Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mr. Manic presents Boot/Sneaka Vol. 1: Love & Hip-Hop


This is a companion article to accompany volume one of my new Boot/Sneaka mix tape series.  Boot/Sneaka references the name of an unreleased song by Bell Biv Devoe, one of my favorite products of the clever union between R&B and Hip-Hop that comprised the New Jack Swing movement (1988/9 - 1993/4).  It is intended to archive, analyze, and share my favorite music from Hip-Hop music’s second generation, which I consider to be from the years of 1986/7 to 1996/7, with 1997 being a transitional period into the third generation that would carry through the first decade of the 2000’s.  The second generation is my favorite mainly for nostalgic purposes but also because it seemed to be a period of cultural refinement within Hip-Hop culture as it integrated into mainstream popular music.  During this era, we witnessed the gradual distancing from the more experimental elements of the Golden Era (1978 - 1986/7).  The first and early second generation’s instrumentals were almost entirely dominated by the use of breaks and samples, free form sound collages, and less emphasis on a verse/chorus structure.  While the latter point definitely came into form at the end of the Golden Era, it wasn't until well into the second generation that live instrumentation took the lead.
In the early 90’s, most notably with albums like The Chronic by Dr. Dre, we saw a beautiful period of transition where the experimental elements of hip-hop meshed impeccably with the emerging live music form.  I use Dr. Dre as an example as he was very active during the experimental years as can be heard in his earlier work with N.W.A. and Ruthless Records.  In analyzing his work during this period, you can see his increasing reliance on melody and clean transitions between movements of each track and more strategic sample placement.  The California based G-Funk style that dominated the early and mid 90’s also gave way to the over saturation of a certain sounds as the capitalistic model of music distribution reared its ugly head. As with all good things, the American pop machine exploited the most successful elements, however momentary, to squeeze as much profit out of the genre as possible.
For this mix, I wanted to capture the diversity of expressions of love and sexuality during this era for Valentine’s Day.  While romance has been the primary enduring theme in music for most of the corporate music industry era, hip-hop’s earliest artist tended to focus on themes of partying or self-aggrandizing their lyrical or speaking about the difficulties of the African American experience.  While romantic themes made noteworthy appearance in the early years (consider World Class Wreckin’ Cru’s 1986 album Rapped In Romance and its biggest hit, "Turn Off the Lights"), LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” from 1987’s Bigger and Deffer marked the first commercially successful love themed rap song and made clear the strong marketability of this approach.  This was also an early example of the perfect contrast of the bad boy image showing a soft spot that would be a common theme of hip hop for the rest of its existence.  Shortly thereafter we saw a greater presence of romantic themes in rap from Big Daddy Kane’s “Smooth Operator” to Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend”.  

Tracklist and sources:
Mary J. Blige ft. Smif-N-Wessun - I Love You (Part 2)
The Remix EP | Uptown Records | 1995

Naughty By Nature - Written On Ya Kitten
19 Naughty III | Tommy Boy Records | 23 Feb 1993

Queen Latifah - Mood Is Right
Black Reign | Motown | 16 Nov 1993

Bell Biv Devoe -  The Situation
Hootie Mack | MCA Records | 6 Jun 1993

The Pharcyde - Passin’ Me By
  Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde | Delicious Vinyl | 24 Nov 1992

Tribe Called Quest - Bonita Applebum (Hootie Mix)
Revised Question for the Seasoned Traveler | Jive | 1992

Mokenstef ft. Grand Puba - He’s Mine (Remix)
Music video only | Outburst Records | 1995

2pac - Temptations
Me Against the World | Interscope Records | 14 Mar 1995

Da Youngsta’s - Put Me On
No Mercy | EastWest | 20 Sep 1994

Vanilla Ice - I Go Down
Mind Blowin | SBK | 22 Mar 1994

MC Lyte - I Go On
Ain't No Other | First Priority Music | 22 Jun 1993

New Edition - Hit Me Off
Home Again | MCA Records | 10 Sep 1996

DJ Quik - Itz Your Fantasy
Safe + Sound | Profile Records | 21 Feb 1995

Lil ½ Dead - Southern Girl
Steel On A Mission | Priority Records | 21 May 1996

Redman - Soopaman Luva 3
Muddy Waters | Def Jam | 10 Dec 1996

In the early 90’s, most notably with albums like The Chronic (1992) by Dr. Dre, we saw a beautiful period of transition where the experimental elements of hip-hop meshed impeccably with the emerging live music form.  I use Dr. Dre as an example as he was very active during the experimental years as can be heard in his earlier work with N.W.A. and Ruthless Records.  In analyzing his work during this period, you can see his increasing reliance on melody and clean transitions between movements of each track and more strategic sample placement.  The California based G-Funk sound, which became the preferred Hip-hop style of the early and mid 90’s, also gave way to the oversaturation of a certain sounds as the capitalistic model of music distribution reared its ugly head, and as with all good things, exploited the momentary successful elements to squeeze as much profit out of the genre as possible.  
From 92 - 96, we saw the most diverse landscape that rap music ever had in the mainstream.  I hypothesize that this was something of a grace period where the major labels tested the waters, signing anything they could that had a buzz and throwing it out there to see what would stick. There was a lot more leniency and a lot more creative control during this period and rap music did not seem so homogenized.  We had the full spectrum of expression and emotion, from PM Dawn and A Tribe Called Quest to Wu Tang Clan and 2pac.  Individuality was respected and encouraged with emphasis always being placed on maintaining a unique style; where “biting” in any form, lyrics, fashion, or flow was a mortal sin.  You could actually tell artists apart by appearance and sound!  Meanwhile label executives and other profit minded opportunists quickly distinguished the sounds that worked best.  By the third generation - which I perceive to have emerged in mid-96 and was in full force by spring ‘97 - rap began to adhere to the standards that resulted from the findings of this “research period".  This era also marked the emergence of more radio friendly hip hop revolving around memorable hooks with the innovations of the second generation becoming cliches and motifs.
By the turn of the decade, we were seeing the emergence of a the “gangsta rap” subgenre.  Here, the only place for women in Hip-hop became bitches and hoes, sex objects, baby mamas and/or gold diggers, or as bereaved mothers having lost sons.  You will be hard pressed to find any ballads or love song in the discography of N.W.A., South Central Cartel, or the earliest Death Row Releases (not counting their R&B artists).  In fact, the closing song on The Chronic is “Bitches Ain’t Shit”, a phrase that was passionately declared by Eazy-E in a woman-hating speech at the end of the song “One Less Bitch” on N.W.A.’s final album, 1991’s Niggaz4life.  Concurrently and in contrast New Jack Swing emerged, which saw the fusion of the hip-hop styled production and R&B.  Here we saw, at the same time, the creation of a greater market for romantic themes within Hip-hop.  When these opposing markets converged, we saw some interesting output as even some of the hardest rappers were making appearances on R&B records, dropping romantic verses that still carried the hard edge that defined the era.
The songs that appear on this collection are from 1992 - 1996, withthe early end of this time bracket being the peak of creative freedom for hip-hop and the subsequent years marking a steady decline in artistic integrity offset by an increase in production value.  As such, the songs from the latter end of this time bracket show off a very polished sound compared to earlier tunes from the second generation.  Examples of this more refined hip-hop sound can be heard in the songs “Itz Your Fantasy” by DJ Quik (1995)  and “Southern Girl” by Lil ½ Dead  (1996).  For some of the more hardcore artists, romantic songs tended to focus on sexual prowess and how quickly or easily one could bed a female.  More often than not, the rapper made it clear that by no means was he intending to be faithful or interested in a long term relationship.  Most of these songs take a crass approach to describing the sex in general, as heard on Redman’s “Soopaman Luva 3” (1996), Naughty By Nature’s “Written On Ya Kitten” (1993), and also on the aforementioned “Itz Your Fantasy” by DJ Quik.
It was important to me to not only include this perspective, but also the female point of view.  The female rappers on this collection are Queen Latifah with “In the Mood” from 93's Black Reign and MC Lyte with “I Go On” from Ain't No Other, also in 1993.  One song I almost included was MC Lyte’s song “Ruffneck” also on Ain't No Other but more on that later.  While Queen Latifah’s song takes a more poetic approach to sex, insinuating a possible long term relationship with her partner and all the romantic accoutrement that go along with a healthy relationship, MC Lyte adopts the male attitude and boasts of chauvinistic promiscuity, lack of desire to create a strong connection with said sexual partner, and reminding the hypothetical partner that he can be replaced by more desirable subjects.  While both are very melodic and show of a softer side of hip hop, the former song creates a more cohesive message that is much intellectual and relatable, especially in terms of the subject matter: romance and sex.  Unfortunately, instead of a greater presence of female rappers who displayed strong character, confident in her ability to state was she desires out of a lover, and most importantly, commanding respect, the industry turned over to the Lil Kim archetype.  The third generation’s more sexually charged female rappers became the norm, including Foxy Brown, Trina, and Remy Ma, and it is to be noted that most of their content seems to depict any kind of respectable status being in relation to having sex, having a man take them shopping, and bragging about their voluptuousness with relation to non-romantic sexual attraction.
Also included here were a couple of R&B songs to show how the fusion of Hip-hop and R&B evolved and how rappers handled being on songs that completely contrast with their own image and subject matter.  The opening song, a remix of Mary J. Blige’s “I Love You”, which has a beautiful chorus, features verses from Duck Down Records artists Smif-N-Wessun, whose verses entirely depart from the topic of the song to talk about their own lifestyles and experience as rappers and militant minded men.  A remix of MoKenStef’s “He’s Mine” (sample of the classic “You Remind Me” by Patrice Rushen) was included because the original version is one of my favorite R&B songs from the 90’s despite its questionable message. The melody of the hook, “He’s mine, you may have had him once but I got him all the time” as always been the most attracting elements of the original track to me.  The remix features Grand Puba of Brand Nubian, whose lyrics are generally not within the realm of R&B subject matter, but here he very simplistically plays the role of the male subject described in the song. The climactic line of his short verse is “You can be my part… time… lover cause all I got is part time / I got a baby at home that gets full time.” Here we see an MC assimilating to the subject matter.
The other two R&B songs on this mix are by New Edition and their spin off group Bell Biv Devoe.  Bell Biv Devoe’s song is interesting because it seems to revolve around having had an unplanned baby though they are not only accepting responsibility for their actions, but are adamant about raising the child themselves.  While their well known promiscuity is hinted at in the song, the overall point seems to be that they would push that side in order to have a wholesome relationship with someone as result of the love child.  This is definitely a departure from the typical hip-hop mindset, but it is to be noted that the rappers in question built their careers first as R&B singers and started to adopt characteristics of hip-hop sexuality by the time BBD came about, while remaining fundamentally R&B.  The beginning of this transition can be seen in the rap verses Mike Biv and Ron Devoe spit on the single version of New Edition’s “N.E. Heartbreak”, released in the summer of 89 (the album version, released in 1988 did not include rap verses, but contained many Hip-hop cues).
New Edition’s “Hit Me Off” came after both Bobby Brown and BBD had successful forays into Hip-hop, when New Edition reunited as a six piece in 1996’s Home Again after an 8 year hiatus.  Again, Mike Biv and Ron Devoe provide the rap verses.  You can observe that the song focuses on raw sexuality in different degrees, with the rap verses being the least romantic compared to the singers’ verses.  This shows that the appearance of rap verses within a song that is otherwise R&B had to keep somewhat of a harder edge, as by this time, the archetype of the hip hop gangsta was well in place and the masses did not seem to be interested in anything softer than this. Most “romantic” songs in hip-hop’s third generation are entirely dependent on understanding that the rapper is not interested in a meaningful relationship and contact with a woman is a component of the rapper’s promiscuity and carnal desires, with few exceptions.  I also have observed that within the third generation, if a rapper had a song that more respectfully romantic, it was often offset by declarations of the rapper’s criminality and the female subject’s complacency and complicity with such lifestyle despite her greater respectability.  Many times, the woman in these songs was described as being educated and having a career.  Despite this, she is somehow interested in a lower class thug for a boyfriend rather than male whose academic and professional accomplishments parallel or exceed her own.
