By: Justin Cook
The aesthetic of hip-hop is ever-changing—it in and of itself is a global experiment, living and breathing through a million MC’s. That’s what made this a difficult article to write. Originally, I set out to track the history and evolution of “experimental” hip-hop music. I soon found almost all artists worth fucking with challenge the industry in their own way, and it’s difficult to define what exactly “experimental” hip-hop is. Artists have experimented lyrically and sonically with hip-hop since its inception on the streets of New York. Some do this through live instrumentation, psychedelic/electronic beats or tempo changes. Others do it through interludes, elaborate transitions or by simply being a member of the LGBTQ community. In this day and age if you’re not a Top 40 rapper, you will probably be labeled as “experimental” or “alternative.” So I came up with a compromise. I’m going to highlight some of my favorite scientists of sound, who continually push hip-hop music into the outer dimensions, and break down what makes them so incredible.
1.) De La Soul
De La Soul is one of the first groups to change the landscape of hip-hop. Their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising is 25 years old and still sounds unlike anything else. It’s upbeat, jazzy sound introduced us to the “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” (Da Inner Sound, Ya’ll) and to classics such as “Me, Myself and I,” “Buddy,” “Eye Know,” and “The Magic Number.” There’s no way you can listen to any of these jams without getting ya’ groove on. This is thanks to the genius of producer Prince Paul, who strung together samples unheard of in hip-hop (Johnny Cash, Hall & Oates, Steely Dan) and made that shit sound funky. It’s an album that just makes you smile. But the optimism, lyrically and production-wise, was no coincidence: 3 Feet High and Rising was in sharp contrast to popular rap at that time, which was becoming increasingly hardcore and violent. They were keeping the love. De La Soul is just that badass. They’re too good, and their discography solidifies that fact. After 3 Feet High and Rising, they continued to evolve their sound through great release after great release; De La Soul is Dead and Buhloone Mindstate are just as good, if not better than their predecessor. They continued to make the music they wanted to make and never got caught up in their image. With every album came a new De La Soul but they always had that vibe that made them them. They never let anyone or anything put a label on them. They aren’t hippies. They aren’t gangstas. They’re fucking De La Soul.
2.) Dabrye: Two/Three
Dabrye aka Tadd Mullinix aka James T. Cotton aka SK-1 is an electronic artist who has been making dope beats since 2001. He also happened to be my introduction into experimental hip-hop. I used to bump Two/Three all day playing NBA Jam—it was the first time I heard Wildchild, Doom, Vast Aire, Guilty Simpson, Ta’Raach and Invincible. Monster jam. He’s on fire! Shit was spiritual. Shit was political. Theatric & raw. Hella weird. I had never experienced music quite like it. Plus, it was the first time I heard anyone rap over Dabrye’s production. The beats on Two/Three are a rare breed. First of all, none of them really sound the same. Every song is an experiment in and of itself—different worlds teeming with synthesized life forms created by Dabrye, the mastermind: “Air” sounds like air, for real, futuristic; “Machines Pt. 1,” heavy, industrial, robotic, has this double agent vibe, like I’m on a mission; “Special,” this is just out of control; “Pressure,” apocalyptic strings, hard as fuck; “My Life,” minimal, soulful, just sit back and burn one down; “Game Over,” Jay Dee, bouncy, buoyant, the perfect closer. This album is seriously unbelievable. I find myself going back to it and hearing things I’ve never heard before, layers and layers of hidden texture. Future shit man.
This dude is wild and stylin’. I love it. He’s always dressed in some crazy-loud threads with super bright colors. Sometimes he’s rocking long, thin, purple dreads. Sometimes he’s rocking the green mohawk. Either way, he’s hip-hop’s most eccentric artist, and he’s changing the game with more than just his outlandish style; he happens to be one of the few openly gay rappers, and he is not shy about it. And actually, that shit makes him hard as fuck. Don’t get me wrong, I love hip-hop culture, but it’s not very LGBTQ friendly. And for someone, such as Le1f, to put himself out there like that—that’s the shit. Ya’ll are rapping about pussy, money, weed and shooting motherfuckers, but that’s some rehashed, corporate bullshit. If you want to be real, if you want to be bold, be your self. And that’s exactly what Le1f does: he stays true and never backs down. His verses are solid, his flow is extremely unorthodox (but dope) and he says hella funny shit: “Yung phenomenon/ I make a neo-Nazi kamikaze wanna firebomb” or “He wanna suckle on my muscle/ He wanna burst my bubble and see what’s up in my jungle.” On top of all that, his production is out of this world. It’s trappy and it’s dark, but it’s still bumping; It goes hard in the paint. He’s got a vibe that no one in the game can touch—a vibe that no one in the game can even think about touching. But Le1f probably wants you to touch him. He’s a kinky freak.
4.) Shabazz Palaces
I fucking love Shabazz Palaces. They are one of the most interesting groups in hip-hop history. Ain’t nobody do it like Shabazz. That’s a fact. I mean, I’m pretty sure Ishmael Butler is from another planet, and he was sent here to spread the Truth; and so far, he has done nothing but deliver that Truth. They are spacey, tribal, dark, psychedelic, mystic, and simply awesome. The first time I heard Black Up! it pretty much changed my life. I didn’t think hip-hop could do that. I didn’t believe hip-hop music could have such artistry—that is could have such textures, tones, and soundscapes. They create such a lush atmosphere, it literally feels like you are floating in space, touching stars, smoking alien drugs. Who knows, this might be the music they play in Heaven. I’d be cool with that—just let me rock all the kalimba parts. That’s all I need. Sometimes, I feel Shabazz Palaces is the music of Original Man. It traveled through the cosmos to reach us here on Earth, spilt from the lips of our Universal Mother. It’s real. Go in your room, turn off all the lights, spark a few candles, maybe a joint or fifteen, and just listen. It’s time to Black Up!