Music Rags: The continuing evolution of hip-hop, in review

Hip-hop is a young genre of music, but despite its age, it has spawned an incredible number of subsections and styles within itself. Here, I open up the vaults and dig out a couple of gems (one for partying and one for philosophizing) from two very different eras in hip-hop. They lie only a decade apart but help paint a portrait of one step in the evolution of the genre.

The W.I.S.E. Guyz – eF yoU eN Kay E (1989)

When someone tells me to check out a piece of media, I smile and say, “I’ll look it up,” knowing that at no point will I ever look it up. However, when underground hip-hop legend Gift of Gab of Blackalicious recommended an obscure hip-hop album to me, I checked it out.

Only ever released on vinyl, eF yoU eN Kay E is a fascinating and tremendously entertaining portrait of hip-hop at a crossroads. The album is an amalgam of three distinct movements in hip-hop’s short history: the party beats of early hip-hop like the Sugarhill Gang, the “Black CNN” commentary of groups like Public Enemy and the abstract Afrocentricity of the Native Tongues posse.

The beats here are classic hip-hop, which means they sound a little dated and same-y to some ears. But there is a whole lot of other stuff going on here sonically. Think the abstract party vibes of A Tribe Called Quest filtered through the noisy genius of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, and you may begin to figure out what’s happening here.

Information about the group is quite limited, and I can only assume from the track “New York, New York” that these cats, like most great hip-hop of the time, hail from the five boroughs (the five districts that make up New York City). The track, buoyed by a single blasting saxophone line, is a perfect example of enlightened hip-hop storytelling as the group spins tales of life in the Big Apple. The most arresting moment in the song, possibly of the whole record, comes as one member raps the line, “Whether heterosexual or homosexual/It might upset you still but I’ma bet you will/Have a ball in Apple” then immediately follows it up with “Many making money/Faggots being funny/Suckers acting funny on a cloudy or sunny day.” This choice of words is at once highly enlightened for hip-hop music in 1989, while foreshadowing the continued use of the hateful language that remains a black eye on the genre.

You may only be able to get it digitally, unless you’re some kind of master record-store scourer, but eF yoU eN Kay E is a shamefully forgotten album that has been lost to years and is still waiting to reward anyone who seeks it out.

Deep Puddle Dynamics – The Taste of Rain . . . Why Kneel? (1999)

The end of “The Scarecrow Speaks,” the centrepiece on The Taste of Rain . . . Why Kneel?, finds Slug rapping, “Let’s open up the conversation for comments/ To complement your circumcised mind state while I ride on your anxieties/ Trying to speak to the class and justify the act/ By pointing my finger at your head and asking you ‘What the fuck is that?’ ” In that line lies the drive behind Deep Puddle Dynamics. If Canadian rock legends Rush make what some have termed “math rock,” Deep Puddle Dynamics make “math rap.”

This is music to be studied, to be consumed entirely on headphones. There is so much going on that neither the ear nor the mind has much time to rest. This record is a mental workout — deciphering each rapper’s words as they rap through and over each other, often creating their own rhythms outside of the beat they’re rapping on.

Over dense and unrelentingly dark beats, the crew — composed of underground lyrical champions Slug, Doseone, Sole and Alias — not only rap; they proselytize. With unceasing passion and endless intelligence, Deep Puddle Dynamics is like the hard-ass teacher who’s effective in drilling information into the heads of students. The crew use blunt force to drive their graceful wordplay into the psyche of the listener.

Even when the sound brightens up on tracks like “I Am Hip Hop (Move the Crowd),” the crew turns the song into a weapon, assaulting the vapid, macho party culture that was (and still is) consuming hip-hop, which is the group’s favourite target. While the tones here get serious and philosophical, there are moments of humour to help the medicine go down. Hearing Doseone’s nasally drawl drop the line “Now that’s a foxy young lady/ If only she’d put some clothes on,” in one verse then turn around and quote American writer and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes is a slice of conscious hip-hop heaven and a window into the mind-bending lessons contained on The Taste of Rain…Why Kneel?

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