Friday, June 19, 2009

Can it be all so simple?

Zone Styx Travelcard, with a bracing post with even more bracing musical annotation on the millenarian in popular music, concentrating on the relentless doomcore techno of Marc Arcadipane and his terrifying, cyber-atavist ilk, but alludes briefly to the 1990s' apostles of apocalyptic hip hop: the Wu-Tang Clan, a group so improbable that it sometimes seems like we dreamed them, especially given their seeming lack of any successors - bar their business model of side-projects and branding, only Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein attests that anyone was actually listening - bafflingly, given their one-time ubiquitousness. I recall Simon Reynolds lamenting, in one of his feuilletons on a simultaneous attraction (to the futurist sonics) and repulsion (from the unreconstructed brute capitalism) with reference to Cash Money/Swizz Beatz/Timbaland etc, remembering that once you could actually like both worldview and aesthetic (a problem in practically every art form now, this) - 'can you imagine George Clinton naming himself after a footwear manufacturer?' No. But nor could you imagine Ghostface Killah, U-God, the RZA, the Genius (or the other clansmen, and their alter-egos) doing something so utterly lame.

I'm almost tempted to think we (by we I suppose I mean blog-writing, former or present pop-obsessives) made a mistake in backing so comprehensively capitalism's most venal advertising service, in enjoying what was basically Nuts magazine with intricate drum programming, when the Wu were around at the same time - yet comparing early Missy & Tim to the pompous, half-arsed material put out by the Wu from 1997 onwards* quickly puts paid to that thought - but the point still stands, that hip hop as a moving, modernist art form that has formal extravagance and a vision of humanity that isn't utterly depressing, essentially dies with the Wu (and please, don't bother to recommend me any backpack nonsense in the comments - classicism in an art form that's only 30 years old is truly unforgivable). You could argue that the last decade has been in retreat from the Wu, incapable of even attempting to follow the multiple paths they opened up. Nonetheless, to get back on topic: if we're dealing with bizarre atavism, visions more worthy of John of Leiden than Jay-Z, and hip hop's nearest thing to militant dysphoria, then their records from 1993 to 1997 (36 Chambers, Tical, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Liquid Swords, Ironman, maybe half of Wu-Tang Forever) are a bestiary of lurid imagery and palpable yearning for oblivion. Take the first track on Forever, where a voice disdains everything from abortion to evolution, then asks us 'is it time for the revolutionary war?' 'For Heaven's Sake' is a march riven with eschatological expectation, where 'a spark that surges through the undergrowth' is 'overwhelming the populace', 'Visionz', beginning with Method Man talking of apocalypse as if it happens every day (and not the least of their insights is that it does) stands as an almost calm statement by a group clearly aware of themselves as the elect.

Yet what is interesting about the Wu is that their eschatology is so inconsistent, and is so riven with complexity and contradiction. Like Parliament-Funkadelic, they clearly aimed to be 'within and against' capitalism, coining phrases which seem borrowed from a Operaist textbook ('Cash Rules Everything Around Me' indeed) at the same time as they tried to eke money out of the RZA's every moment of accidental collaged inspiration by maintaining a (briefly) astonishingly Stakhanovite level of consistently brilliant product. So they fade in and out of coherence. Listening to Cuban Linx is all about the endless attempt to decipher a baffling series of non-sequiturs, compelling narratives, shopping lists, threats and city stories, all adding up to something as fragmented and incomprehensible as the metropolis itself. Both Raekwon's Cuban Linx and Ghostface Killah's Ironman take the Waste Land approach to writing, where small gripes and inconsequentialities are mixed up with politics micro and macro, with a New York reimagined as the city of the damned: 'you can't believe in heaven cos you're living in hell' - and in tracks like 'Verbal Intercourse' hip hop becomes a matter of detritus, mess, silt, litter: 'catch the most on tape, kilos disintegrate, Pyrex pots we break, fiends lickin plates.'

Unlike their more prosaic New York contemporaries, 'reality' for the Wu was only one facet of a wildly contradictory worldview, and their gangsta tracks are especially notable for their guilt and uncertainty. So GZA's 'Gold', beneath the terrible advance of buzzing synths and '50s Biblical movie choirs, is nearer to the moral intractables of The Wire than by now utterly tedious parade of efficient, sexually omnipotent gangsta supermen that hip hop has been reduced to - listening to Liquid Swords it isn't the cliches of the hood that spring to mind, but the sheer strangeness of the environment, evoking more the streets and streets of decommissioned public housing that lie derelict in The Wire's fourth series, gradually filling up with bodies, while the real estate deals are struck for the charnel houses. The apocalypse here doesn't need anything remotely supernatural to intercede, the disaster is the everyday. So it's instructive to compare Wu's self-presentation as millenarian warriors to one of their most quietly alarming tracks, Ghostface Killah's 'All That I Got is You'.

