Sometimes perspective is a curse.
"It's true, I got caught in the world," Allen Ginsberg says from his work, "Bengali Paraphrase" at the end of BBE's latest release, The Beat Generation . "How'd I get into this fix, this fame trap, this workaholic show biz poetry market?" he continues. "If I had a soul, I sold it for pretty words. If I had a body, I used it up spurting my essence. If I had a mind, it got covered with love. If I Had a spirit, I forgot while I was breathing. If I had speech, it was all a boast. If I had desire, it went out of my anus." As a coda for a compilation that works as a historical bridge between the hip-hop generation and the original Beat generation, Ginsberg might as well be describing the plight of today's music makers.
But four decades ago, his musings -- the type that made the Beats famous -- also made them non-conformist at a time when the world was recovering from the financial scars of the Great Depression and enjoying a new economy. Introspection wasn't a national priority, but materialism and patriotism brought on during World War II were. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs wrote against the current anyway. In lieu of the trappings of wealth and mediocrity, they spoke ferociously on alternative topics in ciphers nestled in coffeehouses and living rooms. Their message sounded a little more polished than a Wu-Tang mantra: Smoke a joint, think about your life, have a lot of sex, make poetry out of this crazy world, but, for Buddha's sake, don't sell your soul for a Ford.
It was, however, the Cold War era. That made them a threat to good old-fashioned family values and dangerous to national security, some said. They were bohemians, they were immoral: they were dangerous. Everything around them -- from televisions to the still segregated society -- was viewed in black and white; and their colorful philosophy seemed starkly out of place.
So, while the outsiders lingered on the fringes of society for a few decades, eventually the Beats became icons of artistic expression: because, well, the good stuff always rises to the top. (It's just the American way, right?)
America now doesn't seem much different than it was then. A war rages in Iraq and anyone who speaks out against it or questions its validity is lambasted for being unpatriotic, an elevated, color-coded terrorist threat. Americans have defended themselves with the anesthesia of trends and scandals, just like in the good 'ol days -- but instead of gathering 'round the radio, we've got iPods. The Beats are gone, but their beat lives on, in hip-hop: well, in some hip-hop.
If some of the counter cultural hunger and energy that made hip-hop a creative force has been repackaged and redirected in the form of Coke commercials and cell phone tunes, many "underground" artists and producers master their craft on the proverbial sidelines. They are the Beats of this hip-hop era, but at least they're not caught in the world, even if they're not always acknowledged.
But the The Beat Generation, a 17-track compilation of some of the best producers and musical trailblazers in the business, gives them a significant, sweet spot on the musical map. Barely Breakin' Even (BBE) record label boss Peter Adarkwah, who has likened his vision to that of the Beats, picked his favorite selections from nine of the creative solo projects of established producers from Pete Rock and Jay Dee to King Britt and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Heralded or no, they are music makers who rage against the easy break, on wax or in life: and their songs tell the story.
One of the highlights on the compilation isn't really a song, in the traditional sense, but a confession. The irreverent Jill Scott, doing her best imitation of a nosy neighbor perched in her window squawking to a girlfriend about everybody's business mixed with a touch of squealing diva on Broadway, spins spoken word on its head on "We Live in Philly", produced by Philly's own DJ Jazzy Jeff. She had a dream (in Technicolor) about Dr. Julius Irving at the YMCA, Patti LaBelle at the Spectrum, and Iverson "really rapping" -- there were even b-boys there, she exclaims. (It sounds like the most fun she's ever had in the studio, and even if her enthusiasm were absent, the music would be enough to induce nostalgia just the same.)
The skills showcased on The Beat Generation are reminders of what happens when creativity is let loose, when hip-hop is reclaimed and recast. It is a journey into that "dangerous" alternative space where creativity flourishes and censors don't exist. Jay Dee (here, J.Dilla) and Dwele turn a trance-like meditation into a musical collage on "Think Twice" -- complete with a sexy trumpet, finger-snapping break, and piano that gives the chorus more resonance than the extended version of the same song on Erykah Badu's Worldwide Underground. The Marley Marl-produced "Hummin", which features the legendary musician Roy Ayers, is a dreamy Sunday afternoon track that sounds golden on Ayers's vibraphone, and makes the song a short but dreamy interlude. "Lay Me Down" is will.i.am's better offering on The Beat Generation, funkier and smoother than the earlier selection, "If U Didn't Know", which is an average braggart's track. Similarly, DJ Spinna's "Surely" is a pensive and delicately layered moment, with the same subtle nuances that make King Britt's "Transcend", featuring an unusually energized Bahamadia, a standout.
As Ginsberg suggested in his poem, bodies used up spurting essences make history; and artists selling their souls for pretty words -- or pretty music, for that matter -- remakes history. It's nice to know some things never change and The Beat Generation is living, thumping proof.