Brave new world

"Yo, we ain't selling out. Fuck crossin' over to them, let them cross over to us!"

Live intro, 1988

Rap music has gotten itself into a tough musical paradox: Soundtrack to inequity, the medium has always equated economic success with legitimacy. If you've got the stuff--the Versace, the gold, the Lex--then you've got the stuff. Look at Suge Knight, thugish CEO of Death Row Records: king of the gangstas, a millionaire with 36 well-cared-for cars who makes his cash off of violent, misogynistic tales from the 'hood. Don't like his music? Don't buy it, Knight says.

Rap and hip-hop, however, are changing; there's more room to take the music further and further from the streets where it was born. Many rappers--faced with this redefinition at the same time that ever more of their fans are oddly dressed white kids from Dubuque--have responded with disdain, decrying the white-bread sellouts.

Ironically, these new acts are racking up the dollars that the gangstas used to say meant you were for real. If "alternative" hip-hop acts like Spearhead and A Tribe Called Quest--acts that use instruments and traditional elements of song structure--continue to blow up as they lately have, gangstas will either have to find a new way of measuring credibility or accept their smoother, less-intense brothers and sisters.

The House of Blues "Smokin' Grooves" tour is the whole alternative rap scene in a nutshell, embracing both the reggae of Ziggy Marley and the blunted shout-outs of Cypress Hill, music by artists who don't follow some gold-rimmed game plan. Headlining is the band most often touted as "new rap," the Fugees. Pras Michel, Clef Jean, and Lauren Hill met almost eight years ago in East Orange, New Jersey, and are politically charged: Even the band's name is short for "refugees," a reference both to Michel's and Jean's Haitian upbringing and the band's singular place in hip-hop.

So far "Smokin' Grooves" has been a major success, winning the industry over to the idea of alternative rap as viable. A lot of that shift may have come from simple fatigue: a little bit of big-dick braggadocio and flying lead goes a long way. It's hard to visualize sitting down for a quick smooch--just you, your baby, and Too Short; it's even harder to ignore the larger implications of "the life." Alternative rappers address social ills and the American Dream's lack of color; Tupac and his cohorts deliver a different message: I've got mine; best get yours.

If rap is moving away from that, Quest and Speahead's Michael Franti welcome it. "We want to show people we can put on a hip-hop show in peace," Franti says. "A rapper's role is deeper than putting lyrics on records; his role [is one of] comedian, storyteller, orator, philosopher, and politician. Rappers put events in historical context, much like the ancient African-American storytellers."

It's a role that rappers will rise to fill as--or if--they grow older; already there are signs of a new maturity. B-Real of Cypress Hill proudly points to the new cohesion of Temples of Boom, the band's third album. "Lyrically, the songs are deeper. We let go, a bit, of the braggadocio and the getting-high stuff," he says. "We wanted to prove that the music is the main factor, not the marijuana."

Ali Shaeed Muhammad of Quest--a band of trailblazers whose People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm set a standard in 1990 that still stands--said during a July 11 conference interview that "Smokin' Grooves" is just another tour. "We want to bring our music and our fourth album to this tour," Muhammed explains. "We simply would like to bridge all people of all races with our music."

"There is another way of life that supersedes hip-hop," says Q-Tip, probably the most recognizable face in Quest. "There's traits inside of hip-hop that don't fit a code of moral standards, you know what I'm saying? There's certain things erratic about hip-hop."

Even local rap artists here in Dallas are sensing a change. James "DJ Curly" Moore and Randy "DK The Groover" Green are both tired of gangstas. "DJ Curly"--currently recuperating at his West Dallas home after a car wreck--already has an album in the can, one on which he made a point of staying away from violence, sex, and drugs.

"My album is R&B mixed in with plenty of funk," Curly says. "I don't care if the album goes wood, I will continue to give the people what they want, and everybody does not want to hear that violent stuff day after day after day."

The Groover agrees. "Eventually," he says, "rap will go back to where it was before the gangsta stuff. A lot of people think the gangsta stuff has an effect on the minds of the younger kids." Why shouldn't it? Suge Knight may be a thug, but there is empowerment in his power and scariness. He offers to young black men opportunities that otherwise wouldn't--legally--exist. How much of the trouble that follows Knight and his stable of stars--men like Tupac and Snoop Doggy Dog--is the result of his success in a white-dominated industry?

What industry? Does it matter? It's the same industry that's always there, X marks the spot and sign the paper, sign your songs away while we sub Pat Boone for Little Richard. Unlike rock, rap and hip-hop are based in fresh class struggle, close enough to the surface to break the skin.

It's not hard to imagine the reaction of an angry young African-American--the kind of kid who would put his (or her) entire being into solid beats--upon seeing the one thing he thought he had float off toward the Hello Kitty culture of Orville Redenbacker's suburbia. All the rest of it and now my damn music, too.

Franti knows that feeling; he sees it out his window in San Francisco. "Man, we have a black mayor down here now and everybody is kinda feeling good," he says. "But we're the only major city in America that has a declining black population. Increasingly, white people are moving into black neighborhoods, taking over historically black enclaves. People are saying this is good, because retail has returned to the area, but to me and a lot of others this is the beginning of a breakdown in our foundation."

Cheryl Keyes, a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, has spent 16 years covering the rap scene and thinks that rap owes its potency to its origins. "Rap grew out of the oppression of the inner city," she explains. "People of color feel that they can't get the protection and the aid they need, so they turn to themselves...[for them] it's like [Public Enemy's] Flava Flav said: '911 is a joke.'"

Born in New York City, midwifed by oppression and inequity, rap and hip-hop have now gone on to impart mad wack house-party happy feet to the blonde-haired, blue-eyed children of the people many might blame for the situation in the first place. The tenuousness of the scene screams at every worry about its future. Nobody worries about the future of rock anymore, except as some ironic, guffaw-inducing bon mot; how long until rap and hip-hop can enjoy a similar acceptance? Where's rap's Hootie, and is that concept as terrible as it first sounds? There's a lot of territory to cover between heaven and hard-core, and it just may be that for now the best strategy is the Rawhide gambit: Don't try to understand them, just play the tape and jam them.

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