various artists In Tha Beginning...There Was Rap
The great rap critic Chairman Mau recently published an essay titled "Taking a Bite Out of Rhyme: A look at how hip hop has become run by copycat MCs and producers." Thus spake the Chairman: "Truth be told, there has always been a fine tradition of biting in hip hop since rap came to records." In hip-hop-speak, "to bite" means to "steal, snake, swipe, or plagiarize" another rapper's rhyme. By excavating that "fine" history, his Mauness challenges hip hop to better its nefarious teething as it enters its terrible 20s.
The wake-up call couldn't come at a better time. Hip hop's first all-covers compilation and its first open self-cannibalization--In Tha Beginning...There Was Rap--bites with all the self-assurance of my uncle Larry on the Thanksgiving he misplaced his dentures. Sure, the Wu-Tang Clan gangs up on Run-DMC's "Sucker MCs" like they're blowin' up fish in a barrel. But contemporary sucker MCs flail and fail. Puff Daddy's monotone "rapping" gets squashed by "Big Ole Butt," and the equally unskilled crack-dealer-turned-million-seller Masta P turns Ice-T's original gangsta joint "6 In 'Tha Mornin'" into a boring drone. Too Short's "I Need a Freak" and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's "Fuck Tha Police" could put a jonesin' crackhead to sleep. It takes middler Mack 10's voracious, visceral "Dopeman" and Snoop Dogg's cum-stained take on the sex-rap classic "Freaky Tales" to revive the G-thang. And they barely keep it breathing.
Throughout, In Tha Beginning is painfully lackluster. (Taking the name of the original rapper out of the rhyme and adding your own is not reinvention.) So what does this suggest about the future of hip-hop rewrites? A friend of mine was recently stunned by an "audacious" DJ named Peanut Butter Wolf, who pulled off a sample-for-sample "cover" of Grandmaster Flash's MC-less classic "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel." Compare that feat to In Tha Beginning's lead single--Eric Sermon, Keith Murray, and Redman's rote retread on "Rapper's Delight"--and the conclusion is obvious. The future of hip-hop history lessons is in the hands of DJ radicals--not ill-inspired MCs.