Elsewhere on Leaf Collecting, I repeated a quote I heard in the mid 1980s from music broadcaster Peter Easton: that if you didn’t like Public Enemy you needn’t concern yourself further with hip-hop music, since Public Enemy were the most creative artists in the genre. His advice was shared by other journalists at the time and followed by many more people than me: how could any protest-inclined music fan resist an album entitled It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back?
In those earlier days of hip-hop, any variation between tracks tended to be a variation in the musical samples, as the most recognisable part of the track was usually the old tune which had been “recycled”. For example, the use of Spandau Ballet by P.M. Dawn on “Set a Drift on Memory Bliss”, or of Stevie Wonder on Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”.
The stronger examples recycled other people’s music more subtly. Public Enemy used shrieking backdrops which were widely copied, but some variation came from the more mellow samples chosen by De La Soul and Arrested Development. However, in those 25 years since Public Enemy, it has often struck me how little the genre seems to have developed: lines still shouted, abrupt and staccato and frequently hard to follow, crashing rhymes, propelled by bursts (usually sampled from elsewhere ) of guitar, keyboards and percussion.
Because the musical element of hip-hop is therefore constricted and familiar, mainstream attention has regularly focussed on the superficial elements of what the rapper is saying. How threatening to white people? How sexually overt? How politically challenging? How many references to guns and drugs? How materialistically flamboyant?
Ken Hollings’ programme for Radio 4, Cutting Up the Cut-Up, seemed particularly apposite in the week when Kanye West’s appearance at Glastonbury prompted further argument about the merit and status of hip-hop music. In the event, Hollings made few points about the sampling of music. He emphasised the literary origins of the “cut-up”, dating back to the Dadaists and William Burroughs, and concentrated on the spoken word, although one of his contributors did refer to a record by a group called the Black Helicopters which used samples of Kenneth Williams’ voice. I’m sure there have been further examples of imaginative use of sampling by musicians which could have been used. I have a definite memory of a record in the 1990s which inventively used the sounds of striking billiard and snooker balls as a rhythmic backing. And of course there was “19”, Paul Hardcastle’s now forgotten hit single which used extracts from a US newsreel or documentary. The information about the youth of US soldiers in Vietnam seemed pertinent at that time of fear of war against the USSR.
The Glastonbury performance of Kanye West, supposedly one of the major pop/rock music acts on the planet, seemed to consist of repeated vocal shouting over chunks of sound recorded from earlier black artists, like Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone, and without any accompanying musicians on stage to provide performance variation. Perhaps just another reminder that the artists who are the most celebrated and most commercially successful in any form are not necessarily the most artistically creative.
Prompted by an article by Dorian Lynskey in the Observer as well as the pre-Glastonbury hyperbole around West, I listened to the young pretender Kendrick Lamar. The print edition of the Observer accorded him the status of “rap’s moral messiah” although my ears heard more similarities with West than significant innovation. However, Lynskey’s article did draw my attention to a couple of other artists who did sound more interesting, Ka and Shabazz Palaces. Quieter rap deliveries in their cases, plus more subdued and subtle musical backing.
If I ever have nostalgia for the days of Public Enemy, Lynskey also introduced me to Run the Jewels. They sound very much like the heirs of the earlier group and have been praised by their member Chuck D. Run the Jewels’ performance at Glastonbury, although less publicised than West’s, provided rather more evidence that hip-hop music still has artistic merit.