip-hop to mainstream America, and gave Aerosmith a push in their comeback.

But even heavy-metal-meets-hip-hop probably won't prepare audiences for the next groundbreaking interdisciplinary rap.

Reports have it that Chuck D will add some messages to cutting-edge experimentalists Sonic Youth's new album. Black nationalism will link up with white noise for what'll be either the first important cross-cultural musical event of the Nineties--or the most bizarre extracurricular hip-hop activity ever.

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David Koen

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