Music

Sci-Fi Goes Hi-Fi: 10 Artists' Foray into Hip-Hop Futurism

Shabazz Palaces. Photo Credit: Victoria Kovios (courtesy of SubPop Records)

A host of artists have carved out a niche in the interplanetary margins that now rest in hip-hop culture. Some call it an expansion on Afrofuturist philosophies; others simply a long-time propensity for the science-fiction genre.

Science-fiction and rock music have been intersecting genres for more than a few decades now. At least since David Bowie emerged with the story of Ziggy, with its Prog-applications and some well-placed glitter, the imaginations of audiences have been captured by the growing sagas and myths that have grown out of popular culture. Hip-hop (at least in its earlier conception) has been fairly practical for most of its life; a simple and earnest retelling of life in the city. But as hip-hop is a music that relies heavily on recycling older ideas and transforming them into newer, culture-defining shapes, it isn't too difficult to see how artists might seek influences outside the playbook in order to regenerate the music.

Arguably, it may have been Afrika Bambaataa who introduced, into his hip-hop, an extraterrestrial dynamic that, in certain ways, espoused a few ideologies to come from the Zulu Nation, a collective of rappers and poets that were high up on the politics of deciding and designing urban life during the late '70s. Since then, a host of artists have carved out a niche in the interplanetary margins that now rest in hip-hop culture. Some call it an expansion on Afrofuturist philosophies that were developed and expressed nearly a century back. Others are simply content to call it a long-time propensity for the science-fiction genre. What follows are just ten hip-hop artists whose works have been shaped in some form or another by the works of science-fiction.

​Shabazz Palaces – Black Up (2011) and Lese Majesty (2014)

You can choose from any of the six releases by Shabazz Palaces to get an idea of what their sci-fi inspired hip-hop is all about. But their first two full-length albums, Black Up and Lese Majesty, are prime examples of the field. Comprised of lyricist, producer and songwriter Ishmael Butler, who had already made a name for himself with the groundbreaking Digable Planets, and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, Shabazz Palaces have been exploring the new frontier of hip-hop that most artists never dare to dream of.

Both albums are full of cosmic atmospheres that expand within and around the grooves until they overwhelm the listener completely. Butler and Maraire work in tandem to create an alien universe at once terrifying and sensorial; their galactic fixations ensure that the drum patterns boom with astronomical force, while Butler's sphinx-like and eerie rhymes are on an extraterrestrial tip. In the past ten years of their existence, Shabazz Palaces has cornered the market on speculative hip-hop, developing a musical language of Afrofuturism with unparalleled mastery. Taking cues from the sci-fi funk and abstractions found in the works of Sun Ra and Parliament, Black Up and Lese Majesty are the apogees of this particular design in hip-hop.

Sci-fi Influences

Ishmael Butler has openly revealed the influence science fiction has had on his work in Shabazz Palaces. Citing works by Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton and Octavia Butler (her Patternmaster series seem to have especially resonated with the rapper) as the prime sources of inspiration, Butler has managed to develop an amorphous dream-logic in his rhymes that owes to the fanciful worlds found in these writers' works. "Forerunner Foray" was named after a Norton novel, a particular favourite of the rapper's, and the accompanying video clip for the single clearly takes its cues from the surreal animated epic La Planète Sauvage (1973), a classic of science-fiction.

Those looking to tap into a literary source that evokes much of the same atmospheres and emotions of the Black Up and Lese Majesty albums may want to pick up Roger Zelazny's The Dream Master (1966), a novel that was expanded from the author's shorter, Nebula Award-winning work, "He Who Shapes". Zelazny's horror-tinged sci-fi thriller, about a psychotherapist practicing a dangerous form of therapy that deals with dream reconstruction is full of fantasy and futurist technology – themes of which are explored in Shabazz Palaces' works, both sound-wise and lyrically.

