One Band, One Week: Word Play

I hope you had a good weekend, friends. Because we have some unfortunate business to discuss.

We need to talk about Beats, Rhymes and Life.

Following three consecutive smashes, all superior than the work that came before it, BR&L isn’t a baaaad album, but it is disappointing, coming after the flawless Midnight Marauders in 1994.

So why is the album so much different than what came before it? In short, the chemistry of the trio started to get broken and watered down. Phife had moved to Atlanta after MM, something Q-Tip allegedly took issue with [according to Beats, Rhymes and Life documentary, now on DVD!].  Tip also brought in Slum Village beatmaker Jay Dee [later Dilla] to contribute to the music after meeting him at a Detroit Lollapalooza stop, and in a fit of musical nepotism, invited his own cousin Consequence to join the group. So on one hand you had a very successful musical formula shifting, and on the other the addition of a third rapper totally messed with the chemistry of Tip and Phife, which is the total backbone of the group.

But with fifteen years behind it, there are some things we need to forgive BR&L for. Musically it’s still phenomenal, just different. The clean production of The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders got replaced with the grimier, dustier sensibility brought by Jay Dee, who is rightly considered one of if not the best rap producer to ever do it. This album was many people’s first exposure to his work, and should be celebrated as such.

Unfortunately Consequence doesn’t fare as well. He’s the hip-hop Poochie, brought in to try and, well, I don’t know what, but it didn’t work. He’s a fine rapper, and he’s done some things I liked throughout his career, but as far as Tribe goes nobody wanted him there. By the time The Love Movement came out, he was long gone and nobody asked where he went.

So it’s a difficult album to try to digest, but it is certainly not without its high moments, especially when taken in light of everything Jay Dee did following it.

Word Play is an album track from BR&L, and what I think is the best display of what Jay Dee brought to the group that they couldn’t have done themselves, and what he inspired in Q-Tip.

I’ll include the sample [from Rodney Franklin’s ‘The Watcher’] not because I think it’ll do you any good, but to illustrate just how different the sensibilities were.

Q-Tip is the producer with the ear, he’s a crate digger, he finds breaks in places lesser producers would ever think to look. But once you know what he used, you can listen to the original record and find the exact moment the sample is flipped from.

Dilla was at the other end of the spectrum; he was a surgeon and collage artist, who believed any record could be made into something dope.  It’s the advanced theory of the hip-hop aesthetic:  you always had to make do with the records at your disposal, and if the records at your disposal aren’t funk and jazz, or the right type of funk and jazz, you better find a way to make it work.  He could take the any sample, chop it into a million pieces, and reassemble it into a mindblowing new creation [check his posthumous production ‘Won’t Do,‘ built from the Isley Bros’ ‘Footsteps in the Dark‘ for a fine example].  When you listen to the Franklin, you can hear Word Play in it, but something about it isn’t quite right.  It’s like he twists the sample into some sort of Moebius loop that echoes the original but is something else entirely.  And how he did it is not something laymen like me will ever immediately understand, but for producers like Q-Tip, it must have been like landing on an undiscovered country.

And then there’s the matter of that kick drum.  I might not have ever noticed it had Dilla scholar, Roots bandleader and musical genius Questlove not pointed it out in a recent essay.  I gotta try and break this down as well as my sloppy, self-taught drummer math will let me, but it’s the middle note on the triple kickdrum stroke on the fourth bar: bum, buh-bum-CRACK, bum.  I always said this song was like being drunk, and that one kickdrum stroke is the reason why.  It’s just slightly out of the pocket, so subtle you might not ever hear it, and honestly, I was too shitty a drummer to notice it for the better part of a decade. But it’s genius, and so flies in the face of everything that hip-hop, and especially Tribe, was supposed to espouse.  In that same essay, Questlove eloquently points out that not only was BR&L so polarizing to fans due to the new personnel, but the 4/4 drumbeat and sample loop formula that they’d been perfecting over three albums had been chucked in favour of, “advanced calculus being taught to a class that just recently mastered algebra.”  It’s an apropos analogy.

Lyrically, there’s no common theme though the verses keep a structural unity of fragmentary declaration followed by explanation. Two examples.

Power. People really get caught with this on different levels
Power controls your life
Money. The companion of the first. Some people tend to worship
And we know this ain’t right.

Attitude(attitude) is how I get my point across.
You can’t call yourself an MC if you know that you’re soft.
Agressive…is how the stage is approached. I burn MCs like toast
Cuz I’m the host with the most.

What’s interesting in those lines, by Q-Tip and Phife respectively, is how they illustrate how the two MCs approach the structure differently, Tip opting for an unusual A-B-A-B rhyme scheme over Phife’s more typical A-A-B-B couplet style.  The one sour note is Consequence.  His nasally vocal tone was always ill suited to Tribe’s super clean production, and even on a track as dusty as Word Play it still sounds jarring to a listener.

Like I said, I think it’s time to forgive BR&L a little.  If you spent the last ten years fawning over J.Dilla, you’ll find it holds up incredibly well once you shake off the legacy of the Holy Trinity that came before it.  How funny that the guy we hated for ‘ruining,’ Tribe we now celebrate as one of the best to ever sit behind the boards.  If only he hadn’t rapped, though.  That was unfortunate…


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