Kamikaze Rap

There's a Poison Goin On.... in P.E.'s world.

Is "old school" an attitude or style? If it were a style, then the most commercially successful rapper today would fit the description. Puff Daddy does with retro hits what an old-school artist like Afrika Bambaataa used to do with, at the time, hits, but the only difference between the two is that Puffy generates millions from his record-robbing, and Bambaataa gets zip. But if "old school" is, on the other hand, an attitude, a way of constantly inventing and reinventing sincere art and the way it's delivered, then a band like Public Enemy is the oldest "old school" of them all.

With its new release, There's a Poison Goin On...., P.E. — Chuck D., Flavor Flav, Terminator X, Professor Griff and the Security of the First World — has accomplished a truly old-school move: It has, once again, given The Establishment the middle finger. The same way Grandmaster Flash said f— you to all those artists whose songs he sampled and never acknowledged on "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" back in '81, D. says contemporary rap and hip-hop is killing him "softly with that same damn song" (from "Crayola"). But instead of getting their balls nailed to the wall by a bunch of thousand-dollar-an-hour lawyers $egrave; la Flash, D. and P.E. stand to make a profit, albeit mostly artistic (unless you count the zillions to be made from marketing tie-ins like Poison T-shirts and hats).

Last month Poison earned the distinction of being the first full-length record ever to be released initially on the Internet. It costs $8, half of retail price. In MP4 format (a bit better-sounding than the popular MP3 type), the album's first single, "Do You Wanna Go Our Way???" was released by Atomic Pop, the group's new record label, on its Web site, atomicpop.com, in May. In February P.E. had released "Swindler's Lust" on its Web site, publicenemy.com. Both singles can still be downloaded for free. Releasing singles and an entire record this way is countercultural and/or "old-schoolish" in three ways: 1) It's subversive. Major-label record companies are sweating MP3, which has the potential by 2002 to steal at least $4 billion a year from the $12 billion music industry, according to Forrester Research; 2) For P.E., it may be a kamikaze mission. All it takes is one P.E. fan to pay to download the record, copy it 500 times over for his friends and consequently gyp P.E. out of 500 sales; and 3) It's democratic. Raps D. on the song "Here I Go": "May the best jam win." Just like back in the day.

"Our job, when we do the art," says D. from New York, "is to plant seeds and show the road. When people take that road, we can blow the backs out of the accountants and lawyers. It's a simple concept: [Record companies] have to share. If we flood [the market] with a billion songs, the cream will always rise.

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"It's just like athletes. There's Karl Malone and a high school athlete. They're there — it just depends on what game you wanna watch."

This month Poison is being released in stores. The differences between downloading a song on a computer and fishing for it through aisles of CDs are appreciable, but they don't matter when the music is the message. D. says all he wants to do is make people proactive music lovers. Of course, he doesn't phrase it that way. The way he says it is, "I want to wake all the robots and zombies up."

P.E. and Chuck D. have been doing this since '87. Three multiplatinum and three gold albums, four gold singles and a platinum home video later, the band's purpose hasn't changed. They're still militant Afrocentrics. Their rhymes are still almost on the edge of advocacy journalism set to hardcore beats. And their stance is still strictly antiestablishment. Black gear still dominates the band's look, Flavor Flav's Frisbee-size clock still hangs around his neck, and the S-1's still step.

The same fight continues and, if anything, is even hyped up on the 14-song-long Poison. The chief adversary this time is obviously the recording industry. Def Jam, P.E.'s former label, and the band split last October, and D. et al. still harbor much ill will toward the company and everything it's reflective of. There's the song "LSD," which can mean alternately "Lawyers Suck Dick" or "Lawyers Should Die." And on "Swindler's Lust," D. blasts the Recording Industry Association of America, which fights on behalf of all recording artists' rights today but which also allowed black artists of the '50s and '60s to be ripped off and robbed by popular white acts. And on "Crayola," D. talks about the ubiquitous pay-to-play atmosphere of commercial radio, historically called "Payola," which D. now calls "Crayola," to refer specifically to black commercial radio. D. raps: "Try to get me where they want me before some of 'em jump me / Go tell 'em umma start a rebellion / Educate the felons / Easy on, yeah, but yeah / Tell 'em what the fuck am I yellin'," a grateful nod to gangsta rappers like Eazy-E and N.W.A., who never got a moment of commercial airplay because of their vulgar lyrics but who still hit multiplatinum in sales. (An N.W.A. song called "Gangsta Gangsta" from '88 features the refrain, "Yo, what the fuck are they yellin'?" See above.) Chuck D. incorporates many other references — to old-school rap, gangsta rap and even rock and roll — in his lyrics on Poison. Only close listeners will get what he means by them.  