Azeem – Air Cartoons (2008)

Full of mystic musings and street-corner prophesies, Air Cartoons is a remarkable effort from one of hip-hop's most eloquent bards. Azeem has maintained in the past that Air Cartoons is more of a mixtape than an actual album. But his judicious selection of producers (there are nine of them) and his ability to establish a clear sense of identity on all of these 14 disparate numbers results in a cohesiveness that leans more toward an actual album. A number of the producers on the album work primarily in electronic music, so these songs are rife with a tech-noir ambience that plays up the sense of futurist dread.

Azeem's vocals are pure with homeboy pre-eminence – that is, only until that autonomy is usurped by the machines that take over his voice. Opening the album is the bladerunning hip-hop of "Set a Blaze", in which the rumbling squelch of the skewed groove has the rapper "fantasizing of beautiful thunder" on a distant planet. Azeem would follow up the album with the equally brilliant No Truth in Today (2011), an EP he recorded with producer Jay Haze; it expands upon Air Cartoon's themes of empirical ascendency, laid bare against the backdrop of explosive electro-hip-hop.

Sci-Fi Influences

A self-admitted voracious reader, the sci-fi element on the album is down to the MC's choice of literary poison: namely all works of arcane philosophy and occult literature to be found in the dusty backrooms of the world's greatest libraries. Azeem has cited early, turn-of-the-century sci-fi and metaphysical works by Frederick Spencer Oliver (A Dweller on Two Planets) and John Uri Lloyd (Etidorhpa) as influential works. Many of the lyrics on this album reference secret societies, government cover-ups (and that includes the matters of UFOs), and visions of the apocalypse, which may mean he has already discovered Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's preposterous but popular series The Illuminatus! Trilogy, published in 1975.

But because Azeem is an especially erudite lyricist, he may have also stumbled upon far more sophisticated fare. John Brunner's Players at the Game of People (1980) is a sci-fi mystery-thriller about an unwitting young man who finds himself caught up in a strange game of leisure and torment controlled by a mysterious alien council. His actions (or, rather, his pawn moves) in the game are rewarded handsomely – but the rewards come at a price no human could possibly pay.

Brunner's allegorical tale about freewill begins as a human drama of sorts before it morphs into an oracular nightmare. Azeem's labyrinthine rhymes and the weird sci-fi electro-beats on Air Cartoons radiate with the very auras found in Brunner's chilling novel.

​Anti-Pop Consortium – Fluorescent Black (2009)

Sovereigns of hip-hop's left field, M. Sayyid, Beans, High Priest and Earl Blaize of Anti-Pop Consortium conspired to make some of the most unusual hip-hop that sounded, quite literally, out of this world. They first weirded audiences out with their debut Tragic Epilogue (2000) before going on to develop their artistry on such forward-thinking ventures like Shopping Carts Crashing (2001) and Arrhythmia (2002).

Their 2009 effort, Fluorescent Black, ups the sci-fi quotient, which sees them project their hip-hop into a nebulous space 3,000 light years away. The album plays out like an opiate klatch on an alien spacecraft, the angular hip-hop pulsing with the heavy buzz of synthesized basslines. The railroad switching of verses between each rapper further unsettles the disorienting atmospheres of the machines-gone-haywire sonics; each lyricist has such a distinctive style of delivery, the constant trading of rhymes endlessly startles. Eeriness abounds on the album, from the Tron-inspired synth-lines and the clinical, robotic beats, to the outlandish narratives.

Band member Beans reportedly confessed an interest in the sci-fi works of Philip K. Dick but denied any sci-fi influences on the album. The album cover art, however, would have one believing otherwise; it features an illustration that seemed to be the requisite poster artwork for science-fiction films in the '80s.

Sci-Fi Influences

The weird, uncanny synths and often irregular hip-hop rhythms trade on the strange and sinister; much of these sounds are evocative of the panoramic scores from the sci-fi films that flooded the early '80s. 1982's cult classic Tron is an obvious reference point. Everything from the film's sound and atmosphere has been seemingly invested into the marching, electrical grooves of Fluorescent Black. Anything by writer Philip K. Dick is a good bet, as well. From cold, metallic universes to hallucinatory mind-trips, the author explored themes that are the essence of Anti-Pop Consortium's dark and moody work.

