Boombox, Turn It Up
Yo, have y’all been watching Empty V (MTV) lately? The channel has unleashed another “celeb-reality” show on us, and it’s called Celebrity Rap Superstar. Here’s how it works: celebrities of all types (Playboy models, bloggers, singers, athletes, pretty much anybody but actual rappers) receive vocal and performance training from hip-hop insiders (like Redman, MC Lyte, Tone Loc, and Too Short) in order to drop a hot verse for the audience and the panel of judges (Da Brat, DMC, and radio personality Big Boy). The ones who are only a little terrible keep advancing; the ones who are really terrible get booted.
It’s the rap version of American Idol, except the participants aren’t young hopefuls looking for an inroad into the music biz. They’re people who are relatively famous already, like Countess Vaughn (you remember her on Moesha and The Parkers, but I remember her years ago singing her heart out on Star Search) and Sebastian Bach, who has already performed this karaoke trick a few times on Gilmore Girls. Sebastian Bach doing “Hollaback Girl” is “must-see” TV.
Maybe the show should’ve been called Rapping with the Stars. Or, better yet, with the hip commentary from the judges about some of these really horrible performances, I’m thinking they could’ve just gotten Xzibit to host it so they could call it Pimp My Rhyme.
Still, I haven’t decided how I feel about the show itself. On the one hand, hip-hop continues to gain exposure, and, better still, it keeps the pioneers of our genre in the public eye. Who’s going to say DMC is unqualified to judge a rap contest? Nobody, I hope. And I can never get enough of MC Lyte, so that’s another cool thing about it.
On the other hand, wouldn’t that knowledge be better suited for aspiring rappers? More than that, it suggests what insiders have been saying all along: that hip-hop has moved through cycles—from block party music and underground movement to protest music, and then from protest music to a popular and mainstream genre. Celebrity Rap Superstar offers proof that our “old school” rap songs have become “oldies” and “easy listening” tunes. There’s something really un-hip about it, too, watching awkward and dorky dudes and dudettes struggle to eek out a single verse of LL’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” or De La Soul’s “Me, Myself & I”. Yikes. Has it really come to this?
Empty V’s Celebrity Rap Superstar makes one thing clear: rappin’ ain’t easy. It’s hard enough to get through a single verse, let alone figuring out how to construct an entire song with a decent hook. Did you see the celebrity contestants trying to write their own raps? It wasn’t pretty. And I’m only talking about coming up with one song! It’s even worse when you’ve gotta come up with more of the suckers, and we haven’t even started talking about the production side of the deal. And then there’s the whole performance part of it—connecting with the crowd and remembering all the words to your rhyme (“Throw you hands in the air, and wave ‘em like you just don’t…uh…um…uh-oh”). It makes you appreciate the indie and lesser known hip-hop cats all the more.
Speaking of which, the show makes me appreciate an artist like Raheem Jamal. In 2007, he’s bringing back that old-style hip-hop aesthetic, coupling dope beats with fresh rhymes, and making you genuinely proud you’re still a hip-hop head. Let me tell you a few things about Raheem Jamal and his album Boombox so you’ll know what’s really good:
1. Raheem Jamal is not from the “dirty south” region of the United States, nor from New York state. He’s not from Texas; he’s not from California; he’s not from Seattle, Washington. Raheem Jamal didn’t come from Marlyland, where he was hanging out with independent hip-hop artist ScholarMan; he wasn’t in New Jersey kickin’ it with Redman and Tame One. He’s not from Chicago, Illinois, or Cincinnati, Ohio. Nope, not Miami either. Run out of guesses? Raheem Jamal was born and raised in Roxbury, Massachusetts, just like the legendary Edo G. How about that?
2. Raheem Jamal has been a member of Project Move, a Bostonian group known for their 2006 release Love Gone Wrong/The Butterfly Theory, and also a member of Electric Company.
3. Raheem Jamal’s style of rap is “high energy” (not merely because that’s one of his song titles). He glides over his rhythms in a way that makes his raps seem effortless, melodic. He can keep you firmly planted in the new school (see album opener “When?”) or take you back to the old school (check out “Right Now”, which would be right at home in the period between 1988 and 1991). Vocally, Raheem’s flow reminds me of this year’s underground sensations Blu & Exile (listen to their debut Below the Heavens!); the delivery is frenetic yet obviously well groomed and constructed. Put his verses on repeat because—except for one or two clunkers in “Women, Weed, & Washingtons” and a flimsy hook in “Not the One”—you’ll like ‘em.
“Gravity” is a strong cut that floats in spite of the heavy mood of its theme, and you know what might’ve been kind of cool? Samples from John Mayer’s “Gravity” sprinkled through the tune. Just an idea. I also like “Never Be Afraid”, a bold move toward working things out in the romance department—the cool part is that, in the end, the relationship doesn’t work for Raheem, leaving us with the message that you’ve got to keep striving for happiness anyway. That message is helped along by a clever vocal sample.
4. Raheem Jamal seems to like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Besides the fact that I read this in one of his interviews, you can get his love for the film in his name—remember the “Radio Raheem” character in Do the Right Thing? He strolled the neighborhood with his trusty boombox, which servied as his main method of communication. Radio Raheem was a man of few words. When the owner of the pizza shop (Sal) smashed the homeboy’s stereo after Raheem refused to turn it off, all hell broke loose. It’s no coincidence, then, that emcee Raheem Jamal refers to himself as “Radio Raheem Jamal” in the title song “Boombox”. That’s all Spike Lee, baby. Recognize.
5. When Boombox succeeds, which it does ofen, it does so by maximizing the classic rapper/producer combination. This is the hip-hop version of Rocky Balboa and his trainer Mickey Goldmill—Rakim had Eric B., Big Daddy Kane had Mr. Cee, Guru had DJ Premier, everybody in the Wu-Tang Clan had the RZA, and on and on it goes. For his album, Raheem Jamal has Raydar Ellis—yes, the very same Raydar Ellis who released the enjoyable Late Pass in 2006.
Raydar Ellis, by the way, is one of our better producer-slash-rapper artists. Boombox shows Ellis’s continued expansion in the production department, which you can hear throughout the LP: the epic Star Wars-like piano and strings that complement Raheem’s Armageddon-ish imagery in “When?”; the exquisite guitar loops in “Boombox” and “Not the One”; the almost big band sound of “Women, Weed, & Washingtons”, along with its bluesy bass line; the ‘70s-styled groove of “Gravity” and the densely packed funkiness of “Live It Up” (peep that wild wicka-wicka-wickow Theme from Shaft-sounding soul in the backdrop). Lots of hot action behind the boards here, which ups the quality from “good” to “damn good”. Raheem’s lyrics are tighter than freshly braided cornrows, but having the right accompaniment is crucial.
6. Here’s a complaint you sometimes hear about hip-hop albums: “There’s too many guests.” That one shouldn’t apply to Boombox, however, for two reasons. One, there aren’t that many tracks with guests at all. You’ve got the percussion-busy short set “Right Now”, with Raydar Ellis, and two cuts with Project Move (“Goodvibe” and “We Got”). Two, the guest tracks are strong, with “We Got” turning out one of the best tunes on the LP.
7. Raheem Jamal is an artist. Not just a musical artist; he’s also a painter! I’m not sure why the press kit didn’t mention this fact, because his artwork is rather good, but I found some samples at Legends of Style. Check it out, and then get the album.
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