Various Artists
Lyricist Lounge

Hip hop is about battles. MCs slip rhymes around competitors like lyrical choke holds, while turntablists scratch and cut against each other like baggy-panted gladiators. And for what?

Competition hones skills, strips away fat, rewards the gifted. It's a tradition in hip hop; a pageantry of confidence manifested as street poetry and musical collage.

Not all battles are blatant or even friendly. Over the past couple of years, DJ culture and turntablism grew as an antidote to MC-driven commercial hip hop. Egomaniac MC Hammer-types (not to mention Biggie Smalls and 2 Live Crew, who seemed to consider their DJs as superfluous appendages) forsook innovative backbeats for rewarmed Casio cuts, leaving DJs and talented underground MCs to gag on the bad taste. Although shaken, the true MC is very much alive, still slugging it out in the small clubs and on street corners without much mainstream attention. Unknown lyrical gymnasts get ignored while Puff Daddy -- who knows that he really can't rap -- continues where Hammer left off, flapping his gums to cover songs and selling out a culture. (And how about that "Kashmir" riff on the Godzilla soundtrack? Didn't Rick Rubin and the Beasties sample Zeppelin a decade or two ago? Boy, Puff really knows how to ferret out a good hook.)

Lyricist Lounge, an all-MC, all-live double album from New York's Rawkus Records, passes the mike to talented underground MCs, hoping to do what the Return of the DJ compilations did for turntablists a couple of years ago -- pay them their respect and expose new talent. The CD gives voice to the underground in all its inconsistency. That's not to say it's a bad album: On the contrary, it's the best live MC-orientated hip-hop album since Boogie Down Productions' 1991 Live Hardcore Worldwide. Listeners just have to dig to find the gems.

Lyricist Lounge features two distinct sessions from the occasional live hip-hop party in various New York clubs that gives the record its name. De La Soul hosts Disc 1 at Tramps; Kool Keith and Sir Menelik host Disc 2 at Shea Stadium. The first disc begins with Cypher Complete, who tries to explain the need for the series in his aptly titled yet lyrically weak "Bring Hip Hop Back." Disc 1 doesn't flow until Mos Def, accompanied by A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip and Tash, takes to the mike. On "Body Rock," the interplay feels like an old-school laid-back mike session. The MCs trade rhymes with lazy friendliness, yet there's a collective style, flow, and indelible finesse between themes. The rest of the Tramps session features a series of wavering underground MCs: They're either rhythmically or lyrically deft, but rarely both.

While Disc 1 lacks consistent talent, Disc 2 swims in it. Natural Elements, an MC collective from New Jersey, kicks off with the tightest exchanges on either CD. Each member individually winds up like a rhythmic rubber band, snapping in perfect timing. Also tight are some of the finest young MCs around: Bahamadia, Jurassic 5, and Rah Digga. How good are they? Most were unsigned when they first appeared at Lyricist Lounge -- now they all have deals. They might not be making the cash yet, but lyrically they're already hardened soldiers. All they have to do is go into battle.

-- Robert Arriaga

Rocket From the Crypt

Once upon a time, Rocket From the Crypt turned out gritty, thunderous albums, and hyperbolic rock writers -- especially British crits -- proclaimed them the "next Nirvana." Powerful but haphazardly produced affairs like 1992's Circa: Now! and 1995's The State of Art Is on Fire captured Rocket's sound and fury, but masked the band's artful horns-and-hardcore reading of American music. Even when Rocket had money, as on 1995's Scream, Dracula, Scream!, the band spent it self-producing, and once again, six instruments wound up fighting for room in the mix.

That was then. Now, on their first new record in three years, RFTC, the group sounds clean and well-produced. Fans of Circa: Now! may have to check their spaceship tattoos. Is this the same band? Yes, but there are still some striking differences between old and new. Guitarist John Reis Jr. (Speedo), who is usually deft with bitter, wrong-side-of-the-tracks songs, now sings two utterly sincere love songs ("Lipstick," "Let's Get Busy"). There is almost none of Reis' usual fire sermons and look-homeward-with-anger views on experience.

Of course, Rocket has always been a little difficult to account for. Along with the Misfits and MC5, the band knows its James Brown and Stax/Volt singles. Rocket could always make a punk rave-up like "Come See, Come Saw" seem oddly soulful. Now, the riffs still pound, the horn licks turn around, and the backing vocals doo-wop. Three-minute rock anthems like "Run Kid Run," "Made for You," and "When in Rome" make this odd amalgam work. And now that the production is clean, you can actually hear the texture within RFTC's "wall of sound" -- vocals doubling horns on downbeats, or the way the horns completely ignite "Run."

Rocket's reputation has never been that of an arty band. Some of Rocket's songs do sound like tossed-off remnants of big rock bands like Kiss ("Break It Up" is the prime suspect on this album), and there's never quite been the blood transfusion between RFTC and the prog-punk of Drive Like Jehu (Reis' other band) that some long for. But if one measures art by what drills itself into the marrow as well as the mind, then Rocket has as much art as Sonic Youth.

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