M. Sayyid – Error Tape 1 (2016)

Anti-Pop Consortium member M. Sayyid recorded a solo effort during the Paris attacks in 2015, releasing his album a year later. Fueled by the anxiety of those times, Error Tape 1 feels like a disturbing expression on alienation. Much of the album picks up where Anti-Pop Consortium left off, but Sayyid delves into deeper and darker waters here, eschewing much of that band's quirky humour for anxious, sometimes malefic, drama. The synth work is pushed to uncomfortable extremes, cutting through the jittery rhythms like lightsabers. Sayyid's breathless rhymes run miles a minute, impressively dodging the pitfalls of missed beats while making sharp turns at the tightest corners of the rhythms.

It appears as though the rapper's intention is to creep us out and the warped screams-for-help that are the synth lines are enough to turn the blood to ice. Meanwhile, the beats skitter, slam, lope and crash like a once-obliging robot that has downloaded a malicious virus into its central processing unit.

Sci-Fi Influences

M. Sayyid is integral to Anti-Pop Consortium's sound, so much of the same influences he brings to the band have been funneled into Error Tape 1. The dystopian moods of Philip K. Dick novels are certainly present here. But in the frenzied rhymes and rhythms, the muted glows of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 sci-fi drama Stalker resonate in spirit. Sayyid's ability to evoke the eerie, poetic airs of that film through the intense and gasping delivery of his hyperbolic lyricism is an extraordinary feat.

His video clip for the single "Eon" (a Martian throb of malformed electro-hip-hip) captures the florescent, shapely imagery of Tarkovsky's film. Like the pathfinders in the film who roam the deserted alien zones, Sayyid wanders the premises of a seemingly abandoned spacecraft, spitting otherworldly and surreal rhymes. The pulsating beams of electronic bass on the album are also evocative of the blue rinse of time-travel concepts (synth lines bend, zoom and streak around in the mix at dizzying speeds), so Asimov's hard science-fiction, which often explores ideas of solar dimensions and time-travel, seems an apt point of reference here.

Mike Ladd – Welcome to the Afterfuture (1999)

It wasn't until Mike Ladd's sophomore release that heads began to turn. A great departure from his debut, Easy Listening 4 Armageddon (which favours downtempo grooves of chilled funk), Welcome to the Afterfuture navigates a stark and unforgiving world of sound that favours very little colour, save for the black, white and grey of a nearly deserted urban city. Afterfuture's beats are cold and geometric, often a distorted backdrop for Ladd's alternating languid and bellowing Dada-speak. If the complex lyricism of the rapper's verse is too dense for listeners to pick out the various sci-fi references, then the song titles are dead giveaways: "5000 Miles West of the Future", "Planet 10", "Bladerunners", "To the Moon's Contractor", "Red Eye to Jupiter ", Wipe Out On the Wave of Armageddon", and the title-track.

With Afterfuture, Ladd creates a hip-hop landscape of futurist design, with beats that bang with industrial rhythms and atmospheres that drone like some mysterious aircraft hovering in the sky. The album is heralded as a classic of underground hip-hop and remains Ladd's most favourite effort from his solo outings.

Sci-Fi Influences

Sound-wise, Welcome the Afterfuture seems to source from the futuristic cityscapes of Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis. Full of geometric patterns and shapes, Lang's film about an automaton-ruled city most likely served as inspiration for Ladd's cold and steely grooves; Afterfuture's beats bang and clank like the metal gears of industrial machinery grinding away.

The rapper's previous scholarly pursuits (in English literature and poetry) may have led him to such works like Paul Theroux's O-Zone (the author's lone sci-fi novel), about a walled-in wasteland in which lurks mysterious entities. Other sci-fi references on the album may also be from the works by Spider Robinson, whose novel Night of Power is a searing and nerve-jangling story of a futuristic race war – a theme Ladd explores on Afterfuture's closing track, "Feb. 4 '99 (For All Those Killed by Cops)".

