Keepin’ It Unreal
OK, first, some caveats: this post deals with hip-hop. In the interest of presenting an uncensored picture of the artform, there may be objectionable language (profanity, and use of the n-word or other objectionable language pertaining to race, gender or sexuality) in these videos; as well as references to, or simulated, acts of violence.
There will also be explicit references, both lyrically and visually, to illegal drug use. Altered states of mind are a long-standing tradition going back to humanity’s beginning, and art reflects that reality.
Do not proceed if any of this offends you; though feel free to comment about why it might, so long as all comments are non-political, civil and fair-minded.
A good rule of thumb before commenting on these topics is to think of the popular music genre or artform you are most familiar with, to see if there are maybe any equivalents there – for example, rock music certainly has its share of violent and drug-related imagery, and there is certainly no shortage of either in literature or film.
Now that we’ve shot that man in Reno just to watch him die, a bit of history – Ultramagnetic MC’s 1988 “Ease Back” is a track showing a Public Enemy influence, though it’s a little less “hard”. The album it’s from, Critical Beatdown, has held up well IMO.
But Ultramagnetic MC’s are maybe most notable now for giving us the gentleman in red, on the right- he stands out even there, doesn’t he?
He’s Kool Keith, a rapper with not only a distinctive voice, flow and lyrical style, but a seemingly-boundless imagination, who creates and discards alter-egos at the speed of a 70’s David Bowie transported into the internet age and fueled by Adderall instead of Bolivian marching powder. (A list of known aliases may be found here.)
Like Bowie’s use of elaborate theatrical artifice (what the hell IS a “Ziggy Stardust” or a “Spider from Mars”, anyway?), Keith and many of the artists I will talk about here have little use for a fixed identity or even consensus reality, spinning fantastical soundscapes with their lyrics, music or personas. Some of them draw on the musical and conceptual Afrofuturist traditions of Sun Ra and Dr. Funkenstein himself.
These artists stand somewhat in contrast to the prevailing ethos of much hip-hop, which is often obsessed with gritty “realism” or questions of authenticity – which, in yet one more twist, is itself sort of an ironic stance in an artform with a rich history of musical sampling (rather than so-called “real” instrumentation), pseudonymous artist monikers (not “real” names), and constant larger-than-life self-mythologizing and boasting.
Kool Keith really broke into the popular consciousness with 1996’s Dr. Octagonecologyst. It’s possibly the only hip-hop sci-fi psychedelic concept album about a perverted time-traveling incompetent alien surgeon you will ever need:
Dr. Octagon – Blue Flowers
Like I said, Keith likes to create multiple characters (the non-Humana-accepting Dr. Octagon is but one Keith plays on that album alone).
Feeling hemmed in by the runaway popularity of Dr. Octagon, Keith “killed” the character in a move reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s slaying of his most popular creation, Sherlock Holmes.
But the murder of Dr. Octagon was no “whodunit” – he was explicitly done in by another Keith character, Dr. Dooom – a serial-killer/cannibal character, drawn largely from schlock B-movie slasher cinema.
Here is his confession:
Dr. Dooom – R.I.P. Dr. Octagon
Having killed off Dr. Octagon (at least for the time being – like comic book characters or Holmes himself, The Doctor has proven surprisingly resilient), Keith was free to take off back into outer space, as “Black Elvis” – the persona’s molded plastic wave of hair recalling The King himself…as well as Max Headroom and Devo, obliquely calling to mind themes of pop idolatry, media saturation and consumerism.
Or, maybe it’s just bizarre and funny as hell:
Kool Keith (Black Elvis) – Livin’ Astro
Somewhat similar not just in name to one of Keith’s characters but in approach is MF Doom. He has at least four personas or characters he often plays on his tracks.
The main one (the “MF” stands for “Metal Face”, and he always wears a mask) is patterned after Marvel’s Dr. Doom:
MF Doom – Doomsday
As in certain strains of psychedelic rock music, there is often a strong undercurrent (so strong it’s sometimes just a “current”) of drug use.
Each of the “ladies” in this MF Doom song is a thinly-veiled reference to a different mind-altering substance; sort of a “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” for the hip-hop age, a connection explicitly made in rhyme midway through the track:
MF Doom – My Favorite Ladies
The Madvillain project is a collaboration between MF Doom, and multi-talented rapper/producer Madlib.
Madvillain – America’s Most Blunted
Madlib also has at least one alter-ego, a strange cartoonish aardvark-like animal named Quasimoto. Madlib uses a pitch-shifting effect on his voice for this character, sounding a bit like he’s rapping on helium:
Quasimoto – Low Class Conspiracy
Edan – I See Colors
Here’s a jazzy anti-drug song.
Well…maybe not so much “anti”:
Danger Mouse & Jemini – Don’t Do Drugs
The Eminem-affiliated D12 didn’t even bother with the fig-leaf of a misdirecting ironic song title:
D12 – Purple Pills
There’s also an edge of hip-hop that bleeds into electronic or experimental music (which has also long been concerned with new beats, unusual textures and manipulated samples). cLOUDDEAD sometimes sounds a little like Cypress Hill, with their nasal, almost chanted vocals; but the wavering, droning music is closer to the Beta Band or Boards of Canada:
cLOUDDEAD – Dead Dogs Two (Boards of Canada Remix)
Doseone was part of cLOUDDEAD, and has collaborated a few times with Boom Bip. With jazzy drumming and the cut-up surrealistic lyrics (also somewhat reminiscent of the rhythmic and textural free-form explorations of Can), this type of hip-hop to me has a clear spiritual link to the Beats.
Boom Bip & Doseone – Mannequin Hand Trapdoor Reminder
(Love that track ^^).
Boom Bip & Doseone – The Birdcatcher’s Return
This Gang Starr song is classic hip-hop – stripped-down, just a strong beat, a little bit of jazz influence, and an authoritative MC.
But as good a song as it is, I include it here more for the THX 1138-inspired video, to show hip-hop’s sometime sci-fi bent:
Gang Starr – You Know My Steez
Which means that it can take back off into space at any moment:
Beastie Boys vs. Herbie Hancock – Intergalactic Rockit
Or go to the far-future year of 3030:
Deltron 3030 – Positive Contact
Or go “back to the future”. Early hip-hop producers made liberal use of Kraftwerk samples. Kraftwerk is also one of the founding pillars of most electronic dance music.
Put all this together and you can get modern experimental hip-hop that sounds as futuristic now, as Kraftwerk did then:
Anti-Pop Consortium – Ghostlawns
As Sam has ably pointed out elsewhere, hip-hop producers can be just as forward-looking as backward; this is especially true in the UK, where various subgenres of speedy fragmented electronic dance music are used as beds for rhymes.
This first single from Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner wasn’t too jarring, with an oft-sampled but STONKIN’ big beat from Billy Squier:
Dizzee Rascal – Fix Up Look Sharp
But try this one, to get a sense of the jittery hyper-caffeinated, information-overload future shock that some of this stuff is capable of:
Dizzee Rascal – I Luv U
Chris was kind enough to put together a Spotify playlist with many of these songs. It can be found here: