Various Artists: Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap

Soundtrack makes for a pretty good listen, but doesn't live up to its audacious subtitle.

Various Artists

Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2012-07-11
UK Release Date: 2012-07-16
Digital release date: 2012-06-12

Eric B. & Rakim’s “Follow the Leader” is the greatest song in the history of mankind. While Eric B. whisks you into outer space on an impossibly deep bass squelch and Baby Huey horn stabs, Rakim lays down one of the most astounding solos ever committed to tape. Focus too much on the lyrics and you might miss his musical accomplishment: he unpacks the implications of Eric B.’s beat. Changing his rhythmic pattern with every line, Rakim traces the outlines of a core cadence that he never states directly. More than even the drums, Rakim propels the music using only the perfectly coordinated movements of his mouth and throat. That he does all this while saying actual words -- quotable words (“I’m everlasting, I can go on for days and days”), words of winking audacity (“In this journey of the journal I’m the journalist / Am I eternal or an eternalist?”)... well, there’s just nothing like it, in music or art or literature or anywhere else you might care to look.

OK, maybe a couple other things compare. Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”; Ice Cube’s “The Nigga You Love to Hate”; The Coup’s “Breathing Apparatus”; A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario”; Mr. Lif’s “Heavy Artillery”; Eminem’s “Stan” -- each audacious song becomes the greatest song in the history of mankind any time I listen to it. Of those, only “Follow the Leader” appears on the soundtrack to Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, Ice-T’s new documentary about the skill and craft that go into rapping. That’s fine; picking overlooked songs for soundtrack albums is a fool’s game, akin to yelling at people in the comments of their year-end Top 10 lists. Whatever your beef, at least listen to what this compilation is trying to tell you. But that’s the problem with this soundtrack: while it may make for a pretty good listen, it’s useless as an aesthetic manifesto. It doesn’t live up to its audacious subtitle.

First, the “pretty good listen” part. You can’t fault a compilation for roaring into your life with N.W.A.’s dive-bombing “Straight Outta Compton”, Run-DMC’s obnoxious “Sucker M.C.’s”, and “Follow the Leader”. Further along, Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock show up with “It Takes Two”, which still feels like waking up inside the party of your dreams. Speaking of dreams, Schoolly D’s proto-gangsta “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” is all whooshing nightmare: a gleeful sicko picks up a woman, discovers she’s a prostitute, and then goes to a party and pulls his gun on an MC for biting his style. Throw in Afrika Bambaataa’s “Don’t Stop... Planet Rock” and Nas’s “The World Is Yours”, and you’ve got yourself a big handful of rap essentials. No matter how much you love them, you need to hear them just to understand the conversation.

The album veers from such obvious tentpoles to overlooked gems. “As High As Wu-Tang Get”, a rarely anthologized song nestled within the mammoth Wu-Tang Forever, features a great verse of Method Man spitting so far behind the beat, he sounds like he’s stepping on chewing gum. Public Enemy represents not with one of their many classics, but with “Harder Than You Think”, a blazing song from their little-heard 2007 album. And since a good DJ feature never hurts, the soundtrack includes Mantronix’s largely instrumental “King of the Beats”. (Confidential to Shaun of the Dead: it’s not electro, it’s hip-hop!) Every so often a rapper appears between songs with one of Something From Nothing’s freestyle demostrations. These snippets are often impressive and they help keep the album moving along.

So far, so listenable. But as you listen, questions arise. Maybe seeing the movie clears things up. (No theaters near me are showing it.) There must be a reason, for instance, that the soundtrack producer picked Q-Tip’s pleasant little sing-song “Vivrant Thing (Club Mix)” over Tribe’s “Scenario”, which features the most joyful song lyric in the history of mankind: “So here’s Busta Rhymes with the scenario.” (If you’ve never heard the song, Busta goes on to destroy the world and rebuild it in the image of a dungeon dragon.) And there must be some rationale for including, out of 16 full-length songs, only one by a woman and two by non-New Yorkers. Poor MC Lyte appears next to last, in the Token spot, with her so-so “Cold Rock a Party” -- and not even the more vivrant Bad Boy Remix, which would’ve at least let us hear Missy Elliott.

But then, giving the Virginia-raised Missy some time would have meant tentatively acknowledging the South, which is apparently off limits. OK, I understand, this is just a movie soundtrack and you can’t cover everything, so I will simply calm down and ask the soundtrack as politely as possible: where the fuck is the South? Because the cover of this innocuous soundtrack is emblazoned with the huge words “THE ART OF RAP”, implying that its contents will summarize the genre for proverbial men from Mars and other newbies. And IF I’M NOT MISTAKEN, Southern rap was arguably the most vivrant musical genre last decade. Of all music! Not just rap! It blew up the characteristic rhyming styles of Missy, Outkast, and Ludacris, who prioritize unique musical shapes that often twist their words out of place. The South produced production auteurs -- including Mannie Fresh, Organized Noize, and, if we’re counting Virginia, Timbaland and the Neptunes -- who reshaped rap’s sound. Weezy! Jeezy! Crunk! Um, Bushwick Bill, since it sounds like I’m calling dwarfs! Heck, Ice-T could’ve just slipped in the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” and he would have spared you this rant. Is the South’s embarrassment of riches not “art”?

Such omissions make Something From Nothing more conservative than it should have been, which means its portrait of rap is too conservative. Most everything here follows a similar template: male New Yorkers rapping virtuosically about how great they are, using the time-tested metaphors of money and violence to make their points, with beats that favor hard ambiance over hooks. There’s at least one exception to each of those criteria -- Run-DMC weren’t all that virtuosic, for instance, and hooks don’t get any bigger than “It Takes Two”. But Big Daddy Kane’s “Raw”, Gang Starr’s “Full Clip”, Das EFX’s “Real Hip-Hop”, Ultramagnetic MCs’ “Ego Trippin’”, and Nas all fit the profile exactly, and the others come close. Each of these songs sounds fine on its own, but the overall effect gets a little old. Not as old as Das EFX’s “figgedy-faggot” bigoty-bullshit, but old nonetheless.

Something From Nothing ultimately sells rap short. Anybody who’ll give rap the time of day knows about virtuosic poetry. What’s missing here is more audacity -- those times you can sense rappers achieving things that surprise themselves and us. Think of Jay-Z impersonating the cop in “99 Problems”; Eminem (who appears in the movie) flying free of the beat yet keeping perfect time in “Stan”; Roxanne Shanté beating U.T.F.O. at their own game; Trina and Gillette taunting the pants off everybody else’s men; or Nicki Minaj destroying the world and rebuilding it in the image of a “Monster”. And audacity doesn’t necessarily mean virtuosity. Witness the Ying Yang Twins, the Sugarhill Gang, and L’Trimm, all of whom continue to echo throughout the culture. Whether the producer of this soundtrack approves of all those examples hardly matters. They’ve all contributed to the art of rap, and together they tell a richer, more thrilling story than the one on Something From Nothing.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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