Jonzun Crew – Lost in Space (1983)

Clearly influenced by the getups and stage performances of Parliament, Jonzun Crew updates that band's cosmic funk with the considerable assistance of a few computers. Their brand of galactic funk bridges Kraftwerk-inspired electronica with hip-hop with kitschy flair. Not entirely sophisticated in style (their robo-hip-hop outfits are unforgivably tacky), they are certainly practiced in musicianship, tapping into the burgeoning techno scene that would take cities like Detroit by storm in the late '80s.

The themes on their debut, Lost in Space, trades on the backs of many popular science-fiction TV programs, like Buck Rogers, Star Trek and, of course, the '60s TV series that the album shares a name with. Musically, their sound is clearly a thing of the early '80s, rife with video game references to Pac Man, which is cleverly punned on their first single, "Pack Jam". Utterly silly, funky and, for its time, ahead of its time, Lost in Space is now lamentably just that - lost in the nebula of long out-of-print hip-hop classics.

Sci-Fi Influences

If you can imagine what it might be like to be trapped overnight in an arcade where the videos games never shut off, then you have an idea of the frenetic energy on Lost in Space. Pong and Pac Man are every bit the inspiration for the vocodered raps and electro-beats as are they futuristic swooshes that accompany the whizzing aircrafts in Star Wars. Jonzun Crew borrowed heavily from '50s kitsch, reframing it through an '80s perspective, so all of your favourite sci-fi B-movies, like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, factor in nicely here.

Black Milk – Tronic (2008)

One of the most gifted producers in hip-hop, Black Milk explores a variety of styles in his work. On Tronic, he looks to the electronic funk of Mantronix, burnishing his pounding hip-hop grooves with the metallic sheen of a Roland Jupiter-8 synth. Black Milk keeps his hip-hop rooted firmly in the streets of his home city Detroit, believed to be the birth city of techno. But with the futuristic touches that round out the grooves, he turns his work into something far more interesting than much of the hip-hop in 2008.

Admittedly, Tronic isn't especially pronounced in its sci-fi influences; often, the beats take precedence over the electronic noodling. But a closer listen reveals the subtler touches of texture that the producer is noted for; listen for the whirring of UFOs in the background or the blips and bleeps of an Atari video game. Lyrically, Black Milk keeps the issues down to earth, discussing life in general with purpose and virtue. But his slightly unusual rhyme-scheme often feels like it was conceived on another planet.

Sci-Fi Influences

The influences of sci-fi are second to the more traditional hip-hop themes on Tronic, so Black Milk isn't especially interested in exploring the cosmos with wild abandon here. But there's still enough of an off-kilter atmosphere to suggest a futuristic world in which these tunes take place.

Combining a funky futurism with stories of growing up in an urban environment, Tronic evokes the moody and nocturnal airs of The Brother from Another Planet, John Sayles' 1984 sci-fi comedy about an alien from outer-space (played by Joe Morton) who finds himself lost among the gritty streets of Harlem.

Mattic – The Adventures of Doctor Outer (2014)

American-born and France-based, Mattic has gone down quite well with France's underground hip-hop scene, but remains a virtual unknown in the US. The rapper's beguiling mix of heavy boom-bap grooves and sci-fi cocktail jazz taps into hip-hop's Daisy Age as much as it does the genre's contemporary styles. His sophomore album, The Adventures of Doctor Outer, explores sci-fi themes to present a world in which a Dr. Who episode is filmed with Day-Glo filters and soundtracked with acid jazz.

The rapper has delved into futurist matters before. Mattic's previous project, Fantastic Planet, with La Fine Equipe, was inspired by the narratives of '50s sci-fi B-movies and employed darker, Martian funk. On Doctor Outer, the sci-fi influences are not entirely present in sound but they are in spirit and his approach to cosmic matters is taken with open-hearted joy.

Sci-Fi Influences

The album, according to interviews with Mattic, was conceived of when he met a man after a concert who introduced himself as "Doctor Outer" and claimed he was from outer space. Incredulous but intrigued, the rapper humoured the man and their conversations that night became the lyrical inspirations for these songs.

