Needle To The Groove: The Return Of The True Free-Form Mix (Food For Thought)

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With less than 10 weeks left on the year, it can be challenging to make sense of 2013 in Hip-Hop. From the conversations I’m having with fellow fans, there isn’t a runaway favorite for Album Of The Year, Mixtape Of The Year, or even Artist Of The Year.

The biggest stories of this calendar seem to have more to do with how albums were released (Kanye West’s Yeezus and Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail), than the contents that were on them. On the flip-side of that, some of the work that has made some of the answers I’ve heard for “best of” lists (Killer Mike & El-P’s Run The Jewels incarnation, or Inspectah Deck’s CZARFACE collaboration with 7L & Esoteric) had non-traditional roll-outs themselves, whether seemingly given away for free or sold in conjunction with action figures and pop-up art—both also featuring vinyl pressings. Hip-Hop is growing away from convention in its fast-paced state. However, in doing so, one thing seems to be returning to form.

In this past week, there were two pieces of music that really jilted me. The first was a lost practice session by a young KRS-One. While recording Criminal Minded with Boogie Down Productions partner Scott La Rock, KRS experimented in the studio. Blastmasta’s brother DJ Kenny Parker unearthed some of these sessions on New York York’s real-life answer to Samuel L. Jackson’s studio in Do The Right Thing, East Village Radio. The 22-minute tape revealed a raw, edgy (and famously cocky) KRS. Over dynamic breakbeats across many genres, KRS slides into routines inspired by Michael Jackson and others, just as he famously channeled Billy Joel, The Beatles, and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes on later hits. The most exciting music I’ve heard from KRS since 2003’s limited-release D.I.G.I.T.A.L. is a testament to his knowledge of records. KRS could make any record Hip-Hop, and bring any routine to life. This is something we saw consistently among KRS’ contemporaries, such as Slick Rick, Biz Markie, and Chuck D. The way an artist like Game can seemingly talk about any rapper in his verses, artists 25 years ago seemed to have that same encyclopedia for other music, music that made Hip-Hop.

That other piece of amazing music this week came from Edan. Once a part of Boston’s Underground Rap glory of the early 2000s, “The Humble Magnificent” (as he’s also known) channeled Large Professor and pursued perfecting rhyming, deejaying, and production, simultaneously. The result, 2005’s Beauty And The Beat is arguably Rap’s first deliberately-Psychedelic album. Featuring Percee P and Mr. Lif, the LP splashed acid on beats to match rhymes inspired by Lakim Shabazz and “Droppin’ Science”-era Craig G. Now more of a recluse from churning out music, Edan fired up a podcast to connection with his cult following. In his trademark echo voice, Edan plays vinyl and second-hand cassettes in Soul, Punk, live Latin Quarter Hip-Hop sets, Gospel, and private press Rock. For two hours, you can hear a mixmaster find Hip-Hop beyond Hip-Hop, and make it work. Edan cuts two versions of the same song back-to-back, he plays a sloppy live set dubbed from ’88 of a struggling Rap group doing a routine over a “Synthetic Substitution” routine, and his own beat-juggling-while-rapping gift. At a time when music, mixes, and record selection seems very predictable, Edan (and Kris Parker) take a sledgehammer to convention.

Perhaps as we look for meaning in 2013’s offerings, the unpredictable sources of inspiration are coming back to Hip-Hop. While blog-era MCs are quick to hop on instrumentals flavor-of-the-month crossovers (lately it appears to be Lorde’s melodic “Royales”), Kanye West’s Yeezus had an arsenal of unusual influence. While lyrics brought Shabba Ranks back into vogue, months before A$AP Ferg dedicated his own single to the early ’90s dominant Dancehall maker, ‘Ye’s music sampled both Capleton and Beenie Man. Dancehall and Hip-Hop have been distant from each other on the mainstream stage in over a decade, and West’s sources were far from overt. Additionally, the music of Yeezus frequently punched into other elements. After a fierce Rap or evocative ballad, Kanye and company would cut into something else, ranging from Hungarian Rock, to Lords Of The Underground, to No Limit glory. In approach, this is not that different from what made Dr. Dre and DJ Premier’s music-making so exciting, and it’s what made DJ parties from the ’70s through the ’90s fun for those who came to dance, and those who didn’t.

In the iPod era, we’re all shuffling between genre, between era, mood, through our (often) easily-accumulated libraries of sound. How we bring it all together is on the artists. The greats can find the commonalities across boundaries. Great ears can show you Hip-Hop in places where there aren’t 16-bar verses. Hip-Hop started without an MC, but with a mixmaster, who made Hip-Hop parties relying on records like The Honeydrippers’ “Impeach The President” (Funk), Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Hydra” (Jazz), Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” (Soul), Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican” (Rock), and plenty of Disco, House, and Industrial to boot.

Hip-Hop is starving for a party. Heads want to be surprised, and educated about music, with their trust in sound-sources. The way that KRS-One was the beneficiary of Bronx block parties, and running around Manhattan clubs on the come-up of B.D.P., Edan studied the crates, and applied what his heroes did to his own mix. It’s safe to presume that coming from a club scene like Chicago, a crossroads of House, Soul, Gospel, Electro, and Gangsta Rap, Kanye had his own education intensified. And it’s all paying off.

While 2013 may fight for the Hip-Hop albums that make it a musical hallmark, I think the party is building. Certain elements are coming back with the transition, and at any time, any moment, with the movement of the fader, the next great groove will make even more sense with the building anticipation and momentum. Best of all, we don’t know when or what, but we’re all listening.

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