Unlike blues, jazz, R&B and soul, hip-hop has proved a stubbornly tough genre to incorporate into other song forms. Though the movement has been more or less in the mainstream for more than 25 years now, and a whole generation of musicians spanning every point of the racial spectrum has grown up immersed in it from birth, most white musicians have yet to come to terms with it with any kind of proficiency. Hell, most black musicians from genres beyond hip-hop have whiffed on incorporating it into R&B and soul as well.
Think about it. Most rap-rock fusions are very bad, and have always been so. The Run-DMC/Aerosmith collabo of "Walk This Way" robbed Aerosmith of what little subtlety that balanced their bluster and cheated Run-DMC of their rhythmic flow. The musically and lyrically moronic "Fight For Your Right to Party" was easily the worst track on the otherwise excellent Licensed to Ill. Anthrax's squalling guitars added absolutely nothing to Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise." Ice-T's career went in the tank the second he formed the monstrosity that was Body Count. And the less said about the entire genre of nü-metal the better.
One of the few who has taken a different, subtler and infinitely smarter approach to melding hip-hop with other sounds is Citizen Cope. At his best, some of the songs on his latest record, The Clarence Greenwood Recordings, fuse the best of hip-hop -- clever beats, great wordplay, important lyrical content -- with the best of rock, soul, funk and reggae into a seamless whole. This ain't no crude, seams-showing Frankenstein monster stuff, all shredding guitars and slammin' beats, the crap that makes you dread reading the words "hip-hop-influenced rock."
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"That's the big misconception," Cope tells the Press in a recent phone interview. "When people from R&B and rock want to put hip-hop into something, they think it's all about the big beat. But people related to Tupac because he was an honest poet. People felt what he said, they identified with him, his heart. It wasn't just that the beat was bangin'. These nü-metal cats and these certain people -- even in pop today -- just want to throw a fuckin' beat behind somethin' so they can call it hip-hop. It's just one of those things -- I identified with the lyrics and the heartfelt emotion of hip-hop as well as the energy of it, and hopefully you can tuck some of that energy into what you do. I think I saw somethin' differently. It wasn't just, 'Oh, let me grab a beat and throw some hard metal guitars behind it.' "
Cope is quick to point out that these awful mishmashes come from black artists as well. "Even when certain hip-hop artists say, 'Hey, let me get this rock star on here,' and they throw on some generic electric guitars It's like when Janet Jackson did that rock song, it was just like, 'Oh, let me do a song with an electric guitar.' The Roots do it right. I think D'Angelo did it right -- not rock and hip-hop, but soul and hip-hop, getting the soul in there. Q-Tip had a lot to do with that."
But as for the other crap out there? "That stuff is like The Fly in some ways. You ever see that movie, The Fly, where they combine two things and it just doesn't work?"
Citizen Cope -- Clarence Copeland Greenwood to his mama -- may have been born in Memphis and partially raised in North Texas, but his drawl is pure East Coast slacker hip-hop guy, and that makes sense -- for the bearded, hair-bunned twentysomething artist spent most of his youth in D.C. and first entered the national limelight as the turntablist and sole white member of the influential hip-hop group Basehead.
The training as a DJ shows in the music -- Cope not only wrote all the music and lyrics on The Clarence Greenwood Recordings, but also produced and played several instruments and produced the album. Cope's half-rapping, half-singing vocal delivery is laconic to the point of being mush-mouthed, though not distractingly so, and I guess you could say his approach to lyric writing is too, as his themes tend toward the sweepingly general. But it's the music that draws you in, albeit slowly. While there's little that jumps off this record and grabs you, its rhythms, grooves and healthy appreciation for subtle variations on themes do sneak up on you and kick your ass. While album closer "Deep" sounds like filler to me and there's an occasional heavy hand on the keyboards, these drawbacks are balanced out by the pleasantly repetitive piano and conga-driven "Hurricane Waters," a little reminiscent of 1970s Steely Dan; "Bullet and a Target," the most hip-hoplike tune on the record; and the gently psychedelic, backward-guitar-driven "My Way Home," which, along with much of the rest of the album, was recorded at Electric Lady Studios, the former home-away-from-home of Jimi Hendrix.
"It's a real creative studio, and I had a good foundation of what I wanted to do, and I allowed myself a lot of time to experiment and do my thing in there," Cope says of "My Way Home." "That's a big part of the art form of making a record that has been lost. People now are like, 'Oh, yeah, get the songs and go in and record them all in ten days,' and they don't allow for that exponential thing, that extra thing. I've done that myself, so what I wanted to do with this record was allow myself to have that freedom, that creative outlet."
For the first time, Cope is pleased with the finished project from beginning to end. "I enjoy the whole album, which is rare for me, 'cause I've made a couple of records, and there's always something that bothers me," he says. "Tonality I kinda cringe on stuff like that. Plus I did a lot of the mixing and a lot of listening on this record and I was just able to enjoy it. It's one of those things I look at as a whole piece."
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Others have been less pleased -- it's hard to find a record that has gotten reviews that are more mixed than those of The Clarence Greenwood Recordings. Amazon.com and NPR had it pegged among the year's best, while the usually generous All Music Guide gave him a mere one and a half stars, one of the lowest reviews I've ever seen on the site.
"Sometimes I get killed in the press, sometimes people like it," Cope says of the bad ink. "I think a lot of the time I just get dissed is when people don't get it or people think I'm trying to do something else."
Suddenly, Cope dredges up a Houston-based pan and works himself up into a full-on rant. "I remember one time I went to Houston with Carlos Santana, and that guy from the Houston Chronicle, Michael Clark I was opening for Carlos, plus I went out and did my song 'Sideways' with him, which was the only ballad on the set. And Clark went out of his way to go, like, 'The low point of the night was when Citizen Cope stepped on stage.' At this point I was just finishing my last record cycle with DreamWorks and it had flopped. And I'm thinking, 'low point'? I was onstage with Carlos, Dennis Chambers is playing drums, and they got Miles Davis's old bass player, percussionists who played with Prince. So I'm thinking me getting called the low point of the evening is kinda stating the obvious, you know? I'm the new cat. Sometimes people just don't like what I do. I can't concentrate on that shit. My stuff's not middle-of-the-road, it's not gonna be that. Sometimes when you allow for all different types of influences, people aren't gonna get it."
Cope believes that much like most rockers, far too few of today's music critics get hip-hop. "I'm not hip-hop, but I am influenced by it, and I don't have a problem trying to understand where some of the heartfelt elements of that genre were. I got it differently. Some people look at the colors of people's skin too much. This is music, it's supposed to change those barriers that aren't really supposed to exist in music. And I'm not really an entertainer, so I don't think people should jump on me like that, especially because I'm pretty much an underground artist. People can diss me, do whatever they want, but it's not like I'm the Backstreet Boys or something."