Hip Hop and Blues
by Elijah Wald

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Blues fans would seem to have a natural affinity with rap. After all, while fans of the Beatles or Beethoven can complain that it’s just some guy talking over a repetitive, monotonous rhythm, we consider John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun” a classic. As for the content, it is true that a lot of rap is violent and misogynist, but we have heard Robert Johnson singing, “I’m gonna beat my woman till I’m satisfied,” and have learned to appreciate his strengths despite this. A lot of modern gangsta lyrics might be dismissed as over-the-top boasts about how tough the rapper is, but how different are they from “Hoochie Coochie Man”? Indeed, as many historians have pointed out, there are examples of rap in the work of artists as varied as the Memphis Jug Band, the Golden Gate Quartet, and Bo Diddley -- and that’s not to mention all the versions of “toasts” like “The Signifying Monkey.”

And yet, a lot of blues fans and artists have gone on record attacking rap. Some have undoubtedly thought their arguments through in detail, but all too many just come off as knee-jerk conservatives, dismissing hip-hop without ever having stopped to listen and give the style a fair chance. Obviously, everyone is free to support or dis whatever music they want -- but they risk sounding as absurd as those who once dismissed urban electric bands as “the blues in decadence . . . a picture of a violent and decadent society.” (Alan Lomax, in 1959.) Is dismissing Dr. Dre in 2004 really all that different from dismissing Magic Sam in 1960 or Jimi Hendrix in 1970?

For people who want to think a little more deeply about this subject, a new box setfrom Hip-O Records provides a good opportunity to survey the breadth of the scene and its evolution over the last 25 years. Called simply hip-hop boxThe Hip Hop Box, it traces the style from 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight” up to modern stars like 50 Cent, 2Pac, and a Dr. Dre-Snoop Dogg duet -- though the latter artists are represented by album tracks rather than their hits, and are not shown at their best. Some major figures are missing, most obviously LL Cool J, Jay-Z, and the rowdily groundbreaking NWA, but this is the best overview currently available. And if anyone thinks they could assemble an equally exciting 50-track selection from the last quarter-century of blues recordings -- well, I’d love to hear it, but I’m not holding my breath.

Because, looked at in a lot of ways, this is the living blues. There is a direct, obvious line that runs from Robert Johnson or Tampa Red through Louis Jordan, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, on to James Brown, Kurtis Blow and Ice Cube. And though there are certainly ways in which Bo or Muddy are more like Mr. Red than like Mr. Cube, in a lot of ways they would sound more at home in NWA than in the Hokum Boys. Both had a tough, electric, urban style that pointed the way towards what has come since. In fact, although he has recently been quoted as opposing the rap scene, I saw Bo give a show in the 1980s that included quite a bit of hip-hop styling, and he sounded like he’d been rapping all his life. Which he had, by any sensible definition -- what else was “Who Do You Love” but an early example of what we now call rap?

It is true that hip-hop has not produced anything to equal the haunting soulfulness of, say, Skip James -- but if we are going to make that our standard, what music has in the last thirty years? Certainly not blues. There are still some excellent musicians working in the blues idiom, and I’ve seen some fine live shows in the last year, but pretty much all my desert island blues discs were recorded back when the style was still fresh and the audience was young, hip, and coming from the same communities as the performers. And I’m not just talking about black people -- Hank Williams used the blues idiom to speak for his time and place as much as Robert Johnson did. But how much blues in the year 2004 is about the neighborhoods where the singers live, as they are today? How many blues lyrics reflect the way the singers talk when they are not onstage? How many have space for cell phones and computers, except as joke lines in novelty numbers?

The new recordings that get filed as “blues” are mostly nostalgic recreations of past sounds, some fine, some lousy, but almost none reflecting either the musical or societal changes of the last few decades. There are exceptions, of course. Both Corey Harris and Chris Thomas King have experimented with blues-hip-hop fusions -- not to mention the Fat Possum remixes of R.L. Burnside -- but while these experiments were interesting to some broadminded blues fans, they did not excite any attention in the rap world, for a very good reason: Hip-hop is not easy music to do, and the top people are working at a level that is very hard to reach.

