Do You Want More?!!!??!
Steve Coleman and Metrics
A Tale of 3 Cities
Let’s get one thing straight: contrary to much hype, musically speaking, hip hop is not the jazz of the 90s. Culturally, maybe. Socially, perhaps. But not musically. The jazz aesthetic is the direct converse of the hip hop aesthetic. Jazz always emphasizes some degree of rhythmic flexibility and interinstrumental liveness; the notions of swing in bebop and energy in free jazz rely on the nuances of constant rhythmic variation, slight shifts in accent, and the feeling of gathered momentum achieved by placing those accents in strategic locations vis-a-vis the beat or the basic momentum of the piece. Jazz rests on the image of a drummer who’s in control of time.
Hip hop, though, turns the beat around, submitting the drummer to the discipline of strict time. As reggae singer Winston Shand once sang: “Time is the master, but time can be disaster if you don’t care.” For hip hop the appeal of sampling and looping comes directly out of the funk aesthetic, which makes punctuality its prime virtue; the rhythm team averts disaster by carefully obeying Master Time. Funk’s trajectory into rap looks something like this: in the 60s the J.B.’s and the Meters started to play compulsively repeating riffs so precise and sharp and tireless that they almost felt mechanical. In truth what makes those jackhammer funk rhythms so irresistible is their failed attempt to turn the performer into a machine; the performer’s body provides friction, resistance, and sheer drag, lending the performance that human touch. The funk beat has much in common with military and marching band music: when it’s done right it’s so tight you can bounce a quarter off of it. Sir. With the advent of sampling, the possibility of digitally repeating a rhythm, of subjecting the drummer to the most exacting of disciplinary actions–recording him–galvanized that already present aesthetic. Funk’s mechanization culminated in samples, sequences, and loops–grooves that literally repeated like a broken record. Genius loopzillists like Public Enemy’s production crew, Bomb Squad, let rap listeners revel in the wicked precision of reiterative rhythmic repetition.
Of course, this is all a detailed way of saying that jazz is live music and hip hop is recorded music; hence the poor track record rap artists have making their concerts as exciting as their albums. Hip hop as we know it is a studio art, not a performance art–despite the reputed improvisational prowess of rap’s microphone commandos, little of their verbiage is actually freestyled. Nevertheless, buried deep in hip hop’s subconscious is the desire to exhume and resuscitate the living musician. For despite its obvious charms, sampling lost some vital elements of its progenitor funk. Gone is the vestige of looseness in funk drumming, the ever-so-minor variations of inflection from one bar to the next, and the subtle interaction between rapper and band. With varying success, hip hoppers have attempted to retrieve the live ensemble–Boogie Down Productions’ Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop, the last few Beastie Boys gems, the ineffective Brand New Heavies rap encounters.
Two new records, however, mark the greatest strides yet in the attempt to get the live-band concept to work in a hip hop setting. The second offering, from the Philadelphia-based Roots, Do You Want More?!!!??!, is a brilliant, pared-down live-band jam that satisfies the loopers’ delight in snap-tight bass ‘n’ drum grooves, while providing the more generous, swingish lilt and varied lift only available from breathing bodies. “You are all about to witness some organic hip hop jazz, 100 percent groove, and you don’t stop,” proclaims Malik B. over Scott Storch’s 70s soul jazz keyboards at the outset of the disc. On “Distortion to Static” drummer B.R.O.THER? is credited with playing “human SP-1200 (no sample!)” and his drum-kit imitation of a sampler is indeed uncanny; in places, like the middle of “Mellow My Man,” he and acoustic bassist HUB break into a full-fledged straight-ahead jazz rhythm.
One of the most telling artifacts of the human/machine rhythmic dialectic in hip hop is the “human beat box,” the technique where a mouth imitates any and all possible noises. It has a deep history in African American music, including the “human orchestras” of the 30s in which vocalists imitated all the instruments of a big band. Blues bassists like Alfred Elkins and Ransom Knowling often used their voices to replicate bass when backing up singers. On “? vs. Rahzel” the Roots pit their drummer against the pneumatic skills of human beat box Rahzel, who not only jives in good James Brown style and kicks in a few nasty rhythms but contributes fantastic faux trumpet and imitation bass of his own. When he lets his mouth horn and larynx upright loose, what’s clear is that he’s imitating a sample of trumpet, a loop of bass. It’s thrilling to hear a man masquerade as machine, and it’s sure to make you shake your head in awe, if you’re not already busy bobbing it in time.
A Tribe Called Quest’s relaxed Afrocentric supergroovalistics inform much of Do You Want More?!!!??!, reflected in cumulative chants on “Essaywhuman?!!!??!,” infectious laughter on “Distortion to Static,” carefree narrative on “Lazy Afternoon,” and jazzy harmonies on “Swept Away” and “Silent Treatment.” The latter two cuts feature vocalist Cassandra Wilson, and the disc also includes performances by saxist Steve Coleman, cornetist Graham Haynes, and trombonist Joshua Roseman. There’s even a wonderful cameo by legendary jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley on the title track. But where Tribe sampled and looped Ron Carter’s bass, the Roots build on a deep bed of genuine, real-time bass and drum. The way their beats start and stop on a dime, break off mid-pattern, and sometimes repeat with a computerlike exactness shows the Roots to be part of the postsampler generation, profoundly influenced by the aesthetics of digital manipulation but integrating it into music made by arms, fingers, legs, and feet.
A Tale of 3 Cities by Steve Coleman and Metrics is a slightly more hard-core version of the Roots–not exactly gangsta, but not especially amiable, either. (It’s being sold as an EP, but at 41 minutes it’s a reasonable length for any hip hop record–longer than that gets hard to digest.) Underneath a revolving cast of refreshingly original rappers–Utasi, Sub-Zero, Shahliek, Kokayi, and the Roots’ Black Thought–bubbles a volcanic band, including Andy Milne on inventive piano, Reggie Washington on elephantine bass, and Gene Lake on murderous drums. Where Coleman’s earlier jazz-hop experiments with Five Elements were more or less flops, this more expressly rap adventure works well. Milne, in particular, impresses with some of the most harmonically challenging material to make its way into rap yet; on “Science” his block clusters and dissonant washes don’t disrupt the proceedings but add a suitably sinister element.
Drummer Lake is a member of vanguard jazz composer Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus, percussionist Michael Wimberly played drum kit with free-jazz reedman Charles Gayle, and tenor saxist Ravi Coltrane is the son of jazz great ‘Trane. The outer sanctum is hardly foreign territory to these guys. The horns fly around the big beats like swallows, darting symbiotically about the lumbering rhythmic beast; at times, however, they’re mixed down to gnat size, like a chorus of kazoos. Overall, Metrics is more like a straight-up funk band than the Roots, in part due to the presence of electric bass. But on tracks like “I Am Who I Am” they emulate a funky loop with scary acuity.
A decade ago a drummer told me that drum machines had changed the basic requirements of studio drummers; producers wanted increasingly exact beats. As the Roots and Metrics confirm, we’ve now passed another important aesthetic transformation in which the sound of digital sampling technology has created a whole new set of ideas for live musicians. It’s an aesthetic that draws on both the spunk of live funk and the most unthinkable concoctions of digital samplers. But don’t be fooled: it still ain’t jazz.