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.
-- Philip Dawdy
Live at the Fillmore East
After Bill Graham created the Fillmore and then the Fillmore West successfully again, he saw dollar signs in the east. The Fillmore East lived for only three years, but from 1968 to 1971, just about every rock band that mattered played the famed New York stage. Apparently all of the shows got taped. Back then, live albums like Frank Zappa's grounded Mothers Live at the Fillmore East and the Allman Brothers Band's masterpiece At Fillmore East could solidify a group's reputation. Almost 30 years later, re-released Fillmore recordings -- Miles Davis' jazz-fusion sets and even three wall-melting Dick's Picks from the Grateful Dead -- have resurrected reputations from the vault.
It was only a matter of time before Jefferson Airplane, long ailing from so much Starship, would try to resuscitate their reputation with some cuts from the three dozen purportedly mind-bending live sets they played there between '68 and '70. Few bands deserve re-evaluation more than the maligned and incorrectly pigeonholed Airplane. Surrealistic Pillow -- a polished, pleasant, acid pop album that eternally stapled "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" to classic rock playlists and nostalgia films -- unfairly remains the band's only real dent in rock history. The group was better, more complex, more ominous, when they played live.
Much like 1967's After Bathing at Baxter's (the follow-up flop to Pillow) and the other live Airplane document, 1969's Bless Its Pointy Little Head, Live at the Fillmore East exposes the band's darker, exploratory side. The experimental, chaotic, and sometimes frightening spaces that the Airplane found onstage, outside of cramped studios, make up most of the disc. The hits -- a rushed "Somebody to Love," an off-key "White Rabbit," and the truly embarrassing ballad "Today" -- feel awkward and flat next to the more imaginative material.
At the front of most of the songs on Fillmore East are guitar duels between Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen; bassist Jack Casady provided a melodic center. The band peaks during the long, complex arrangements of the 11-minute mind-fuck "Thing," and then finds a way to turn folkies like Donovan and Fred Neil into blotter material, dosing the lite "Fat Angel" and the Kantner-favorite "The Other Side of This Life."
The pinched and bouncy "The Ballad of You and Me and Poonei" and "Star Track" both achieve swirling dissonance, but fierce leads replace the noodling that mars most indulgent psychedelia. And of course you get the woozy, unnerving, swirling blend of contrapuntal vocals, screeches, and bleak harmonies that guitarist/vocalist Paul Kantner, tenor vocalist Marty Balin, and the icy and operatic Grace Slick were famous for. It's doubtful that classic rock radio stations will find a single tune from this 76-minute barrage to play during drive time, but the Fillmore East recordings do something more important: They capture a San Francisco band blaring through the kind of live set that made them seem so important the first time around.
-- Dave McCoy
When Music Calls
The 30-year-old tenor saxophonist Anton Schwartz, who is living in the Bay Area, studied with Warne Marsh and Eddie Daniels. Marsh, an improvisational saxophonist best known for his work with Lenny Tristano, had a style that was all suggestion: He had a garbled tone and seemed to twist notes like licorice. Daniels, a well-known sideman and occasional leader since the 1960s, was a more straight-ahead player who decided to concentrate on the clarinet. Schwartz doesn't sound like either of them. He's a direct player whose phrases echo the sometimes impassive work of the late Dexter Gordon, an influence on Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Schwartz's interested, he says, in "where life happens at that slower pace." (In the notes that accompany When Music Calls, a friend calls Schwartz "Poketown.") Among the eight Schwartz tunes on When Music Calls are the stomping "Too Much Pepper," the playful "Tidepool," and the nonchalantly strolling "Poketown."
Schwartz is relaxed but not tedious or unemphatic. He plays Rollins' familiar "Doxy" in a slightly amended version. He states the melody, then solos around it intelligently, offering a stuttering downward series of notes at one point, and ending with a rhythmic phrase that directly sets up the consistently excellent pianist Paul Nagel, whose bluesy choruses are one of the highlights of the disc. Schwartz eases his way through the melody of the bossa nova "Denouement." He's not a saxophonist in a hurry -- there's no reason for him to be. When he re-enters, Schwartz takes a solo that moves away from the melody in a series of lyrical phrases played in a robust but unaggressive tone. He means to sustain the mood of his composition.
Schwartz sounds poised. He takes on the ballad "Where or When," which has been played ravishingly by tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, among other giants. Schwartz's arrangement has Nagel and bassist John Shifflett repeating a thumping two-note phrase that punctuates the A-section of the piece, and he adds a conga to the mix. The result is a fresh setting of a venerable ballad. The record has a center. Schwartz has written his own ballad, "Through the Years": It's a serene piece with a carefully etched, memorable tune. Still young by any standards, except those of the youth-oriented jazz world, the saxophonist is on his second career -- previously he was getting a Ph.D. at Stanford, studying artificial intelligence. As his disc suggests, music called and he has placed academics on hold. He's still young, but more intelligent than most, and more concerned with the shape and mood of his varied pieces and solos. The gently roving solo on "Through the Years," and the control over the instrument and the presentation that that solo displays, tells us that Schwartz is ready.
Anton Schwartz performs at a CD release party Sunday, June 7, at 5 p.m. at Star Classics, 525 Hayes (at Gough). Admission is $5; call 552-1110.
-- Michael Ullman