Compound Interest

An open letter on the indomitability of hip hop to my high school economics teacher

DEAR MR. ERICKSON:

I'm writing in hopes of collecting on a wager that you and I entered into roughly ten years ago. I regret that I am unable to produce either witnesses, written proof, or notarized documentation of our original agreement. Likewise, I understand that by not being entirely forthcoming as to my reasons for a handful of absences back in the day, I may arouse your suspicions now. But I promise that I am not snow-jobbing you on this particular count. Word is bond.

The basis for said deal was an assertion you made one afternoon between lectures in your sixth-period econ class. Upon overhearing a conversation about EPMD's production values between some classmates and me, you offered a roundly authoritarian thesis. To wit: Rap music and its attendant trappings were merely a stray blip on America's pop-culture time line. Ten years from now (er, then) we--and the rest of the world--would have all either traded in, thrown away, or forgotten our affection for the form entirely. (In hindsight, I wonder if this antagonistic forecast was colored by some hurtful cultural betrayal in your own past...disco? Oversized Aries medallion? Pet rock?) Despite my best efforts to school you, you were eager to back up your prediction with cash. Which brings me to your inbox now, ten years later, head blown and hand outstretched.

Masked marauders: Undefeated hip-hop tag team Method Man (back) and Redman (front)
Masked marauders: Undefeated hip-hop tag team Method Man (back) and Redman (front)

Truth be told, I had almost forgotten about our wager myself until, at the close of 1999, I was blindsided by Blackout! (Def Jam), the long-awaited full-length dose from hip-hop power duo Method Man (a.k.a. Johnny Blaze, Tical) and Redman (a.k.a. Funk Doc, Reggie Noble). Since 1995's "How High," their still-ill ode to smoked-out self-esteem, Doc and Meth have incited demands from all manner of heads--hardcore thrill seekers and hemp-huffing rail-huggers alike--to make their collaboration more than a one-blunt stand. The so-so highs and solo lows of latter-day Wu-Tang output have lowered many Meth fans' expectations, and Redman hasn't always found the right beats to back up his agile boasts. But while I don't expect you to plunk down $13.99 plus tax for your own copy, I invite you to examine the contents of this disc as evidence of a solid decade's worth of musical development. Because, Mr. Erickson, Blackout!is, quite simply, the shit.

On the album's lead track, Meth kicks a passage from the book of X Clan, that long-dormant crew of Afrocentric funk voyagers whose debut heated local basements like a bass-fueled furnace through the winter of 1990. That's just the first of many nods to that era, the heyday of a burgeoning rap underground. Eric B. and Rakim, BDP, EPMD--all manner of def abbreviations get checked and respected by way of a borrowed line or a familiar break. These referential excerpts and taut tag-team dynamics take me back to the cusp of the last decade, when the aforementioned crews showed no signs of their imminent breakups; when the lines between "rap" and "hip hop" hadn't been so boldly drawn; when MC Hammer was almost as underground as the Jungle Brothers; and when three bucks got nervous St. Paul high schoolers a plastic cup of warm beer and a chance to play the wall while some unseen force with a crate full of vinyl spun new mixes he'd recently procured from Northern Lights.

Is this nostalgia? Damn right. And what better proof of a movement's longevity than the ability to look back wistfully on its bygone days?

But if the refrain on the Das EFX tribute "Cheka" repeatedly asks twentysomething listeners to "Remember this," Red and Meth drop more metaphors than a Ford Expedition full of felonious Top 40 sample acts. The title track alone delivers ably on the early promise of "How High" (remixed at album's end for good measure), where Meth's serrated lyrical stab punctures Redman's gruff, ganjafied flow. Smoldering like a pair of Thai sticks, their blaze burns for 70 minutes and then some. Both rappers adeptly twist icons from Jerry Springer to The Blair Witch Project, and exhale a deep toke, issuing a good-natured threat on your life and/or girlfriend's fidelity. On the cartoonishly vile "Cereal Killer," Meth promises that "Heads will be hung from the chimney with care/In hopes that the po-lice soon will be there," while Doc chants, "Murder murder murder/Kill kill kill/Take nuts and screws outta Ferris wheels."

That horrorcore showcase ends with female screams and butcher-knife slashes engineered by Wu maestro RZA. Both here and on the gothic "Run 4 Cover," his elemental rhythm tracks sound fresher for being mixed in with other producers' work. It's only fitting that his chief accomplice should be longtime Redman benefactor Erick Sermon, who lends his keen skill for barbed-yet-bouncy bass hooks to such jams as "Tear it Off" and "Maaad Crew." After all, it was Sermon's work with EPMD that first drew your dismissive scorn.

All told, Black Out!is a party record I'd have killed for ten years ago. It's fitted with tracks to accompany each phase of a consummate evening: the lacing of the kicks, the ride across town, the descent into the crowded basement, the cautious orbit of the dance floor, the wee-hour chillout, the morning-after reminisce. Maybe your current students are more partial to Will Smith. Or Silkk. Or Eminem. Or Blackalicious. Vastly different flavors, all. But no matter whom they prefer, the important thing is that they're proving your tired ass wrong every day.

And I want my money.

 

Sincerely,

JD

 
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