City Paper is not for tourists
The underdog story is common in hiphop, but it’s usually told in back-in-the-day past tense from a privileged penthouse perspective. It’s less common for rappers to lament their present condition—especially their poor financials. Two recent compilations offer not only snapshots of the dark-horse scenes of U.K. grime and the Southern rap that’s more old-school funk than crunk, but also rare examples of the cash-strapped hiphop lyricist. On Run the Road Volume 2, Londoner JME laments, “You MC at a rave and get a bill/But that bill ain’t gonna last/It’ll go fast…/So you won’t have no dough for a while.” On Big Boi Presents…Got Purp? Vol. II, Atlantan Killer Mike is only slightly more upbeat: “My first album slept on/Failed to do a mil,” he rhymes. “But yet still/My babies have not missed a meal.” Both men have good reason to complain.
Despite the critical praise that’s been heaped on grime ever since the Streets’ 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material, the sound has yet to gain a foothold in the American market. The style is spastic, unsettling, and, above all, alien. The two-step beats are too quick for our slow Yankee ears, and British accents, it turns out, are even more unintelligible in double-time. Besides, why should U.S. heads bother tracking down gritty, slang-soaked tales of street life in Bow when gritty, slang-soaked tales of street life in Houston’s Fifth Ward are filling the racks at Target?
The critics would argue that grime’s humanizing, self-deprecating lyrics offer a refreshing alternative to the mindless blingalongs that clot our charts. Or that the music’s strangeness and energy make it the most exciting British import since drum ’n’ bass. Or acid house. Or punk. The first Run the Road compilation, released on London’s 679 Recordings this past January and reissued on Brooklyn’s Vice Records in March, was a great primer for the sound, characterized by an almost palpable scene-in-progress vibe.
Nearly a year later, the music seems just as restive on Volume 2. Kano’s noisy, herky-jerky “P’s and Q’s” was arguably the best song on the original Run the Road. On Volume 2, he tops himself—as well as every other contributor—with the dramatic “Get Set,” a collaboration with Low Deep. The stabbing string samples and call-to-arms lyrics recall “Turn the Page,” which led off Original Pirate Material, and Kano is still spitting quicksilver quips over speedy garage beats in characteristic grime style. But the song has a sonic bigness that wasn’t always evident on the first volume, and the lyrics betray an uncertainty about the future of the genre. Lines such as “Get set when everybody rhymes/What you gonna do, ’cause it’s your time/This is the new-age grime/Who’s gonna be next for 16 lines?” have an air of desperation about them, as if they were the spiel of an army recruiter during an unpopular war.
Further evidence that the grime sound is still evolving can be found in “Nah Nah,” by Big Seac, who guests on “Get Set.” Though the music itself is still straight-up grime, the MC’s delivery veers from staccato, nasally tradition. His ballsy, bass-register bravado on the hook seems to belong more to a crunked-up party-track shout-out than to a verbose rumination on life on the dole. A more dramatic change can be heard during “Up Your Speed Remix,” by North London rapper Sway. The drum track remains typically skittery, but the vocal samples switch abruptly from superfast to unintelligibly slow. “Wolverhampton/Up your speed!/Newcastle, Sheffield/Up your speed!/But please d-d-d-d-don’t kill anybody,” Sway & Co. command, just before a series of sinister electronic belches. Instead of chopped and screwed, the song is cleaved and shagged.
Not all of the aesthetic alterations on Volume 2 are successful. The R&B-diva accompaniments and chipmunk-soul samples on Ghetto’s “Run the Road” and Crazy Titch’s “World Is Crazy” suggest that grime is also expanding into a more commercial, but less compelling, direction. And on “Sick 2 Def (Acoustic),” Plan B offers a take on grime for which absolutely no one was clamoring: Unplugged style. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, the wannabe Beck lets loose with such lines as “Like a necromaniac raping a corpse/Up the anal passage while contracting genital warts”—which are surely intended to compensate for his milquetoast music and man-wafer vocal style.
But those are the exceptions. Mizz Beats’ “Saw It Comin’” hews closely to traditional grime, combining relentless toasting, spacey sound effects, and awkward beats to create an exemplary track. Lady Sovereign, a recent Def Jam signee and perhaps the most visible grime artist in the States, doesn’t disappoint, either: Her crackling energy and celebrity-worthy swagger make “Little Bit of Shhh!” one of the most listenable songs here. Even better, the MC with the funny accent and the hobbit-sized frame is never afraid to poke fun at herself: “Don’t joke wif us small folk.”
The lack of success for the hiphop scene that surrounds OutKast’s Big Boi is far more inexplicable. As one half of one of rap’s biggest-selling acts, Big Boi has been on the front of every music magazine that matters (and many that don’t). His group was the first to be certified multiplatinum based solely on downloads. Yet everything Bog Boi touches does not turn to gold: The two releases on OutKast’s Aquemeni imprint, Slimm Calhoun’s The Skinny, from 2001, and Killer Mike’s Monster, from 2003, barely managed 400,000 in sales between them. The OutKast-organized Dungeon Family supergroup, featuring such fellow Georgians as Bubba Sparxxx and members of Goodie Mob, tanked, too.
These days, with OutKast’s other half, André 3000, seemingly more interested in his film career than in his musical one, Big Boi has once again tried to call some attention to his hometown scene, replacing the dissolved Aquemini with the new Purple Ribbon Records, named for another of his side projects: breeding pedigreed pit bulls. (As he told XXL: “If a dog has a purple ribbon pedigree that means you can go back and count three generations of the bloodline of where the dog came from.”) The label’s first release is the confoundingly titled Big Boi Presents…Got Purp? Vol. II. (The predecessor was a mix tape titled Got That Purp.)
The attitude of Big Boi’s not-so-merry band of never-weres toward Dre’s perceived abandonment is obvious on the album’s first actual song, Killer Mike’s “Dungeon Family Dedication”: “All I know is Big here, Dre gone/Moved on/Changed names from Aquemini to Purple Ribbon.” And it gets worse: “Goddamn, is there a curse on Dungeon Fam?” Mike asks. “The Goodie Mob broke and the DF album didn’t jam.”
The bitterness is dissipated by the next track, the sunny party jam “Kryptonite (I’m on It),” by Big Boi, Killer Mike, BlackOwned C-Bone, and Rock D. The bumpin’ ode to another kind of purple—high-quality hydro—nicely splits the difference between Atlanta’s dominant sounds of OutKast’s retrofunk and Lil’ Jon’s shouting crunk. It’s about as good as Got Purp? gets.
Almost all hiphop comps are spotty, but there are other gems hidden on Got Purp?: Sleepy Brown’s perfectly nostalgic, swooningly soulful “Me, My Baby and My Cadillac,” and “U Got Me!!!,” by the London-born Scar. The latter is the catchiest, guiltiest pleasure on the disc, with an exuberant vibe and silky production reminiscent of Jacko circa Off the Wall.
For those who still care, Sparxxx, whose The Charm is slated for release on Purple Ribbon next year, weighs in with his own brand of bottom-heavy hickhop on “Claremont Lounge.” And there’s even a decent Goodie Mob reunion for “Hold On.” But the best actual hiphop songs here—Brown’s and Scar’s are more R&B—all include Big Boi: “Kryptonite,” Killer Mike’s liquid-rhythm’d “My Chrome,” and Big Boi’s shuffling, squiggly, and off-kilter “808,” which Lady Sovereign might appreciate. But at least his labelmates will have something to bemoan for Got Purp? Vol. III.CP