City Paper is not for tourists
Funkmaster Flex’s The Mix Tape Volume III: 60 Minutes of Funk (yawn) The Final Chapter is nothing like the mix tapes I used to buy off the street in New York. For one thing, it sells for $17.99 retail, and you can’t haggle over the price with the guy at Tower. Second, it’s a neatly packaged CD, not a badly dubbed 90-minute Maxell cassette. And most importantly, it’s a major-label release with nationwide distributionand as dull and tedious as its overblown title.
For those unfamiliar with the Funkmaster, he is not a rapper. Flex is a New York club DJ whose uncanny ability to turn out a party eventually earned him six nights a week on New York’s hottest radio station, Hot 97 FM. His deal with Loud Records has already resulted in two gold discs: Mix Tapes I & II. The third manifestation of 60 Minutes of Funk follows the same format: Flex lures well-known artists into the studio to record unreleased verses over various instrumentals, then mixes these original “freestyles” with recognizable hit songs to round out the hour. The upshot of this formulausuallyis that listeners get to hear new material that is not otherwise commercially available.
The Final Chapter kicks off promisingly. Improvisational icon Busy Bee rocks “some of that old-school flavor” over a couple of classic breakbeats and gives Flex the blessing of the old guard. Flex jumps right into the album’s first single, a real crowd pleaser: “Here We Go,” produced with Wyclef Jean, is an upbeat, original R&B tune perfect for the cookout season. Next, Flex kills the mood with a jarring combination of violence, homoerotic fantasy, and misogyny. Untrained mutt DMX complains, “niggers…suckin’ my dick so hard, I’m busting in their mouths and then I snuff ’em out.” Shortly thereafter, heartthrob Cam’Ron explains how to “beat a bitch.” With almost an hour left, the CD settles down into a lulling stream of mediocre guest appearances from Busta Rhymes, Ice Cube, Noreaga, Missy Elliot, Mariah Carey, Erykah Badu, blah, blah, blah. If these names fail to excite, that’s because they have by now blanketed television and radio. Even rappers who were selected to appeal to the “true heads” are either already enormously popular in their own arenas (Common, Canibus) or have enough crossover appeal (Big Pun, A Tribe Called Quest) to make them a safe bet.
Funkmaster Flex has a lot at stake these days. As the “hardest-working man in hiphop,” he’s juggling his radio show, an entertainment company, and other business ventures. He has signed an endorsement deal with Starter athletic gear that rests squarely on his name recognition. Despite all these successes, he is still not a very good DJ as far as the art of “turntablism” is concerned. The evidence is Final Chapter’s lack of creative cutting or scratching techniques. Flex forsakes blending similar songs together by beat in favor of stringing popular songs one after another connected by annoying shout-outs: “Say sex! (Sex!) And more sex! (And more sex!).” Funkmaster Flex is a one-trick pony, and it’s not even a great trick. He’s known for playing established hits and is not willing to sacrifice his notoriety just to introduce his fans to anything new orGod forbidinnovative.
But, innovative or not, most rap songs don’t make it to MTV or BET. As a matter of fact, most hiphop artists cannot even get on commercial radio in their own hometowns. TV and radio have always allowed their audience access to only the most sanitized, insubstantial bubble-gum rap. Up until a few years ago, however, fans could count on the underground mix-tape DJs to create a buzz on the street for new artists and quality songs. Even if all broadcast media abandoned us, hungry hiphoppers knew that the mix-tape DJs had our backs.
Nowadays, it’s hard to tell. Famous DJs like Clue and Kid Capri are no longer buying their own vinyl and making tapes in their basements. Record labels are aware of the excitement that a street DJ can drum up for a song. They have started supplying DJs with the “right” records and courting them with deals and distribution, preventing the DJs from letting their individual tastes dictate the new trends. What used to be experimentation is now viewed by highly paid spinners like Flex (five figures per live show) as an unnecessary risk. The result is releases like this one, an over-produced, over-hyped, unimaginative collection of throwaways from artists whose record companies know how to push.
Supa Funkregulata Celo Presents Always in the Pocket: The Best of D.C. Go-Go, Volume 3 is rougher and closer to the guerrilla mix-tape style than Flex’s opus. (The cover reads, “‘Clicks and pops’ on the CD and CS versions are part of the ‘live’ mixing experience.” Right on.) While the Funkmaster has been drafted as a soldier for the industry, the Funkregulata has appointed himself as a missionary to the people. Volume 3 compiles the most popular go-go songs of the past year and is the first of the series to be mixed with a hiphop feel. The modification was intended to render D.C.’s unique indigenous music acceptable to people outside the city. But that’s where the mission falls apart. Celo’s calling may be nobler than Flex’s, but his position as ambassador is far from enviable.
Celo opens Volume 3 with “If y’all don’t know about the go-go, keep your ears locked, ’cause we’re about to school you.” But the Funkregulata should expect radical uninterest from the rest of the world if he is asking outsiders to believe that this compilation represents D.C’s very best go-go. His mixing style is adequate, but there’s no material with which to spin an engaging routineand he can forget about holding listeners’ attention for an entire 56 minutes. It brings to mind the title of the recent release by D.C. favorites Rare Essence, We Go On and On, which aptly reflects their latest work, Celo’s album, and, apparently, the entire lot of go-go music: It seems to go on and on with no development, no progression, no color.
It’s hard to view Volume 3 as a collection of distinct songs, because everything sounds about the same. If you were to hold a gun to my head, I would say that the best “song” was Track 11. The Back Yard Band’s “91 Dope Jam” is not any doper than the rest, but it is the only piece (more than 45 minutes into the playing, mind you) where the rhythm track changes to any perceptible degree. Otherwise, the music amounts to sparse instrumentation over an interminable pattern of unvarying drums, congos, and cowbells. Celo’s occasional cuts, scratches, and flange effects don’t ease the monotony much.
This album defies criticism by limiting the critic’s standard vocabulary. The word “lyric,” for instance, does not seem to apply to the music. The artists (more questionable terminology) just borrow single, irrelevant lines from popular rap songs and repeat them over and over in strained voices that make them sound as if they are running across the stage choking on phlegm. Gems like “Mandingo” and “Body Snatchers” consist mostly of various sweaty-sounding men shouting out the title. The irony in Back Yard’s “91 Dope Jam” should bring even the die-hard go-go fanatic a moment of apprehension. The chorus asks, “What the fuck are they yelling?”CP