Ruff Ryders
Ryde or Die Vol. 1
(Ruff Ryders/Interscope)

I Am

After years of Bad Boy complacency, New York hip-hop is shaking up and waking up to a new electronic music that’s both innovative and commercial. The new style is not so much a sound as a strategy, a cold fusion that maps a middle ground between tripped-out Wu-Tang science and overeager Puffy pop. It would be too simplistic to say there’s a new emphasis on percussion rather than melody, although that is true; it would be an exaggeration to call this music radical, although it is distinguished by its daring. Hip-hop has always been a medium of hyperactive creativity, but never has so much weirdness been rewarded with such sales power.

Don’t call it a comeback, or even a movement; it’s more like a groundswell of ambition. It’s been slow in building—Busta Rhymes scored with some way-out sounds as early as 1996’s “Woo-Hah!! Got You All in Check”—but Noreaga’s manic “Superthug,” last year’s best hip-hop single, seemed to mark a watershed. An insistent, unnerving keyboard line, helicopter noises, a megalomaniacal tirade, and that staccato refrain: “What what what what what what…” How could something so annoying be so good? Lauryn Hill got in on the act too: “Lost Ones,” from her solo debut, updates Eric B’s “Microphone Fiend” with a cockeyed rhythm track, and it crackles in contrast to the rest of the album’s fussy overproduction.

The new electricity also reanimated New York’s sleeping giant, Def Jam Records. The label stole the flag from the back of the lab with a trio of releases full of wild and woolly sounds that broke Puffy’s stranglehold on the charts. Jay Z’s Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, and Redman’s Doc’s da Name 2000 became platinum sellers in no small part because they made their pop moves sound fresh. The beats are simple, but they’re not steady; they shuffle along with the action. With the provocative exception of the warbling tots on Jay Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” the music does not depend on samples but is composed from scratch, and it recalls avatars as diverse as Prince, Tangerine Dream, and the Human League.

Many of the best songs on these records list familiar names in the production credits (Redman, Mark the 45 King, Erick Sermon, Timbaland), but the most inventive sounds come from a new kid on the block: DMX fellow traveler Swizz Beats. On Jay Z’s “Money, Cash, Hoes” it sounds like he’s scratching a gamelan; for DMX he crafted the “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” which could be the marching song for the aliens in Close Encounters. That one, which was later reenergized by a DJ Clue? remix, was strong enough to conjure into being a whole other record, Ryde or Die Vol. 1, starring some of the aforementioned players and produced by Swizz.

Swizz has a neat bag of tricks, but he’s not flashy. On Def Jam’s “Hard Knock Life” tour this spring, he kept a low profile, floating the simple beats over which DMX displayed his delirious diction. On DMX’s rushed follow-up LP, Flesh of My Flesh Blood of My Blood, he disappears behind what might as well be karaoke tracks. The packaging of the new record is similarly low-key, in stark contrast to the prevailing No Limit rhinestone aesthetic: the names of the artists, including rappers of considerable ego and stature, appear only on a sticker on the shrink-wrap. But no matter who’s yapping you’re liable to find yourself regularly reaching for the volume: what’s that sound?

Swizz’s beats are subtle but playful, one toke over Timbaland’s line. If Swizz has a signature, it’s his spooky organ riffs, which are a perfect complement to the over-the-top melodrama of DMX—simultaneously ominous and cheesy, like the sound track to a good horror movie. On Ryde or Die he adapts the formula to each MC, waxing Olympian for the fluttery Drag-on and sluggish Juvenile (“Down Bottom”), hyped and buzzed for sassy newcomer Eve (“Do That Shit”), goofy for the humorless Jay Z (“Jigga My Nigga”), creepy for the thuggish Lox (“Dope $”), and bouncy for southern Svengali Jermaine Dupri (“Platinum Plus”). He also samples, most effectively on the aptly named “Bug Out,” on which DMX tries for 80 seconds to keep up with a spazzy Ohio Players squeak that leaps around him like a gnat. The effects are clever, but lightning never quite strikes; perhaps in recognition, the record closes with yet another, sleepier variation on the “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” over which DMX free-associates on his usual canine themes.

To ride these grooves you’ll have to swallow the lyrics, and with a refrain like “Do y’all niggas bust your guns? Do y’all fuck ’em ’til they come?” (from “Down Bottom”) it can be hard to focus on the music. Poor Eve has the thankless task of repeatedly asking Big Pun and Sheek, “Where my niggas with the big dicks?” Unfortunately for all listeners who are not 13-year-old boys, the enlightened studio wizardry of the new wave has yet to be matched by a similar thoughtfulness behind the mike. Lacking even the mordant wit and class consciousness of sleaze wiz Eminem, these MCs remain mired in dull materialism and vacant thug life.

What the old school can’t beat, it eats. Hardball playa Nas kicks off his new I Am with a dis of “y’all weirdos out there,” but quickly reveals that he’s learned a trick or two himself: this is his most inventive record to date. The rapper’s 1994 debut, Illmatic, was in its time a stylish attempt to advance the east-coast aesthetic of tough talk and straight grooves with vivid prose and upscale music. He positioned himself as a genuine voice of the Queensbridge projects even as he rapped over a solo recorded by his dad, Delta jazzman Olu Dara. By keeping the loops subordinate and unadventurous, Nas focused all attention on his literary ambitions—which worked because his florid commentary on life in the projects was worth hearing. But on his second record, It Was Written (1996), he succumbed to the gangsta virus, so even though the music is catchier the record is not as pleasurable, at least to these dainty ears.

I Am samples Kenny Loggins, Dave Matthews, George Michael, and R. Kelly just to be safe, but the finest moments come when the loops uncoil and the music flows freely. He reprises Illmatic’s bleak “N.Y. State of Mind” with a compelling Wu-like piano sample, and DJ Premier urgently mixes strings and things in “Nas Is Like” (“Nas is like half man, half amazin’ / No doubt”). Best of all is “Hate Me Now,” a grandiose and febrile collaboration with Puffy that layers hysterical rants over demonic orchestration for a sound as pharaonic as the Egyptian death mask in the cover photo. “Niggers hate what they can’t understand / Fear what they can’t conquer / Guess it’s just the theory of man,” he scolds, demanding the recognition he has earned. Looks like there’s a few knocks left in the hard life after all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Daniel Hastings and Jonathon Mannion.