Continuing Studies in Hip-Hop, or, Mourning the Adolescence I Wish I Had

She said reading Junot Diaz sounded in her head like I was reading it to her, since she found it so similar to my writing style. I told her it was one of the sweetest things anyone had ever said to me, and was also a reminder that I should step up the blogging again.  She agreed.  We’ll see if she still does when this is over.

People, this was a banner month for New York hip-hop history.  A couple of weeks ago, the folks over at DJPremierBlog got their hands on the full 10-minute clip of a 1995 freestyle session between Big L [RIP] and some guy named Jay-Z on the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia show on Columbia University’s WKCR.  And one week after that freestyle hit the web, Stretch and Bob hit the air for a 20th Anniversary show.

Like, you need to know, Stretch & Bobbito are responsible for probably the most important radio show in the history of hip-hop.  Saturday overnight, on a noncommercial radio station in the heart of the city, during the mid 90s.  That’s Biggie, Nas, Wu-Tang, Big Pun, Fat Joe, what most people consider the last great Golden Age of hip-hop.

Here, listen to Bob tell it.

Listening to that show is like attending a postgrad seminar at Hip-Hop U.  In the first ten minutes they dropped two diamonds: the aforementioned Big L/Hov rhyme off, and the original version of ‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell’ by Nas, from dude’s demo tape! Because that’s what these guys had access to back then, they were the guys to go to if you wanted to get on, and only the dudes who could spit got over, because a chance to drop a hot sixteen with the whole city listening could make your career.  In the pre-web days, that was the brass ring.

I’m still making my way through the archived broadcast, and it makes me feel so nostalgic, not only for the music I love, but for the culture I wish I had been a part of earlier in my life.  I’ve said it so many times, but I was 29 when I got to Toronto, when I found people who were into the shit I was into like I was into it.  I wish I’d had a show like Stretch & Bob’s when I was growing up.  I wish I’d had the nuts to try to host my own on Windsor’s campus station.  Instead, I back-burnered my love of the music for a good seven years, only now being comfortable enough in myself and my surroundings to be the guy I didn’t think I could be then.  Salutes to Stretch & Bob.

But what most floored me about the freestyle [besides the fact the Big L absolutely murders the man who would one day be the God MC] is that beat. I’d never heard it before and I became obsessed.  I think what I’ve figured out is that the piano is my favourite sampled instrument.  I just think it can be deftly manipulated by good producers to evoke so many different types of emotion and mood.  Previously I probably would have said Blueprint-era Kanye and Just Blaze, the sped-up soul sample thing, but man, nothing breaks my neck like a melancholic piano with a headcrack snare.  I may have to upload a mix to illustrate this point.

Anyway, a quick tour and dig reveals that the beat is from a 1995 track called ‘Keep it Real’ by some forgotten white rapper with the unfortunate name of Milkbone.

I still have no idea who crafted this piece of wonderful.  Given the Naughty by Nature sweatshirt, I suspect it’s Kay Gee, but the Interwebs has yet to confirm this. It was while searching for the production credit that I finally got a proper introduction to Gary, Indiana’s Freddie Gibbs.

I’d heard about Gangsta Gibbs for a minute, first in Sasha Frere-Jones’s notorious column in The New Yorker arguing that hip-hop died in 2009.  Frere-Jones called Gibbs ‘the one rapper I would put money on right now,’ the stylistic antithesis to the future-facing synth sounds of a lot of rap that crosses over, a throwback to the Golden Age that the Stretch and Bob show was such an integral part of.

Frere-Jones’s column is pretty laughable, calling out Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 for being the death knell of hip-hop, while simultaneously calling ‘D.O.A.’ from that album a throwback to 90s-era Jigga while not being as good as ‘A Milli,’ Lil Wayne’s banger from the same year.  Buried down in the body of the article is Frere-Jones’s real argument, that hip-hop is just established enough to splinter into different genres.  Wow, how insightful.

Anyway, as pointless as the article is, it did put Gibbs on my radar, faint a blip as he was.  Hadn’t thought about him since, until I started searching for info on the ‘Keep it Real’ beat and came across ‘The Ghetto,’ a track fro Gibbs’s 2009 mixtape ‘Str8 Killa No Filla.’

Oh. Dear. Lord. This song is heartbreaking and beautiful and strong and everything that makes me love hip-hop in the first place. It doesn’t hurt that dude’s flow is calculated and meticulous and smooth as silk, perfectly inside the beat, double-timing the cadence in a way that Milkbone wouldn’t have considered in ’95. While I do think you’d have to try pretty hard to make a bad song with that beat, I gotta respect Gibbs’s lyrical depiction of the struggle he faced in his community without glorifying the things he did.  In three minutes Gibbs lays out everything that makes hip-hop important. No bling, no shine, completely at ease with its own lack of pop ambition.

Hell, when even Pitchfork is giving you props, you must be doing something right.

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