Instrumental What!?? MC-Less Hip-Hop and the Square One Dilemma

Tim Stelloh

It sounds like a paradox: instrumental hip-hop. For all logistical purposes, it is. Sample-based instrumental hip-hop artists like DJ Shadow, RJD2 and Prefuse 73 are a long way from the sound of their forebears. In one sense they've pushed rap music to the apex of its identity crisis; but in another sense, they've taken hip-hop back to square one.

"The breakbeat is that part you look for on the record that lets your godself get wild. Then, as soon as that breakbeat leaves, you say 'ahh, it's only a minute? It's only 30 seconds?' So you want to hear some more. That's where the DJ comes in . . ."
-- Afrika Bambaataa, from Scratch

"The only survival for hip hop to me is just to take it back to square one, back to when people had their minds open and were doing anything with what they had. Using any material, anything in front of them just to make a fucking beat."
-- Prefuse 73, from

It sounds like a paradox: instrumental hip-hop. For all logistical purposes, it is. "How can it be instrumental when there ain't no instruments!" barks the "real" musician. "How can it be rap when there ain't no MC and there ain't no wicky-wicky-wicky!" shouts the hip-hop purist. Of course sometimes there are "real" instruments, sometimes there is an MC, and sometimes there is scratching. But on the whole, sample-based instrumental artists like DJ Shadow, RJD2 and Prefuse 73 are a long way from the sound of their forebears. In one sense, they've pushed rap music to the apex of its identity crisis, thus alienating a hell of a lot of hip-hop artists and fans. But in another sense, they've taken rap back to square one.

I'm not going to pretend that I know what square one was like, because I was no taller than a twelve inch, and nowhere near The Bronx, when guys like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Wizard Theodore, and Grandmaster Flash were laying hip-hop's sonic groundwork. Nonetheless, its story is one that's well known. Kool Herc was the first DJ to utilize instrumental "breaks", thereby extending the ass-shakin' breakdowns from funk records by artists from James Brown to The Average White Band. Afrika Baambaata was a former gangster (Black Spades) turned brain trust for the Zulu Nation, a hip-hop collective spawned in the mid-'70s; he was also the avid record collector responsible for "Planet Rock", the cut that lifted the beat from Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express". Grand Wizard Theodore was the first DJ to scratch, while Grandmaster Flash, the most notorious of the four, turned DJing into an art and used his electrician's experience to tweak his gear and almost single-handedly create hip-hop's DJ technology.

The purpose of the history lesson is simply to point out that rap music began as a sonic experiment, a form grounded in its musical-not lyrical-components. Even the most well known Masters of Ceremony from hip-hop's first generation (which many would claim to be Melle Mel and Kurtis Blow) were secondary to their DJs sets, and had to, as one MC put it in the recent documentary Scratch, get "permission" to say anything. Of course things changed, and somewhere around Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks", or Sugar Hill Gang's "Rappers Delight", MCs were catapulted into the limelight. Because our cultural memory has the longevity of say, a Tic Tac, it's not surprising that turntablists and instrumental producers-artists that brought hip-hop's sonic elements out of the basement-have been all but relegated to the historical footnote of underground iconoclasts.

While turntablists went in one direction (some would call them the noodlers, wankers and prog rockers of hip-hop) another set of DJs and producers were moving in a slightly different direction, one so akin to its pop sensibilities that they sampled and organized them into a whole new context.

Adding to an already ample chorus, DJ Shadow's Endtroducing... (Mo Wax, 1996) really is the benchmark for instrumental hip-hop. It's complex and beautiful and staggering and cathartic; it's loud and dissonant and simple and fuck-all. It was one of the first times that a producer paid as much attention to the music's percussive developments as to the organization of its melodies and hooks. Six years later, you can't find an instrumental rap review that doesn't mention Shadow; Endtroducing… is the singular point of reference for someone critiquing hip-hop of an MC-less persuasion.

Maybe the most significant, most disconcerting thing about Endtroducing…, and about the host of records released by instrumental producers since, is that, superficially, they've parted ways with that all-encompassing, monolithic "keep it real" credo that had late '90s hip-hop stuck in a hyped up holding pattern of purist bravado. That's not to say producers have completely departed from said doctrine. The less equals more, "two turntables and an MPC", and they're entirely sample-based ethic, is as real as Method Man's chops in "Bring the Pain"'s video. But you wouldn't know that the better part of instrumental rap was sample based unless you were looking. Its repercussions are a little more subtle than say, Eminem's, but both examples equal the opposite end of the same thing: hip-hop's mid-life crisis. Where Eminem proved that white people could rap, instrumental artists have, for the first time in the medium's history, made rap music that isn't the immediately recognizable, hostile force that has soft rock radio promoting itself by way of a "WE DON'T PLAY RAP MUSIC HERE" sound bite.

So the inevitable question is raised: are these white boys hijacking, anesthetizing and making rap music consumable for an audience that would otherwise have no interest and/or investment in hip-hop's cultural and political assumptions? Is DJ Shadow our generation's Pat Boone?? Hardly. He's more like Syd Barrett. The appropriation question, however, is a pervasive one-from "emo rap" to "internet" and "instrumental rap", caveats and qualifiers abound with hip-hop that's made by white people (Shadow, RJD2 and Prefuse 73 are all white). The same thing happened with rock'n'roll, and we'll probably see the same kind of diffusion of language and race with hip-hop in the years to come ("Post-Rap" will no doubt keep people chuckling). It's simply what happens to an expression that's as democratic and has much creative potential as hip-hop.

While they might be masking their medium's political dynamics, Shadow, Prefuse, and RJD2 have added an element of creativity that's been lacking since about the time Juvenile released "Back that Ass Up". Instrumental artists prove that albums-not just singles-are as relevant as ever. Samples and references blurt out like color in a black and white collage; there's an element of chaos in the instrumental sound, and order is punctuated only upon realizing that you're not actually listening to something organic. You have to listen to an entire record to see what the artist is saying, because they're probably not going to just come out and say it. If they wanted to do that, they'd get an MC.

That, in and of itself, is as inspiring as the innovations of old-school DJs and producers that had no reference point. Sure, it can be a bit annoying -not to mention pretentious- and it's no doubt the reason that "real" heads think instrumental hip-hop is made by a bunch of computer geeks that are fond of electronica and have no investment in the culture, but so what? They're always going to say that; it's simply a sign of growing pains. It's the first time since turntablism, and, before that, since hip-hop's DJing granddaddies, that producers and DJs are pushing their medium to its absolute limit, and that a record's sonic composition can trump its MC. And what's wrong with that? Rappers have had the spotlight since they started dropping Christmas singles. It's about time about time someone else got a chance to speak up.

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