Various Artists
In tha Beginning ... There Was Rap

In tha Beginning ... There Was Rap might seem like a kooky, harmless premise, an opportunity to hear today's well-known rappers remake -- and pay tribute to -- the songs they enjoyed so much as kids. But to those die-hard fans who are still reeling over the breakup of Stetsasonic or the so-called "retirement" of Too Short, the disc might feel more like a screwdriver to the heart.

It's a shock for a number of reasons. First off, many fans seem to have the impression that rappers carry the same aura of silly vanity that many rock stars do. In truth, unless a rapper looks at his or her life with a Friars Club mentality (like Ice-T, for example), everyday reality really is a serious struggle, which is why it's rare that you hear them resort to novelty merely for novelty's sake. So hard-core rap fans' jaws may drop when they hear the Wu-Tang Clan's farcical rendition of Run DMC's "Sucker MCs" or Erick Sermon, Keith Murray and Redman getting giddy off of the Sugarhill Gang's seminal "Rapper's Delight." Frankly, it's enough to break your heart.

Second, if you're going to redo a classic song, redo it -- change the tempo, jazz up the backing tracks, liven up the vocals. The problem with the material on In tha Beginning... is that it's too predictable. Basically, the featured artists apply the original ingredients intact to their own verbal flow. Really, how can one revel in the devilish humor L.L. Cool J brought to his campy "Big Ole Butt" when Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs overlays his drab vocals on it? Or enjoy Ice-T's lucidly abrupt "6 'n tha Mornin' " when the New Orleans-based Master P stifles its West Coast immediacy with his million-dollar grunts. Again, it's enough to break your heart.

But hey, this is merely an opportunity for hip-hop royalty to let off a little steam. And In tha Beginning ... is their karaoke bar. (** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Peter Case
Full Service No Waiting

DJ Shadow
Preemptive Strike

Despite the fact that America has yet to fully -- and commercially -- comprehend the unwieldy beast that is electronica, the hype monster certainly has gorged itself on the most enigmatic characters of the genre. Tortured artists such as Moby, Tricky and Goldie have been christened subversive wunderkinds, while mainstream breakout acts Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers are now the rave equivalent of Top 40 teen idols.

Still, not everyone in the techno-ambient loop has been pigeonholed. Take Josh Davis -- a.k.a. DJ Shadow. At the beginning of last year, Shadow was responsible for arguably the best release of the cut-and-paste lot, Endtroducing.... Part beats-and-samples free-for-all, part terse cultural commentary, that disc was a hip-shaky exhibition of coolness and confidence without being automated. Shadow said everything he had to say without actually saying anything at all, which, in these convoluted, nonsensical times, was just this side of a godsend.

Now, DJ Shadow follows up that masterful debut with an archival ambush. Made up of previously released tunes dating from 1993 to last year, Preemptive Strike hearkens back to Davis's humble, bedroom-mix beginnings. It's a low-end frenzy through and through, from its botched drum-solo opening to the palpitating beats that underscore each track. Also present is the strong flavor of jazz, giving the collection the overwhelmingly mellow feel that so many of Shadow's contemporaries try their damnedest to avoid.

Strike largely follows the same crash-collective scheme of Shadow's last disc, though it's not as efficient and well-paced. A couple of tracks -- such as the 12-and-a-half-minute "In/Flux" -- overstay their welcome, while all four parts of his 1995 opus "What Does Your Soul Look Like?" are generally uneven. And sure, the 24-minute "megamix" bonus CD -- kookily dubbed "Camel Bobsled Race" -- might be a real bonus to diehard Shadow fans, but it's likely to seem needlessly excessive to the rest of us.

No, Preemptive Strike is not perfect. Still, it's intriguing as a rough draft of Shadow's pre-Endtroducing... evolution. (*** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Bruce Cockburn
You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance

Most fans of Bruce Cockburn's studio releases over the last two decades associate the Canadian singer/songwriter with politically charged lyrics and spectacular guitar playing. But Cockburn is also a small-venue concert workhorse, and this EP-length sampling from his recently concluded yearlong Charity of Night tour amply demonstrates that he can generate serious musical heat as well as intellectual light.

"Call It Democracy," the disc's opener, hitches one of Cockburn's brainiest protest songs to a pounding, hard-rock approach. Only this Ottawa-born Christian anticapitalist could get a crowd on its feet with a lecture on the oppressive Third World policies of the International Monetary Fund. Cockburn then stretches out with a guitar/drum jam on "Stolen Land," a rant about the theft of native territories in the Western Hemisphere. Sounds depressing, but the live treatment is exhilarating.

Several numbers drawn from Charity of Night, Cockburn's latest studio effort, meet with more mixed results. While "Strange Waters" showcases Cockburn's raspy phrasing on a transcendent anthem addressed to his musical muse, "Birmingham Shadows," a drifty composition about instant friendship on the road, was a snoozer in the studio and drags down the EP to a somnolent finish.

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