G. LOVE AND SPECIAL SAUCE
SCHUBAS, JULY 13
LOUNGE AX, JULY 14
WORLD MUSIC THEATRE, JULY 16
Hip hop and the sampling revolution that has accompanied it create a big potential for music education. Of course, that idea’s a little ironic, since samples often replace live musicians. But the practice has given many of the old-time performers exposure (if not royalties). Sampling started, and continues, because it’s convenient: mid-70s Bronx rap progenitors saw a turntable and records as more available, trustworthy, and affordable than a real rhythm section; but today sampling has a much broader range of functions, from saving money to quality control to eliminating unsatisfactory personalities. The most interesting and rewarding benefit, however, is the way sampling expands musical possibilities.
While riffs and bass lines from old Parliament-Funkadelic records were once the staple of hip-hop sampling, the frantic search now for that “rare groove” has resulted in increasingly diverse and creative borrowings. DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill and House of Pain pillages hard 60s R & B and blues–the heart of Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man” is bluesman Lowell Fulson’s classic “Tramp”–and innumerable combos groove on everything from late-50s jazz (Digable Planets’ bop appropriations) to 70s soul jazz (just about everyone else). White boys do it too: the Beastie Boys, this year’s Lollapalooza darlings, and G. Love and Special Sauce, a new three-man outfit from Boston, are to varying degrees influenced by hip hop, incorporating it into their even broader, more idiosyncratic musical universes.
Although lots of writers tag G. Love and Special Sauce as “blues meets hip hop,” the trio’s music resists such a reductive label; the band calls its music “rag-mop.” Vocalist-guitarist G. Love, drummer Jeffrey Clemens, and stand-up bassist Jimmy Prescott aggressively reconfigure the musical and narrative elements of the blues. Covering standards like Guitar Slim’s “The Things That I Used to Do,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “California Blues,” and Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would,” they avoid both archival perfectionism and blatant reinvention, refreshingly recycling a host of riffs as well as overhauling obscure old tunes. The group’s eponymous debut album for the reactivated OKeh imprint (formerly based in Chicago, it released everything from early Louis Armstrong to primo Chicago bluesmen to 60s soul) features an amazing tune called “Garbage Man.” Opening with a pounding rhythm that evokes the wallop of John Bonham, this number radically reworks the sexual metaphor put forth originally in an old jazz tune, “The New Call of the Freaks.” In the original, recorded by bandleader-pianist Luis Russell for OKeh in 1929, an eerie layer of undulating, tremulous vibes floats over a trad-jazz stomp; the whole thing is punctuated by the drunken recitation of the line “Stick out your can, here comes the garbage man.” (In 1935 western swingers Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies redid the tune as “Garbage Man Blues.”) Love’s version is less oblique: “I’m your garbage man / Coming down the street / Kick your can, kick your can / Better get your butt down on the curb.”
Love’s lazy, off-kilter, slurred delivery is what speaks loudest of the hip-hop influence: his rhythmically sophisticated yet mush-mouthed drawl upends the formal guidelines that typically dictate blues phrasing, an endless, almost stream-of-consciousness flow of soft-edged verbiage. Truth is, however, blues and hip hop are fundamentally related, and Love’s live performances made that fact perfectly clear. A reading of “Baby’s Got Sauce” at Lounge Ax was interrupted with a lengthy ad-libbed section in which Love casually talked about his misbehaving girlfriend and how he’ll “do anything for her” despite it all. Using an old B.B. King trick, Love substituted some curlicue guitar soloing for foul-mouthed talk–Love’s wonderfully raw, cutting solo style recalls the razor-edged brilliance of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Frankie Lee Sims, though it’s less fluid. Despite Love’s knowledge of and comfort with different styles, the combo’s charm lies in their sly lack of awareness of how they cross genres.
The Beastie Boys have been making a lucrative career out of such seemingly haphazard genre splicing for years. After their bratty multiplatinum debut, they got musically weirder and threatened to become irrelevant. But 1992’s breakthrough album Check Your Head split the trio’s shaky hip-hop pedigree wide open: it employed live instruments, a blatant hard-core burst, loads of Meters-like slumming, and uncut 70s-style funk. Their recent Ill Communication adds even more esoteric sounds–chanting monks on “Bodhisattva Vow”–but that album doesn’t really do much more than use Check Your Head as a template, attempting to re-create its success. Continuing to mock their white-skinned hip-hop illegitimacy–“Get It Together” features the line “I’ve got a Grandma Hazel and a Grandma Tilly”–the Beasties ignore musical boundaries, loading their recordings with a dense pastiche of unexpected samples.
Unfortunately, in a massive shed like the World the subtlety and detail of their music is lost in an oppressive barrage of drumbeats. (Not that their rabid, moshing fans noticed.) Ripping through “Tough Guy” and “Heart Attack Man,” their hard-core entries on the new record, the band merely confirmed their mediocrity at that genre; similarly, their wah-wah-heavy slinky funk stuff like “Something’s Got to Give” disintegrated into indecipherable mush. Only their three whiny voices managed to cut through the thick reverberations. To their credit, the Beasties overcame much of the acoustics problem with their unbounded kinetic energy. Things worked best acoustically and visually on more “traditional” hip-hop numbers–three guys rapping over sampled beats–but musically these were unambitious. Encores of “So What’cha Want” and the current single “Sabotage” brought the house down.
The band’s deliberate clowning tends to obscure their musical inventiveness; at the World it simply replaced it. Ill Communication’s heavy weave of samples, from snippets of black comedy records to funky guitar riffs to the mad incantations of Lee “Scratch” Perry, was lost in the sound mire–or maybe it was absent in the first place, I couldn’t really tell. No doubt aware of such problems, the Beasties overcompensate for what’s lost from the recordings by playing the cartoonish fools, three Jerry Lewises of hip hop.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Karen A. Peters, Marty Perez.