I don’t want to say that I’m ignorant about hip-hop, but I just googled it because I wasn’t clear on whether or not it’s hyphenated. (The answer: “it depends”). “Ignorant” goes a little too far, though, because what I really mean is that, down the years, a couple other genres got in the way, and I went pretty deep on those, so, what I’m saying is, I approach this stuff with due humility.
Still, “Me, Myself & I” sent me to the record store to buy De La Soul’s Three Feet High & Rising when it came out. During my freshman year in college, a friend of a friend passed on a mixed tape – hold on; that word has a different meaning now – I mean I knew a guy who put a bunch of rap on a cassette tape, Boogie Down Productions, Poor Righteous Teachers, Big Daddy Kane and Eric B. & Rakim, so some exposure did happen, and beyond “Yo, MTV Raps.” The point is, most of the exposure came to me, not vice versa.
And yet leading with ignorance makes sense because it fits my relationship to the first artists I’m exploring for this project: The Wu-Tang Clan. It’s also why starting this entire project with a hip-hop act just feels…right. If there’s a purpose to the whole thing, it’s exploration – answering the question of why something connected, regardless of when it connected. So, to lean into that ignorance as hard as I can without falling off, I had no idea that Wu-Tang dates back to the first half of the 1990s. completely missed that. I’d heard of Method Man (part of Wu-Tang) and Red Man (not part of Wu-Tang; turns out they’re cousins) in a couple fish-out-of-water movies from the early-aughts, but didn’t know to connect him to Wu-Tang. For years, Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the only guy I could confidently connect to Wu-Tang, and that only came when he died.
As with most of hip-hop, Wu-Tang came to me. By that I mean, I’d heard songs by either Wu-Tang (“Gravel Pit”), or individual members (“Baby, I Got Your Money” and “Shimmy Ya”; sensing a theme?), before I really knew where they came from; later, I heard “A Day in the Life” on Handsome Boy Modeling School’s White People. I wasn’t even sure if actual members of Wu-Tang featured in the song (they did), but the songs hit all the same. And that’s the long and the short of how you find a Wu-Tang album in a bin, decide to pick it up, take it home, and upload it onto your hard drive.
That’s how I picked, The W. It’s a later work (just learned that), but, if pressed to pick a favorite from – and it doesn’t come easy – I’d go with "Hollow Bones." "Redbull" might be a close second, but something about the echo in the vocals and sampling, even the aching weariness of the phrase “Hollow Bones,” keeps me on that one. It sounded like closing time to me, even as I know it’s about something completely different (yeah, no, wasn’t even close), something I couldn’t relate to directly in a dozen years and with a totally different life experience. But that’s the beauty of music: it speaks to everyone differently and for different reasons. (Even when they're almost comically misguided.)
I want to go deeper at this point, and circle back to those concepts of ignorance and humility. I am very, very comfortable pointing to songs from various “rock” genres and saying, “yes, I like that,” and confidently defending the position. It’s the opposite of confidence when it comes to hip-hop. I put all of that out there in order to set up a confession: yes, I literally googled several varieties of “what makes a hip hop song good.” Not proud, but, I also found two sources that I appreciated (including one that lead me to another piece that arbitrates the tricky waters of which of Wu-Tang’s rappers is the best (and, by me, they did OK)). The first is an article that both presents an argument and names names about the best rappers in hip-hop history. That’s both cool and it inspires further research, but I got the bigger kick out of a Vox.com video that deconstructs what makes a rhyme great (and I’ll get to MF Doom). And, holy shit, do they flag/explain some really, really great, richly complex rhymes…
…yes, I know. That google search is, literally, the whitest, most middle-aged thing a guy can do. I can only prostrate myself before the altar of innocent, enthusiastic curiosity. And, further confession: the video references Rakim, specifically this part where he talks about how he writes…and that’s where I had a brief, “holy shit, am I racist?” panic. It had never really occurred to me that rappers sit down and write lyrics and arrange beats. I mean, of course, the rhymes get written down at some point, but I never imagined so much a formal structure as men and women freestyling all of it, pulling inspiration out of the ever-present ether, really, which is kinda cooler, but also obvious bullshit. About ten seconds later, I realized that I projected the same illusion on to all musicians, at least outside of classic composers. Jazz, rock, country: when I think of people “composing,” they’re never writing it down, penciling notes into those lines of music; I pictured very happy people touched by the muse, etc. Yeah, wish I was kidding, too.
One last thing before I wrap up this post. I’ve always had a favorite rapper in Wu-Tang (turns out it’s RZA, just like the thickness of the guy’s voice, but ODB is a close second (because he shares my love of piano and beats, and Ghostface Killah….good choice for the article linked to way up there, e.g. Wu-Tang's best). Trouble is, except for Ol’ Dirty Bastard, I didn’t know who was who by voice. That lead me to search Spotify to see if my ear could find the guys I like through Wu-Tang’s members’ various solo projects. That little bit of digging introduced me to a shit-load of great songs, like “Soul & Substance” by Masta Killa, “Dirty Dirty” by ODB, “City High” by Inspectah Deck, “Gold” by GZA, “Grits” by RZA (super-fond), and an arrestingly affecting cover of The Pretenders “It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” which showed up on Ghostface Killah’s 36 Seasons.
There’s a big, beautiful world out there, full of wonders. Really, really good music, specifically. There’ll never be enough time for most of it, so I try to keep happy about all the good stuff I hear. And can hear at any time with a couple quick searches. In a sound/interjection, eeeee!