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Changing rap

Music | Two-disc anthology traces an evolving genre

Issue: "Tour d'America road rage," Feb. 11, 2012

"Rap," the rapper KRS-One once said, "is something that's being done. Hip-hop is something that is being lived."

No matter how one splits the rap/hip-hop atom, its fallout has dominated the black musical landscape for over 30 years. Sony's new two-disc Giant Single: The Profile Records Rap Anthology puts it under a microscope.

By including 10 of the 12 songs on 1994's Diggin' in the Crates, Vol. 1: Profile Rap Classics and extending it by 21 songs and a decade, Giant Single traces rap's early-'80s origins as an underground, Bronx-based party music to the beginnings of its late-'90s descent into decadence. The story is interesting and, for the most part, entertaining, not least because it restores to rap's narrative details that resist the oversimplification implicit in claiming it as a piece of "black history."

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Disc One, for instance, begins with Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde's "Genius Rap" (1981), Disc Two with Run-D.M.C.'s "Walk This Way" (1986). The latter was an Aerosmith cover that featured actual Aerosmith members, the former a rap duo set to the music of the Tom Tom Club. Like Aerosmith, the Tom Tom Club was white.

There was no apparent political animus to such coattail riding-no reverse-racist "payback," in other words-for the "ripping off" of the likes of Little Richard by the likes of Pat Boone 25 years earlier. Instead, Aerosmith and Tom Tom Club recordings were simply in the air. "Genius Rap" and "Walk This Way" were therefore practically inevitable in a culturally cross-breeding mass-media age.

They were also good, clean fun. At stake in songs like Disco Four's "Whip Rap" (1982), Word of Mouth Featuring DJ Cheese's "King Kut" (1985), and Spyder D's "I Can't Wait (to Rock the Mike)" wasn't whether anyone's hip-hop identity or authenticity was validated or shown respect. What mattered was whether the combination of beats, samples, and playfully improvised verbal rhyming could draw a crowd and get people feeling good enough to dance.

Music that draws a crowd, of course, also draws the attention of record companies intent on making a killing. And by the late '80s such companies and their willing accomplices in the hip-hop community were content to exploit society's lowest common denominators. Gangsta rap, smut rap, blue-streak rap-Pandora's Box had been opened.

Giant Single proves that Profile Records kept the lid on longer than most of their competition. Not until Track 11 of Disc Two, DJ Quik's "Born and Raised in Compton," do the f-bombs, n-bombs, and s-bombs start to fly. And on 27 of the 31 total tracks no bombs, except the sonic kind, fly at all.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Das (pronounced "Dat's" without the t) Racist, whose latest album, Relax (Red General Catalog), has established them as the hip-hop enigma currently most fashionable to try to unravel.

Like the Beastie Boys, Himanshu Suri, Ashok Kondabolu, and Victor Vazquez are musically inventive, satirically inclined non-blacks whose love for hip-hop hasn't totally short-circuited their awareness of its shortcomings as a lens for viewing the world. Thus, they're as much the butt of their jokes as hip-hop itself is.

Sometimes, though, their vulgarity makes it hard to tell whether they know just how sincere a form of flattery-even satirical flattery-imitation can be. "We're not jokin' just jokin' / we are jokin' just jokin' / we're not jokin'," they rapped on their 2010 album Sit Down, Man.

And, unfortunately, whatever they meant by that then they still do.

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