Rap gets puffy

Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs fathers a return to hip-hop pop

Although the press fixated on rap's revolutionary threats or its glamorization of violence and misogyny, a generation of radio listeners gravitated toward the children of the Sugarhill Gang--performers who were less interested in gangbanging than in fighting for the right to party. And like the Gang, these acts didn't go to the trouble of disguising their samples. M.C. Hammer lifted the entire groove of Rick James' "Super Freak" for "U Can't Touch This," and Vanilla Ice turned "Under Pressure," by David Bowie and Queen, into "Ice Ice Baby," a terrible tune that nonetheless became one of 1990's biggest breakthroughs. There's little ingenuity involved in such de facto thefts; they're the equivalent of karaoke. But if the source material is good enough, that doesn't matter. Ask Coolio, who owes his career to the 1980 Lakeside number that's the flesh and blood of 1994's "Fantastic Voyage." He followed up this entertaining ditty with 1995's "Gangsta's Paradise," which is essentially Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise" with rapping on top. For committing this crime, Coolio was rewarded with a No. 1 single.

Combs has turned such appropriation into a personal style. No Way Out's "Been Around the World" uses the music from David Bowie's "Let's Dance" (Vanilla Ice would approve), while the Police's "Every Breath You Take"--hardly an R&B classic--serves as the foundation for "I'll Be Missing You." Most egregious of all is "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," which pillages "The Message," replacing its indelible themes with a predictable display of self-aggrandizement. The same methodology epitomizes Combs' production efforts: Witness Lil' Kim's "Not Tonight," a mimeograph of the 1980 Kool & the Gang offering "Ladies Night."

Because of the borrow-a-smash mentality that Combs has brought to the fore, hip-hop is now awash with one-hit wonders. Outfits like Freaknasty ("Da' Dip"), DJ Spankx ("Monkey Pop [Raise the Roof]") and Magoo and Timbaland ("Up Jumps Da Boogie," which as of last week had been the No. 1 rap single for seven weeks) have come out of nowhere, which just happens to be the place to which most of them will soon return. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Whenever a music scene stagnates--usually as a result of a trend running its course--disposable pop reasserts its supremacy. The same thing is happening right now in the modern-rock field, where the death of grunge has opened up a window of opportunity to approximately three million interchangeable ska purveyors and combos like Smash mouth. This group will probably have all the staying power of a fruit fly, but its signature cut, "Walkin' on the Sun," is thoroughly entertaining. Odds are good that it'll sound good on oldies radio in 15 or 20 years--and that's more than can be said for a lot of tunes.

In a very real sense, hip-hop is the perfect medium for pop recycling. The music is predicated on the borrowing of sounds, and while the more artistically inclined hip-hop practitioners, such as DJ Shadow, take pride in deconstructing samples until they are no longer recognizable, individuals with more commercial instincts see no reason not to take advantage of a good thing. Moreover, it is possible for top-notch work to be done employing this technique. The Fugees' "Killing Me Softly" could have wound up being little more than a generic remake of a fairly lugubrious '70s ballad by Roberta Flack, but instead it emerged as a soulful piece that more than stands on its own. Likewise, Nas' "If I Ruled the World" is a strong, personal statement that transcends its musical origin--the early-'80 effort "Friends," by Whodini.

It's doubtful that Combs will be able to create anything as affecting. He's too concerned with the bottom line: In "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," he chants, with becoming honesty, "If it ain't about the money/Papa just don't care." But you shouldn't worry that Puff Daddy will continue to plague radio for years to come. His upcoming tour should be a monster; tentative dates in Texas are reported to be December 13 (Houston) and 14 (San Antonio). But in the music business, he who lives by pop shall die by pop--and Combs will be no different. The only thing that remains to be seen is if, when the day of reckoning comes, he cries like a bitch or takes it nice and slow.

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