Beats Versus Rhymes
“I honestly believe that the best hip-hop productions are exercises in minimalism, because they allow a good rapper to take charge of the track… Kanye’s process (and that of Andre , Mos Def, and whatever “post rap” stars) is flawed in assuming that a great hip-hop record is one that also subscribes to the traditional goals of musicality. Sure, there are overlaps (Organized Noize comes to mind), but succeeding on one front doesn’t automatically go hand [in] hand with the other.”
—Andrew Nosnitsky, Cocaine, Blunts and Hip-Hop Tapes, 18 January 2006.
The debate that Nosnitsky recently posited is hardly new to hip-hop fans. It goes back to a familiar yarn: beats versus rhymes, which do you prefer? While listeners are obviously entitled to their preference, this matter of opinion can become a stickier debate: which of the two is more important? Avoiding a chicken-and-egg scenario, Nosnitsky simply reminds us of what made and continues to make hip-hop music so revolutionary: its foundation in the spoken word and rhythm. Much like modern music’s move toward minimal melodic movement and tonal experimentation, hip-hop affects with fewer ingredients. That today’s airwaves are filled with artists chattering over beats is quite a departure from the popular standards of 100 years ago. However, ever since hip-hop’s theoretical birth 30-something years ago, its music has consistently striven to break its own mold. Once restricted to DJs cutting up records, hip-hop music has since been performed with a ‘traditional’ live band and produced with synthesizers, samplers and software. In another word, what constitutes the beat has been in constant flux.
In this sense, The Celluloid Years reminds listeners of hip-hop’s constant and complex search for “the perfect beat”. The collection charts a peculiar period from the early to mid-‘80s when hip-hop artists consumed technology and styles at a dizzying rate. Collaborations with punk auteurs (the Clash, John Lydon) and black poets (Last Poets, Lightnin’ Rod), rapping about graffiti (Futura 2000) or in French (Fab Five Freddy’s “Change le Beat”) and use of saxophones (Manu Dibango) and drum machines (nearly every track) were just a few of the avenues explored in this short amount of time. Those that are up on their hip-hop P’s and Q’s may be familiar with these tracks because they have been reissued sporadically since the early ‘80s, but the inclusion of full-length 12” versions is especially convenient and economical for collectors and DJs.
Fortunately, the highlights of The Celluloid Years are easily accessible. Much of the compilation’s focus on the mega-mix style of composition has filtered to the mainstream, particularly through Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”, so the sounds are hardly foreign. The innovator of this style D.ST receives ample attention here, particularly through his classic “Crazy Cuts”, which lays out the blueprint for his remarkable fusion of ‘80s technology and DJ aesthetics. Also included is his “Rockit” revival “Why Is It Fresh?”, which features Herbie Hancock stretching out and lending a jam session feel that further connects hip-hop to its musical lineage. Of deeper interest is Afrika Bambaataa and his various (but same, as he would say) ensembles (Shango and Time Zone). His tracks brim and pulse with the desire to push forward, showing little concern for boundaries or limitations. Time Zone’s “Wild Style” (in both the frenetic original form and Francois K’s proto-house mix) and “World Destruction” best encapsulate these sentiments as they squirm their way through genres, using all means available to declare their independence. A Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Miles and Lightnin’ Rod jam/rap on “Doriella Du Fontaine” from 1969 and the Last Poets’ response to rap “Get Movin’” mostly round out the set, though they mostly provide a loose sense of history to the pre-hip-hop days.
The trouble with any compilation of this nature is that it overstates the role of the label, as the liner notes (or at least the ones provided in the review copy) do. Though Celluloid cultivated the instrumental-heavy approach, credit should also be attributed to the artists searching for a means to thicken their tracks. A more helpful approach may have been to offer some exposition on the history of Celluloid. Jean Georgakarakos, former co-owner of (with Jacques Bisceglia and Jean-Luc Young) BYG Records , a reissue label that dealt heavily with avante-garde jazz, and backer of the progressive Amougies Actuel Festival in 1969, changed his name to Jean Karakos and founded Celluloid Records in New York City in 1976. With the help of Roger Trilling and the then talent scout Bill Laswell, the label drafted the aforementioned movers and shakers in the burgeoning hip-hop scene during the early ‘80s.
Given Karakos’ background, Laswell’s musical interests and the tracks compiled for this compilation, it becomes no surprise that the label identified musicality as the key to hip-hop’s “crossover potential”. Take note that the rap on this collection is either in the background or something of a novelty; the standout vocal tracks, “Escapades of Futura 2000” and “Change the/le Beat”, feature off-beat and dated, even for their time, rhyme schemes (as for the vocals on Bambaataa’s cuts, well, everyone remembers these cuts for the music mostly). Returning to Nosnitsky’s comments, it becomes a shame then to see the spoken and the beat being divided at such an early point when one of hip-hop’s most remarkable achievements was its unique interplay between the two. That said, the focused attention each aspect has fed the evolution of verbal and musical styles. Subsequently, this compilation becomes a fascinating document of a point in departure for hip-hop and the development of instrumental hip-hop music.