For me, that was the revelation of The Hip Hop Box. To readers under thirty, the brilliance of hip-hop production is probably old news, but for most of us older blues fans, the beats were always a stumbling block. We could hear that rappers were descended from bluesmen (and, far more rarely, blueswomen), but the sampled disco tracks and mechanical rhythm machines had a sterility that seemed like the antithesis of everything we loved about blues. Even though I was never one of the “sampling isn’t music” crew, I could not work up much enthusiasm for Grandmaster Flash’s background for “The Message,” much as I loved Melle Mel’s streetwise lyrics. But that was then . . . Listening to the evolution of hip-hop, it is clear that the Flash style was outmoded within a couple of years, and the variety of sounds and approaches in the next two decades is much more exciting than any other musical developments over the same period. By the time you get to the early 1990s, sampling is just one component of a very varied sonic tapestry, and while some sounds are still borrowed, the turntable masters are working alongside musicians playing more traditional instruments. More to the point, producers like Timbaland have styles as distinctive as Son House’s guitar riffs.

Do those styles have the intimacy of House’s work, or its subtlety, soul, or power? I suppose it depends on your taste, ears, and experience. TimbalandI am a prewar blues nut, and nothing will ever hit me with the force of a lone voice and acoustic guitar. But once one accepts that records are going to be made in studios, with tracks recorded separately and mixed by the producer rather than balanced live by a group of musicians reacting to each other and sorting out their dynamics in the moment, in front of a single microphone, it is hard to argue for the purity of the production process at Rounder, Malaco, or Alligator over Timbaland’s or Dr. Dre’s. And when it comes to variety, originality, timeliness, and shear excitement, the hip-hoppers are so far out ahead that they probably shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence.

So, if the music is so great and has such a close relationship to blues, why do so many blues fans still find it annoying or inaccessible? Part of the reason, of course, is cultural. Embracing older black music is always easier for white outsiders than embracing the music of the present-day urban ghettos. But that is too simple an answer -- after all, white buyers account for the majority of rap sales, and there are plenty of black people who find rap obnoxious. (In any case, this is too big a discussion for a brief music article.)

For many of us, the barrier really is one of ignorance. Until I listened through the Hip Hop Box, I had never taken the time to trace the development of the genre, or to sort out which artists appealed to me personally. As on almost any overarching anthology, I heard plenty of tracks that left me cold -- it has often been pointed out that ninety percent of every art form is shit, and hip-hop is no different -- but I also found plenty to excite me, and was often surprised by what caught my ear. For example, by the early 1990s groups like Arrested Development were making socially conscious cuts like “Tennessee,” which uses live musicians, melodic choruses, and gospel harmonies along with the mixing and rap. It’s a strong track, and I appreciate both its musicianship and its message. And yet, it just doesn’t hit me with the visceral exuberance of Naughty By Nature’s cheating anthem “O.P.P.” The comparison is kind of unfair, like putting Gil Scott-Heron back to back with Wilson Pickett, or Josh White next to Louis Jordan -- but that is what boxes like this are all about. They give you a chance to sort out what works for you, what bores you, and what makes you sit up and take notice.

For any longtime blues fan, hip-hop should not be a major stretch. After all, it is coming from the same kind of communities and artists who produced our favorite records. As John Jackson, the acoustic guitarist from northern Virginia told me years ago, “I don't play soul or disco or rap music or nothing like that, but I don't have anything against it; it just didn't come along when I did.” If Robert Johnson had been born in 1975, can anyone honestly argue that he would not have been caught up in the humor and passion of Straight Out of Compton? His descendants in the Mississippi Delta of the late 1980s responded to LA’s gangsta rappers just as he did to the promise of “Sweet Home Chicago.” If the words were less optimistic and the backing more relentlessly, aggressively urban, that is the truth of the times.

We need to remember that when it started in the early 1970s, Living Blues was intended as an antidote to the practice of previous blues magazines, which all looked nostalgically backward. Its mandate was to focus not on the glories of rural, acoustic players, but on the loud, electric bands that were then filling clubs on Chicago’s South and West Sides. Today, Magic Sam’s LPs are as far in the past as Mississippi John Hurt’s 78s were back then. As a magazine that has always insisted that blues is not only great music but a vibrant expression of African-American culture, maybe it is time for us to take stock of the changing times and refocus once again on what is happening around us.


©2004 Elijah Wald (originally published in Living Blues)

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