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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Hip-Hop in Black and White
by Gregg Shapiro
2004-03-03

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Pictured Missy Elliott, Atmosphere, Floetry: Natalie Stewart and Marsha Ambrosius.

** Missy Elliott at Allstate Arena, (312) 559-1212 (TM), on April 2

As the war of words rages on between Eminem and hip-hop magazine The Source, the questions raised by the duel are hard to ignore. What of the increasing presence of white rappers and hip-hop artists in what began as an almost exclusively Black art form?

More than 10 years before Eminem released his first major-label disc, The Beastie Boys infiltrated the hip-hop scene with their brand of frat-boy-meets-the-street party rap and forever changed the landscape. Paving the way for not only Eminem, but also white female rap units such as Luscious Jackson and Northern State. Dying In Stereo (Star Time), the eight-track debut disc by hip-hop trio Northern State (Hesta Prynn, DJ Sprout and Guinea Love) has the kinds of literary, musical, social and political references, all delivered in smart slick rhymes, that would make Mike D, MCA and Ad Rock proud.

Reigning queen of the hip-hop house, Missy Elliott has had an amazing run of success, surpassing both Li'l Kim and Foxy Brown, two female hip-hop artists who emerged around the same time as Elliott. In fact, Elliott's 2002 Under Construction disc has been put on a pedestal where it remains the example by which all female hip-hop CDs that follow will be judged. That's unfortunate, because, even Elliott herself runs the risk of suffering by comparison. Such is the case with This Is Not A Test! (Elektra), which was stuck with daunting task of equaling (or even improving on) Under Construction. This Is Not A Test! sounds more like a continuation of Under Construction than an actual step forward, which gives us all something to look forward to on the next Missy Elliott CD.

Unlike, Missy Elliott's disc, which is the sound of an artist temporarily stalled, the groundbreaking and Grammy-winning double disc set Speakerboxx/The Love Below (Arista) by Southern hip-hop artists Outkast, is as forward-thinking as it is reverent of the past. From the album cover to the attitude to the songs inside, Andre 3000 and Big Boi of Outkast have created an altar to George Clinton and his Parliament and P-Funk All-Stars cohorts. Not only does Outkast polish up its soul-infused hip-hop act to a near-blinding shine, they also feel the funk in new and exciting ways. From the obvious singles 'Hey Ya!' and 'The Way You Move,' to more suggestive (and even amusing) tracks, Outkast has raised the stakes for themselves (and everyone else for that matter), and it's hard to imagine them not living up to their own carefully designed standard.

From his early days as a member of The Fugees to his inevitable career as a solo performer, Wyclef Jean has been an artist to listen to and to watch. Any questions about his contributions can be swiftly answered with one listen to his Greatest Hits (Sony Urban Music/ Columbia) disc, which features the smashes '911' (feat. Mary J. Blige), 'Gone Till November,' and his cover of Bob Dylan's 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door,' to mention a few.

As if American rappers didn't have enough to contend with on their own turf, they have to deal with the encroachment of U.K. hip-hop performers. The female duo Floetry made a good impression with their 2002 debut disc Floetic and have followed it up with Floacism (DreamWorks) a live disc that also includes a bonus live DVD. As with many live albums (see the Lauryn Hill live disc), the studio gloss is dulled with unnecessary improvisation and such. The good news is that the three new studio songs, including 'Wanna B Where U R,' featuring Mos Def, which open the set are well worth hearing.

For those that liked the fast-paced, dialect-heavy rhymes of U.K. hip-hop act The Streets are almost sure to like Boy In Da Corner (Matador) by Black British rapper Dizzee Rascal. Full of references to life on the streets and the complexities inherent in relationships with the opposite sex (think of how much easier things would be if everyone was gay), Dizzee Rascal is the latest performer to sample '80s rocker Billy Squier ('Big Beat') on his catchy 'Fix Up, Look Sharp.'

White, British DJ Just Jack's debut The Outer Marker (TVT) is making its domestic bow. The remixer samples 10 CC among others on his full-length album giving it a sumptuous texture that bears repeated listens. Standout tracks include 'Snowflake,' 'Heartburn,' and 'Snapshot Memories.'

Two just-released 'best of' collections illustrate the hip-hop race issue going back to the early '90s. With influences ranging from George Clinton to the Bad Brains, Del The Funkee Homosapien's style is difficult to pin down. The Best of Del The Funkee Homosapien – The Elektra Years: B-Boy Handbook (Elektra/Rhino) compiles long out of print 12' versions of Del The Funkee Homosapien tracks, including more than a few from his acclaimed 1991 debut disc I Wish My Brother George Was Here, and attempts to present as comprehensive overview of his Elektra years as possible.

Shamrocks & Shenanigans: The Best of House of Pain and Everlast (Warner Brothers/Rhino/Tommy Boy) opens with House Of Pain's undeniably attention-grabbing single 'Jump Around,' which was a fine how-do-you-do intro to the white, L.A.-based rap unit. As a solo artist, House Of Pain front-man Everlast also achieved considerable success with tracks such as 'What It's Like,' 'Black Jesus' and 'Ends,' all of which, along with a few soundtrack cuts, can be found here.

Stateside, Minneapolis punk rocker turned rapper Sean Daley of Atmosphere seems intent on pissing off a lot of people with his album Seven's Travels (Epitaph/ Rhymesayers), and I'm not just talking about the ones who left answering machine messages on the track 'Suicidegirls.' There are hip-hop fans who question his credibility, while others celebrate the way he has crossed genres. Atmosphere himself does some lashing out at 'Cincy' on 'Trying To Find A Balance,' but for the most part shows himself to be a capable opponent, and Eminem should consider himself warned.

New York MC Aesop Rock continues his thought-provoking explorations of the art-form on his latest release Bazooka Tooth (Def Jux).


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