Where many other hip-hop artists have explored the darker, more foreboding realms of sci-fi, there's a vibrant, champagne classiness to Mattic's hip-hop here. Humour is a key element in the quirkiness on The Adventures of Doctor Outer, and one can look to Keith Laumer's 1964 sci-fi novel The Great Time Machine Hoax for a work that runs parallel in spirit.

Full of sparkling fantasy and absurdist humour, Laumer's tale of two young men who discover a computer that has the ability to transport them back into time radiates with the same charm and wonderment to be found on Doctor Outer's sun-juiced hip-hop.

​Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein (2001)

Their chilly, iron-android hip-hop is the stuff of Asimov novels. With cold, robotic beats glazed over by the frost of alien synths, Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein helped usher sci-fi hip-hop into the millennium. There's never a comfortable moment on the album; the futuristic dread closes in from all corners and duo Vordul Mega and Vast Aire unfurl rhymes with muscular and machine-like force. The eerie, minor-key melodies and mechanical grind of these numbers evoke images of a massive, slow-descending alien spacecraft, landing amidst the squalor of an urban city.

Despite the iciness of the overall sound, The Cold Vein is still positively funky (albeit in a cyborg-esque way) and implores the body to sway in its aberrant grooves. After capturing their audience's imaginations with their debut, Cannibal Ox returned with a proper full-length follow-up in 2015 called The Blade of Ronin, taking their hip-hop to even further galactic heights.

Sci-Fi Influences

With song titles like "Battle for Asgard" (a reference to the Norse mythology that informed the Thor comics), it's a no brainer regarding the hip-hop duo's penchant for sci-fi fantasy graphic novels. The creepier elements on the album, which veer toward horror, dip into the regions of Tales from the Crypt without ever coming off as schlocky. In fact, Cannibal Ox pull from various influences, including Frank Miller's Ronin series, Transformers, and Japanese Manga, and turn geek-boy fandom into something sharp and artfully sleek.


Silver Bullet – Bring Down the Walls No Limit Squad Returns (1991)

Responsible for the Britcore movement (hardcore British hip-hop) in the early '90s, Silver Bullet was not yet out of his teens when he released his debut. A loud, sonic assault on the senses, Bring Down the Walls features a set of brutal breakbeats that are flung like shrapnel into a rhythm of coordinated chaos. His heavy London brogue and the then-burgeoning breakbeat scene squarely place his work on the new frontier of club-oriented music that had been previously spearheaded by the likes of Soul II Soul. Eschewing that band's brand of silky-smooth hip-hop, Silver Bullet opts for a dystopian aesthetic for his hellbound grooves. His most noteworthy numbers include the terrifying blitz of "20 Seconds to Comply" and the jazz-flecked stomper "Bring Forth the Guillotine".

The rapper's interest in sci-fi finds him sampling dialogue from the futuristic action-thriller Robocop (1987), while painting apocalyptic visions with his snarling lyrics. Record label hold-ups and fallouts meant that Silver Bullet never managed to officially release a follow-up album (though he continues to tirelessly record and release his music independently). But, more than 25 years later, his blazing debut is still firmly lodged in the minds of British hip-hop heads who are still shouting "Bring in the lawyer, propel paranoia!"

Sci-Fi Influences

The influence of sci-fi action films, like Robocop and Terminator, is certainly obvious. But if Silver Bullet was at all much up on his reading back in the day, he may have discovered the works of Steven Barnes – in particular, the author's Aubrey Knight novels. Lyrically, Silver Bullet's songs call to mind Barnes' works, whose sci-fi stories often deal with the societal issues afflicting the African-American population in a dystopian future.

Barnes' Aubrey Knight novels, which include Streetlethal (1983) and Gorgon Child (1989), seem like they may have been an influence on Bring Down the Walls. The stories are about an ex-boxer from L.A. who becomes a renegade fugitive once he finds himself enmeshed in the corrupt politics of the city. The searing adrenaline rush of the album is rhythmically in tune with the novels' hyper-drama of martial arts, tech-anxiety and futuristic anarchy.

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