Schools of Thought

The Roots, the Nonce and DJ Hurricane take hip hop to the next level

Hip hop has passed through a dazzling number of movements over the past 15 years, from old school to new school, from Afrocentrism to gangsta rap, from true school to the next school. As such, the current hip-hop climate is a confusing one: As many groups return to the styles pioneered by old schoolers in the late 1970s and early '80s, and others peep backward even further, exploring the music and scat techniques of bop-era jazz, an experimental few are looking into the great beyond. On the surface, DJ Hurricane, the Nonce and the Roots may appear to represent different rooms in the hip-hop pantheon, but they have one thing in common: a hybrid of all rap styles.

They call him DJ Hurricane cuz he likes to tear shit up. Hurricane is best known as the Beastie Boys' DJ supreme, but his career in hip hop spans more than 16 years. Hailing from Hollis, Queens, Hurricane grew up with Joe Simmons, aka Run of Run-D.M.C., and later served as that group's chief bodyguard during its 1986 “Raising Hell” tour with the Beasties. Hurricane bonded with the Boys during that infamous stint, and his unique scratch-n-sniff virtuosity has graced every Beastie pressing since then. Aside from rapping on Davy D's neglected Def Jam classic, Davy's Ride, featuring Hurricane, and a brief interlude with the Afros in 1990, Hurricane has stayed out of the limelight, adopting the laid-back role of “the fourth Beastie.” But that's about to change with the release of The Hurra (Grand Royal), his first full-blown solo joint.

Like his new-school contemporaries (mid- to late-'80s peakers like Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J and Public Enemy), Hurricane was raised on real hardcore rap. The rhyming was hard, the beats even harder; drum machines and 808 boom! ruled and bitches-n-gats references were nonexistent. These influences are all over The Hurra.

“I wanted to make it like old school but hard old school with some new-school beats that nobody's doin',” Hurricane says. “I wanted to make my own trend so that maybe after my record comes out everybody will want to try and find my sound. It's the shit that you hear and say, 'Damn! I ain't never heard nothin' like that before.'”

Hurricane's tongue-twisting is reminiscent of vintage Run-D.M.C., a solid, no-gimmicks mixture of bold braggadocio and good-time party rhymes, but his music is straight, newfangled boom bap. Hurricane covers all the bases from grungy blues guitar licks to devastating turntable terrorism.

“I think the most important part of a song is the hook,” he says of his straightforward production. “Like you might have some dope rhymes but then when that hook comes on, people could be like, 'Damn, I hate that hook!,' and you lose them. When I write my songs, I get the hook down pat first because I know the rhymes aren't gonna be a problem.”

Rhymes aren't an issue for the L.A.-based Nonce, either, a duo of Nouka Base Tight and Yusef A Float. As part of the true school of hip hop, a movement spearheaded by the Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship back in 1992 in response to the oversaturation of gangsta rap, the Nonce emphasize lyrical finesse and deceptively simple grooves.

On World Ultimate (American), their debut, the Nonce live up to their namesake: words invented and used only for a particular occasion. “In rap you're always tryin' to create a style, you're always tryin' to come with somethin' new,” Nouka explains. “That's basically what we try to do all the time. … You got to listen real close, cuz there's so much intricate stuff in there that you'll be unraveling it for a while.”

Nouka and Yusef have been honing their craft together since the ninth grade, selling mix tapes on the street and garnering a strong underground following with an intoxicating blend of hip-hop motifs best described as post-apocalyptic, Tribe Called Quest-influenced jazz. The duo work in tandem, bouncing ideas off of one another in turbulent brainstorm fashion. And while their sound is light-years ahead of the old-school recordings of Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash, that essence is still there.

“One thing that's consistent is just old-school flavor,” maintains Yusef. “I'm talkin' that Treacherous 3, Cold Crush shit. Of course, you'll hear the new shit, but there'll always be some lyrical twist or something that'll make you say, 'That's kinda like so-and-so from way, way back.'”

The Roots dig even deeper into hip-hop history, going back to the days when scat masters toasted verbal riffs over the grooves of a big band. Not since Freestyle Fellowship has a group so deeply explored the oral traditions of jazz and how they fit into a hip-hop context. Formed in Philadelphia in 1987, the Roots have worked with jazz luminaries like Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Steve Coleman, Graham Haynes, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby and Roy Hargrove. But while the two vocal madmen (Black Thought and Malik B), drummer, bassist, keyboardist, saxophonist — and even a bagpipe blower — incorporate judicious amounts of jazz flavor into their sound, they refuse to be labeled “acid jazz” progeny.

“We're not jazz-hop,” stresses drummer B.R.O.THER ?. “We're not acid jazz. We're not some bohemians from downtown SoHo. We're strictly 100 percent hip hop.”

In praising the Roots' slamming DGC release, Do You Want More?!!!??!, the media has made an issue of the band's live instrumentation. But this practice is not new to hip hop; it was prevalent during the early '80s. The Sugarhill Gang had a backup house band, Zulu Nation godfather Afrika Bambaataa worked with bassist Bill Laswell and even Herbie Hancock managed to team up with legendary Grand Mixer D.ST on more than one occasion. With the advent of sampling, though, live musicianship gradually fell by the wayside, until bands like the Beastie Boys, the Goats and the Roots resurrected it.

“We thought we could take it to live instruments because we have some knowledge on how to make this record sonically appeal to the hip-hop listener,” B.R.O.THER ? says. “This album is engineered so that it doesn't sound like [such] past efforts; it's very dirty and the playing is very tight. Half the people I talk to are still under the impression that we just played it live and then sampled ourselves.”

No mere revivalists, the Roots experiment with a way-out musical menagerie while still maintaining a hardcore b-boy stance. “I'm down to stand out like a sore thumb,” B.R.O.THER ? says. “Anything that people can say, 'He can't do that,' about, I'm gonna do. I'd really like to work with classical music and there's nothing that can stop us,” he laughs. Hip-hop classical?

What does it matter, as long as it's dope-ass music? Remember, it may be old school, it may be new school, it may be true school or it may be next school, but when all is said and done, it's just hip hop.

DJ Hurricane opens for the Beastie Boys Wed, May 31, at the Oakland Coliseum, call (510) 762-BASS; the Roots and the Nonce play Wed, May 31, at the DNA Lounge in S.F., call 626-1409.

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