"I don't wanna keep the world dumb," D. says. "Americans are dumb because of lack of information. I want to open up an area to directly affect people. Robots want the same thing. But there's been nothing like this before."

What's also groundbreaking, and thus "old school," about the album is the music used to buoy the lyrics. Not your typical beats-and-rhymes concoction, Poison features some of the weirdest sounds on a major rap album to date. There's an underground feel coursing throughout and an unusual dependence on dissonance, some things a pop rap group like P.E. would have never considered years ago. A gong clangs in the background in time on "Do You Wanna Go Our Way???" piano tones ascend and descend in percussive style on "Crash" almost as if Thelonious Monk were walking up and down a short flight of stairs made out of black-and-white keys, and the tempo shifts on a whim on "Kevorkian."

This isn't to say the tempos and syncopated beats are inventive. Most are blasé, simple combinations of machine-inspired high-hat, soft bass and snare. Same with the way Chuck D. and Flavor Flav deliver their rhymes. D. yells and acts pissed off, but it's just part of a role he's playing. Knowing him as the guy today who has been lecturing suits and students alike on the evils of recording industry strong-arming and as the voice of reason in the rap community, it's hard to believe he means "fuck" every time he says it. He's too smart for that. He has learned to channel his anger a different way. And the duo of D. and Flav has never really been a "duo" in the first place. Chief lyricist D. does most of the rapping, and Flav usually revels in the background, shouting "yeeeeee-ahh, boy-eeeeeee" into the mike anytime he can — usually when D. pauses to take a breath. The closest the two come to an actual rap team, a mere shadow of Russell Simmons and Darryl McDaniel (a.k.a. Run-D.M.C.), but a "team" in the nominal sense, is on "I." Sample lyrics:

Chuck D.: "Avenues and boulevards, hungry as aŠ"

Flavor Flav: "Fucker."

D.: "Hope to get a ride from aŠ"

Flav: "Trucker."

D.: "Everybody know I ain't noŠ"

Flav: "Sucker."

"Perfection," D.M.C.'s great old old-school hit in which the Bronx duo simply rock the mike over a live drummer, P.E.'s "I" is not. But what "I" is is a well-produced tune that shows P.E. can take advantage of Flav's fantastic lyrical style. Sure, he can't write for shit, but he knows how to bite into a rhyme and sell the hell out of it. One of the best — if not the best — tracks on the album is Flav's "41:39," which focuses on the recent shooting of a New York City immigrant, Amadou Diallo, by NYPD. The tactful, nonincriminating lyrics alone separate this track from the rest.

But what also makes this song a substantial piece of work is its sonic mystery. There's a minor-key synth echo in the background that imbues drama. Perfect for a song about a wrongful killing. This, and the refrain, "Word is born / Your kids miss you when you're gone / But life still goes on / You think they give a fuck?" make this song what great rap can sometimes be: a car wreck at the bloody crossroads between politics and art.

All excellent rap songs must also exude a certain urban charm. Sometimes it's the lonely chime of a piano that does it. Or the groove of a bass line that sounds like an old R&B jam you can't place. Or even the content of the lyrics (e.g., BDP's famous sample from "Fat Albert," "what can we get for 63 cents?"). Most rap songs today clearly lack such intangibles, except for some of P.E.'s new ones, "41:39," "World Tour Sessions" and even the Flav centerpiece, "What What." It may be that P.E. pulls this phenomenon off so well because it is from the old school. Or it may be that this listener's ears are nostalgic for the P.E. sound of years ago and is hearing much that isn't there. Whatever the case, something alluring about this music makes me want to hear it more.  

"Old school is definitely an attitude," D. says. "In hip-hop, old stuff's new and new stuff's old again and again. It's all cyclical."

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