From the Depths of Hell
In my solipsistic universe the ultimate hip hop medium is the 12 inch single and not just because of the obvious and multiple uses it serves for the back bone of the culture, the D.J.. No , I love the medium despite the fact that I don't own two turntables and have never had the opportunity to try my hand at mixing. My love is largely predicated on the conciseness of the statement, which allows the artist to feature one or two fully realized songs from several different angles, a cubist perspective achieved by such standard hip -hop techniques as the remix, instrumental, acappella, and the now ubiquitous radio edit.
It's a testament to hip -hop's ingenuity that even the demands of censorship can be flipped into an artistic statement. Witness D.J. Premier scratching over "bad" words, artists running the offensive words backwards both by tape and vocal simulation, and finding substitute syllables, the most endearing being the ODB's use of Nuh! for nigga (the Brooklyn Zoo video edit is actually superior to the original, a completely over the top performance even by the ODB's standards).
These various perspectives allow the tracks to really breathe, expand and seep into your consciousness. The best 12 inches I can play over and over and they always sound fresh. My favorite hip-hop memories all revolve around hearing certain key 12 inch singles. The rapture and rush of those first moments of discovery is difficult to capture in words. With this caveat in mind I'd like to begin a series of pieces on crucial hip hop 12 inches, starting with my all time favorite, 'Beat Bop' by K-Rob and Rammellzee.
Released in 1983 and produced by then up and coming downtown artist Jean Michel Basquiat, 'Beat Bop' was like nothing that had come before, a tired cliché I know, but in this instance, true. It's a case of Hip-Hop still in its relative infancy bubbling over with unstudied, informal avant-garde tendencies, a free-form search for new sounds. Sounds to fit the reality of the changing landscape of late 70's early 80's New York and to reflect its interaction with these kids own nervous systems and fantasy life, fueled by marijuana, angel dust, marvel and underground comics, graffiti art, rock, disco, jazz, movies, kung fu and otherwise. They chewed it up, remanipulated, and spit it out molded more to their liking.
'Beat Bop' takes traditional rapping styles and musical accompaniment into reaches of outer and inner space that even Sun Ra could appreciate. Its been described by some as psychedelic rap, and this is not far from the truth, especially if we're defining psychedelic as Webster's does; "capable of producing abnormal and psychic effects". Whether you've actually heard 'Beat Bop' in its full 8 minutes plus glory or not you have definitely heard its influence, as its been sampled by and has served as the stylistic basis for such well known groups as Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys. However, to be fully appreciated and absorbed the original article must be heard in its entirety. Lucky for us then it has been reissued on 12 inch in its original sleeve with cover art by Basquiat and the full instrumental on the b-side.
It's a rare instance of an extended track that actually uses all of its play -time to build to an appropriately fevered conclusion. There is no padding here. The lyrical basis of the song is a conversation of almost biblical proportions between two characters portrayed by M.C.'s K-Rob and Rammellzee. K-Rob plays a young man trying to stay the straight and narrow while being tempted by the darker realities represented by Rammellzee's character, a narcotized player who has already succumbed to the city's undertow. Both are trapped in an urban hell to rival the lower levels of Dante's Inferno.
But that's just a Hollywood plot synopsis, the real meat is in the sonic landscape. The music is deep conga fueled funk, at times dissonant, with sounds scribbled over, stretched out and abstracted like the aural equivalent of Basquiat's two dimensional art. Crazy percussion, chicken scratch guitar and violin filter in and out of the mix. The majority of the instruments were played by Basquiat's friend, Al Diaz. But also of note is the violin playing of Eszter Balint, who also starred in Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise. Rammellzee had a cameo as a drug dealer at the end of Stranger, yet another example of the fruitful early 80's downtown cross fertilization.
As nice as the track is the most important element of the song are the voices which are bugged, and even more so for the cavernous reverb that is thrown on them at irregular intervals. K-Rob kicks things off by setting the protagonist's scene, surrounded by crime, poverty and general sickness of the mind and body, "Its pathetic dope addicts have to be abused, it's the same what a thing to be a prostitute, life is given to us to just do the right thing, instead of that became a ho or a big dope fiend, makes me feel real bad, every time I see, another bum, oh brother sleeping on the street". And then more succinctly, "New York City is a place of mysteries, drug addicts, dope dealers taking over the streets".
