Saturday, May 21, 2011

Blue Sky Black Death and Hip-Hop's Horizon

Hip-hop is the only music that I've ever had a passionate inclination towards, though as it relates to music being released today, I don't have a passionate inclination towards any genre of music. Many enthusiasts of the genre have adopted the refrain that "Hip-hop is dead", and I can sympathize with these critics, but I wouldn't go that far.

The rap music that exists from the 90s and early 2000s still exists and will never die. If I only have that to listen to for the rest of my life, then I've got plenty to listen to. Not to mention that there are still hip-hop artists that put out brilliant material. Admittedly, they are few and far between, but they do exist and will continue to exist. So much of what is currently released is either -- in the case of mainstream hip-hop -- a cheap, commercial product made for mass consumption or -- in the case of the underground -- a watered down version of something that someone else has already done better. This doesn't mean that hip-hop has exhausted its creative boundaries, only that there is a lack of will to push them, for whatever reason. These are the broad-stroke trends anyway, as I have just mentioned, there are exceptions. 

One of those exceptions is the production duo Blue Sky Black Death (BSBD). They recently released Noir, the brilliant follow-up to their classic Late Night Cinema. These are works of instrumental hip-hop and this very fact in itself opens up a massive creative horizon, as instrumental hip-hop is largely a terra incognita. You have your DJ Shadows, your RJD2s, but for the most part instrumental hip-hop has never been very popular amongst artists or fans, which means that if you do choose to explore the genre's boundaries there is a near infinite space available to work with. This is true not only because few others have ventured into the terrain, but because of the inherent limitless possibilities of instrumental hip-hop. 

To an extent, traditional hip-hop (i.e. beat plus rapper) doesn't exactly have the same infinite horizon of creative potential because that form of hip-hop confines itself to a 4-bar rhythm structure. Rapping can take on a few variations in patterns and rhythms but is limited by the bar structure of the raps. Still, even within the confines of the bar structure, there is plenty of room for innovation lyrically, flow-wise, in terms of changes of tempos or intensity within a verse (see Nas on One Mic for an under-utilized instance of this) etc., so standard hip-hop music has no excuse for being static and lacking imagination. The key point here, though, is that instrumental hip-hop has no such constraints. It doesn't have to stay in a particular pattern so that a rapper can rap to it, it's utterly free to be as dynamic as it wants to be, and BSBD takes full advantage of this.

On Late Night Cinema, the duo established itself as a towering force in the eyes of hip-hop aficionados. The polyphonic soundscapes crafted by the team were breathtaking. Combining sampling with original instrumentation they created a sound that is really only possible within the genre of hip-hop, and they utilize it to startling effect. Noir seems to continue this trend generally, and has many moments of brilliance (Fire for Light and Farewell to the Former World among them), though perhaps fewer than Late Night Cinema had. I'm still digesting it and this isn't a review of Noir, but Noir has inspired me to break out and revisit BSBD's other work, specifically their production for rappers. 

In addition to their purely instrumental work BSBD produced entire albums for Holocaust and Hell Razah, who are both Wu-affiliates. BSBD's style seems to have been influenced, at least somewhat, by Wu-Tang's (mostly RZA's) production sound, so it seems appropriate that they would do production for members of the Wu family. 

Holocaust (a rapper) debuted in the late nineties as a member of Black Knights of the North Star, a West coast Wu-Tang affiliate. After dropping verses on The Swarm compilation, a Killarmy album and the Bobby Digital album there was a great deal of anticipation surrounding Holocaust's future work. His verses were lyrically vibrant, his voice was ominous and his flow was breathless. At this point he didn't release anything for a while and when he did resurface it was in a drastically altered form. His once-flawless-flow was now replaced with arrhythmic rambling. His lyrics were still interesting and unique, but the rhymes were no longer nice, and the raps weren't structured well. What happened to him? Some speculate about drug use or a nervous breakdown of some kind. In any case, I lost interest in him as an artist at that point. Until I heard that BSBD produced an entire album for him. 

To return back to a point earlier I made about bar structure, Holocaust's flow and structure of his rhymes, after his change in style, largely ignore proper bar structure. This allows BSBD's production on the album to be almost as dynamic as their purely instrumental work, because Holocaust isn't abiding by bars anyway. The result is interesting, but Holocaust's rhymes don't do much but detract from BSBD's instrumentation. The actual content of the rhymes are intriguing, but they're so aesthetically displeasing that I'd much prefer to just listen to the instrumentals. I'm not sure whether an instrumental version of this album exists, but if it does I will seek it out and dispense of the version with the rapping.

Hell Razah is a member of the group Sunz of Man which is a subsidiary group of Wu-Tang clan consisting of Hell Razah, Killah Priest (one of my favorite rappers) Prodigal Sun, 60 Second Assassin, and Shabazz. I enjoyed the groups first album The Last Shall Be First, primarily because of the beats, Killah Priest and Hell Razah. In a sense I always thought of Razah as a poor man's Killah Priest, and I still feel that judgment is largely justified. His flow and his rhymes aren't anything special, though his lyrics are at times. 

In any case, BSBD also produced Hell Razah's debut solo album Razah's Ladder, which I would have otherwise not been very interested in. The result is a much more satisfying rap product than the Holocaust album. BSBD's production is as rich as usual, but is subject to the somewhat more traditional confines of rap beats, though they excel in this setting as well. Written in Blood is a good example of their ability to create an traditional, ill rap banger, while still displaying their signature sound. At other times, such as on Halos (which features the inimitable Crooked I) the rhythm section remains fairly static so as to accommodate the rapping, but the rest of the soundscape is just as dynamic as any of their evolving instrumental works. 

Hip-hop at large may be catatonic, it may persist in a vegetative stake, but the spark of life that animates the body is still present. Art is vibrant and indefatigable, and as long as humans aspire to transcend the boundaries  of their everyday circumstances and conditions through creative expression, art can't die. Which means that hip-hop can't die any more than painting, music, or film can 'die'. I'm grateful to the likes of Blue Sky Black Death for keeping hip-hop alive, not just for the sake of hip-hop at large, but for my own ability to continue to enjoy it. 

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