Hip hop her­itage

Why aren’t Pub­lic En­emy, Boo­gie Down Pro­duc­tions and other clas­sic hip hop acts lov­ingly reis­sued in the same way as other gen­res?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MUSIC - By AN­GUS BATEY

ON the last Satur­day of Au­gust, tens of thou­sands of hip hop fans loaded them­selves on to a fleet of fer­ries and headed to an un­in­hab­ited is­land. A mile off the south­ern tip of Man­hat­tan, Gov­er­nors Is­land may be just a few min­utes from hip hop’s birthplace, but it still seemed an un­likely venue for an event that un­der­lined the chang­ing na­ture of rap’s re­la­tion­ship with its own his­tory.

The bill for the 2010 edi­tion of the Rock The Bells tour­ing fes­ti­val promised a string of hip hop icons – among them Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, the Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-One, Rakim and Lau­ryn Hill – each per­form­ing an ac­knowl­edged mas­ter­piece al­bum in its en­tirety. Artistes tend­ing to their own lega­cies, and re­pro­mot­ing their back cat­a­logue at the same time, is a fa­mil­iar enough con­cept to rock fans.

But hip hop’s past is nowhere near so well cu­rated. While the land­mark records of rock, jazz, blues and soul have been reis­sued, repack­aged and re­con­tex­tu­alised, hip hop’s clas­sic ma­te­rial re­mains un­der lock and key. The same record com­pa­nies that have done such a fine job of ex­plor­ing the her­itage of other gen­res seem largely obliv­i­ous to the riches in their hip hop cat­a­logues. More than 31 years af­ter the first rap record, there is still, as yet, no hip hop equiv­a­lent of the Bea­tles An­thol­ogy se­ries; no ca­reer-ret­ro­spec­tive boxset from giants of the mu­sic’s golden age such as Pub­lic En­emy, KRS-One or Rakim. Some­times it even looks as if hip hop’s past is be­ing erased be­fore fans’ eyes.

“I find it in­fu­ri­at­ing that right now it is im­pos­si­ble to find De La Soul’s first six al­bums on iTunes in the United States,” says jour­nal­ist and author Jeff Chang, whose his­tory of hip-hop, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, won an Amer­i­can Book award in 2005. “Ma­jor la­bels would never let a Jack­son Browne al­bum or an ob­scure New Wave band like Trans­la­tor go out of print. That’s not to diss Jack­son Browne or Trans­la­tor, both of whom I’ve liked: it’s to make the ar­gu­ment that ma­jor la­bels place a low value on black mu­sic not cur­rently on the pop charts.”

If the ma­jors won’t serve the thou­sands rid­ing the New York fer­ries to hear artistes per­form­ing decades-old al­bums, how­ever, there are oth­ers who are happy to do so.

“We re­cently reis­sued Who­dini’s first al­bum and, sur­pris­ingly to me, we got a buy from the two ma­jor (US) chain stores,” says Joe Mans­field, pres­i­dent of Traf­fic En­ter­tain­ment, whose cur­rent reis­sue sched­ule in­cludes lav­ish pack­ages of iconic re­leases by KRS-One, Pete Rock & CL Smooth and Com­mon. “Hope­fully the gen­er­a­tion that was into that is get­ting to the age where they want to re­live their youth.”

His­tory ig­nored

Hip hop has been de­fined by its ur­gent sense of for­ward mo­tion, but, as Mans­field and oth­ers are find­ing, that doesn’t mean the mu­sic’s fans have no in­ter­est in its his­tory.

“I buy songs, and I buy records,” em­pha­sises Pub­lic En­emy’s Chuck D, “but the only records I buy are some­thing of his­tor­i­cal worth. I guess (ma­jor la­bels) don’t re­ally take that into con­sid­er­a­tion, while they’re see­ing how many Shakira records they sell in the first three weeks.”

Some­one shar­ing Mans­field’s hope is Andy Cowan, who was un­til last year the edi­tor and pub­lisher of the Bri­tish mag­a­zine Hip Hop Con­nec­tion. At a loose end fol­low­ing HHC’s clo­sure, he found him­self, for the first time, lis­ten­ing to a se­lec­tion of old Bri­tish hip hop

Pub­lic En­emy, as one of hip hop’s pi­o­neers, has a for­mi­da­ble legacy but record com­pa­nies that have done such a fine job of ex­plor­ing the her­itage of other gen­res seem largely obliv­i­ous to the riches in their hip hop cat­a­logues. al­bums purely for fun; re­al­is­ing none of them were avail­able on CD, he had his epiphany.

“It struck me that there was a huge legacy, par­tic­u­larly with Brit hip hop, that could eas­ily be­come lost for ever,” he says. “Given my con­tacts from edit­ing HHC, I was in a unique po­si­tion to do some­thing about it.”

He set up a reis­sue la­bel, Orig­i­nal Dope, un­der the um­brella of the London in­die Cherry Red, which spe­cialises in reis­sues: its first two re­leases, Killer Al­bum from Ruth­less Rap As­sas­sins and Blade’s 1993 dou­ble LP, The Lion Goes From Strength To Strength, are out now.

Yet the ob­sta­cles fac­ing the new breed of rap ar­chae­ol­o­gists are for­mi­da­ble.

A reis­sue has to tar­get those who bought it first time around as well as new fans, so has to add some­thing sub­stan­tial. Un­re­leased ma­te­rial may be hard to find, and im­pos­si­ble to li­cense, if it even ex­ists.

“Most jazz needed to be recorded live in a sin­gle take and artiste im­pro­vi­sa­tion was the stan­dard,” says Chang, ex­plain­ing that hip hop artistes may not have pro­duced the amount of ex­tra­ne­ous ma­te­rial needed to fill the vo­lu­mi­nous boxsets that are the sta­ples of the rock and jazz reis­sue in­dus­tries. “With hip hop pro­duc­tion, ev­ery­thing is struc­tured, writ­ten or mapped, then de­liv­ered, punched in and fixed in the mix.”

Prickly per­son­al­i­ties

Then there are the headaches – pro­fes­sional and per­sonal – that be­devil the mu­sic busi­ness, but seem en­demic in hip hop. Even the mu­sic’s most ar­dent sup­port­ers have been put off by the prickly work­ing re­la­tion­ships and sense of en­ti­tle­ment that some artistes seem to have felt, par­tic­u­larly since the mid1990s, when hip hop be­came the globe’s biggest-sell­ing genre.

“Hip hop artistes tend to have a dif­fer­ent men­tal­ity,” says Joe Aba­jian, the pres­i­dent and founder of Fat Beats, the in­de­pen­dent New York hip hop record shop, la­bel and dis­trib­u­tor. “And it’s a men­tal­ity that turns you off from want­ing to work with them. I hate to ad­mit it, but the hip hop guys seem to be the ones who cre­ate the most prob­lems, the most ten­sions.”

De­spite this, Aba­jian can’t tear him­self away: al­though he is clos­ing his Fat Beats shops, he is on the look-out for new premises in New York to set up a store that will cater to all hip hop’s core dis­ci­plines, not just recorded mu­sic, and will flag up res­o­nances be­tween dif­fer­ent eras.

Then there are records that are bound to open up old wounds. A per­fect il­lus­tra­tion is pro­vided by what is per­haps the best new rap reis­sue, Traf­fic’s triple-disc edi­tion of Crim­i­nal Minded, the de­but by KRS-One’s Boo­gie Down Pro­duc­tions. The al­bum was re­leased in 1987 on the in­de­pen­dent la­bel B-Boy, whose owner, Ray Allen, later granted a li­cence to Traf­fic to be ex­clu­sive dis­trib­u­tors. Traf­fic has acted in good faith and en­tirely legally; but be­cause of his orig­i­nal con­tract with B-Boy, KRS-One says he has never seen a penny from sales of Crim­i­nal Minded.

“I thought they did a re­ally great job,” he says, with ev­i­dent en­thu­si­asm for Traf­fic’s new reis­sue. “It’s beau­ti­ful, it’s won­der­ful, the book­let was great – but no one con­sulted me about any­thing. As a mat­ter of fact, I bought my copy of the boxset at a Barnes & Noble in New York while I was do­ing a book sign­ing. I’m not say­ing that I was ripped off, or that Traf­fic has no right to the ma­te­rial. When we first came to B-Boy Records, we had an ar­range­ment: it was a f***ed-up ar­range­ment, it was ex­ploita­tive, but we un­der­stood that’s what it was. Now, when you trans­fer the pow­ers of that re­la­tion­ship on to an­other la­bel, the only way you can sell that record is by fur­ther ex­ploit­ing KRS-One.”

Traf­fic’s Joe Mans­field stresses that his la­bel al­ways prefers to work closely with artistes where pos­si­ble; among their up­com­ing projects is a reis­sue of the first al­bum by WuTang Clan mem­ber Ol’ Dirty Bas­tard, which the late rapper’s es­tate have been very in­volved with. He says Allen, who is now dead, made it all but im­pos­si­ble to work di­rectly with KRS.

“We didn’t pur­posely not in­volve KRS-One in the record,” Mans­field says. “I just felt that con­tact should in­volve Jack, and I got the im­pres­sion from him that it would be a big has­sle for him to even try to set that up.”

Rather than be­ing bit­ter to­wards Traf­fic, KRS-One hopes it will help with a Crim­i­nal Minded movie he is mak­ing with the di­rec­tor Jonathan Demme. “Maybe Traf­fic would like to be part of this,” he says, “and once and for all do busi­ness with the orig­i­nal pro­ducer of Crim­i­nal Minded.”

Mans­field, who notes that work on the boxset be­gan while Allen was still alive, is en­thu­si­as­tic.

“I’d def­i­nitely like to work with KRS-One in the fu­ture – with­out a doubt. It should be eas­ier to do some­thing that’ll get him some money now. Af­ter Jack died, his es­tate sold the B-Boy cat­a­logue, and I think the new own­ers are more rea­son­able.”

Pre­serv­ing the past

Some­times, the la­bo­ri­ous and painstak­ing reis­sue process can be as much about re­la­tion­ship coun­selling as busi­ness.

“While the Killer Al­bum reis­sue didn’t re­unite the Ruth­less Rap As­sas­sins,” Andy Cowan says, “it did get them back in the same room for the first time in 19 years – re­pair­ing bonds that had been frayed by their soul­crush­ing ex­pe­ri­ence un­der the ma­jor la­bel ma­chine.”

The job that falls to those seek­ing to pre­serve hip hop’s past re­mains com­plex. Those do­ing the work need to know as much about copy­right and con­tract law as they do about old Pete Rock B-sides, while a ground­ing in clin­i­cal psy­chol­ogy might help in deal­ing with the artists. It’s a com­bi­na­tion of spe­cialisms few in­di­vid­u­als pos­sess, and it raises the ques­tion: just whose re­spon­si­bil­ity is it to cu­rate the his­tory of a cul­ture?

“It’s been left to the folks who sit at the in­ter­sec­tion of be­ing artistes, DJs, his­to­ri­ans and hip­sters,” sug­gests Chang. “I don’t think this is op­ti­mal at all. We need cu­ra­tors, mu­si­ci­ol­o­gists, record­ing and sound tech­ni­cians, and, yes, la­bel ex­ecs and mar­keters to do this project prop­erly.”

“You need more peo­ple with ten­ure, with a knowl­edge of what goes on be­yond hip hop, and a good sense of struc­ture and ar­range­ment,” says Chuck D, who feels artistes are best placed to man­age their own lega­cies, and should be al­lowed to do so. “I dig a cat like Wyn­ton Marsalis: he’s a clas­sic ex­am­ple of some­body I wanna be in hip hop, be­cause he’s able to damn near pre­serve the roots of tra­di­tional jazz sin­gle­hand­edly.”

“At the crud­est level it’s self-preser­va­tion,” says KRS-One, “so ul­ti­mately, I think it’s my re­spon­si­bil­ity. Whose job is it? Well, it’s any­body who un­der­stands that sim­ple con­cept that when you pre­serve your craft and your cul­ture, you pre­serve your­self.” – Guardian News & Me­dia 2010

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