A cursory listen might make this seem merely mawkish, another hip hop ballad, this time with the twist that it's all about his Mum, satisfied now they've got out but reminding us of the days before they appeared on MTV Cribs - but again, the point is the detail. We get another of Ghostface's stream-of-consciousness shopping lists, only this time he's not playing games with us, and we get an account of raw, unbearable poverty that doesn't feature anywhere in American culture (again, save The Wire), let alone in music: 'fifteen of us in a three bedroom apartment/Roaches everywhere, cousins and aunts was there/Four in the bed, two at the foot, two at the head/I didn't like to sleep with Jon-Jon he peed the bed/Seven o'clock, pluckin roaches out the cereal box/Some shared the same spoon, watchin saturday cartoons/Sugar water was our thing, every meal was no thrill/In the summer, free lunch held us down like steel/And there was days I had to go to Tex house with a note/Stating "Gloria can I borrow some food I'm dead broke"' As soldiers of apocalypse, the Wu should not in theory have done things like this. They should either have been superheroes or gangsters, and certainly shouldn't have admitted to the embarrassing, humiliating experience of being at the the sharp end of capitalism. Call it (a deeply strange kind of) humanism if you must, if you think that's an insult.

* (well, excepting Ghost Dog, the awesome death marches of The W and a few things from Ghostface Killah, it really is all over by disc 2 of Forever; and there are obvious exceptions - oh, Stankonia, Boy in Da Corner, a few others - to my lofty dismissal of the entire last decade here, though it's notable that, like the 80s, the early part of this decade was far more inspired than the rest)


Blogger Pedr said...

Great post.

In case you missed it in the sea of mediocrity, one more flicker of wu genius (pun intended) post '96:

10:45 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

I noticed recently that Co FLow have just re-issued Funcrusher Plus, an album which I would include in this highly selective, if not entirely arbitrary 'east-coast futurist' hip-hop canon instead of the Can Ox one, which I'm not entirely sure why you like so very very much...

I like the point about backpack classicism, I bought far too many albums of that stuff, alas...

1:39 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's weird how hiphop got more and more irrelevant the more ever-present it got (and it's bloody everywhere now - working with young people in urban areas, it bugs me that they refuse to listen to anything else). For a time up to the mid-90s, you could listen to the Westwood show with non-stop delight - impossible now.

Another thing that strikes me about hiphop now is its utter humorlessness - the absolute refusal of any vulnerability (there's traces of it in Kanye West, but his tiresome ego overwhelms it). Skee-Lo's 'I Wish' or 'Passing Me By' by the Pharcyde were probably the key tracks for that. Humour was a big factor in a lot of late 80s/early 90s 'crossover' hits. But I also recall the Wu (like P-Funk) had a lot of imagery dealing with 'poo-poo', mensuration, snot etc. Always reminders that this was a human body trying to function in the 'cold, cold world'. Now with its power marriages, fashion endorsements and crib-porn, its all hideous worship of wealth and power for its own sake.

The big turning point for me was Puff Daddy trying to turn Notorious B.I.G. (slim talents both) into Princess Diana. 1997 as a cultural funeral for so much grows ever more haunting...

12:04 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Agree with lots of that, but to be honest, I think what happened to hip hop from around '97 onwards was enormously refreshing - at first. Compared with the increasingly funkless, classicist (save the Wu), literary direction East Coast had taken, and the soporific boredom of late g-funk, all those dirty south R&B/Hip Hop/pop records were absolutely thrilling - I must admit I could happily listen to a Westwood show all the way through until relatively recently. Compared with the obsession with Realness, the sonic (and visual) surrealism, technophilia and sexiness of early DC, Missy, innumerable others, were infinitely preferable.... first. Then, nothing else happened. Timbaland basically ran out of ideas 8 years ago (and, like RZA, has occasional flashes of greatness, in much the same way you can expect the odd good record from John Cale or someone), the Neptunes became incredibly smug (Pharrell Williams = geek traitor. I found the way this obvious boffin-type embraced the most tedious braggadocio so annoying - even naming his clothing label 'Billionaire Boys Club' - yuck), and with the generic but brilliant scenius stuff like Cash Money et al, the 'hideous worship of wealth and power for its own sake' just became too much of an obstruction to actually enjoying the stuff. Though the evident lack of sonic ideas since about 2004 (to be generous) is definitely a factor too in my general miserablism and disenchantment. Or maybe I'm getting old or should stick to writing about buildings.

