Though much contemporary rap claims to represent something new, the music has been surprisingly homogeneous since the late-’80s. Until then, albums from the likes of Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, and the Ultra Magnetic M.C.’s were all very different from each other—yet still clearly of the genre. These days, the body of rap moves in phalanxlike motion: When innovation does occur, an immediate reconfiguration of the troops follows. Das EFX got swift with the tongue and it soon seemed like every rapper from Chuck D on down was droppin’ triplets; jazz beats hit, and phat acoustic bass and muted trumpet became the new call of the wild. Needless to say, this kind of instantaneous absorption creates its own law of diminishing returns.
When Public Enemy released its potentially genre-expanding It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in the summer of ’88, the record had the opposite effect. Rap reeled: Was there anywhere left for the music to go?
Fellow icon KRS-One responded, unwittingly setting the post-Nation pace with a return to old-school tempo and beats couched in the languid, hushed drums and droning bass that today’s rappers call “butter beats.” KRS’s definitive butter beats can be found on “Love’s Gonna Get You (Material Love),” the first single from 1990’s Edutainment. Rhythmically, much rap since has worked subtle variations on this theme. The music’s continuing reliance on this formula both defines and limits the art form—in much the same way that the walking 4/4 bass line defines and anchors jazz.
In rap’s surprisingly conservative climate, truly revolutionary concepts—Divine Styler’s “Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light,” for instance—often meet the fate of the proverbial tree that falls in the forest. Yeah, it makes a sound, it’s just that no one hears it. Toronto’s Dream Warriors are another such unrecognized ensemble. Back in 1990, the duo made some noise internationally with the revelatory debut …And Now the Legacy Begins. The Warriors’ use of jazz inflections preceded similar forays by the better-known Digable Planets, while the duo’s use of “abstract” verse—as opposed to storytelling or boasting—was the first serious furtherance of De La Soul’s achievements in that realm. Dream Warriors recently ended their five-year absence from the recorded music scene with Subliminal Simulation. (It’s more than a little ironic that the phrase “It’s 1992, what you gonna do?” is delivered over an interpolation of Dave Brubeck’s classic “Take Five” on Sub Sim‘s closing selection.)
The major difference between Legacy and Sub Sim is that the playful humor of the former has been replaced with a hard-edged wit. (Not in-your-face hard, more like the insistence of diligent curators intent on protecting their art from senseless acts of redundancy and regression.) As before, King Lou shoulders the lion’s share of the disc’s rapping duties. His multiple cultural influences—the musician is Jamaican-born and New York- and Toronto-bred—make it difficult to pinpoint the source of his unique vocal stylings. The band’s co-leader, Trinidad-bred Capital Q, plays a behind-the-scenes role, focusing on writing and arrangements. Guest lyricist LA Luv (whose vocals recalls those of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip) handles the remaining rapping.
A little abstract verse goes a long way, and some of Sub Sim suffers from the absence of a recognizable thematic center. Warriors’ break from traditional verse results in esoteric lyrics that would have benefited greatly from some less esoteric context. “Are We There Yet” is a case in point. Its structural base is a sampled Pharoah Sanders four-note bass/ sax unison phrase, with alternating fourth notes interrupted by a high-pitched trumpet blast. Throughout, Lou and Luv spout weightless verse like, “Before the dawn sets down/My hazy lyrical is lifted,” and “I do not care so beware of my mentals/For rendezvous with crews are subliminal.”
The disc’s most effective tracks strike a balance between unconventional artistry and decipherable lyrics. “Break the Stereo” has a rhythmic structure that is similar to that of “Are We There Yet,” but utilizes less obscure verse. Its relatively orthodox lyrics juxtapose gangsta rage and police brutality: “Fantasy is the playground for the young/I ask for a pencil and you give me a gun again/Your mad evil attitudes gotta stop/Then kick, kick, kick in my stomach from a cop.”
Much of Sub Sim is similarly topical. On “You Think I Don’t Know,” poet Black Katt provides an a cappella exploration of the subconscious psychology of word usage—a theme explored by observers including Malcolm X. Katt recites a few of the many negative connotations most associated with the word “black”: “Radical noise/Black music/Illegal sales district/Black market/When disease wipes out millions of people/Black plague.” Katt concludes with a verse that ostensibly buys into the mentality he reviles, “So beware as I cross your path, because I am the one that brings bad luck.”
Unconventionality notwithstanding, Dream Warriors acknowledge KRS-One’s pervasive butter beats with a string of numbers that would snap even the stiffest necks. The first, remixed by Digable Planets’ Butterfly, draws a parallel between tricycles and kittens (the poemsong’s title) and the rhetorical devices to which rappers too often resort: “No shackles on your feet and you’re blaming this/Situation on the nation.” The second, “California Dreamin’,” has an adulterous protagonist who tries to maintain his composure despite his spouse’s retaliatory infidelity. “No Dingbats Allowed,” closes the triumvirate, showcasing Lou’s most eloquent streams of verbosity. “Study my knowledge of naturally vomiting physical phenomenon emitting think acts, like articles,” he intones.
The Warriors make an effective bid to illuminate the connection between rap and poetry by incorporating the prose of more coventional poets—with and without beats. In one example of the former combination, New York- and Nuyorican-based 99 delivers a biting verse that could easily serve as a companion piece to “The Unlocking” (a selection from the Roots’ latest, on which poet Ursula Ruckers experiences the twisted points-of-view and perverted fantasies of various male partners). On “The Adventures of Plastic Man,” 99 candidly bemoans the sexual realities of the ’90s: “Here I lie in my hot bed in the age of the jim hat/Forced to settle down with one brother/As fingertips roll down the Saran Wrap so his sap doesn’t seep,” before resolving that, in the absence of real love and affection, she’s just “Bonin’ plastic, not my lover, not my brother, and definitely not my man.”
Sub Sim‘s “It’s a Project Thing” could be interpreted as Dream Warriors’ declaration of intent. Mixed by Gangstarr’s DJ Premier, “Project” swings effortlessly, its earthy Hammond B-3 organ vamps intertwined with staccato trumpet blasts. Its jazz-style beats support lyrics that underscore the pitfalls inherent in attempted innovation: “Before there was history there was/Mystery in the music ’cause who was/Experimenting with the noise that was organized/I knew that some tried, yes, but they capsized.” At the same time, the track constitutes an appropriate welcome from those who inhabit rap’s periphery: “Thrown from reality, twisted but gifted/But now you’re one of us in the land of the misfits.”