Rammell enters utilizing a deep voice and attempting to sell K-Rob on the nihilistic cheap thrills of the gangster lifestyle. "This is the mellow they call the Rammell, that rocks with the krill and shocks the spell" crazy reverb is thrown all over the vocal. The dissonance increases as the intensity of the song begins to build. "Just freak it, yeah baby, drink it up yeah, I know my dear, I can rock you out of this atmosphere, like a gangster prankster, number one bankster, got much cash to make ya thank ya".
The rhymes are mind -bending , with Rammellzee's becoming increasingly stream of conscious and bizarre as the song continues and the drugs kick in. Hear him slipping into drug psychosis with "that long fingernail at the end of my tail, my pinky cocaine makes me slip up my lip". And "Nose don't care about the rhythm that breaks". The narrative grows more disjointed, broken down by Rammell's own intoxication, yet mingled amongst the freak out are details of crimes, "I broke into the Seville" as well as insights into the reality of his own situation, "From the depths of hell, rock well Rammell". And your half way through the track before he introduces the nasal style which a decade later B-Real of Cypress Hill would base a whole career around. The point at which this happens is so electric, ripping a new hole in the fabric of the song. Kids must have lost their minds hearing this in 1983.
The song's lyrics continue to drift back and forth between K-Rob's concrete realism and the bleary- eyed drug fueled fantasies of Rammellzee. K-Rob's character gradually begins to sway towards Rammell's path or at the very least grows less judgemental and more empathetic in light of the realization of their mutual plight. He returns to the song with attempts to explain the societal and personal factors involved in Rammellzee's character's present situation, "Smoking cheeba in the hall drinking O.E. brew, never want to go to school and that's a fact, then all of sudden you got left back". And finally "no education is a big disgrace, so you might as well work at sanitation, can you get my drift?"
Back to Rammell with a head full of snow in full on psychotic pimp mode. He busts with his now classic nasal style and the effect is like the drawing on the cover states BANG! "I know the man that gets with the deal that rocks like a pimp and acts real real, he can get real ill when your on the chill, like a quarter drop a dime, that can make you say what, master killer, called the evil griller, the best in the nation, yeah number one iller". His synapses going apeshit spitting out scenarios and fantasies cribbed from too many viewings of Blackploitation and Kung Fu Films. "What you got? yeah 38, shooting real straight, cause I'm down like a double dutch, I remanipulate, you know that favorite master make a move, make it with the rhythm when I shooting to the boo boo, rockin on like a tuity fruity boo boo, you know I never went to school........ I went to the depths of hell, to the darkest deepest corner, rockin' all the women shockin' with the order.... shoot it up, shoot it up, y'all yeah..... sniffin the dope, taking me over".
K-Rob is now moved to admit his own ambivalence and growing resentment towards the lack of options presented by the concrete jungle they have both found themselves trapped in, "people always say why do they break the law? so I'm gonna tell you right now its cause of all of y'all". The knowledge that they may just be victims of a greater evil, a twisted society, a machine controlled by larger hands that chews up and spits out young Black men. The realization of a lack of control over his own fate, seeing no tangible future, and the inability to do a damn thing about it is enough to break down what was left of his resistance. K-Rob's character decides to imbibe the immediate pleasures offered by his fallen brother. An irrational response to an irrational world, but something to kill the pain of now.
It all ends, or rather is faded out, with K-Rob alone on the corner, feeling sick and confused, "the rest of the weekend I couldn't walk ... had a drink and got carried away". He asks some authority figure, the white (?) god, a parole officer (?), social worker (?) for another chance "Give me a chance to straighten up and get a J-O-B". The very last line is delivered with more than a hint of irony "whatever you say, I must do, cause you're the one and only and I trust you". And so things close on an appropriately ambivalent note.
This record works on so many levels and simply quoting lyrics can only give you a ballpark idea. It does not convey the meter, the pitch, the sound of the voices delivering the rhymes, which in many cases is more important than the actual words being stated. From one perspective 'Beat Bop' could be taken as a harbinger of the social breakdown that would take root and grow in the nations ghettos throughout the 1980's as crack was shipped in to break down many a life. But it also works as a surreal and psychedelic escapist epic. And most importantly its funky and you can dance and party to it, like the best hip hop its utilitarian, of, for and by the people. So go have a listen for yourself. Word.
© William Crain 2002