Regardless, there's a sense in which several babies have been thrown out with the worthy bathwater. So Cold Vein sounds to me now, at least in its finest moments - 'Iron Galaxy', 'Scream Phoenix', 'Atom' etc (it has its longeurs - certainly 'F Word' is a bit Anticon) - like an encapsulation of everything that was about to be lost, not only the intelligence and humanism, but also the persistence of a coherent musical and textual vision, a 'New York evil at its core', an eschatology and a totalised, urban sweep that got lost when we decided that we should celebrate and/or ignore evil when it has a hot beat. And on that utterly self-righteous note I'll shut up.

(also: Cold Vein is perhaps the only thing I will ever agree with Alex Williams about)

10:59 pm  
Blogger Seb said...

Murphey kinda beat me to the punch in referencing Funcrusher Plus, since the Wu's initial & highly improbable breakthrough I've always compared to, what if Funcrusher had been the hip-hop record of '97 instead of Life After Death or In My Lifetime... Vol.1.

But I'll go one further than Co. Flo AND Cold Vein and say that El-P's solo debut, '02's Fantastic Damage, is not only enthralling in "both worldview and aesthetic", but it bests even Wu-Tang's dystopian apocalypse-in-progress rant-reportage.

Too bad his last record sucked.

And I know it's de rigeur to slag backpack's formalism and praise the drrrty south as hip-hop's true engine of innovation over the past decade, but honestly, I defy anyone to listen to something like "Step Yo Game Up" without a shred of self-consciousness or shame. Come on.

Cries of hip-hop's death are the same as cries of rock's death: anyone saying so is either not looking hard enough, constricted by an conservative notion of what can fit under the form's umbrella, or both. Finale, Wale, to some extent Cadence Weapon - shit, even that first Spank Rock record brought some fun back to hip-hop and had madcap production.

By the way: the Neptunes became incredibly smug? Dude, the first N.E.R.D. album came out in '02, seven years ago. Is it just that it no longer sounds like Pharrell's taking the piss? Was he ever?

9:04 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think rap has gone/is going the same way as jazz and rock ie. either increasingly 'academic', worthy and enclosed (Common, 'slams' etc. - rather 'posh' and over-learned to these ears) OR a commercial soundtrack for fashion, movies and lifestyle gadgets (Jay Z, Black-Eyed Peas ad nausaem). Like jazz and rock it's lost any VISION of the culture that made it, and so feels irrelevant. The gulf between the commercial and academic wing of rap is growing as wide as that between Kenny G and John Zorn, or U2 and Shellac. I think rock basically 'died' with post-punk and jazz with 'fusion' - all that's left is self-enclosed 'scholarship' or shameless bids for multimedia celebrity.

I think 2Pac and Biggie's deaths had a strange effect on hiphop - it was the point were surrealism, vulnerability and dysphoria made their exit to be replaced with easy signifiers of fame and/or notoriety (50 cent's career consists of nothing else).

11:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ps. All those movie/TV roles don't help - many a time I watch a film featuring a rapper, rolling a mental list of the first-rate black actors who didn't get the role. 'Keeping it real' indeed.

12:04 pm  
Blogger Alex said...

Another data point: like so many other US subcultures, hiphop took on the cultural tropes of big business and Hollywood (management, though, not talent). Silly titles. Diffusion brands. Private jets. Actual, real weird corporate structures. (Wasn't Puff actually a record company exec before he was a rapper?) As it happens the Hell's Angels had a president, a vice president, a serjeant-at-arms etc, the Panthers wanted access to the American Dream.

Strange that no-one wants to be the CIA (a bunch of waspy civil servants, after all, with some *special* responsibilities and tools...), NASA (ditto), or Silicon Valley (ekk, engineers) except for spooks and geeks. In fact, come to think of it, in music, it's European dance people who see themselves as hackers. Actually the Wu did go in for maths, or rather, numerology.

10:48 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Re: TV roles. Telling that Method Man as Cheese in The Wire is quite the thesp...

2:20 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

Alright, here's a little bonus for you, if you're looking for worthwhile 'fidelity to the Funcrusher Plus event', the album Obelisk Movements by the Micranots (2000) is actually pretty damn good, and holds firm to the apocalyptic feel and deeply artificial production of Co Flow.

3:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"* (well, excepting Ghost Dog, the awesome death marches of The W and a few things from Ghostface Killah, it really is all over by disc 2 of Forever;"

add to the list debut solo albums from masta killah and inspectah deck, from 2004 and 1999 respectively. if you have ghost dog on there you have to include those two. the difference i suppose being shared production duties

'hip hop's nearest thing to militant dysphoria'...

mobb deep deserve a mention. they get closer to this than wu, i think. by the time you get to Hell On Earth it is just completely relentless. even the artwork for the album and the singles

surely poetix would approve

'you small, minute, gotta deck to deal with aces up, you over-bid and in the bridge you got stuck

this ain't a card game, but in perspective it's the same, put two and two together, mobb deep with one name'

2:11 am  
Blogger ZoneStyxTravelcard said...

The Killah Priest album is interestingly weird, and quite a bit of ODB's second album, but (as with the other post-Forever highlghts mentioned above) they're still not on the same level as the first round of solo albums, and you're slightly having to will them to be good.

Seb, that's keeping the faith admirably, but come on, the rock-punk arena in 2009 in no way compares with 69 or even 89. Forms blossom, die and rot. It may not be qute dead yet but it's approaching retirement.

And great points about Mobb Deep by the last Anon. Incredibly bleak records - not sure they're dysphoric as such, more anhedonic in the way that Kayser Soze in Usual Suspects is - ie having no social or cultural investment n the world makes him a kind of Nietzschean free-agent supercriminal, no achilles heels' or weaknesses for opponents to exploit. A will-to-dysphoria perhaps.

10:49 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Yes, Mobb Deep! How could I forget... Although (to continue to labour the Wire comparisons) they tend to remind me more of the chilling, myopic horror of Marlo Stanfield than the expansiveness of the Wu.

I remember liking the Killah Priest LP, but I don't have it anymore - I do love Supreme Clientele and some of the second ODB album though, and I shall look up some of the other things mentioned.

11:02 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mobb Deep, Wu etc. - where's their grit, the murk? That background static present on many a great hip-hop record? That's one big thing with current rap - it's all been removed for frictionless 'shine' (probably why disco and anaemic 80s R'n'B gets sampled far more than p-funk, 60s soul or blues nowadays)

5:05 pm  
Blogger Seb said...

ZoneStyx - It's not so much "keeping the faith" as playing fast & loose with the taxonomy. After all, if "rock" is an elastic enough term to be applicable to Pantera, Pink Floyd, the Psychic Paramount, Panic At the Disco, Pulp, and everyone in between (including bands that don't start with "p") then it's surely not dead in the ground. Of course it's not as healthy as it's ever been - only a moron would argue that. It's also not the genre best able to capture whatever this clusterfuck of a zeitgeist is; again, that's a losing proposition.

Hip-hop, thus far, hasn't proven as maleable a genre tag, but again, there's enough of it out there that it can't all be useless pap. Three of the best albums I've heard this year have all been hip-hop.

All I'm saying is that there is good rock (and hip-hop and punk and jazz, etc.) out there. I guarantee you that, with some considerable effort, I could find a skiffle band that would blow your fuckin' mind.

5:41 pm  
Blogger Seb said...

Okay, last Anon - "where's the murk?"... are you fucking joking? Have you even heard Enter the 36 Chambers?

5:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You misread me. I meant the murk that those records had - P.E., N.W.A. and even A.T.C.Q. had it - which is now largely absent from hiphop.

8:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"All I'm saying is that there is good rock (and hip-hop and punk and jazz, etc.) out there."

I agree - but the best stuff seems to exist in a bubble increasingly unrelated to the wider culture - which definitely wasn't the case with rock until the 80s, or jazz until the 70s

8:43 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Incidentally, am now listening to The W and convinced its their best LP as a group - no Liquid Swords or Cuban Linx, but it has a combination of raging and mournful that fits its period - like Cold Vein, a real time-is-running-out feeling...

11:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The W is proably the most 'bluesy' hip-hop album. "Something in the slum went rum-pa-pum-pum'.

Just saw Method Man's hilarious dog murder mix-up on the Wire..

12:55 am  
Blogger Daniel M. Laenker said...

I came to this blog after listening to Noah Kazis talk about brutalism, so I apologize for being late.

As someone who grew up in Virginia Beach at a time when I was just old enough to watch the last vestiges of anything strange, beautiful or true in hip-hop die, as it happened, I'm wondering whatever happened to Chad Hugo. I think the Philippine melodic elements were a big part of what made the Neptunes interesting originally, and I think in the absence of those (however suburban) multicultural influences Pharell has been spinning his wheels.

Anyway, I want to throw out something big and ugly: would I be wrong to say that Wu-Tang is, in a rather deeply essential way, racist? Or at least Orientalist? A lot of their posturing reminds me of that of the Hebrew Israelites, which is again bizarrely anti-Semitic for a cult that worships Jewish identity.

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