This point brings me to two of my honorable mentions, which I had included in this track list up until the very last minute.  The first was 1993’s “Gangsta Bitch” by Apache (RIP).  This song is super catchy and though the lyrics are pretty comical. In retrospect it comes off as kind of a gimmicky response to surge in popularity of hardcore hip hop.  This takes yet another approach and shows a gangsta character who yearns for a female to share his criminality with.  Rather than being passively complicit as seen in a lot of later hip-hop, this song shows an actively criminal female counterpart in a African American Bonnie & Clyde scenario.  The music video depicts this to a tee.  Because of the use of the word 'bitch' in the title and the objectification of the love interest in the song as per the typical expressions of sexuality in hardcore hip-hop, I wanted to offset it with the aforementioned “Ruffneck” by MC Lyte. It’s pretty much the same song from a female point of view.  In listening to the lyrics, I was actually appalled by the horrible message that it sent to young black males.  The most concerning lyrics to me was “Doin' whatever it takes to make ends meet / But never meetin' the end 'cause he knows the street / Eat sleep shit fuck,eat sleep shit / Then it's back to the streets to make a buck quick”.  The rest of the lyrics of the song are in this vain and pretty much sends the message that criminal, disrespectful, and sociopathic behavior are desirable traits.  I feel like rap music has traditionally been marketed to teenagers and young adults, at ages when they are most vulnerable to the complex emotions of developing sexuality.  Not that I think music is a sole influence, but it is a major part of human development in the context of our capitalistic American society since the arts are often presented in way that recommends to the audience how to live.  The idealism with which we observed entertainers in the prior decades definitely made us more vulnerable to taking some of their words as gospel.  I think this has been a highly damaging feature of 90’s Hip-hop's effect on African American youth culture and the public's perception of it.  As such, I could not include “Gangsta Bitch” or “Ruffneck” in this mix in good conscience.
I tried to avoid songs that are well known, but couldn’t escape The Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By”.  Though it’s by no means a favorite of mine, this is a hip-hop essential in my book in both composition and lyrical content.  With school as the backdrop for this narrative, the lyrics portray realistic, human responses to sexual attraction with no qualms appearing vulnerable.  “Now let me tell you about the feelings I have for you / When I try or make some sort of attempt, I symp / Damn I wish I wasn't such a wimp / Cause then I would let you know that I love you so / And if I was your man then I would be true / The only lying I would do is in the bed with you…”  Lyrics like these were entirely absent from mainstream hip-hop by the end of the second generation and certainly throughout the third generation.  “Bonita Applebum” was also included for the same reason, though I chose a remix to keep things fresh.  It presents the narration of a nuanced experience in attraction that is more wholesome and realistic.  Though overt sexuality is not absent from these songs, they are not the dominant themes expressed and the result is a more respectful portrayal of women compared to a lot of what was coming out at the time.  2pac’s “Temptations” (1995) did not stray from the expected outlook of a rapper with regards to sex, but featured a more poetic portrayal of sexual contact:  “Open the gates to your waterfall up in Heaven / and don’t worry, I’ll let myself in…”  I must also make mention of “Nuttin’ But Love”, a 1994 single by Heavy D (RIP) which was left off in order to focus on more obscure material.
As part of what I have termed “Hip hop De-programming”, this and future discussions are meant to reconcile the conflict between my current convictions, morals, and philosophies and the characteristics of most of mainstream hip-hop from the 90’s, which has had a major influence on me.  Having adamantly denounced the subject matter present in mainstream hip-hop today, I have come to the terms with the fact that I must also take a more careful look at the older material that I love that bare the same characteristics. I have also come to terms with the fact that some of my favorite artists from the second generation are directly responsible for many of the elements of third generation that I dislike.  Analyzing these songs now helps me to build a greater intellectual understanding of an art form that should be regarded with more care by its practitioners and its audience.  It is more pressing than ever for an academic understanding of this era of Hip-hop to be promoted before it fades away in the face of the current (fourth) generation of Hip-hop, which is almost entirely based on the exploitative capitalist model of the American pop music industry. Also, the seeming exclusivity of Hip-hop, no doubt a bi-product of the wider cultural at the time between "White" and "Black" America has all but dissolved as members of all ethnic groups across the globe have accepted and emulated Hip-hop. Thus, the marketing of it is vastly different from what we grew up on in the 90's. Evolution, I suppose. I should depart by making clear that there are many incredible contributors to Hip-hop that made it big without adhering while maintaining a positive message and creative uniqueness, so I guess I should relax my harshly critical tone a bit when speaking of the third generation. It's just that the negative elements of it were more pervasive and ever so vexing! More to come!

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