Reviews

Various Artists
Wild Style Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
(Rhino)

Back in 1982, artist/director Charlie Ahearn made a low-budget film about New York City's thriving graffiti/rap scene called Wild Style. Teeming with Kangols, gargantuan beatboxes, and the fresh breakin' of the Rock Steady Crew (fresh then, anyway), the movie was an homage to this new style and the people who gave birth to it. It was also meant to be a dramatic offering, but since authenticity required that Ahearn cast actual graffiti artists, rather than actors, as the leads, perhaps we'd better think of it as a historical document. The plot centers around a young graffiti artist and the pressure put on him to "sell out" to the white downtown art scene, but far more interesting is Ahearn's documentation of early rap at warehouse parties in the South Bronx. Here, rival crews of rappers throw down at night in hopes of winning prize money from the party organizers, and, during the day, meet for painstakingly orchestrated verbal rumbles on empty basketball courts (like more colloquial Sharks and Jets).

Considering that our cultural retro-cycle is now spinning in considerably shorter spans of time, Rhino Records' reissue of the Wild Style soundtrack is running a little late. After all, old school made its first big comeback 10 years after it first hit -- the Beastie Boys sampled bits of choice WS dialogue on Check Your Head back in 1992 ("Yo, shut the fuck up, Chico man!"), as did Cypress Hill. The trend should probably have ended with Duran Duran's cover of "White Lines," but since it didn't, at least Rhino has the sense to proffer the real thing.

The soundtrack was produced by Fred Brathwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy) and Chris Stein of Blondie -- a pairing that at the time must've indicated that rap had, to some degree, already moved downtown. (Blondie had previously incorporated rap stylings -- and dropped Fab 5 Freddy's name -- on 1981's "Rapture.") The chief influence behind the sounds of Wild Style, however, is Grandmaster Flash, whose pioneering creation of breakbeats by scratching and backspinning records pretty much defined DJ science in the early '80s, and has resonated on down through the years. Though he appears for only a brief, reverential moment in the film (and not at all on the soundtrack), his influence can be heard in the raw, staccato scratch mixes of Grand Wizard Theodore, Kevie Kev Rockwell, and Grandmaster Caz.

As for the MCs, the call-and-response, party-people bragging of the Chief Rocker Busy Bee, the Cold Crush Brothers, Double Trouble, and the Fantastic Freaks reflects the newness of a medium that hadn't yet been merchandised. Be sure to keep that in mind as your ears stumble over some of the clumsier moments, or as you giggle at the action photo of the Rock Steady Crew in the pages of the liner notes. Maybe you'll get tired of hearing the boast "too hot to handle, too cold to hold" roughly every five minutes, but at least what you get is coming from the mouths of actual rappers, and not animated raisins in a television commercial. Or, for that matter, Duran Duran.

-- Andi Zeisler

Crystal Waters
(Mercury)

Although few pundits made much of a fuss about it then, the music scene in the early '90s was flooded with smart dance divas. Columbia had Penny Ford; EMI had Caron Wheeler; Virgin had Neneh Cherry; Mercury had Crystal Waters; Island had Mica Paris; and Warner Bros. -- typical of its time as an artists' haven, rather than the corporate shrinking violet it's become -- had two: Juliet Roberts and Ultra Nate. In addition, there were other thoughtful singers whose work straddled the dance category, like Joi and Shara Nelson, who were just beginning to work on their American debuts. At the time, no one thought to organize them all onto a summer amphitheater tour. Anyway, that was then. Except for Waters, all of the above are either lying low or looking for new deals. Waters' success is owed in part to a fluke hit, "Gypsy Woman" -- a catchy, danceable song that asserted the dignity of the homeless. Such awareness passed for social commentary at the time, and the la-da-dee-la-da-dah chorus made it one of those ubiquitous songs during the summer of '91. The single's success led to Surprise -- a rushed-sounding album that nonetheless rode "Gypsy Woman" 's coattails to gold certification. Storyteller, Waters' 1994 follow-up, produced the gold summer single "100% Pure Love," but little else of note. Still, two full-length recordings are remarkable in a genre littered with one-hit wonders. Indeed, in dance music, "career" tends to mean a two-hit wonder, and "legend," well, that's a three-hit wonder. But Waters intended to stay awhile. Both of her albums were determinedly eclectic; Surprise featured a cover of Annie Ross' "Twisted," and several tunes on Storyteller called attention to their songcraft. Both records had a serious undertow, a sort of grim insistence on being taken seriously. Waters has been a member of the American Poetry Society for years and worked as a computer programmer before achieving musical fame; she seems adamant about not being mistaken for a Spice Girl.

The relaxed tone of her third recording suggests that she has gotten over her fear of being mistaken for a disposable bimbo. Not that she would be (by anyone with ears), since her voice is unlike most others in pop. Low, grainy, and erudite, it seems better suited for the grizzly details of urban news-radio than the chirpy homilies of dance pop. Still, Waters has found clever ways to lighten her approach without losing her voice in the mix. Unlike the stereotypical church-grown sort who can huff and puff and blow the club down, Waters is more of a speaksinger, whose musical charm lies in her diction and fastidiousness. Most women who fit this profile work with acoustic guitars, not drum programmers. On her new recording, Waters' songwriting has matured; it's more personal and eloquent. But despite the improved craftsmanship, the recording lacks the sort of anthems that powered her previous albums. The sounds of her usual producers, the Basement Boys, have grown a tad generic, and their mix of electronic percussion with scratchy rhythm guitars and real brass is employed too often. Hit-makers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis throw in a slack arrangement on "Say ... If You Feel Alright." Dallas Austin's collaboration on "Body Music" is almost up to her usual standards: In a summer where every third four-by-four in my 'hood is blaring recycled versions of Diana Ross or Sting, I hope it's released as a single -- and soon.

-- Martin Johnson

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