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?
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.”
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.”
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