Throughout virtually all of its brief history, rap music has been obsessed with its own origin story, getting endless thematic mileage out of questions of authenticity, legitimacy, and defining the old school. Exactly what constitutes the old school has always been up for grabs: Is it the early-eighties South Bronx of block parties, shell-toed Adidas, and D.J. battles? Run-D.M.C.s leather-coated machismo? The naïve materialism that gave us thick gold-chain necklaces? Theres no consensus (and, of course, no sanctioning body to supply definitions), which can make for strange historical revisionism: Defending the practice of sampling in 1988s Talkin All That Jazz, Stetsasonic took a swipe at the genres patron saint, opining that James Brown was old till Eric B and Rakim came out with I Got Soul. And De La Soul, who made their mark parodying early-rap stereotypes, are currently held up as paragons of -- you guessed it -- old-school values.
Now, as rap enters its third decade, some of its past masters have resurfaced after spending varying numbers of years eclipsed by newer, slicker, often less worthy stars like Puff Daddy and his clique. Last month at the Knitting Factory, mid-eighties party-rapper Biz Markie made an unlikely cameo alongside avant-jazz clarinetist Don Byron and ended up stealing the show with a few freestyle lines. And last year, Rakim, widely regarded as the genres greatest lyricist, even after a few years absence from the scene, released the thoroughly satisfying The 18th Letter. Surprisingly, the fiercest champions of roots rap arent vets on the comeback trail; instead, a new generation of young turks seem to be the ones most intent on reviving the old ways.
Chicago rapper Common dedicates the bulk of his third album, One Day Itll All Make Sense (Relativity), to exploring personal and artistic roots. Dozens of family photos adorn the CD booklet (including the covers arresting portrait of the rapper as an unself-conscious, prepubescent mamas boy), and Commons dad closes the album with a free-form rap on fatherhood. Gettin Down at the Amphitheater, which features De La Soul as guest rhymers, fondly evokes the film Wild Style, a 1982 tale of South Bronx graffiti, love, and rap. And at Tramps last month, Common looked farther back, updating the Last Poets sixties proto-rap Niggers Are Scared of Revolution. Introducing 12 Many . . . , he hit the audience with a series of challenges: Fake niggas play basketball, football, baseball, Playstation. But when it comes to the revolution, theyre like, Nah, Im playin.
In Retrospect for Life, over the swelling, schmaltzy piano chords of Stevie Wonders Never Dreamed Youd Leave in Summer, Common earnestly agonizes over a girlfriends abortion. Technically, the song is one of the albums weakest: The rapper all but abandons meter and rhyme so he can cram in as many emotional twists as possible. Im sorry for taking your first breath, first step, and first cry, he tells the aborted fetus in one of the songs most awkward moments. But I wasnt prepared mentally nor financially. Still, Common actually believes in the power -- revolutionary or redemptive -- of hip-hop, and it is there, even more than in any stylistic aspect of his work, that his affinity to raps early days resides. Music as art, not as business. Now, thats old-fashioned.
The X-ecutioners, who opened for common at the Tramps date, are exploring music history in a very different way. This quartet of D.J.s in their early twenties creates dizzying soundscapes through virtuosic manipulation of vinyl. The practice itself harks back to raps pre-digital-sampler roots, when D.J.s and rappers were accorded equal status (Grandmaster Flash was the D.J., his Furious Five the rappers). But the X-ecutioners also use plenty of vintage material in their sound: Retooled beats form the foundation; rhyme snippets from Boogie Down Productions and Rob Base become the D.J.s own impressionistic lyrics. The compositions on their debut CD, X-pressions (Asphodel), are perfectly structured, intricate, and head-bobbingly funky -- but the possibility of studio trickery lurks behind the deftly configured sounds. Live, though, their rubber-wristed chops dispel any such doubts.
At Tramps, the D.J.s (Rob Swift, Roc Raida, Total Eclipse, and Mista Sinista) opened working in tandem, at four pairs of turntables set up across the front of the stage. The effect was mesmerizing, but it was during the performers solos that their favorite technique -- stretching a few seconds of one song into something entirely new and barely recognizable -- was on display. Using two copies of the record, Swift resequenced the guitar solo in James Browns Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved, rendering it so novel that its very unfamiliarity became a virtue. Sinista gave LL Cool Js Rock the Bells a similar treatment.
This obsessive approach to music -- searching for new sounds, or new ways to mess with familiar ones -- isnt going to make the X-ecutioners rich, or even, probably, get them on the radio. But thats not what theyre after: They banded together specifically to win D.J. competitions -- to be the baddest, most skillful, most respected bunch of vinyl slingers on the scene. Kind of like the block-party boasters who started it all.