When it comes to hip-hop and rap music we are virtually looking at the tale of two cities. On one end of the spectrum the genre has defied the odds. When it made its debut critics derided the music as a passing fad. It has stood the test of time and at times has surpassed its predecessor rock and roll in terms of sales. The other side of the coin however, is that the genre has imploded on itself. It has become long on production but short on innovative lyrics and musicality. At times many of today’s biggest rap tunes seem to revolve around the same tired topics of 22 inch rims, drinking Krystal, and how many guns you own. Some mainstream artists such as Jay-Z and Kanye West have tried to balance these themes but in the end what sells and what is recorded and produced ends up being music that as Chris Rock would say, is tough to defend. (Can one really defend “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp?)
Beneath the surface however are a good number of hip hop artists who don’t feel the need to write about their favorite drink or about episodes of gratuitous violence. They tell introspective stories, sometimes recite street manifestos, political diatribes or just play good time party music. Musically they sample intricate beats or use live musicians and even have the gumption to tour with rock/alternative and punk bands (how dare they)! If you already know about these artists keep on supporting them. If you have not heard these artists do yourself a favor and listen to the hip hop you need to hear.
10.) Sage Francis – When it comes to political manifestos no one hits harder than Sage Frances. The “Sage” is ready to have fists raised in the air as he takes his cues from Public Enemy’s Chuck D is a bonafide rap rebel rouser. Along with political diatribes Francis can also mix in punk/alternative rock references. Francis brings it all together for a perfect balance on his last release “A Healthy Distrust” when he exclaims, “never mind the bullocks my pistol is a sex machine!”
9.) Blackalicious – Producer Chief Xcel and lyricist The Gift of Gab make a remarkable tag team as Blackalicious. The duo(who are sometimes joined by rapper Lateef the Truth Speaker) serve up street smart battle raps and rhymes and when they are not trying to wax philosophical in their live shows, they wow the audience by rapping the alphabet and all of the elements on the periodic table!
8.) MF Doom – MF Doom is probably one of the most unique mcs in the genre today. Doom is known as the man behind the mask mainly because he conducts interviews and live shows wearing a mask reminiscent of the Bobbafet character in the Star Wars saga. On his latest disc (produced by Gnarls Barkley wiz kid Danger Mouse) Doom serves up serious beats and rhymes about old school cartoons, the king of the sofa, Space Ghost and he takes the idea of “keeping it real” to a whole other level by rapping about vats of urine. Doom has a great way with words, excellent flow and an amazing sense of humor. After live shows and appearances he leaves fans asking the same question, “who was that masked man?”
7.) Lupe Fiasco – You have to give any rapper props for writing a song about the virtues of skateboarding and then releasing that same song as the first single on his debut disc (Kick Push). Lupe Fiasco is a subtle story teller and his first disc, “Food and Liquor” is an introspective manifesto set to potent, funky beats. Fiasco was thought to be the next Jay-Z but with his inward sounding, thoughtful lyrics, many music critics are already labeling him hip-hop’s Morrissey and that just may be what the art form needs.
6.) Dilated Peoples – Although with each release this LA based group seems to lose a little bit of their magic, there is no denying that Dilated Peoples are about REAL hip hop. Lyricists Evidence and Ira Science are an amazing hip-hop tag team on stage. They summon the spirit of early Run-DMC shows in the live setting. They are backed by the nimbled fingered turntablist dj Babu who keeps the energy of their live shows flowing with his funky beats, cuts and scratches. Hopefully this multiracial trio will re-group and find the missing link they need to take their music to the next level.
5.) Atmosphere – Ant is the dj/producer/beat maker and Slug is the introspective, bi-racial mc. Together they form the rap duo Atmosphere. Although they may cringe at the label “emo” rap that they have been saddled with, Slug is an amazingly charismatic mc who has been able to rap about his ex-girlfriend “Lucy”, becoming a father, his current girlfriend and a tragic rape that took place at one of his shows. He is able to do it all against a back drop of old school beats and new school musicality. You gotta love and respect an mc that can spit knowledge about Public Enemy, KRS-One, Bad Religion and Sunny Day Real Estate. Now that’s keeping it real!
4.) Jurassic 5 – South LA has been responsible for some great underground hip-hop and Jurassic 5 is one of the best of the backpack, rap pack. With two djs and four mcs J-5 mix powerful, funky beats, syncopated rhymes, barbershop styled vocals and even singing into their brand of hip hop. They have a positive attitude and they have truly created a multiracial army of fans both in the US and over seas. Although this year they lost dj Cut Chemist they gained more praise and radio airplay thanks to their latest disc “Feedback” and the single “Work it Out”.
3.) Common – He is being touted as the Marvin Gaye of the hip hop community and for good reason. Common has been able to encapsulate his love for hip hop in his music but he often let’s that feeling become a metaphor for his love of Black people and the African American community. For Common it seems when hip hop is in trouble the community is in trouble. When hip hop is merely surviving the community merely survives and when the community is living up to its potential so is hip hop. Common has had a few miss-steps in his career but his last album “Be” (produced by Kanye West) showed off his potential as an artist and a story teller. The hope is, in 2007 Common will have more illuminating things to say and more stories to tell.
2.) Mos Def and Talib Kweli – Although both artists have had extensive solo careers, Mos Def and Talib Kweli as the rap duo Blackstar were a force to be reckoned with when their first (and only) disc dropped. By combining street rhymes and metaphors, beats courtesy of dj Hi-Tek, Blackstar have been what the hip hop scene has needed. Mos Def comes off as a hip hop Frank Sinatra at times to Talib Kweli’s Axl Rose (right down to the bandana and leather jacket). No one knows when these two will get back together to record a sequel to their first disc. The sooner Blackstar regroup the better and stronger the genre will be.
1.) The Roots – The Roots have been the vanguard BAND in the hip hop community. They are a live band able to shift from jazz to funk to hip hop to rock with the greatest of ease and skill. Their live shows are celebrations, clinics and testimonials to what hip hop is and what it can be. They have toured with 311, The Pixies, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wilco, Outkast and Jurassic 5. On their latest disc “Game Theory” The Roots come out swinging on the issues of the day and they never let up. The band may not rack up hit singles but they have won the respect of music critics and their contemporaries and they have a fan base as far and wide as their musical tastes.